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How to Tell the Difference Between Solid Wood and Veneer

How to Tell the Difference Between Solid Wood and Veneer

How to Tell the Difference between Solid Wood and Veneer

Is this furniture solid wood or is it an excellent veneer job? And, how can one tell the difference?

A veneer is a thin layer of wood, usually the best-looking layer around 1/8th of an inch and bonded—or glued—to a cheaper surface, such as MDF (Medium-density fiberboard.) It can be hard to spot while a poorly applied one can be obvious. Veneered furniture offers a much more affordable alternative to the expense of solid wood, however, if you're in the market for real wood furniture, how can you tell? Here are some tips that can help you tell the difference.

Real, solid wood furniture is heavy. Really heavy. If you're being told something is made of solid wood and it takes you nearly no effort, or it is incredibly easy to lift it is probably made with a veneer.

Solid wood drawers commonly feature dovetail joints and construction. Open the drawer on any furniture that has them and search the left or right side of the pulled-out drawer. You should note the tongue and groove construction there that connects the drawer front to the drawer itself.

If there are no drawers in the furniture, you should be looking for joints that have been screwed or dowelled. (Round wooden pins of small diameter used to strengthen a joint.) Do you see instead, nails or staples? Nails and staples are often an indication of furniture pieces quickly put together and can indicate you are looking at a veneered piece as well.

These types of pieces tend to have horizontal grain patterns on their edges. Real wood doesn't have grain on the edges. Also, when looking at veneer furniture from the side you can see where the sheet attaches to, or how it is attached to the front. Banding is often glued to edges of veneered furniture which can be a width between ¼ of an inch to 1 inch thick or thicker. Usually, it will be sanded to attempt to match the contours of the piece.

If you can see underneath a piece of furniture, make sure to check the bottom. If you see unfinished wood on the bottom it's probably real wood and not a veneer or laminate. When looking at the underside, do you note that it has the same look and pattern as the wood on top? Another indication that this piece is made of real wood.

If the underside of the furniture you are inspecting has a grain that looks completely different than the top, then it's a veneer. Top and bottom veneer pieces are made from two different pieces of wood, meaning they won't match. It's unusual for most companies or craftsmen to take the extra time to glue a perfectly matching piece of wood to the bottom to align with the top.

Touch, if the surface hasn't been sealed, can help you discover if a piece is a solid wood or veneer. Real wood grain doesn't have a perfect, flawless grain pattern. If it varies and changes it is more than likely real. If you feel and note a perfectly repeated grain pattern you are most likely touching a veneer or even laminate of some sort. If the surface has no grain whatsoever, again, it is likely a veneer.

A veneer cannot be carved in any way. If the furniture you are considering has delicate, beautifully carved details you are looking at a real and solid piece of wood.

Quite simply, solid wood pieces and furniture will end up costing more than a veneer over MDF or particleboard.

Chairs, table skirts, arms, or legs that are curved are most often done so in solid wood by steam. A steamed piece of curled wood lasts longer and tends to look far more graceful as well as natural to the eyes than pieces fashioned from strips of laminate or veneer. Along these curves, check carefully for any odd bulges or wrinkles inside the bend. Not only could that be a sign of shoddy woodwork, but that it may not be solid wood.

A solid wood piece is comprised of several different pieces of wood put together. In a tabletop or desk, for example, it's common to join several pieces of wood board together to get a single piece that is wide enough for an entire desk or dining room table. Real wood glued together should have lines that run along the length of desk, tabletop, or dining room chair (unless made from a solid single piece of wood). These glue joints are rarely more than 10 inches apart because that is the maximum width of most available milled lumber. Often, the grain of adjacent boards will run in opposite directions, a technique a woodworker will employ to prevent and fight wood from warping. A veneered table, meanwhile, lacks any of these lines and if they do, you will note they are at least 24 inches apart or wider.

Veneering as an artform was extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, making many antiques from that time just as valuable as a solid wood piece. Antiques from that time would often have veneered tops and other parts—for example, the desktop and drawer fronts. Hand-made veneers from that time were made from high-quality wood and frequently included inlay designs somewhere on the desk.

Contemporary veneers, unfortunately, appear much more generic in appearance due to regularly being made in a factory.

One of the more simplistic ways to tell if a piece is made of wood is to simply ask the salesperson, company, or retailer. Don't be shy about asking, this is your hard-earned money and you have the right to know where how it's spent and what kind of company you are giving it to. A trusted, well-known representative should have no hesitation telling you about a piece. If there is a hesitation, or if they tell you they do not know—chances are you may not be getting a solid wood piece. Or worse, a furniture piece from a place that isn't trustworthy at all.

Make sure to do your research online, on the phone, or elsewhere when it comes to ensuring you get the exact piece of furniture you want without unexpected surprises.

If you are looking at products online, after careful review and research of the company, check for how their product is described. For example, "solid oak, solid cherry, solid walnut, solid mahogany," it's a very high chance it is made from solid wood.

Note, however, some craftsmen and companies may place a veneer on solid wood as well to showcase the prettiest patterns of the wood, or if you find a table with different grain patterns and decorative edges with large spaces between the seams. A reliable retailer, company, and craftsmen will always share whether a table is veneered, solid, or made from other materials.

Is it veneered or solid wood checklist?

  • Is it heavy? Real wood is generally heavier than veneered furniture.
  • If it has drawers, are they constructed with dowels or dovetail joints? It's solid.
  • No grain on any edges, only the top? It's solid.
  • Grain on the edges that go in a different direction than the top. That's veneer.
  • Can you see a piece glued, or attached to the back? That's veneer.
  • Pattern, grain or color of top matches the bottom. It's solid.
  • Pattern or grain goes in a different direction entirely, doesn't match the top at all. Veneer.
  • Real, solid wood that's unfinished will always have grain that can be felt.
  • Imperfect pattern and grain are a natural wood property, it should be solid.
  • Flawless, perfect patterns and grain. That's a veneer.
  • Desktops or dining room tabletops made from solid wood should have glue lines 10 inches apart.
  • Solid wood tables have adjacent boards running in opposite directions to prevent warping.
  • Veneer will have up to, or even further than 24 inches.
  • Veneer boards will likely have all 'boards' going in the same direction.
  • Antique or new? Lower quality veneers tend to be easier to spot in more modern furniture.
  • Veneer cannot be carved.
  • Ask about company and research reviews before buying. Ask about the furniture piece.
  • Research online products before buying.

Armed with this new knowledge, you should be confident in your next search and comparison between solid wood furniture and veneered!

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