Skin Deep (II)

Part two of a look at commercial veneers and veneering practice, partly in response to a Marc Adams article in the magazine Popular Woodworking, and partly stemming from personal impressions I have formed over time. Following the last post, I noted several comments which seemed to take my remarks somewhat personally, and I was even accused of characterizing Marc Adams unfairly. I reiterate then, at the start here, that I am responding to the article and its contents, not the character or personality of the author. Nor am I intending to slam people for the choices they make in how they work wood and why. And, like the article, I am addressing industrially-produced veneer, not the thicker shop-sawn kind.

As I mentioned at the close the the previous post, I was slightly taken aback by the author’s assertions that veneers are,

…as a material, green by design – it’s durable, renewable, and sustainable.

Well, first of all, veneer is wood. Wood, in theory at least (and in practice to a much smaller degree unfortunately) could be a renewable resource and could be used sustainably. While I agree with this part in terms of regular solid wood, I am having trouble swallowing the claim about sustainability and renewability when it comes to veneer. I looked further on to see how Adams would substantiate his claims for veneer, and I believe his main justification is as follows:

…the average hardwood tree taken to the mill…will yield around 106 board feet of 4/4 lumber. The same size log will yield around 4,200 square feet of clipped veneer….As we become more aware of efficiently using our natural resources, stretching a board truly is possible with veneer. From a financial standpoint, if the average price of a select and better piece of 4/4 cherry is $7.00 a board foot; that would give the entire log a value of $742. If the average price of a piece of select cherry veneer is $1.80 per square foot, then that same log could generate close to $7500 – around 10 times as much. Which way do you think the wood market is headed?

Well there you have it, an argument for efficiency, primarily and an argument for greed, or should I say, ‘profit motive’ as it gets called. On the surface the efficiency cited all sounds quite rational and reasonable, and I’m sure that the trend in “the industry”, due to the mouth-watering potential for raking in those bucks in vast quantities, is going to be in the direction of veneering and not solid wood. There are other reasons for that too, but for now I want to focus just on the argument for sustainability as a result of the efficiency of cutting veneers instead of solid wood planks.

It would seem if you slice a tree up into very thin pieces that would be a very efficient way to make a given tree ‘go the furthest’. And what could be greener than that? Oh happy days!

Well, unfortunately, the entire argument for efficiency alone in regards to natural resources, great as it sounds, falls flat on its face in reality. The English economist William Jevons started the ball rolling in matters concerning the outcomes for increases in efficiency in the realm of coal power when he wrote a book in 1865 called The Coal Question. In it, Jevons looked closely at the developments in coal-based industries, and argued that improvements in fuel efficiency tend to increase, rather than decrease, fuel use:

They forget that economy of fuel leads to a great increase of consumption, as shown in the chapter on the subject; and, secondly, they forget that other nations can use improved engines as well as ourselves, so that our comparative position will not be much improved.

In chapter 7 of the work in particular, Jevons delves into economy of coal, in regards to improvements in its utilization by steam engines:

It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

In his study of the development of increased efficiency of steam engines, Jevons observed that in terms of the amount of water they could be raised one foot from converting the energy of 84 lbs of coal in steam-powered device, there had been staggering improvements, from 5.5 million tons of water raised in 1769 to 80 million tons by 1859.

The topic of efficiency is a bit like the fallacy of ‘labor-saving’ devices – once we have increased capacity to do a given thing, instead of taking it easy and enjoying the benefits, we tend to find more and more things to do with that thing, especially if some can make a buck by doing it – an advantage that is fleeting as eventually one’s competitors adopt the same technology and your advantage is nullified and you’re all working twice as hard as you were before:

