Solid wood vs. veneer: why veneer is simply better
I belong to a number of online woodworking groups. One of them is about working in a small shop. Recently, a member posted about their dislike for plywood and veneer.
“I’m a beginner woodworker and refuse to build furniture out of plywood and veneer, except for drawer parts. I’d rather work with SPF (spruce, pine and fir construction grade lumber). Am I missing something? I think furniture made out of fake wood is just fake furniture.”
This is a common sentiment among woodworkers of many skill levels, but especially with beginner woodworkers. The thought that using anything other than solid wood in a project will somehow create a fake, or less true, project is understandable, but only if you don’t know the benefits of using plywood and veneer.
The cons of using solid wood
Before telling you how much I like veneer, let’s quickly go over the shortcomings of solid wood. As much as I love solid wood, it has a number of downsides, the main one being that it moves with the seasons. Increased humidity in the air means solid wood expands, only to shrink once the dryer months arrive. This causes internal stresses within a piece of furniture if it isn’t engineered properly. As an aside, this is why doors are made with frames and panels. The outer frame stays essentially the same size year-round, while grooves in the inner edge of the frame allow the floating panel to fit into the frame and freely expand and contract with the changes in humidity.
I’m sure some of you are thinking of that one solid wood frame and panel door you have that sticks in the summer and is fine in the winter. If the two side frame members were made a bit narrower, there would be less movement in that door and it likely wouldn’t stick at all. Another reason is that the wood that makes up your house may have expanded slightly, causing the door to stick.
Okay, back to the drawbacks of solid wood. Aside from the fact that it moves with the seasons, another drawback is expense. Purchasing enough solid ebony to make a project is going to cost a whole lot more than purchasing enough veneer and plywood to complete the same project, even after you account for the fact that you will likely still purchase some solid ebony to be able to build the project. This is true for most wood species and in most situations.
The third drawback of solid wood is sustainability. Using solid wood for all furniture components would mean more wood would be needed and more forests destroyed. This is especially true when using figured or exotic woods. Using a 1-1/2″ thick slab of curly maple for a door will use up a lot of this gorgeous material. And since it’s only the two outer faces you see, the argument could be made that the vast majority of it was wasted.
Yet another drawback is the fact that solid wood, even when it’s all of the same species, and even when all the boards you’re using are from the same tree, is not uniform in colour or grain. I’ll admit, this drawback is subjective. While I might want a more uniform colour and grain across a piece I’m making, you may not, and that’s perfectly fine. Most commercial projects prefer a more uniform look, though every project is different.
The pros of using veneer
To me, veneer is a wonderful material to use, opening up all sorts of doors. Simply put, it counteracts all the cons of solid wood. It doesn’t shrink and swell like solid wood, it’s cheaper to purchase, it’s much more sustainable, and you can purchase veneer in “flitches,” which allows you to create a uniform look. A flitch is a stack of veneer that’s been put back together to mimic how it grew on a tree. As it’s sliced, it’s stacked with one piece on top of the next so the end user can use multiple pieces of veneer that look almost identical.
And when you get into the artistic side of things, some furniture made with veneer simply couldn’t be made with solid wood. I’m thinking of curved laminations or other highly artistic or complex workpieces or projects.
Speaking about the man-made boards that veneers are adhered to, there are advantages to these, too. In order to obtain the raw materials to create these boards, species of lesser quality and beauty, woods that grow faster, and waste products from other wood manufacturing are used. Using veneers is just a more efficient and effective approach overall.
All this doesn’t mean veneer is without its challenges. Machines or techniques to cut a straight edge on veneer so it can be joined to another piece of veneer are required. Then, once the straight edges are cut, the pieces of veneer need to be joined together so they can be pressed. Speaking of pressing, dedicated machines are needed to press veneer onto plywood, MDF or particleboard panels. All of these challenges are easily overcome in a production setting with dedicated machines, but even in a small shop setting these challenges can be dealt with. Shop-made trimming jigs will leave a clean edge on domestic, exotic and figured veneers. And whether you’re using the cauls and clamps method of pressing veneer onto sheet goods, or you’re using a vacuum press, both techniques are approachable in a small shop setting.
I’m not saying solid wood is useless and should never be used. Nor am I saying veneer should cover every visible surface of the next project you make. There’s a time and a place for both.
Most of the best pieces of furniture in the world are made using veneers. And Egyptian furniture makers used veneer for thousands of years, and some of those pieces are still around today. Veneer is just another tool we have in our toolbox. If we understand when and how to use it, the furniture we make will be longer lasting and more beautiful. The fact that it will be cheaper to produce and more sustainable is also a huge bonus.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.
