Gosh, working with veneer has been a very steep learning curve! Which is why I couldn’t wait to share with you that I have learned so far by diving into the first part of this veneer series with wood veneer types. This was the first hurdle to overcome when I started researching and looking at what type of wood veneer I should purchase for my project.
Now I will be the first person to declare that I am not a veneer expert, but I am working hard to improve my knowledge. We can and should share what knowledge we learn in order to demystify topics in furniture refinishing and restoration.
My Wood Veneer Journey of Learning, Frustrations, and Creativity.
If you have been following me on Instagram, you know I have been very busy and very frustrated as I embark on my largest wood veneer project, to date. I’m not merely filling small chips or replacing veneer banding (check out this article for more on veneer banding). I’m actually swapping out veneer that has checking and replacing it fully. To complicate matters, its a curvy Stonehill Drinks Cabinet. Due to the curves, clamping the veneer is impossible and I do not have access to a veneer vacuum.
I so want to get this project right, that I have even signed up for a veneer course. Unfortunately it’s not until December 2023, and I am a rather impatient person. So, I decided to start self-learning and dove into research and learning by doing. Through this series of working with wood veneer, I will share with you all the fascinating things I have learned about veneer throughout this project and hope to inspire you to get more creative in your furniture refinishing. So, get comfortable and enjoy the read. If you have any questions afterwards, reach out! I would love to help you avoid the frustrations I had navigating this topic.
What is Wood Veneer?
Simply put, wood veneer is a thin layer of wood that is used to cover another substrate, such as mdf, chip board or even a cheaper type of solid wood. Decorative or expensive wood types are shaved into paper thin sheets and by attaching it to a new substrate you can gain the beauty of the expensive material while creating stability, cost-effectiveness and the unique ability to play with wood grains.
Despite having a bad reputation caused by the subpar veneers or even laminate used by the big box stores, veneer is a great alternative to solid wood. Since I started my journey into veneer, I have learned just how much work and talent goes into creating beautiful patterns and showcasing the natural grains.
Two Main Wood Veneer Types
There are two main types of wood veneer which all veneers fall under. Natural and Engineer Veneers. Each type of veneer has its own individual characteristics and requires different ways of handling and applying. It is therefore important to know understand the differences and how to handle these two types of veneer.
This type of veneer is made from real wood. Wood logs with decorative grain patterns are shaved into paper thin planks to create this type of wood veneer. It’s a simple process in theory and requires little to no additional material to create.
Natural wood veneer tends to be preferred for the dramatic wood grain patterns that naturally occur and are hard to mimic with engineered veneer. Furthermore, these types of wood veneers can be finished just like solid wood can and mimic the same look wonderfully.
3 different types of common natural veneers.
- Raw veneer: this is the veneer as it is after being shaved from the original piece of wood. It has no backing and can be brittle as it dries and due to its thin nature. Both sides of the raw veneer can be used.
- Backed Veneers; often paper backed veneer, which is created when a thin paper is adhered to the back of raw veneer. This can add to the flexibility of the veneer. Due to the flexibility, this type of veneer can be produced in larger sheets with multiple sheets or in long rolls. This is a great type of veneer to start with, you may not have This is helpful for users that do not wish to join smaller pieces of raw veneers together. This is also helpful when veneering curves and columns as the veneer is less likely to crack.
- 2 or 3 ply Veneer: this is a raw veneer face which is placed on a backing or second layer of veneer. Normally the two veneers are applied in opposing directions to create durability. I have experienced this veneer type on parts of a StoneHill Drinks Cabinet where I removed one layer of veneer only to find a second layer underneath.
This type of veneer is usually created by taking wood fibers and mixing it with an adhesive material. Therefore, the result is a mix of wood and other materials. Engineered veneers are more sustainable and cost-effective when compared to natural veneers. And while engineered veneer can mimic the look of natural veneer is often has repeating grain patterns which can give it away as being man-made. Think of laminated wood floors vs natural wooden floors. Though it’s getting tougher to tell the difference.
Engineered veneer is almost always sold as a backed veneer type. As it is already a mix of materials, it is never raw.
Which type of wood veneer should you choose?
Each wood veneer type will have its pros and cons for the project on which you are working. You must consider key elements of your project to choose the best suited veneer. Are you working on a large flat surface? Smaller drawers with curves? Are you looking to create a dramatic book matching effect?
Working with raw veneer can be a challenge due to the fragility of the product. It is prone to splitting. It is also not very flexible. You could wet the product to gain flexibility, but check that this will not compromise the glue you are working with.
For larger surfaces, you would have to try to seamlessly attach multiple sheets of raw veneer, as raw veneer is limited in the sizes that they can come in. Matching multiple pieces of veneer together is very challenging. I say this from experience. For larger surfaces, you may want to consider using a backed veneer instead.
Backed veneers are flexible and can be purchased in longer sheets and rolls, covering larger surfaces without any visible veneer seams. However, backed veneer due to the method of creating it, the wood grain is less dramatic than that of smaller raw veneer types. Creating an eye-catching book match will be difficult with backed veneer.
Pros and cons to consider when choosing your wood veneer
Raw veneer will be the cheapest type of veneer to purchase, and you can also find dramatic wood grain and patterns. It will take time and practice to get good at working with raw veneer. It can easily split or cracked and can have holes where knots were.
Learning to work with raw veneer, while challenging, it is a necessary skill if you want to restore furniture with dramatic wood grains. Consider buying some cheaper veneer and start with plywood boards to practice adhering the veneer, matching the seams up and cover/filling any gaps that occur. Practice makes perfect!
Pros and Cons of Paperbacked Veneers
- Paper backed veneer is a must for larger projects, as it can be sourced in large sheets.
- Paper Backed veneer is flexible and can work well on projects with curves.
- Backed veneers can be pricey and harder to source then raw veneer.
- Backed veneers with dramatic wood grain or patterns are rare and again very pricey.
- Backed veneers permit a thinner raw veneer to be used. Which means you have less wood to work with and sanding through the material is easier.
2 ply veneer is not as easy to source, as it is more costly than paper backed veneer and can be harder to work with. While it is more flexible than raw veneer, it is less so than the paper backed versions.
For whatever furniture project you are working on, take the time to research the pros and cons of the wood veneer types that will work best for you. By doing so, you can ensure that you find the right product for your project. This will minimize the challenges associated with choosing the wrong type of veneer for your project.
For the Stonehill drinks cabinet, I choose to work with raw veneer. While raw veneer is not great for working over curves, I could not locate a walnut veneer with dramatic wood grain, in a paperback version. So to achieve the curves, I opted to use a veneer softener and a hot iron and glue process. I will share this how to in the next part of the wood veneer series.