In an 1888 issue of The Decorator and The Furnisher, N.S. Stowell asks his well-heeled American readers to imagine what’s inside their fine furnishings: “Has it ever occurred to you when you have been looking with conscious pride at your elegant rosewood piano and mahogany furniture that its beauty is, as a matter of fact, only skin deep? If not, just give this subject a few moment’s consideration, and learn how art and ingenuity cannot only add to the attractions of nature, but actually create charms where none exist.”
As Stowell suggests, veneer – in its pre-industrial and early industrial production – interwove frugality with luxury. By flaying a log of expensive mahogany into 1/16" thick slices, sawyers took advantage of an increasingly rare commodity and transformed it into a thin, pliable product with a million uses. Stowell continues, “There may be, and doubtless are, persons who are able and willing to pay one or two thousand dollars for a single piece of furniture, but the masses of the people will feel that they do well if their entire household equipment is worth that sum. Many a comfortably furnished house has been filled up for less than the cost of a single log of wood, such as one may see any day in a veneer cutting establishment at the foot of East Eighth street, and there are small piles of sheets of wood veneer no thicker than the blotter you use on your desk that are worth enough money to keep a small family in comforts and many luxuries for a whole year.”
As the “masses of people” who continue to need furniture in their houses and apartments a century after that passage will attest, the reign of veneer continues unabated. Just take a casual trip down the furniture aisle at Target or spend a Saturday afternoon watching unattended children destroy Malm dressers at IKEA. These days, though, megafurniture companies don’t use the “thousand dollar logs” of Stowell’s day. Instead, they use veneers produced from exotic (but cheap) species of dubious provenance, like acacia and rubberwood, pasted on top of a chipboard substrate. Plywood, too, is (duh) a veneer product. And if you think about what percentage of balloon-framed buildings and kitchen cabinetry are constructed of plywood, you might start thinking that veneer, not Dunkin Donuts, keeps America running.
Stowell’s wry observation that veneer creates “charms where none exist,” also suggests veneer’s inevitable connotations of trickery, duplicity, and superficiality. Every antique dealer is familiar with the sight of someone rapping their knuckles on a sideboard or jamming their head between the dust boards on a dresser to skeptically assess whether “this thing is solid wood.” We don’t like things – or people – that pretend to be something other than what they are.
A traditionally veneered piece of furniture, though, is solid wood throughout. It’s just one species of tree glued to another kind of tree. Real wood is real wood. If we’re going to decry that kind of thing as somehow evil, we also need to consider any piece of furniture that includes maple-on-walnut joinery as malevolent. Or dismiss any piece of furniture with rough-planed, knot-pocked drawer bottoms as being somehow unwholesome, out of sight, lying scandalously in wait for someone to discover them.
If it’s wood throughout – not formaldehyde off-gassing wood slime topped with a 1/42" sliver of fake walnut – what’s the problem? If it’s thick and hardy enough to refinish or reshellac when it’s subject to the ravages of time, why not stick prettier wood on top of the humbler stuff?
While it’s true that veneer’s pre-industrial usage tended towards upscale, bourgeois pieces – the “furniture of one’s gaoler,” as Christopher Schwarz calls it in The Anarchist’s Design Book – hand-tool woodworkers today can use traditional veneer-sawing and veneer-hammering techniques for all kinds of applications. In fact, with hardwood prices and vintage hand tool prices both remaining stratospheric, learning to saw your own veneer can be an excellent way to both save money and to hone your craft with a well-set rip saw, smoothing plane, scraper, and hammer.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how.