Veneers are thin slices of wood glued onto a furniture carcass made of a cheaper and sturdier wood. Using a plentiful local wood where it wouldn’t be seen allows the best use of more expensive figured wood on the exterior where it shows.
Traditionally, veneers were hand cut, limiting the thickness to about 1/8” thick. With the advent of the industrial revolution, machine cut veneers could become thinner, 1/16” to 1/32”, resulting in more sheets of veneer per tree. To help date a piece of veneered furniture, examine the thickness of the veneer by opening a drawer and looking where the veneer meets the carcass on the back of the drawer front.
The beauty of veneer graining depends on two factors, first, where the veneer is cut from the tree and second, how it is applied to the carcass. For example, Crotch veneer is cut from the fork of a tree trunk or where a large branch joins the trunk. The grain often appears as a pattern resembling a V-shape or a cluster of plumes, when seen in mahogany it may be referred to as flame grain mahogany or crotch mahogany, in walnut it is crotch walnut. Burl (or as the English say Burr) veneer is taken from a wart-like, abnormal growth on a tree where the fibers are not directional. The effect is a small, rounded, highly grained pattern and is most often seen in walnut. Plum Pudding Mahogany has a highly contrasted grain of elongated shapes reminiscent of plums. Bird’s Eye maple comes from a deformity in the tree, much like burl walnut, but instead of a growth on the outside of the tree, it is caused by indentions into the growth rings. When the veneers are cut, the dents form many small round patterns. Oyster veneer is found most often in walnut, occasionally in yew, and are “slices” taken crosswise from the limb of a tree. Resembling oyster shells, the small pieces are fitted together with exceptional intricacy to completely cover the carcass. This technique was perfected during the reign of William and Mary in the late 17th century.
Marquetry is another technique perfected during this period, using veneers of different woods. Parquetry is the same process using geometric designs. The English also realized by deliberately cutting off the tops of oak trees, the trunk fibers grew denser developing a swirling grain similar to burl, this veneer is called pollard oak.
Veneers can be applied to a carcass in a variety of ways. The grains may form different patterns depending on where the veneer is cut from the tree, but consecutively cut veneers will have nearly identical grain patterns. If the slices are applied left edge of one to the right edge of the other, they are slip-matched. veneers, like fanning a deck of cards. When applied left edge to left edge, they are book-matched veneer, like opening a book.
Diamond patterns, which are often seen on the sides or tops of chests, can be formed with straight cut veneers by matching side-to-side, and top to bottom in a quadrant effect. Where the bottom of one veneer meets the top of another is referred to as a butt match.
Another sign of a fine chest is how the drawer fronts are veneered. If book matched, it is important to note if the grain also flows from the first drawer to the last in a continuous movement.
For all the beauty of veneered furniture, one should know it might take more maintenance. As Jim Horne of HKH, Inc., a restorer of fine antiques, notes, “Most people keep their homes too dry. With the drastic humidity changes in this city, the core lumber (carcass) expands and contract at a different rate than the veneer causing the veneer to pop or come loose”. One way this can be rectified is installing a humidifier.
*Published in NFocus magazine March 2000.