Where Does Modern Veneer Come From

Ancient Veneer Making

Veneer is not a modern invention. History shows us that the ancient Egyptians were the first to saw thin boards from logs in order to best utilize the material. It only makes sense. There were not many forests in the Egyptian controlled territories, so they had to stretch what they had.

Egyptians developed tools for shaving veneer from logs imported from Lebanon, Syria and Phoenicia. Thousands of years ago, incredible veneer work made of ebony and ivory was put into King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.

The history of veneer actually starts with the idea of conservation. Egypt consists mostly of desert, timber was rare was highly valued as the precious stones that were used for the elaborate decoration of furniture.

As a result, veneers came into being where no lush forests marked the landscape, but instead in a place where timber, as a raw material, was rare and its products were highly sought after as a personal possession.

history veneerThe beautiful shrines in the tomb of King Tut show that, although the woodworking techniques of that time were still quite rudimentary, people in this age people already knew how to reveal the inner natural beauty of wood.

Veneer Resurgence During Renaissance

Re-sawing of wood into thin strips by hand is how veneer was made throughout most of history. However, veneer making dwindling during the European medieval period and only came back into fashion during the 17th century in France. More recently, although largely unappreciated, veneer construction has been found in furniture form appeared as early as the 16th. Century.

Eventually, the veneer techniques during the Renaissance became very sophisticated, using tiny pieces of exotic woods and burl grain to create intricate designs or lavish scenes, called marquetry or intarsia work.  Much of the finest royal furniture for hundreds of years employed lavish veneer construction, using the finest species of wood and tiny pieces of burl or exotic grain.

Furniture manufacture, originally elevated to artistic perfection by the great masters during the Renaissance and Baroque periods as well as subsequent centuries, demonstrates how a simple need can become a cultural legacy, eventually developing into a form of expression for each era.

Victorian Era Furniture Making

Beginning in the early 1800’s machines were invented to slice veneer, which were employed to make valuable woods like mahogany and walnut go further by gluing them to less prized species, like maple and birch.  Around 1900, highly prized quarter-sawn or tiger oak was often veneered over regular cut solid oak.

old veneer making machine

The heritage of furniture manufacture has been refined and perfected in modern times in response to demand, and has grown from a handicraft into a highly mechanized industry. At the same time, veneer manufacture, although an industry, has remained very much a craft.

As tool and machine making became more sophisticated, the sawing of logs was replaced by the much more accurate of slicing with knives instead of sawing with blades.

Veneer Use Good & Bad

However, it was in the nineteenth century that veneering started to develop a bad reputation when some furniture manufacturers were using machine made veneers mainly as a method of covering up badly constructed furniture made of cheaper pine or poplar wood.

Eventually, new production techniques slowly gained acceptance and veneer production developed into an industry in the 1950s

Starting about 1970, industrial furniture manufacturers developed the technique of gradually making veneer thinner, and today, hardwood veneers are as thin as 1/64 of an inch!  This modern veneer looks like typing paper, it is almost transparent, and can never be sanded, refinished or significantly touched up if damaged.

Veneered wall panels appeared in shops, restaurants, offices, banks, insurance companies and public building. Advanced manufacturing techniques and growing public awareness of the virtues of real wood veneers together with the need to conserve energy and resources have made the craft of veneering more popular than ever.

With the focus on conservation, using veneers to cover man made materials such as particle board and MDF has become a necessity if rare and hard to find species of trees want to be used at all in furniture making.

The making of veneer has very much surpassed the resawing of logs into strips, and the "peeling" of logs with machines. It is now a very sophisticated process that yields incredibly beautiful natural artwork that is hidden within a tree.

Veneer is now DIY Too

Although the vast majority of veneers are used in factories manufacturing panels and plywood, the advancement of technologies has also allowed the explosion of the use of veneers in the small shop setting. One might say it has come full circle. The low cost of veneers and substrates has made it possible for even the small time woodworker to use veneers to enhance their woodworking pieces.