Why solid wood furniture?
The simple answer to this question is quality. Solid wood furniture is a lifetime investment and, if properly cared for, will be passed on to future generations.
Many items of furniture that can be bought today are not solid wood. Manufacturers and retailers use the term “solid wood” to describe things such as door frames being solid wood to the legs of a table being solid wood. So what is the rest of the furniture made from? The answer is usually veneers, depending on who is manufacturing the furniture. However, some retailers, such as the large chain stores you see in the flyers in your post box and on TV, use foil wrap, which basically paper or plastic sheets with a wood grain design printed on to it.
What are veneers?
Veneers are very thin sheets of solid wood. To make veneers, the sawmills place logs on large rotating machines which are then slowly turned, while a large blade slices thin sheets from the log as it turns. This is the reason that veneers can be easily spotted if you know what to look for. Another way to cut veneers is to flat slice them.
These veneers are then glued to a substrate, usually chipboard, but often MDF (Supawood) is used.
Another use of veneers is in the manufacture of plywood, in which veneers are glued to each other at right angles until the desired thickness is achieved. This then resembles the large flat boards that are used in the manufacture of kitchen units. These boards are then cut up by the manufacturer to make furniture. These veneered boards are used to make the tops of tables, sides and shelves of furniture such as sideboards and TV stands. Door panels are often veneered as well.
What is the problem with veneers?
The main issue with veneers are that they are not sold as veneers, but as solid wood furniture. There are many unscrupulous retailers and manufacturers that sell veneers as solid wood, or simply do not declare that the items are NOT solid wood. The other problem with veneers is that once they get damaged, which they eventually will, they cannot be effectively repaired. The reason for this is that the veneer itself is very thin, sometimes only a third of a millimetre thick. Veneers still have to be sanded to be varnished or finished nicely and this sanding reduces the overall thickness of the veneer. Light scratches don’t damage veneers, as this usually only affects the varnish on top. The problem comes in when the veneer itself is damaged, for example a knife cut or dents from everyday use. This type of damage exposes the chipboard underneath the veneer. If this gets wet at all, the chipboard will swell and the veneer will start to peel off.
This sort of damage is slightly minimised by the use of Supawood under the veneer instead of chipboard, as Supawood is more water resistant than chipboard. But did you pay for Supawood furniture, or solid wood furniture?
How do I know if the furniture has been made using veneers?
The easiest way is to ask. A lot of the time the retailer will confirm that it’s not solid wood and then proceed to sell you on the piece of furniture. However, sometimes the sales assistant or consultant does not know themselves that the furniture is not solid and that is why you need to know what to look for.
The first thing to look for is the pattern of the grain. Does it repeat itself every once in a while across the grain? That is caused by the slicing process as the log is turned as described above. Every turn of the log will reveal the same pattern again and again. But some logs are very large and the sheets cut from it are very wide, so as a result you may not notice grain repetition easily, especially if the board has been cut up into smaller sizes for cupboard.
The second thing to look for is end grain. End grain is the term used to describe the growth rings of a tree. Every year of growth leaves a growth ring because trees grow more slowly in winter than in summer. These rings can be counted to determine the age of a tree. If possible, take a look at the end of the plank of wood. If no rings can be seen, then it is not solid wood.
Veneered boards need to be sealed at the ends to look nice, so another narrow veneer is used to close up the exposed chipboard after cutting. This process is plain to see, if the furniture has not been stained, as the grain of the veneers run in the wrong direction to the grain on the top/face of the board. No end grain rings are visible.
The third sign of veneers having been used is staining. While solid wood furniture is also sometimes stained, the stain on veneers is often quite evident. Firstly the veneers on chipboard cannot be nicely routered/moulded ie: a shape cut into the edges of the board, as this will expose the chipboard underneath. This does not stop some manufacturers from doing this anyway. Veneers on Supawood can be routered/moulded more easily, but this still leaves the inside exposed. When stain is applied to veneered boards, on either chipboard or Supawood, the routered edges soak up far more stain than the veneer itself and this immediately makes the moulded edge darker than the rest of the piece and can be easily spotted, especially on tables. Often another solid piece of wood is added to make the table tops look thicker and these are usually routered, but the colour is often different to the veneer as different woods are used to the veneer itself.
The fourth way to tell if veneered boards have been used is the style or design of the furniture itself. Often table tops will have a solid wood frame around them with a veneered board in the middle. This can be seen by the manufacturers usually adding a groove to the joins, thus creating a panel with in a fame, or by checking the grain again. If there is grain running at right angles to each other, it is often a veneered centre.
This way of making furniture is not used by experienced solid wood manufacturers as solid wood needs to be able to move with the seasons and placing a another piece of wood across the grain will more than likely result in cracking and warping of the top. However, some manufacturers do use cross graining on solid wood if the design calls for it, but they allow for the expansion and contraction of wood in the manufacturing process.
The advantages of solid wood.
Solid wood furniture is manufactured using planks of wood from felled trees, which are then joined, turned, moulded and finished to create a unique piece that, with a little care, will last a lifetime. Solid wood furniture can change with you as well. If you don’t like the look of the piece you have after a few years, or you wish to freshen it up to keep up with the current trends, then it can be stained, painted or techniqued to suit you decor. This can be removed many years later to restore the furniture to its original beauty as is evident in many older house with solid wooden door frames and antique furniture which is so popular these days. Dents, scratches and general wear and tear add character to furniture which is often replicated by manufacturers because such pieces are very sought after and often very expensive. Solid wood furniture can be sanded down and re-finished to give it a new lease on life. Solid wood furniture will last for many years to come, as can be seen at auctions when mother-in-laws furniture is passed on, but not wanted.
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