Editor’s note: This information was presented in the webcast “3 Keys to Better Veneer Utilization,” which broadcast in January. The full webcast can be heard on-demand at WoodworkingNetwork.com/webcasts.
Key factors for selecting veneer species, grades, and patterns when ordering veneers, were discussed recently by Eric Cullen, veneer specialist for Timber Products Co. Cullen also provided insight into some of the new trends and applications for ensuring wood products manufacturers get the most out of the material.
According to Cullen, the choice of the veneer species is the single most important factor for specifying panel faces. Different species can vary drastically in appearance and price. Some, such as birch and walnut, are smooth and versatile, while a species like red oak or alder have a more textured appearance and specific uses.
Lighter-colored species also are easier to dye when a uniquely colored finish is desired, or to imitate other wood patterns. Light wood, added Cullen, can be stained “any color in the rainbow,” while darker species such as red oak don’t lend themselves as well to alternate colors.
A species such as red oak, Cullen said, is also ring porous, meaning it is highly textured due to fast growth. This can create problems with finishing which are not present in smoother woods.
Veneer grading is determined not so much by the presence as by the extent of the wood’s imperfections. Nearly all veneers are subject to some minor problems, such as: pin knots, gum knots, cross bars (or deviation in the grain), bark pockets, or worm tracks.
“The main difference between an A grade veneer and a B grade veneer is just the amount of defect or character in it,” Cullen said. “A and B typically allow the same defect in character, but with fewer of them in an A, and they must be smaller.”
Face veneers are graded by letters, with AA being the highest, and A, B and C being the most common grades. Back veneers are graded by number, with #1 being the highest. The A grade veneers are most commonly used on doors because of their high visibility; B grade is typically seen in boxes for cabinets, while C grade could be used for utility boarding or have a colored finish, where its imperfections will be less visible.
Cullen is quick to remind users that despite high levels of automation, there is no machine that tells you whether a piece of wood is attractive or ugly. While individual taste varies, the veneer suppliers will use their expertise to determine whether a piece of wood for veneers looks good or bad.
“After grade, slicing or cutting method of the veneer most greatly affects the appearance,” Cullen notes.
Rotary cutting is “the least expensive and the most popular” way to cut veneer. It involves chucking the log in a lathe and applying a knife against the log in a method that looks like unrolling paper towels.
Plain slicing is more like taking a piece of lumber off of a log, he explained. It is a bit more expensive with lower yield, but produces symmetrical cathedrals running up through the grain, providing a highly sought-after appearance.
Rift cutting produces a very straight grain, while quarter slicing produces a streaked appearance that is very popular in antique reproduction furniture and is becoming more common in kitchen cabinets, Cullen added.
As a final note, rotary cutting allows the use of a whole piece of wood, while the sliced, rift, and quartered methods involve a multi-pieced face that will be spliced together by a machine.
While recent months have seen a rise in demand for walnut and other domestic hardwoods, exotic and character veneers, such as the pinkish-tan European beech, are also growing in popularity for the North American market, though not to the extent of maple’s popularity.
“It’s definitely a maple market,” Cullen added. Demand for Grade A maple is enormous, he said, comprising more than half the market for veneer.
However, maple can be difficult to work with, he added. A very hard species, it is prone to knife marks and requires careful finishing and sanding.
Also popular is reconstituted veneer, particularly for its ability to be easily dyed in a multitude of colors. “We take a rotary cut, light-colored import; we peel that veneer, dry it,” and dye it any color, Cullen explained. “We glue the veneers back together with colored glue lines, then take the piece of lumber we’ve created, and slice it back into a veneer.”
The result is a wood that can be made to look like teak or zebrawood, or something unique in non-wood colors like purple, green, or blue. “We see a lot of hotel chains using this,” Cullen said. Also, if a piece of furniture is damaged, “we can get them an identical piece of veneer” from this highly consistent production method.
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