Solid Wood, Veneer, & Laminate: What’s the Difference?
We get a request for a solid wood table almost every day, and we’ve come to understand that what people are really asking for is furniture that’s built for the long run. They want superior craftsmanship and materials and don’t want corners cut in any way. As experienced woodworkers, we have a different understanding of the meaning of “solid wood.” To us, it’s a technical term that describes a particular way of using a tree. And it’s just one of several material choices that we regularly make.
Yes, we make solid wood tables. And we also use veneers and laminates. Why? Not to save money, but to give our clients furniture that’s the best solution for their particular situation. In order for you to understand our thinking, here’s a quick look at what solid wood (aka lumber), veneer, and laminates each do best, and what each material is not so good at.
Solid Wood & Veneer: What’s the difference?
You can cut up a tree lots of ways. We use two varieties in most of our products: Lumber, commonly called solid wood, and veneer. Lumber is made by cutting a tree into a variety of smaller pieces, with the mix chosen to maximize the yield of useful sizes, as seen in the log cut into lumber on the left below. Veneers are made by cutting a log into very thin slices with a knife as seen on the right. Both of these are actually solid wood, in that they contain no other material and retain the original structure of the tree. Tables made from lumber look and act very different from tables made with veneer. Each has its good points and bad points.
Solid wood has variable appearances and structures. Each tree’s grain responds to its local environment, so there are wide variations in appearance and in any pile of lumber.
Solid wood lumber is best for: Table tops smaller than 4’ x 8’ and parts of the table that need a complex shape and will receive heavy wear. We also use lumber to make table edges and base parts. Live edge solid wood slabs are good when you want a very natural-looking design.
Solid wood lumber’s disadvantages: It changes dimension whenever the weather changes: humid weather makes it get bigger and dry weather makes it shrink. This can cause warping and cracking, limiting the size of panel that can be made entirely out of solid lumber. It’s also not efficient use of forest – if you’re concerned with sustainable manufacturing, veneers are a much better choice.
Many of the most expensive and spectacular pieces of furniture in history were made using veneers– there were pieces in King Tut’s tomb, which have survived 3500 years. However, industrial methods and techniques have made it possible to make cheap veneered panels and furniture, hence the bad reputation. Built properly, veneer furniture is as durable as solid.
Veneers are best for: Larger tables, complex shapes, and more. The most spectacular trees get cut into veneers, so if we want the coolest wood we have to use them. Additionally, you can get a lot of veneer from a single tree, thus covering a large area in a consistent way. Lastly, large veneered panels are much more stable than large solid panels.
Plastic laminate (commonly called Formica) is an incredibly useful material for table tops. It’s inexpensive, extremely durable, and comes in a huge variety of patterns and colors. About a third of the tables we make are built with laminate tops.
Laminate Advantages: We use laminate when the table will receive hard use and/or the client is trying to keep costs low. For durability at a reasonable price, laminate is unbeatable. Laminates also eliminate most of the finishing labor involved in producing a table, and that’s often a significant savings.
Laminate Disadvantages: Laminate isn’t as beautiful or elegant as tables made with lumber or veneer. For formal settings, and when you want to impress your guests, laminate is the wrong choice.
So which one is best? It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish – and what kind of trouble you want to avoid. We’re ready to help you think about your situation and guide you to the right decision. Contact us today for a free consultation with an experienced design engineer.