Going with the grain

Here, Gregg Wright of Reliance Veneer explains how the demand for decorative timbers combined with modern manufacturing techniques not only makes environmental sense, but can also enhance design

Have you ever looked at a beautiful piece of furniture and wondered how the distinctive patterns and figuring repeats are achieved, chances are it’s through the use of wood veneer. Veneer is typically produced from the highest quality woods available and although production methods have advanced the basic technique has been used for thousands of years.

Many people perceive solid wood to be of higher quality than a product made using veneered panels, but veneered panels have many benefits over solid timber which can be exceptionally heavy, can expand and contract with moisture changes in the air, and even warp if the surrounding conditions are extreme enough. By contrast, manmade panels have wood fibres and glue crossing in so many directions that the panels are able to remain stable in some of the harshest conditions.

The use of wood veneer in conjunction with the advancements in laminated and fibre panels, such as MDF or plywood, give architects and designers exceptional creative opportunities. As well as being an environmentally sound choice, reducing the demand on natural wood resources and helping to limit deforestation, use of veneer also makes sound economic sense, allowing designers to enhance furniture with unusual or exotic woods, the use of which would be prohibitively expensive in their solid form. Currently there are in excess of 120 natural species available for veneer production in Europe. Timber is a natural resource and as such, no two logs are identical, and even within the same species, logs will vary in grain pattern, colour and markings.

There are many environmental factors that will determine the suitability of logs for veneer production. Weather patterns in Europe are different to those in North America and this gives rise to different grain structures. European timber species often show more colour variation and the texture can be more course and brittle than the equivalent American species. Veneer logs have to be carefully selected for quality, as manufacturing is an expensive and exacting process.

In Europe and the Americas, veneer is typically cut into three standard thicknesses depending on the application for which it will be used, most commonly 0.6 mm with only about 16 species being commercially available thicker. Timbers cut more than 2.5 mm thick are normally classified as sawn lumber rather than veneer. In order to reveal different grain patterns logs can be sliced in a number of different ways; crown or flat cut, quarter cut, rift, and rotary cut. Unless rotary cut, veneer leaves are often relatively narrow, to cover large area. The leaves are matched and joined to form larger sheets called layons. There are many different ways the leaves can be matched using the grain pattern to your advantage, some creating unique effects and designs.

Book matching is a traditional method of matching the veneers by turning over every other leaf, mirroring the leaf adjacent to it. Using this method, it is possible to create the most amazing ‘star bursts’ on circular table tops or a pleasing match across wall panelling. Slip matching is much a more contemporary method, as each leaf of veneer remains facing the same direction and is jointed next to each other to create an asymmetrical but uniform pattern. Random matching is possibly the most natural of all the matching methods. This involves taking leaves of veneer where the grain pattern, colour tone, width and grain structure vary and joining them producing a planked, more rustic look.

As trends and fashions evolve, veneer once thought of as traditional or old fashioned, such as oak, sycamore and beech can be transformed and brought up to date using natural or chemical dyes. Almost any type of wood can be transformed into almost any colour or tone imaginable. This enables the production of veneers for specific requirements and can provide a consistent uniform colour.

The dyeing process combined with modern technology means that it is now possible to engineer veneers to replicate rare natural species that are becoming less commercially available, and consequently increasingly expensive. There are truly endless possibilities when choosing natural wood veneer.

A leading UK wood veneer specialist, Gregg Wright is sales director at Reliance