…such an improvement of the engine, when effected, will only accelerate anew the consumption of coal. Every branch of manufacture will receive a fresh impulse…What is true of economy in the engine is true of several other important, and many less important instances of economy. The extraordinary increase of the iron trade is a trite example. This rapid and great increase, shown in the last few years, has been, in some part, caused by the economy introduced through the use of the hot blast in smelting, a process which has materially lowered the cost of iron, and, therefore, has led to its employment for many purposes in which its use was previously unknown. In fact, as shown in a subsequent chapter, the reduction of the consumption of coal, per ton of iron, to less than one-third of its former amount, has been followed, in Scotland, by a ten-fold total consumption, not to speak of the indirect effect of cheap iron in accelerating other coal-consuming branches of industry.” (emphasis mine)

While Jevon’s argument was confined to an energy source, his concept works fairly well in regards to natural materials and the various means by which we may utilize them. Jevon’s observations of how coal affected development, led to the now-famous Jevon’s Paradox: an increase in the efficiency with which a resource (e.g., fuel, rocks, trees) is used causes a decrease in the price of that resource when measured in terms of what it can achieve. And, generally speaking, a decrease in the price of a good (or service) will increase the quantity demanded. This is hardly a revolutionary concept: if the price of gasoline goes up, people tend to drive a little less. It’s called ‘price-signalling’. If people buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle, which lowers their fuel costs, they tend to drive more. It a thing is cheaper, people buy more of it. It’s part and parcel of simple supply and demand economics.

In modern neo-classical economic thought, there is an idea based on Jevon’s work: the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate. Love the title! Here’s a excerpt:

Increased energy efficiency can increase energy consumption by three means. Firstly, increased energy efficiency makes the use of energy relatively cheaper, thus encouraging increased use. Secondly, increased energy efficiency leads to increased economic growth, which pulls up energy use in the whole economy. Thirdly, increased efficiency in any one bottleneck resource multiplies the use of all the companion technologies, products and services that were being restrained by it. One simple example is that suburban development limited by water use can be doubled if the houses adopt water efficiency measures that cut their water demand in half. That way a small efficiency can have large opposite multiplier effect. Similarly cars that use less fuel are likely to cause matching increases in the number of cars and trips and companion travel activities rather than a decrease in energy demand. It appears that these latent multipliers of opposite effects may be generally greater than the linear result of the original effect. As of late 2008 this appears to not have been factored into the general discussion of sustainability and global warming mitigation strategies.

The only way that an increase in the efficiency of use of a given thing can lead to a lowered overall consumption is if there is an accompanying restriction that leads to a reduction in demand – and these sorts of things, while they can be left to individuals, don’t tend work so well in societies which glorify selfishness, NIMBY, and “every man for himself”. In places like that (gee, where am I?), increases in efficiency must be paired with some form of government intervention (like a consumption tax, licensing restriction, controlled price increases, etc.), if there is to be any hope that improvements in efficiency is going to lead to a decrease in resource use. Such ideas are hardly popular at this time it would appear, and in societies as complex as we have developed, the layering on of yet more systems and regulations often does not have entirely positive effects.

In considering veneer as an ‘efficient’ way to use a tree, think of the following example: Let’s say you had a large room and wanted to panel it end to end, floor to ceiling with, say, Circassian Walnut. Well, a billionaire or a King could afford to do that with solid wood planking, perhaps. However, in veneer, an average pokey law firm could likely afford to to the same. A lot of what constitutes ‘style’ is largely the imitation of what the rich and beautiful are up to, and is subject to fads as a result of cultural programming and those manufacturing industry desires to keep consumption ever on the uptick so as to satisfy what they call ‘stakeholders’. With fads, what is popular one year is likely out the next. Arts and Crafts furniture was a fad in the early part of the 20th century, only to be replaced by another. Greene and Green bungalows were the rage once, then they were thought passe and the firm fell into obscurity. At one point Scandinavian teak furniture was all the rage. When I worked on the Ellison project in San Francisco, the swanky wood among the interior designer set was Anigre. Last year for some reason Wenge got popular. Black Walnut and Black Cherry seem to have alternating bouts of popularity in North America. There’s nothing rational about it, except for moving product and stimulating demand.

