Working With Veneers

With so many consumers craving personalization in their designs – whether transitional or contemporary – kitchen and bath designers are being pressed to find new ways of expressing those styles. One way to create a stunning yet highly personalized style statement is by using veneer. Indeed, there’s a renewed interest in veneers, which can be beautiful and lend sophistication to designs across the style spectrum. In particular, current design trends have led to a renewed interest in veneered woods for cabinet decorative exteriors.

The Potential
Veneers allow designers to work with a product that produces seemingly unlimited visual effects. Each species offers its own interplay of color, grain, figure and texture. Each log within a species possesses an unrepeatable character produced by the individual circumstances of its growth.

Additionally, in their natural state, veneers provide an impressive palette of colors – tans, browns, reds, violets, blondes and pinks. Beyond color, grain patterns are naturally distinct from species to species, and from log to log. The log’s basic grain structure, created by the annual growth rings, produces different grain patterns depending on the way the veneer is sliced in relationship to the log’s growth rings. For example, veneers cut at a tangent to the ring (flat cut) produce narrow heart and cathedral grain patterns. Veneers cut through the radius (quarter cut) produce straight comb and ribbon striped grain patterns.

Clearly, there’s a lot that can be done with veneers, but if kitchen and bath designers aren’t familiar with working with veneers, the possibility of disaster looms just as large. Veneer work is very complex and, thus, presents a whole new set of responsibilities for designers.

Getting Started
To create a successful kitchen or bath involving veneers, designers need to first research the broader category of both popular and specialty veneers, either through wood sources or the Internet, so that they can learn what the “possibilities” are.

It’s also important they cautiously present conceptual ideas to their clients so they don’t create the classic recipe for disaster: “over-promising and under-delivering.” Additionally, designers must work closely with their existing cabinet manufacturers to identify what veneers are currently in their product offerings, and what veneer “layout” options they actually offer.

Designers also need to know that many woods used for solid stock, five-piece doors also produce excellent veneers. The veneers can have very different wood grain patterns based on how the veneer leaves are sliced from the log (called a flitch). Among the most popular veneers are cherry, mahogany, maple and oak.

Cherry is a popular veneer because of the repetitive cathedrals seen throughout an elevation of plain-sliced cherry veneer. Special quarter-sawn cherry can be specified to create a more ribbon-like grain pattern. Typical cherry wood characteristics – for example, worm tracking – will be repetitively seen throughout an elevation of cherry veneers. Such a wood figure will progressively “move” throughout the sequenced veneer panels. Clients will be disappointed if they are not expecting this natural imperfection in the veneer. To better know what to expect, designers should be familiar with the wood characteristic specifications in the various veneer grades.

“Ribbon” mahogany is another veneer often requested. Sapele veneer can be substituted to insure a more consistent striped figure with broad alternating pink and red-brown bands. This repetitive grain appearance is possible because of clearer rings and the greater hardness of the wood. The coppery red color resembles mahogany. Lyptus, a premium, plantation-grown hard wood from Brazil, is another alternative to mahogany.

There are also several variations of the ever-popular maple. Plain-sliced maple, quartered maple and bird’s-eye maple are often used as veneer surfacing.

Plain-sliced maple will feature typical cathedral patterns. Quartered maple has a more striped look because of the smaller size of maple trees.

Bird’s-eye maple is a specialty product appreciated because of the figure created when clusters of cells within the maple explode after being frozen and then thawed in cold-climate maple forests. In natural products, the bird’s-eye pattern is irregular, tending to cluster as opposed to being spread throughout the log. Simulated products evenly distribute the bird’s-eye figure throughout the panel.

Designers need to ensure the client knows which product is being specified.

For all maple veneers, natural wood characteristics, such as mineral streaks, will be repetitively seen when maple veneer “leaves” are laid up together in an overall cabinet elevation. Once again, the grade of the maple veneer specified must be clearly understood by both designers and clients.

Last, but not least, oak veneer is enjoying a resurgence of popularity – notably in Europe. It’s being rendered in a straight-grained rift or quarter-cut oak. White oak typically has a straighter grain than red oak. White oak also has longer rays, and, therefore, it’s more highly figured when it’s quarter-sawn.

Today, there’s interest in rift-cut red oak that does not have the highly figured rays associated with Arts and Crafts white oak.