I do agree with you about plywood, veneers, etc. The problem i have is that my father left me a LOT of pieces of solid oak – all 3/4″ thick, but some is 5″ wide, some 6″ wide and it all varies in length from 18″ to 30″. I would like to begin my woodworking with these materials, but am unsure what to start with.
While less desirable or ‘waste’ wood can make up manufactured materials like plywood or particleboard, they also require glues, conditioners, and mechanical processes to fabricate; that is less environmentally sustainable when compared to solid wood. I’d be interested to know which material has a smaller carbon footprint from the forest to the finished product.
I would agree with the form member that does not like veneer. Yes its cheaper(well maybe not), more uniform (maybe but you can match your wood peaces to be uniform as well) but it has its drawbacks as well. It is not as durable (especially edges that have not been faced with a solid peace of wood), the veneer is usually very thin and it will always look like veneer.
As for being cheaper, the way the price has gone up, its not that cheap anymore. If you are going to take the time to build a good project, IMO you may as well use solid wood.
As for wood movement being a problem – i see that more as a fallacy than reality. I have projects that are over 40 years old and nothing has really moved. even outside, I made cedar projects that have held up well. This included stairs for my deck where the rails were glued together out of narrower boards. Guess what – 20 plus years later when I replaced them, they were still glued together. Some people will use veneer, many woodworkers will not use it for any project of real importance and they have good reasons for not using it.
Great article – I appreciate your taking time to explain the pros and cons.
With over 50 years of woodworking experience, I have used both solid wood, plywood, mdf, particleboard and even solid core plywood, and the key to what is best for a woodworking project does come down to one thing. That is cost. How much it ultimately will cost a client, that includes self projects.
Whether you are a hobbyist, professional, or a DIY weekend warrior, if you use the wrong type of wood product for a project it will cost you more to repair or rebuild it. I now live in an area where there are tree plantations. Yes, it takes years before harvesting, but there is a way around sustainability.
So, it comes down to planning and cost. Use what is best for your project, so that it will last for generations.
Very well said Rob. You had me at veneer. There were two subjects that opened my eyes in woodworking school. The first was that I didn’t realize until then what sharp really meant. The second was when I was taught to bend wood and veneer. Like anything there are pros and cons with veneering. It’s not fake. It is thin but only until you attach it to the substrate. As far as being easy to damage, well, I don’t go around banging solid wood or veneered pieces. Repairs can be made to both. If you want to work with the best looking grains and colours then you’ll need to work with veneer. Ever wonder why woodworkers who veneer continue to do so? The pros outweigh the cons.
Hello Rob…..while your article is well written and loaded with pros and cons, as a retired woodworker, (I’m 71) I would love to have a reciprocal conversion with you on this topic. Trying to lay up a book matched piece, even a cutting board, from a flitch is singularly one of the hardest things to do without all the specialized equipment and professionalism required. It’s like playing poker….ya gotta know how to play your best game. Like I said, I would love to debate your list of pros and cons. Two short questions, 1. Where in the world do you find ebony plywood? I’ll look it up. 2. Do you think that Rococo furniture or Chippendale pieces were made from plywood? From what I’ve gleaned over the past 50 years of pursuing the craft , the best made furniture was built by Gustav Stickley and his brother Leopold. Nothing fake, “honest” furniture. “Als ik kan” printed on every piece made (“to the best of my ability”). To your credit, the article is a good synopsis of all the decisions that need to be addressed if you are on the fence.
The irony is that so many ppl think “solid wood is better” not realizing that so many pieces of furniture cannot be built w “solid wood”. Sure if you like arts and crafts you can but most MCM case goods are veneered sheet goods and could really and practically only be built with them.
“ I won’t build with Solid wood” has become a bit of a sneer sadly. I wish we could look at design and construction in a more pragmatic way
As far as “wood doesn’t move” comments – tell that to the couple whose 12’ dining table I just rebuilt because the solid edge timbers were affixed rigidly to the bar and the table split cleanly down the middle – built in July, blew apart in February
Thanks so much for your comments. Rather than reply to everyone here, I decided to make my column this week a reply to all of your questions and comments. Veneer is always a hot topic. The current column is now posted – https://canadianwoodworking.com/from_robs_bench/veneer-vs-solid-the-debate-continues/
It’s good to know that veneer is a cheaper option! My husband and I want to get a new entry door installed for our home in a couple of weeks since our current one is very old. so I was wondering what material is best. I appreciate you helping me learn more about the advantages of wood veneer!