Solid oak vs veneers? Your questions answered...

Solid oak vs veneers? Your questions answered...

Oak is generally considered to be the most popular choice of wood for furniture here in the UK, and with good reason. It looks great, it’s often associated with a good quality end product and it never seems to go out of fashion.

However, with such an abundance of choice out there, both in traditional furniture retail stores and online, how do you choose the best option for you and your home? Here we answer some of the most frequently asked questions around buying new oak furniture and in turn provide some tips and advice worth considering, as you start your search.

Q. Firstly, why is oak such a popular choice?

A. Oak is a hardwood, as opposed to woods such as pine, which are softwoods. Hardwoods are particularly ideal for use in furniture as the makeup of this wood is more robust and durable. Oak is also a wood that is in plentiful supply, meaning that it’s cheaper than other hardwoods, such as walnut or mahogany.

Q. Should I avoid veneered oak furniture?

A. The first thing to clear up is that veneer isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’ll often see and hear oak furniture being promoted with the selling point that it hasn’t got any veneers. Whilst pieces without veneers will often be good quality, it isn’t as black and white as ‘veneers are bad, no veneers are good’.

Q. What is a veneer?

A. Veneering is not a new technique – it’s been a standard practice since Egyptian times and continues to be used today because it has both practical and aesthetic benefits.

A veneer is a thin, decorative slice of wood that is placed on to the solid base / frame of the piece. This base / frame could be solid wood – in this case oak – or it could be a lower grade material, such as MDF.

Q. So, ‘solid wood furniture’ can still have veneers?

A. Correct.

Q. Why are veneers sometimes used?

A. One of the key reasons is stability – which is ironic when considering that “no veneers” is often used as a strapline to suggest that veneers aren’t a hallmark of quality.

Wood is of course a natural entity and can be prone to warping, cracking or splitting, when exposed to varying degrees of temperature, sunlight and / or moisture in the air. The aforementioned factors can vary within any home environment and veneering can protect against this.

As well as providing a protective layer, veneers are also generally more sustainable, as they often use less wood than a similar piece of furniture made from solid wood.

Q. If I buy oak furniture (with no veneers) will I need to protect it in future?

A. Approximately half of the weight of wood is water and it’s this water content that can leave wood susceptible to movement. Don’t worry, your new dining table isn’t going to gradually start shifting across the room, but solid oak furniture can suffer from fractional movements within the wood which can result in issues such as warping or cracking etc.

To alleviate any concerns you might have after reading this, any reputable furniture maker / retailer will have sourced wood that has been thoroughly kiln dried, which much reduces the risk of movement, and would have also applied some form of seal – usually a wax or oil – during the production process.

However, heat, moisture and sunlight within your home can still leave your furniture prone to movement over time and so periodical treatment with an oil or wax will often be recommended.

Q. Do I need to care for veneered furniture?

A. Veneered furniture requires little or no maintenance, as it is far less prone to movement as a consequence of environmental factors within your home. However, this certainly shouldn’t dissuade you from furniture without veneers, as these pieces often have such a distinctive natural appeal that it’s worth the effort of periodical care.

Q. Is it essential to care for oak furniture that doesn’t have veneers?

A. The answer to this really depends upon a combination of environmental factors within your particular home and how long you want your furniture to remain in pristine condition for. Generally speaking though, some degree of care will usually be recommended.

Research any product you’re buying carefully and always seek the advice of the retailer if you’re unsure. Good quality oak furniture should last for a long time – potentially decades – and therefore, before you buy, ensure that you’re fully aware of how much you need to care for it over its lifetime.

Q. How can I reduce the risk to oak furniture in my home?

A. As mentioned above, every home is different and so there’s never any guarantees. However, here are some tips for minimising the risk of wood movement or other damage:

  • Avoid exposure to direct sunlight wherever possible, especially for prolonged periods of the day. Not only can this cause movement, but it can also fade the wood.
  • Keep items away from radiators or air conditioning units.
  • Avoid placing items in rooms which have a higher than typical room temperature for sustained periods of time, such as conservatories.
  • Try to leave at least a 2cm gap between the back of any units and the walls, as this will encourage airflow and a constant temperature all around the unit.
  • Strategically position items to try to avoid damage. This isn’t always easy if it’s a hallway console table, for example, which will be brushed past several times a day. However, it is worth thinking about the best positioning of sideboards and the like, to ensure they’re not unnecessarily in the way and therefore at risk of getting knocked.

    Q. So, which is best – solid oak or veneer?

    A. As you’ve probably already gathered from the above, the question is simplistic and so can’t definitively be answered either way. 

    Generally speaking, you shouldn’t use this element alone to determine the quality or otherwise of the furniture that you’re looking to buy. Some very high quality and extremely expensive designer oak furniture pieces use veneers and, by comparison, some low end, cheaper pieces can be made from 100% solid wood.

    How the item is made, how well any veneer is applied and the grade of the oak used are ultimately what determines the quality of the end product.

    Q. If I can’t determine the quality just from whether it’s veneered or not, how do I judge?

    A. The way the product is made plays a vital part. If it’s handmade by a craftsman then this is usually a good sign, although of course handmade usually comes at a premium price and therefore isn’t something a majority of consumers would consider.

    If the furniture is factory / machine produced then of course you aren’t privy to the quality or otherwise of this process and equally the grade of oak used is also something that most buyers won’t be aware of.

    Therefore, ultimately, it’s worth considering these tips when evaluating the quality of any oak furniture you’re looking to buy:

    • Look for hallmarks of quality in terms of how the product has been made. If the item you’re considering has drawers, do these drawers have dovetail joints? This is often a sign of a well made piece - dovetail joints cost more to produce but will almost always stand the test of time better than drawer inners which aren’t interlocked with the front panel of the drawer. Even if the items you’re considering don’t have drawers, look at items within the range that do. If they have dovetail joints then a similar investment in the quality of production has probably been made across the range.
    • Additionally, look at things such as the back panels of units. Are these still a solid panel? Often, cheaper products will use solid wood on the outward-facing panels and will then use a flimsy panel on the back of the unit, facing the wall. Also, are the drawer inners solid wood, or a cheaper material? 
    • If you’re buying from a shop, looking at how well showroom pieces are faring can give you an indication of the likely longevity within your own home. For example, the top drawers on units have probably been opened several hundred times – is everything still looking pristine and intact? If the product is veneered, is this veneer coming away at the edges at all? A careful inspection can often give away signs of poor workmanship.
    • If you’re buying online then of course reviews can play a big part in evaluating previous customers’ levels of satisfaction. Also, carefully read the product descriptions and, if anything within these descriptions is ambiguous or indeed something isn’t covered, don’t hesitate to contact the online retailer and ask. Additionally, ensure that you are clear on their returns policy before ordering – if you haven’t had the opportunity to physically see the item before buying, it’s important to know where you stand should you change your mind upon receiving your goods.
    • The price will often give a good indication of the quality. If an item or range that you’re looking at is noticeably cheaper than others, either from that retailer or elsewhere, then there’s often a reason for that. Whilst not always true, it’s often the case that ‘you get what you pay for’.
    Modern oak dining table

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