Designers may be also be asked to specify exotic veneers. Working with unique veneers is a specialty. They should partner with experienced experts before specifying unusual woods. Specialty veneers worth learning about include:

  • Anegre: This one has a beautiful repetitive figured pattern that makes it a popular natural material to use. Laminate-looking Anegre woods are also very popular in both light and medium finishes.
  • Bubinga: This is an unusual wood with a distinctive figure that’s as interesting as more exotic burls.
  • Lacewood: This is a highly figured, delicate, decorative veneer that has a beautiful mid-tone brown finish.
  • Pearwood: International manufacturers use natural pearwood. Simulated laminate pearwood is also used because it’s far more consistent in color.
  • Wenge: this is a very dark, distinctly textured wood that’s used by international manufacturers. Note that this veneer is difficult to edge in wood taping material because of its natural texture.

Veneer Cutting Methods
The way veneer is cut also produces a variety of visual effects. A mill could conceivably take a single panel, cut it in four or five different ways, and end up with four or five distinct-looking pieces of veneer.

Among the most common cuts to note include the following:

  • Flat Cut (Plain Slicing): A log is cut in half length-wise, then placed on the slicer where the knife cuts individual leaves of veneer parallel to the original cut. Flat cutting produces a cathedral or loop grain effect in the center of the leaf, and straighter grain along the edges. (see Drawing 1).
  • Quarter Cut: A quartered section of log is placed on the slicer, and the knife cuts individual leaves of veneer at a 90° angle to the growth rings. Quarter cutting produces a striped effect – straight in some species, and varied in others (see Drawing 2).
  • Rift Cut: Oak is the only species that is rift cut. Oak produces cells that form a pattern of medullary rays which radiate from the center of the log. To avoid the bold, flake effect of cutting oak on the true quarter, a quartered section of log is placed on a rotary slicer and veneer is cut at an angle, about 15% off the quartered position. Rift cutting produces a rift or comb-grain effect (see Drawing 3).
  • Rotary Cut: A full log is placed in the lathe and turned against a razor-sharp blade which peels a continuous sheet of veneer along the annular growth rings. Rotary cut veneer is exceptionally wide and produces bold, variegated grain markings (see Drawing 4).

In addition to the cut, figure adds yet another variable. Curly, fiddle-back, mottle, pommelé, bird’s-eye, burl and crotch figures add unique texture, and may be evident in varying emphasis in a given log.

Designers also need to know that veneer is bundled and stored in the exact sequence in which it was sliced from the log. Before it’s laid up for practical use, the designer or mill worker must select one of many methods of matching the individual leaves. Each method produces a unique visual effect and should be selected based on the type of veneer used, the visual effect desired and the intended application.

Again, as it cannot be stressed enough, designers should partner with an expert who can assist in selecting – not settling on – the best wood for the job because of the wide variety of species available, and the highly individual characteristic of each log.

Design Considerations
Once the wood and cut are chosen, there are several other issues designers need to consider.

For starters, there’s grain matching, which is best explained by breaking down the levels of projects where grain matching would occur.

In Level 1 projects (or, entry-level stock products), the drawer head and doors are cut in mass, thereby precluding any grain matching on the veneer doors installed on the case. This may not be considered a detriment, however, because the grain pattern on the drawer of inexpensive veneer cabinets runs horizontally, while the grain runs vertically for the door.

In Level 2 projects, the designer specifies grain matching within each unit. This means the door and drawer grain runs in the same direction, and is cut from the same panel. Such a specification is more costly because it does not allow for “yield maximization” (or, getting the most number of doors and drawers out of each sheet) when the veneer panels are cut from large 4'x8' sheets of panel stock.

In Level 3 projects, grain is matched throughout each elevation. Each full run of cabinets is cut from sequential panels from the same log. This type of project requires close collaboration, since the designer must present a full set of finished plans to the wood supplier for sourcing and estimating before the final contract is signed.

In Level 4 projects each door has balanced (i.e., centered and matched in width) veneer leaves on the surface. This effort is called “blueprint matching.” It is the customized manufacture of panels and doors of various sizes in which the entire room (not each individual elevation) is sequenced with door and cabinet component parts using continuously matched panels.

Whenever a grain matching specification is planned, veneer specialists first focus on the amount of veneer needed for a project. Before material selection begins, the following requirements must be considered:

  • Ceiling Height: Determines length of panels required.
  • Key Elevations: Determines the need for any accent veneers (burl, etc.) in featured areas.
  • Net Square Footage: Determines panel surface area. Generally, it takes three square feet of veneer to yield one square foot of finished paneling.
  • Panel Width: Panels with widths to 48" are standard, while widths up to 60" can be produced.
  • Architectural Panels: Architectural panels are generally 3/4" thick, and generally 8' to 12' in height. The thickness of the veneer is often determined by the rarity of the wood and where the product is milled. Of particular note, a very thin (1/85"-thick, 3.3mm) exotic pearwood panel from Europe cannot be hand-sanded during the finishing process because of the fear of “sand through.”

