This is an old topic of debate and I wager that the discussion will never end. However, if you’re in the market for quality furniture, you definitely want to know where you stand before settling on a purchase. As with most topics, misinformation is all too common, so I want to clarify a few things. First:
“Veneer” does not necessarily mean “bad.”
We cannot emphasize this strongly enough! While I can understand concerns about veneer and preferences for solid wood, it is important to keep in mind the difference between quality veneers and cheap cabinetry. Veneers aren’t something that were recently invented; to the contrary, veneers derive from an old and venerable furniture-making tradition. Back in the Georgian period and beyond, for instance, veneered furniture was considered higher quality, since it took more skill to carefully arrange the expensive veneers over solid wood than it did to slap a few boards together and call it furniture (which still holds true). Cabinetmakers began to use veneers as a way to develop their craft, allowing them to employ a greater variety of techniques using a wider selection of rare wood types, which were so expensive and uncommon—even for the finest furniture—that they were only available in veneers. Even today, the most exquisite wood can only be found in veneers, including burl walnut and flame mahogany. Finally, “inlays” are actually a type of veneer, so if you’re looking at anything with wood inlays, you’re looking at veneers.
Here are just two examples of high quality veneers over solid wood:
As you can see, the above flame mahogany and satinwood credenza is not some low quality, poorly-made throwaway. Likewise, the obscene variety of exquisite inlays in the above marquetry chest indicate only the finest quality. I may be tooting my own horn at this point, but I want to illustrate not only that 1) veneers can be high-quality, especially in English-made furniture, but also that 2) some techniques and wood types can only be employed by using veneers. Typically veneers do not split or crack. Which brings me to my next point:
Most solid wood eventually warps, splits, cracks and shrinks!
This is why many cabinetmakers, including our own, offer the option of medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which is stronger, denser, and heavier than solid wood—and which also never warps, splits, or cracks. Solid wood, however, has the advantage of being a little easier to repair in the event that a piece sustains damage. Even so, solid wood and veneers are not mutually exclusive categories, so you will often see, as in our own furniture, that solid wood pieces are overlaid with fine veneers. This gives the cabinetmaker much more flexibility with the design and construction, opening up new possibilities for inlays, banding, and other techniques. In all likelihood, furniture that is purely solid wood with no veneers or inlays whatsoever will be rustic or country style, since formal furniture long ago adapted motifs of inlay and banding that are now irreducibly part of the formal furniture tradition.
So, if you’re in the market for reproduction or antique furniture, we hope that you can now go forth into the world with good information. Just remember that if you ever touch on a controversy like the one that has erupted on the topic of solid wood and veneered furniture, you probably want to do some research before buying. After all, if you wind up moving or re-arranging your furniture collection, you may want to sell a few of your own pieces. We hope that we’ve at least cleared up this little impasse for you, but if you have any other questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below!