by Harvey Kimerly
Many of the buying public are obsessed with the idea that veneered construction is a sign of cheap inferior furniture.
The arguments for the use of veneer are many, without disparaging fine furniture that is made of solid woods. Veneer itself is not a new development. It was known to the early Egyptians, and those pieces of veneered furniture have stood the test of centuries. The eighteenth century masters, such as Chippendale and Sheraton, were also advocates of this laminated construction and their choice has never been bettered.
The reasons for the use of plywood* are not complex. Throughout the world are found many types and species of wood, which may be used as a furniture material. However, only a few have all the properties desirable. The value of some woods lies in their characteristic color, figure, and beauty of grain. Other types are valuable because of the physical requisites rather than decorative qualities. Therefore, combinations of these woods are used in order to produce furniture having both strength and beauty. It is the same method employed in the manufacture of fine jewelry. Platinum, for example, a very soft ductile metal, is blended with iridium, which is known for its tough, durable qualities, thus producing an alloy with all the beauty and brilliance of platinum plus the serviceability of iridium.
The method is the same in furniture. Hickory and ash both make excellent shovel handles or, in furniture, excellent frames for chairs and davenports. On the other hand, burl walnut and crotch mahogany, while unsuitable for shovel handles and frames, have beautiful figures suitable for smooth, flat surfaces where a fine texture is paramount. For this reason the practice is made of cutting the finely figured and more valuable woods into thin sheets of veneer, which are then glued onto the less attractive but stronger wood.
Of great importance to the buyer of furniture is the lasting service made possible with three- five- or more ply veneer. As an illustration, take a panel faced with a highly figured veneer. To begin with there is the core stock—a thoroughly dried piece of some tough, sturdy wood; then comes a layer of glue, and a layer of cross-banded veneer with the grain running at right angles to that of the core; there follows another layer of glue, then the face veneer with its grain superimposed over that of the preceding strip. Cross-banding, or the superimposing of succeeding sheets of plywood give the desired strength, as it tends to prevent the panel from warping or changing it’s shape due to the absorption or giving off of moisture. Wood will naturally shrink or expand in varying degrees throughout the grain. The gluing together of the various sections with the grain running in different directions prevents distortion, for as one sheet starts to warp it is automatically checked by the cross grain of its adjacent sheets. This method of construction is especially valuable in the changing atmospheric conditions of the modern home.
There is still another pertinent physical factor in favor of glued stock. Glues have evolved that are as strong if not stronger than the wood itself. Quite often glued stock, when subjected to severe strain, will fail in the wood rather than the glue. A properly laid veneer panel is approximately 80% stronger than a strip of sold wood of equal thickness.
To illustrate this point take two strips of plywood and place them together with the grain of each running in the same direction; they can be easily broken. Now superimpose these strips and you will find that twice the strength is required to break them.
A casein glue, made of sour skimmed milk, has been produced and has proved superior to the vegetable glue in that it is waterproof. The vegetable glue made from tapioca, is soluble in water if left submerged over a period of time; the casein glue is unaffected by water, retaining its original strength and preventing the veneer from springing apart.
$15,000 PER LOG
To the manufacturer, and indirectly to the consumer, lamination offers yet another saving. Quite often wood, valued because of its beauty of figure, is too costly to be used in making solid furniture, for veneer logs have been know to sell on the London market for as much as $15,000 [this during the 1930s economic depression]. Therefore, the utility of these logs is greatly enhanced by cutting them into thin sheets rather than into lumber. Trees producing really excellent logs of this type are rapidly becoming scarce.
The use of laminated construction also proves economical to the customer in that it helps save a great deal of breakage in small, finely built pieces. Also, in using other than veneered construction on a curved surface, the joints or ends may be exposed, thus spoiling the effect of a smooth flowing line.
From the artistic or aesthetic point of view the use of veneer is responsible for many beautiful and unusual decorative effects, as it is possible to secure patterns of intricate design by the use of mottles, bird’s-eyes, and curly grains. The veneer may be cut as thin as 1/30 of an inch, enabling the strips to be matched according to grain and producing the exquisite swirls and crotches so treasured by manufacturers.
*Plywood in this case refers to a sheet (ply) of wood, and not the present day commercial “plywood” used in construction.
Fine Furniture, December 1936, page 36