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Story of Veneer and Plywood

Sources of veneer from a tree
Veneer Cutting Methods
Veneer Matching Methods
Veneer Figures
Tree Trivia
The Story of Veneer & Plywood - From the Pharoahs to the Present

To begin the story of hardwood plywood and veneer, we must turn back the pages of history to the period when pharaohs ruled Egypt. The concept of veneer, be it wood, ivory, marble or whatever, originated in centuries long past (witness the artifacts of King Tut’s tomb) but the only means of conversion was some saw-like abrasive edged tool which could “wear” a kerf through the solid block by tedious hand work and thus separate a relatively thin layer of the material which then had to be “worn down” to a somewhat smooth and uniform condition. With the advent of the hand saw, per se, the operation became somewhat easier and more accurate. Then came more refined saws and finally power, all of which resulted in the possibility of the Veneer Saw. This was a large circular saw blade which eventually was refined to saw veneer 1/20” thick and with loss of only 1/20” saw kerf. The saw endured until after World War II but only for thicker veneer, quarter-sawn Oak and Aromatic Cedar which were usually not sliced until that time.

The “veneer knife”, i.e. production lathe and slicer, came along only in the nineteenth century and reached a point of some sophistication again after World War II. Even so, the basic principle of the cut (knife, bar, and pressure) is little changed form the beginning. It should be said that all references we are making here, relate to wood veneer. Of course, harder material must still be abrasively cut if indeed the requirement exists.During that era, nearly 4,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians of the Nile Valley used remarkably durable cedarwood to build houses, palaces, temples, and fleets. With wooden rollers, they moved the enormous stones needed to build the pyramids of their pharaohs. Around 1500 B.C., this early civilization found yet another use for wood - veneering.

Veneering involves gluing one veneer (a thin sheet or layer of wood) to another or to some other underlying material. Today, a more complex form of veneering creates plywood - the assembly of three or more layers of wood with grain alternating at 90 degrees. The veneers are cross-layered and joined together by an adhesive.

Adhesion of the veneer (the glue line) was always a problem until evolvement the hotplate press, and of the resin, phenolic and sophisticated adhesives, creating a “revolution” in the 1930’s and forward. For example, this made possible the waterproof lamination of 11 ply, one inch thick Mahogany panels 6’ wide by 36’ long used for PT Boat hulls in World War II as well as think skins (sometimes made up of veneers only 1/85” thick) for glider construction.

One of the earliest records of veneering is a pictorial mural unearthed by archaeologists in Egypt. Early Egyptians also built furniture with plywood. Egyptian mummies were entombed in cases constructed of plywood and veneer. Some two thousand years ago, Cleopatra presented Julius Caesar with a veneered table richly decorated with inlays. The Chinese, Greeks, and Romans were also early users of veneer and plywood.

During the 17th century, the art of veneering became more refined with the development of better tools. During the 18th century, the famous English designer Thomas Chippendale and other cabinet makers used veneers to produce their lavish pieces. Thomas Sheraton, and other craftsmen of his day, used many rich hardwood veneers, such as cherry, mahogany, maple, and walnut, to embellish their work.

In 1830, the piano industry became the first North American industry to use plywood. A decade later, an American named John Dresser was awarded a patent for a veneer cutting lathe. This machine laid the foundation for the development of the modern high speed lathe and the plywood industry as it is known today.

By the late 1890’s, as a result of mechanization, plywood became increasingly affordable. Plywood was then, and is still today, commonly found in household items such as wall paneling, sewing machine cabinets, chairs, chests, organs, desk tops, and doors.

Hardwood plywood is distinguished from softwood plywood in that the former is generally used for decorative purposes and has a face ply of wood from a deciduous or broad-leaf tree. Hardwoods include such species as cherry, birch, beech, chestnut, hickory, maple, oak, walnut, gum, and poplar. There are more than 90,000 species of hardwood in the world today. Occasionally, softwood species are also used for decorative purposes.

Softwood plywood is generally used for construction and structural purposes. Softwood plywood is assembled with woods from evergreen, or needle bearing coniferous trees, such as pine, spruce, or fir.

In the early 1900’s, the first stock panels were produced. A panel was made in a standard size which could be cut into smaller sizes if desired. These stock panels were, and are, handled by many distributors and retailers. The standard size today is 4’ X 8’ but for special uses may vary in length from 6' to 12'.

With scientific advancements of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the quality and availability of adhesives improved. Until the 1920’s, the only adhesives available were glues of animal and plant origin - hide, bone, blood albumin, casein, and vegetable glues. The development of synthetic resin adhesives during this era was one of the most important innovations in the manufacturing of plywood.

During World War II, plywood played a very important role; it was used for the construction of airplanes, boats, barracks, and weapons. President John F. Kennedy’s famous boat, the PT 109, and the British Mosquito Bomber were made of plywood. This aircraft, known as the wooden wonder, could exceed 400 mph in level flight - a fantastic speed for a 1941 combat plane. During the peacetime years that followed, plywood and veneer continued to meet the needs of many industries. Today, it would be almost impossible to compile a complete list of hardwood plywood products. However, some common applications for hardwood plywood include chairs, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, tables, lamps, wall plaques, wall panels, chests, computer furniture, and television and stereo cabinets. It has been estimated that 80 percent of all household and office furniture contains hardwood plywood.

Some popular sporting equipment made with plywood includes snow skis, water skis, toboggans, bowling lane channels, golf club heads, skateboards, hockey sticks, and table tennis paddles.

The versatility of plywood is illustrated by its use for specialty products such as musical instruments (guitar, violin, ... ), shoe heels, die boards, airplane propeller blades, trailers, etc. The list is almost endless.

In addition, plywood can be impregnated with chemicals to develop impreg and compreg, wood-plastic combinations. These products are harder and more dense than ordinary plywood and are used for propellers, patterns, tooling jigs, durable knife handles, electrical insulators, flooring, and other items.

During the earlier to middle decades of this century (and occasionally even unto this day) the debate of “solid” vs. “veneered” furniture was universally carried on largely because of adhesive problems in veneered furniture and cabinets. After the developments in the 30’s, however, there was no basis for choice other than personal preference. In fact, much can be said in favor of the physical properties of the plywood construction and, of course, the aesthetic value of selected and matched veneers on the face defiles comparison with anything else, be it solid wood or man made materials.