So, back tho the example: to have that room planked in the solid wood would have been quite expensive. Not many could afford it. However, the material would also be highly recyclable and desirable to have when at some later point a Circassian Walnut-paneled room would have fallen from fashion. By way of example, a month or so ago I was looking at purchasing some 125 year old Honduran Mahogany planking (old wainscot, etc.) out of a residence in Boston. Some pieces were 30″ wide and 8′ long. While such materials would be considered outlandish today (though we all seem okay with the average house pushing 4000 square feet, for those average 2.2 inhabitants), the fact is that such ‘excess’ is in the end a wise use of material as we can recycle it. We value such material and treat it carefully  — at least the odds are better that we will with materials that are worth something, that have history to them, that tell a story, that harken back to a past history. It’s about resiliency, not efficiency.

The veneered interior by contrast? Most likely, sad to say, it will end up in the dump when it’s not longer considered chic. The nail-gunned and glued together nature of the veneered construction does not lend itself very well to recycling or dismantling. Time being money, careful removal as part of a remodeling is getting less likely as the days pass by. Crush, smash, dump, out with the old and in with the new. Perhaps the reason that the interior decor’s existence will be relatively fleeting, like the interior of a pizza hut restaurant (redone every 9~12 years from what I gather), the urge to make something cheaply and without concern that it last a long time feeds into that ‘ideal’.

And durability as an advantage of veneer?! Hogwash. I don’t buy that for a moment. On the one hand, durability of wood, in terms of weathering, is absolutely connected to how thick the material is. I believe that typical weathering on exposed wood is on the order of 1/4″ per century. Of course, you don’t tend to see veneered materials outdoors, so I’ll set that aside. Indoors, durability, i.e., how long a thing will last, relates to how well a piece suffers damage, and how well it may be repaired.

Take, for example, a sheet of plywood, let’s say the best darn plywood you can find on earth, and that plywood is veneered with bubinga, and compare it to a solid board of bubinga the same thickness as the veneered product. Which one is going to show the damage more readily from a bump or a knock? Which one is tougher: solid bubinga, or the ply with a layer of bubinga 0.035″ thick over a softwood core? And if the solid bubinga is banged hard enough to cause a dent, then in many cases that damage can be steamed out or repaired relatively easily with a solid patch. The veneered panel, however, in suffering the same injury, would likely have a rapid compression injury to the ply and a crack will form in the veneer. The ply, being softer, will dent more significantly than the solid wood. And sure, there are repairs for that ding. But then you have to deal with a certain amount of refinishing, and that 0.035″ thick veneer, which was already sanded down a ‘certain amount’ during the initial construction of the piece, will not be able to accommodate much more sanding. And of course, the person doing the repair often has no easy way to tell how much ‘meat’ is left there to work with. Added to this is the fact that many veneers employed are of unique or distinctive figure, and making repairs with a patch is often challenging if not impossible in terms of blending the repair in cleanly.

I’ve been to lots of museums and National Historic register homes, including the Vanderbuilt’s  Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, Dupont’s Winterthur in Delaware, and several of the gilded-era mansions in Newport RI. These extremely wealthy individuals could buy the most costly furniture available, and a good portion of that was in fact veneered. I’ve seen large numbers of veneered antique high end furniture items and it is almost inevitable that they look the worst for the wear, especially as compared to solid wood furnishings in the same room. It’s so common to see bubbled and cracked veneer, water stain damage propagating from a little dent to a wider area, and similar insults. The intricate marquetry on most older pieces is often so faded and hard to see, both from exposure to the sun, deterioration of the finish, and wear and tear. If this is how furniture in the finest homes ends up, then what of furniture which may not have received a dusting from the maid on a regular basis?

So, in my view the environmental/sustainable/green argument for veneer is largely, if not completely, false.