There are also four special requirements to note whenever grain matching is planned:
1. The consumer must understand and accept that any damage to the veneer on the job site must be repaired by a finishing expert because the sequence-matched veneer pattern cannot be interrupted by a replacement piece.
2. All appliance panels, accent pieces and custom end panels must be cut from the same stock as the door panels are cut.
3. Solid wood accents from the same wood species, if available, are best avoided because the grain pattern, figure and color will not match the veneers used.
4. The tallest panel height will drive the veneer specification and the price.

Approval Process
Next comes the veneer approval process, during which the actual flitch(es) that will best fit the specifications must be identified. This is done by inspecting veneer samples.

Normally, three leaves (sheets) are drawn from evenly spaced positions within a flitch to give a broad picture of how the grain pattern progresses through the flitch. They further what character marks develop (see Drawing 5)

The sample is identified with the sheet and flitch number, along with a note identifying the total square footage of the flitch available. Placed side by side, these samples show the designer and client what is happening to the grain, as well as the character of the wood throughout the flitch, from outside of the tree to the center.

Typically, younger wood on the outside will be narrower and will show fewer defects than that found in the center. Such a flitch sample must be approved by the client, and the log must be reserved for the project for upscale custom work.

Only after this extensive selection process has been completed will manufacturing begin.

Veneer Alternatives
But even with all of the knowledge to make the right veneer choice, anyone who has worked with veneers knows how temperamental they can be. Color variations, grain irregularities and imperfections can result in low yield and too much dissimilarity in the final product to satisfy the client.

Sourcing raw natural veneers for projects that require minimum levels of surface structure inconsistency presents a continuing challenge. Therefore, designers are forced to either reconsider the species with which they want to work, or to dramatically increase budgets to accommodate the cost of super-quality, raw veneers.

However, a third option is to consider formed, treated, engineered or reconstituted veneers. Many are emerging “green” wood products. Among them are the new farm-grown woods, such as bamboo, a renewable grass product.

Manufacturers harvest this renewable wood source by cutting it and leaving a 4' stump that will regenerate in five years. It’s the fast-growing nature of bamboo that makes it such an important green product, and it has a much lower environmental impact than environmentally managed wood forests.

Bamboo is also 30% harder than oak, and generally comparable in price to oak. The natural color of bamboo is light and resembles maple, but it also comes in a caramel or carbonized version that is a deeper brown.

An advantage of this darker finish is the fact that the deeper brown color goes all the way through, so it can be sanded and refinished. Plus, if scratched, the darker color will remain, whereas most wood receives a topical stain so the lighter wood underneath is exposed when scratched.

Lyptus, an alternative to mahogany, is another wood considered a wise environmental choice because it is hard wood produced in a sustainable way by environmentally responsible plantations. It grows fast in cool climates, and can be harvested in 14 to 16 years, so it’s highly valued not only because it preserves natural eco-systems. It also has excellent workability, machining properties, density and finish possibilities. It’s available in two commercial grades:
1. Standard Grade: A clear-face grade free of knots, holes, gum pockets and stains, it contains all colors in the wood’s natural continuum from pink to red. But no two pieces are allowed with sharp contrasts within the piece, thereby providing a more evenly finished face elevation.
2. Striped Grade: It’s also a clear-face grade free of knots, holes and gum pockets, but it contains areas with sharp color contrast within the piece. It presents a dramatic contrast between sap wood and heartwood for a striped effect.

Another alternative to achieving more continuity in the veneer is treating woods.

One way to treat wood is bleaching, which neutralizes variations of color in the woods, removing color differences that could be considered unacceptable in the final product. The dying process then penetrates the entire thickness of the veneer. It can even be repaired by sanding if scratched. Plus, it improves the appearance of the wood grain.

Dyeing is another way to treat wood. Natural veneers are first bleached and then dyed either back to natural, or to fantasy colors.

Still another option is “new” wood, or reconstituted veneers. Real woods can re-glued, re-sliced and dyed to mimic more valuable woods, or “new” woods. Reconstituted woods, on the other hand, take consistency to a higher level. They are created by gluing together natural veneers in special presses, and re-slicing to get certain predetermined effects such as faithful reproductions of natural veneers, or off-the-wall geometric effects. These reconstituted and re-cut veneers demonstrate a responsible use of limited natural resources, and are beginning to be seen in the kitchen cabinetry industry, too.

However, no matter what veneer is chosen, it can be very beautiful when planned by an expert and fabricated by a craftsman. The bottom line is that if kitchen and bath designers stick to all of these key planning tips, and partner with the right experts, they’ll be able to deliver a kitchen or bath with a veneer with which everyone is happy!

This is part of a quarterly series of “Designer’s Notebook” stories, which will continue to run throughout 2006 exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News.

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