Timber veneer is misunderstood by some. It seems to be considered substandard by many woodworkers and potential clients alike. Many is the time I have finished a piece and been asked ‘is it solid timber or veneer?’ and when the answer is ‘veneer’, enthusiasm seems to leave the enquirer’s eyes.
I think this is largely due to a misunderstanding of what veneer is. The dictionary defines veneer as, among other things, ‘any facing material that is applied to a different backing material’.
Back in the 1960s and 70s the fashion and trends in mass-produced furniture utilised veneers of plastic, vinyl and other laminated substances — many of which incorporated a wood grain design.
Unfortunately this has carried over to denigrate the art of veneering, which when used properly can provide designs and visual effects that could not be otherwise created or replicated with thicker sections of solid timber.
A prime example is the ubiquitous walnut burl so prevalent in the furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Today this veneer work stands as the hallmark of a fine piece of handmade furniture. Burl by itself is not a strong nor stable medium with which to work. However when sliced into thin uniform leaves and attached to a quality substrate (backing platform) it will produce a visual feast for the eyes.
OK...so after trying my best to defend the honour of timber veneer here are some tips and techniques for using it.
Working With Veneer Tip No.1
There is an upside and a downside to veneer. Knowing this will affect the success of your veneer matching and pattern work.
The easiest way to find out which is which is the bending test. If you bend veneer along the grain there will be more resistance one-way than the other. The side showing the least resistance will be the downside. This is the side that should be glued to the substrate.
Following this rule will result in an even chatoyance (reflected light) over the whole project. Bookmatching is the obvious exception to this practice, which as the name suggests, requires one ‘upside’ piece of veneer to be placed against one ‘downside’. This is the opposite of slip matching, where veneer leaves are laid side by side to maintain an even light reflection, but not give a mirror image pattern.
Having determined the downside of your veneer, a good tip is to get into the practice of scribbling a pencil mark over the entire downside surface. This pays dividends when you are doing small parquetry or marquetry works and dipping into your scrap box reserves. Mark your veneer this way and you’ll always be able to tell at a glance which is the downside, as the remnants of your pencil marks should still be visible.
More tips on working with veneers to come in later issues.
* Look out for our June issue #83, which will feature a story on creating a starburst veneer match and information on local veneer suppliers.
Steve Hay presents Woodworking Masterclass on 31 Digital, for viewing times see www.woodworkingmasterclass.com