As I see it, veneer means taking the best part of the tree, which would have yielded the finest and clearest lumber, and instead slicing that trunk up into thin sheets in a huge factory, where craftsmen are likely to be a bit thin on the ground, so those sheets can be glued onto a plywood substrate (either at the factory or later in a workshop) and, later, spread out for veritable acres and acres of interior ‘square footage’. This month the new fashion boutique on the street wants an all-Rosewood (veneer) paneled interior. In 8 or 10 years, if they are still in business, they’ll decide to ‘freshen up’ that interior and out with the veneered ply and in with, oh, arabesque wallpaper. And repeat, and repeat across the nation, and you get a clear sense of what we’re doing with a precious resource – chewing trees up by the millions of acres, spitting them out applying them like wallpaper, subject to the whims of fickle interior designer tastes, all for a 10 year detour until they arrive at the landfill.

A drive around town in these parts of the country to see what sort of furniture people put out by the curbside with a tag saying ‘free’ conspicuously displayed, are invariably veneered mass-produced pieces. Veneered furniture, despite the example trotted out of the ancient Egyptian chairs, and so forth (which did, after all did spend their entire existence in a hermetically sealed crypt in the desert, away from sun and fresh air) doesn’t last, and looks poor after a few years of normal wear and tear, as, in most people’s lives, little mishaps do occur. Sometimes the vacuum cleaner bumps into that table leg and cracks the veneer. Sometimes a drink gets spilled on the top and the minor bit of surface damage less some moisture past and things get rapidly worse. And since the piece was cheap to buy in the first place people don’t value it or care to keep it once it shows some shabbiness. Back to Furniture Barn for another set of crappy pieces, no payments for 90 days, and free delivery.

I have more to offer in criticism and observation in regards to veneer, and I’ll be delving into that for my next post, where I’ll look more specifically at what are cited as some of the ‘finest’ pieces of veneered furniture ever produced.

8 Replies to “Skin Deep (II)”

  1. Chris

    Very thought-provoking! As far as the price differential between 4/4 cherry and cherry veneer cited, no account was taken of substrate costs, glue, time in the press, labour costs veneering and colour-matching veneer with solid wood, etc. The price differential between saw-logs and veneer-logs has led to log-rustling in southern Michigan, where a farmer can be robbed of tens of thousands of dollars of walnut trees in a single night. Very depressing.

  2. Tom,

    you're right, there was no account taken of those other costs in the article. Again, I am trying to deal with the author's points in support of veneer and that matter is actually something I had overlooked a bit. It would be interesting to see a price comparison of, say, the solid bubinga shelf for the bookcase with the bubinga veneered shelf of the same dimensions. Factoring all the costs and labor time, I wonder how much the cost difference would narrow over the numbers cited in the article?

    Thanks for your comment!


    nice to hear from you, and I appreciate your support. I imagine I might be annoying a few readers with this particular topic, so it's good to hear a cheer once in a while.


  3. Hi Chris,

    I just discovered your blog and I want to give you a sincere thank you for sharing the info on your insightful blog.


  4. Very thought-provoking, Chris.
    And what about the respective ecological costs?
    Here in Europe the substrate is more likely to be chipboard or MDF, a plywood substrate is a quite unnecessary luxury. But at least plywood has some semblance to solid wood !

  5. Hi Rob,

    thanks for your comment.

    'Respective ecological costs' – – comparing what to what?

    Yes, at least plywood has some semblance to solid wood, but it must be said as well that most of what makes it strong and tough is the glue, which often contains rather unpleasant chemicals, like formaldehyde.


  6. Chris,

    I've been thinking a lot about veneer lately (wonder why?) and I must say there is a certain beauty to the faded, buckled veneer of an antique, a testament to a past glory, an example of the Japanese concept of 'sabi'. That said; its certainly more work, more fragile and, if marquetry or parquetry are involved, even more expensive than solid wood.


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