Raw Veneer versus Hardwood Plywood

Not infrequently I’m asked “why bother working with raw veneer.”  For example, commercial walnut plywood is ready to use, while raw walnut veneer leaves have to be ordered, trimmed and edges jointed, taped into sheets, the sheets glued to a substrate, and the surfaces then sanded. 

A conceptual bookcase project may help explain the difference.  The bookcase will be in the middle of a long wall.  It will have a lower section with doors, and a set-back upper section with open adjustable shelves.  The doors of both examples will have panels faced with crotch figure.  Plywood will be used for the sides and back of both the lower and upper sections, and the shelves.  Solid wood will be used for the face frames and doors.

Using commercial walnut veneer, joints in the veneer likely will not be symmetric across the backs and sides. Almost certainly the grain pattern and figure will not be consistent across the inner and outer surfaces of the sides and the visible  back of the upper section.  The crotch veneer on the door panels may be gorgeous but too visual for the veneer on the hardwood plywood.  A stain and glazing may be advised to make less noticeable the differences in grain pattern and figures on the various plywood surfaces.  The lasting visual image may be the dark finish and not the wood.  After ten to fifteen years the dark finish may be considered a dated look and plans inititated for yet another bookcase.

By starting with raw veneer, the width and length of the raw veneer are chosen for the bookcase dimensions, and the leaves trimmed so that joints between the leaves are balanced and symmetric across the sides and backs of the lower and upper sections.  Bookmatched ropey quartersliced veneer could be used for the sides and backs to produce intriguing arrow or chevron patterns for added visual interest.   Walnut burl accents could be incorporated in the corners of the lower and upper sections to further tie them together.  And the crotch veneer door panels will look more part of a whole when matched with the bookmatched ropey walnut and burl accents.  A clear finish over oil would be appropriate to highlight all the character and beauty of the walnut wood.  The lasting visual impact of this bookcase would be the combination and use of figure and the wood itself.  This bookcase would be likely to become a family treasure to be kept for decades and desired by the next generation.

Renewable Finishes

Many of today’s commercially sprayed finishes are very durable, but that comes with a price.  Especially when built up into a thick film, those finishes are subject to chipping.  And if color was applied within the spraying sequence (toning and glazing) those chips will be not only low spots but also lighter color spots, making them more noticeable. 

Invisible repairs are almost impossible, according to a long-time commercial finisher/refinisher.  Stripping these modern sprayed finishes is difficult (i.e. expensive) because they are so hard.  So the most common “solution” is to throw the chipped furniture away and buy new.  But if the replacement has a similar finish . . .

Renewable finishes are an alternative. 

Whether brushed, padded or sprayed, shellac is a film finish that builds on the surface of the wood.  Shellac is widely considered one of the clearest finishes, so it allows to show through all the marvelous character and figure in wood.  Today’s dewaxed shellac is more resistant to water marks than the shellac of the 1800′s and 1900′s.  If the finish becomes worn in spots, in about a day, an experienced finisher can pad fresh shellac over the existing, and chips can be invisibly filled in with fresh shellac.

An oil-varnish blend is commonly equal parts varnish, boiled linseed oil and mineral spirits.  The oil component wonderfully warms wood and sometimes gives an almost three dimensional appearance to curl and other figure.  The first coat soaks into the wood, following coats add protection wthout building a noticeable film or shine. Three or four thin coats offer an unexpected level of resistance to water marks without eliminating the marvelous tactile sensation of wood surfaces.  Unlike shellac, scratches into the wood cannot be filled up with a fresh application, but the exposed lighter wood will blend into the rest of the surface with another wiped coat.  And like shellac, should the surface look a bit aged in areas of higher use another coat can be wiped on the piece to renew the finish.

Dewaxed shellac and oil-varnish can be applied with less waste,and  there is less likelihood of having to strip a finish (with accompanying hazardous waste).  These finishes should be treated with respect and common sense, but need not be feared.  And with a renwable finish, furniture perhaps is more likely to kept for decades, developing a wonderful patina with associated family memories.