Sunday, September 15, 2013

Working with Veneer

Let's face it, veneer has a bad name. When we say that someone we don't like has a thin veneer of erudition, or a thin veneer of sophistication, what we really mean is the guy's a jerk but he's covered himself with a very thin layer of something decent to fool the general public. Here's a sheet music cabinet I made that's covered in something decent, except the inside's pretty nice, too:

Many people think the same way about veneered furniture. Even some folks that make furniture professionally think of veneer as just a way to cover something cheap with something expensive-looking, often covering shoddy work and technique in the bargain. Shuddering at the mere thought, they say "Veneer? I never touch the stuff! I only use solid wood!" Their tone of moral rectitude is clear.

Solid wood, of course, is a wonderful material for furniture, and we've got museums full of it to prove the point. You can shape it and carve it and texture it, and when your kid sticks a fork into it you can repair that surface, often many times over. A well-made piece of furniture which is built from solid wood will last many generations over; of course, a poorly made piece built of solid wood will end up in the dumpster just as fast as anything you buy at Ikea. Here's an example of the good stuff:

People who know good furniture, though, know that some of the most beautiful furniture ever made was veneered; our museums are full of that stuff, too. There are some things you can do with veneer that you just can't do with solid wood. Take these panels from a set of passage doors we just made: this is a parquetry pattern called "Louis Cubes", so-called because it was used in French furniture during the reign of Louis Quatorze. The pattern is built with diamonds of anigre, mahogany, and padauk, and shifts as you stare at it.

Or if you look at the first photo in this post, the swirling wood pattern that spreads uninterrupted across 14 drawer faces and two doors would be impossible to replicate in solid wood. Or consider this desk we made a few years ago; the checkerboard pattern on the drawer and chair back were only possible with veneer, and it made the circular drawer case and chair sides a heck of a lot easier to build in a way that will withstand seasonal humidity variations:

Another reason I really like to use veneers is that an entire table-top can match perfectly from one end to the other -- the color, the figure, everything. Here's an example of a figured cherry dining table that matches the entire length, even when all the leaves are in -- and then it's ten feet long:

Or if you wasted a few minutes and read my last post, you'll know that I used a very rare wood to build that sideboard; building it out of solid stock would have been, in my opinion, extraordinarily wasteful. I could also carefully control the look of the piece by selecting quartersawn veneer, and know the entire piece was going to look the same from nose to tail.

So why don't we just build everything out of veneer? Well, there are many pieces where solid wood just makes more sense, either structurally or aesthetically. And just as there are some things that solid wood can't do, there are many things that veneer can't do: it can't be carved or shaped, for instance. And I've done enough antique restoration in the past 32 years to know that the glue that hold all that veneer on can sometimes fail (although that's mostly due to bad construction), and then you've got a lot of little pieces of really thin wood floating around in your sock drawer waiting to be stuck back on your dresser. And last, to really lower the tone of this post, there's the question of filthy lucre: for small shops, using veneer is more expensive than using solid wood because there's so much more labor involved. Unless you're using pink ivorywood (very rare, indeed), it's less expensive to build in solid wood than to use good veneer work. A friend of mine likes to say that every time he turns on his vacuum veneer press, it sucks all the money right out of his pocket.

The moral of this story? There's a time to use solid wood, and there's a time to use veneer. And veneer can be pretty good stuff indeed if you know the work of the person building your dresser.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Cocobolo Sideboard

Kathy had a nice new corner office, and wanted another piece of furniture for some decorative storage and a little pizzazz. The rest of her furniture was nice -- dark brown and appropriately serious -- but she wanted this new piece to be more reflective of who she is. We decided on a small sideboard, which would give her storage for those things she wanted to hide (papers, folders, plastic cups) and things she wanted to display (photos, awards, objets d'art). Here's the final design we developed together; the colored glass in the sliding doors picks up the hues in her upholstery:

For the pizzazz part of the equation, we decided on quartersawn cocobolo veneer: the deep reds and browns would harmonize with the colors in her existing furniture, but the quartersawing would keep the grain from getting too wild and overwhelming this relatively small piece. Flat sawn cocobolo can get pretty swirly, as you can see the first photo; the second photo shows quartersawn cocbolo, revealing how nice and straight -- almost calm -- the grain becomes:

Certainly Wood in East Aurora, NY had a some great new flitches of quartersawn cocbolo in, so we got the veneer from them. Building the piece from solid cocobolo would have been extravagantly expensive and a poor use of rare materials; further, the figure of the solid stock would not have been nearly as consistent as the veneer, creating disharmony in this otherwise serene design. Anyway, here we are going through it and cutting it up:

Next we jointed the pieces and taped it up into panel sized pieces:

We use a vacuum veneer press to press the veneer onto the panels; the press is like a big shrink-wrap bag. The veneer is on the bottom caul underneath the panels that are being veneered; there are thin cauls on top of the panels to protect their corners from the bag -- and the protect the bag from their corners. Here's the press in action:

A little while later, after all the joinery and assembly is complete -- the case is assembled with multiple blind splines -- we rolled the sideboard into the spray booth where we sprayed on a satin-sheen lacquer. The lacquer protects the veneer from mild forms of abuse, but doesn't have a thick, plastic-like look. Here it is in the booth:

The sideboard is now complete and sitting in Kathy's office; she likes this little bit of whimsy Here it is: