Recently, a customer asked me about a teak credenza in the shop. It went something like this:
CUSTOMER: “Beautiful piece! It’s solid teak, right?”
ME: “Nope, it’s veneer, with solid teak handles and a few solid teak parts.”
CUSTOMER: “Oh! Really?”
ME: “Yes. 90% of Danish teak furniture is veneer.”
CUSTOMER: “Oh”. (sad face)
What I should have said then was “Turn that frown upside down, lovely customer! No need to be sad about veneer!” – but unfortunately, I was low on my daily dose of caffeine and somewhat high on varnish fumes and the ol’ brain just wasn’t working that fast. So now, with ample caffeine and no varnish fumes to be found, I am writing a blog post about everything you wanted to know about teak veneer furniture but was afraid to ask.
Let’s start with a basic truth: *MOST* Danish teak furniture is a veneer over other hardwood/plywood/particle board – and by “most” I mean 90% of mid century pieces. And by pieces, I mean those with large surfaces – tables, credenzas, etc. (chairs are always solid wood because the pieces used to make them are small). Indeed, there were a few large solid pieces produced by designers like Peter Hvidt and Finn Juhl, but the vast majority of designers (including those considered “high end”) used teak veneers. Why oh why did they do that?
Well – a number of reasons. In the 1950s, particle board was new and innovative. It presented a versatility to furniture manufacturers not previously available – now they could avoid issues often seen with solid wood, like warping and separation. Particle board stayed flat, and and it wouldn’t crack like solid wood potentially could. From a design perspective, beautiful patterns could now be created with book-matched veneers, a look which has become synonymous with mid century Danish furniture. Was it less expensive? Sure it was. But it was used because manufacturers and designers rightfully believed it was superior, or at least as good as, solid wood.
Having said all that, there are many more solid wood pieces to be found from North American manufacturers of the era. Solid maple, cherry, and oak can be found in Canadian and American designs, and I can tell you from experience that most times, there are cracks and separations to be filled. However, the bonus is that they can be sanded until the cows come home, without the danger of exposing plywood/particle board, as with veneer (although mid century veneers are much thicker than modern ones).
So how do you know which pieces are solid wood, and which ones are veneer? The good news is that it’s usually pretty easy to tell! Solid pieces will have a continuous grain right over the edges; meaning the grain you see on the surface, curves and continues over the edge of the piece. If the piece is a table, look underneath to see if the grain matches the grain on the top – if it is an exact match, it’s solid – but use caution: many Danish manufacturers veneered both the top and underside of a table, so it can be tricky to tell the difference. You can also look at the edges of the table – if they are finished with strips or pieces of solid teak, then the main surface area is almost definitely veneer. Manufacturers used solid teak at the edges of a table to hide the end of the veneer and the substrate on which it was glued – so this is almost always a tell-tale sign. And of course, if there is a mirrored, book-matched pattern of grain across a large surface, it can only be created with veneer; pieces lacking this mirrored look are quite possibly solid wood, which uses separate pieces of wood pressed together side by side, thus creating a non-repeating grain.
Be aware that many, many times I have seen teak furniture described as “solid teak” on Craigslist and other resale sites, and I can tell from one glance that it is veneer. I believe the seller is not intentionally misleading anyone, but has been lead to believe that all pieces from the era are “solid wood” – this is a common and typically innocent misconception, which highlights the importance of knowing what you’re looking at before handing over your cash.
The bottom line is that when it comes to veneer or solid wood, one is not better than the other; both have advantages and disadvantages. In my humble opinion, the most important aspect to consider when purchasing a piece is, does it speak to you? Is it aesthetically pleasing? Will it work with your other furniture? And of course, from a technical perspective, it’s good to confirm that the piece is in excellent working order as well as structurally sound. Solid or veneer, a mid century furniture piece is a great investment, and will bring you enjoyment for many years to come.
A pictorial review of what we’ve learned: