How to tell veneer from solid wood

How to tell veneer from solid wood Furniture

Sarah Stahl
Sarah Stahl
Passion for transforming tired, old furniture into bold works of art. Sharing my learning with you.

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As furniture refinishers, it’s key to know how to tell veneer from solid wood pieces. Knowing before you start or even purchase a piece is important, as the refinishing process when working on either veneer or solid wood pieces can differ.

Unfortunately when you first start refinishing, it can be difficult to determine if the piece infront of you is wood veneer, solid wood or laminate furniture. It may even be a combination of these three. 

Frankly, it isn’t easy to spot the differences when you first start out, but there are ways to help you determine what the material of the piece is. 

Table of Contents

What is Wood Veneer?

Firstly, let’s dive into wood veneer.  Over the year’s veneer has developed a bad rap due to the way it is used by big box stores.  In quality furniture making, veneer is often used to help keep costs acceptable while providing stunning wood grains.  

Veneer is wood, it’s the same wood that makes up your solid wooden furniture.  The key difference it has been cut thinly and glued onto a substrate.  The substrate could be a cheaper solid wood, plywood or even particle board. 

Walnut veneer laid out on my kitchen floor
Walnut Veneer Sheets laid out

Now that we have established that veneer is simply a thin layer of wood, just how thin is it? 

It is usually less then 1mm in thickness with popular measurements between 0.6 to 0.8 mm.  This is why prep work when refinishing furniture with veneer will differ from refinishing solid wood.  Sanding veneer has to be done very carefully to ensure you do not blow through the veneer layer into the underlay beneath. Read How to sand veneer for tips and directions on how to successfully sand veneer.

Why is veneer used?

In order to use expensive or decorative wood grains which are more scarce, veneer is the method to reduce the cost.  Another key reason why veneer may be used, is for veneer inlays.  Veneer inlay is art itself with the furniture maker creating an artistic design not easily feasible with solid wood. 

Veneer in itself does not mean the furniture piece is of lower quality. In fact for years veneer work was seen as a specialized trade. You can still find centuries old furniture created with veneer in museums. Veneer furniture pieces are of good quality and should not be avoided or feared. 

veneer inlay table, decorative wood or wood in patterns is one way to tell veneer from solid wood
An Example of Wood Veneer Inlay

What is Solid Wood Furniture?

As the title states, solid wood furniture are pieces of furniture which are made from pieces of solid wood.  This could be solid hardwood or softwoods, with popular types of woods used in furniture making being Walnut, Teak, Pine, Oak, Maple and so on.  the term solid wood furniture is often used as a marketing gimick.  Selling the idea that solid wood furniture is of higher quality then veneer pieces.  However, a piece of walnut burl veneer can add more value to your furniture then  say if it was made from solid pine. 

Upcycled cocktail cabinet in art deco style. Large drink cabinet in teak and mahogany woods
Everything but the Doors was Solid Wood on this piece

What is Laminate Furniture?

Laminate furniture is usually at it’s core composed of particle board or MDF (Medium-Density Fiberboard), which is then covered with a laminate finish. The laminate layer is essentially a photograph of wood grain, or other surfaces, printed on paper or plastic and adhered to the core material. It is similar in a way to wood veneer, except that it is not wood at all.  It’s simply made to look like wood.  

A great way to tell if the piece of furniture infront of you is laminate or not, is to simply touch it.  Wood veneer will maintain the feel of wood, which laminate cannot minic. This is because wood veneer maintains it’s natural wood grain which laminate doesn’t.  Laminate will also often repeat the grain pattern which is less likely with real wood. 

Laminate furniture is often associated with big box store furniture made to being low cost.  However, laminate was used in the 1960’s and specifically formica as the material of the future.  These types of pieces can have huge value and be of high quality. When you are evaluating a piece of mid-century modern furniture, keep laminate and formica in your mind.  As it is not actually wood, it requires different skill sets for refinishing.

Detecting the difference between veneer and solid wood

It can take some practice to learn how to detect the difference between veneer and solid wood.  When shopping for vintage furniture, take the time to look at each piece throughly and practice improving your skills.  You will find by using the below 5 steps, you will quickly spot veneer from solid wood. 

And while finding veneer should not change your mind on purchasing the piece, it will change how you should approach to refinishing it.  

Cathedral Figured wood pattern on teak

5 steps how to tell veneer from solid wood

Look for ornate wood grain that repeats. 99% of the time any ornate or decorative wood grain that repeats in a pattern will be veneer. 

art deco refinished cocktail bar with ornate veneer
Repetitive and decorative wood grain is mainly veneer

Look at the exposed edges on the back of the piece.  If you can see a thin strip of wood on a larger solid base then it is veneer.

Veneered chip board, from the back you can see the chip board. This is how you can tell veneer from solid wood
Veneer is clear on the side and the chipboard base is visible from behind

Lift the piece.  This method needs some practice.  Veneer is often put on lighter chip board or plywood.  These items are lighter then solid wood.  Therefore when you lift a piece up and it is lighter then expected for the type of wood, it could be veneer.

Look for seams.  Veneer, like all woods can dry out over time.  If not taken care of, the veneer edges can pull away from each other and can cause small, noticeable seams. You can see the substrate between the seams.

close up of wood treated with veneer
The grain doesn't flow over the edge correctly

Follow the grain over the edge.  The grain in a piece of wood should travel over the top of the piece and follow through on the side.  If the grain pattern changes from the top of the item to the side, there is a chance that it is veneer.  

Should you buy wood veneer furniture?

Since the begining of flat pack furniture, veneer has been getting bad reviews.  Often these pieces are made of cheap chip board, MDF or even a type of cardboard with a veneer layer.  Even the veneer itself is of lesser quality, being micro-thin and is made from engineered wood. Maybe the piece is even listed as veneer but is actually  laminate piece wrongly identifed. When these cheaply made pieces are damaged, you may be better off simply throwing the piece away.  It’s very hard to repair and considering the cost of the item, the question is if the effort is worth it.

Determine if the piece of furniture is worth your time.

cabinet door with a piece of missing veneer chipped
Chipped veneer front

Prior to flat pack furniture, veneer pieces were considered quality pieces of furniture. It was a way to bring unique or ornate wood grains into your home without the high cost of making the item out of solid wood. Therefore, antique and vintage pieces of veneer furniture are often quality pieces.  By looking at the construction method the wood products used and how the piece as stood up in the test of time, you can determine if the piece is worthy of your time. 

Over the years of wear and tear, veneer can show signs of age and damage. This should not deter you.  Rather then simply denting or scratching like solid wood furniture, vintage veneer can split, chip and experience water damage. The repairs required for veneer furniture may require more skills then wood filler but learning these techniques can help to improve your overall skills as a refinisher.  

split and chipped veneer banding, it is easy to replace veneer banding
Split and missing veneer banding

So don’t avoid veneer furniture!  I believe that 80% to 90% of all the pieces I work on are veneer.  Furniture in Europe is dominated by veneer.

Quality veneer pieces can be repaired. It can be re-glued and replaced.  Veneer should not be feared and yet it often is.

Learning to Refinish Veneer furniture

I recommend starting with a piece that requires minimum repairs, such as veneer banding that needs replacing, a small chip in the veneer or a gap between two veneer sheets which have separated over the years.  These issues can be fixed with a little practice and a reminder that vintage and antique furniture can and should show their years.

Are you currently working on a veneer piece and struggling or perhaps you want more inspiration on what to do with your veneer piece?  The below posts can be of use for you.

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