Wood veneer has been used for centuries as a common substitute for solid wood. A very thin slice of a log that is glued and bonded to another material—generally solid lumber, plywood, or medium density fiberboard (MDF)—wood veneer can be used in a variety of applications, from installing decorative inlay to finishing furniture to layering a thin slice of a rare or valuable wood species onto a lesser-quality (and less-expensive) base. Though some people think that wood veneer is the mark of a cheap product and that solid wood denotes higher quality, that isn’t necessarily the case; there are distinct benefits to each material. The relative merits of one type of the other vary widely depending on whom you talk to, and it can be hard to distinguish facts from opinions. To provide some clarity to the debate and clear up any confusion, here are a few general thoughts.
If your cabinetry is likely to get bashed around and needs to withstand a fair amount of wear-and-tear (such as in a family with young children or in a tight space with enthusiastic chefs), a dense solid wood might be the right material. When solid wood is dented or chipped, it’s still the same species under the surface, and scratches and scuffs can be sanded down and refinished without changing the wood’s appearance. Even if solid wood is left unrepaired, it won’t look too bad—in fact, worn edges and dings are part of the appeal of old (or newly distressed) wood pieces. Moreover, tightly fitted solid joinery, as with frame and panel fronts or cabinet built with mortise and tenon construction, is hard to beat for durability.
Veneered faces and edges are more susceptible to damage that is difficult to repair. A chipped edge usually reveals what is perceived as a cheap substrate or underlay. Manufacturers of high-quality furniture will sometimes use a thicker-edge band of solid wood then veneer over it to improve the look and wear resistance of the edge. It’s more expensive than veneer tape, which comes in rolls and is machine-applied, but it’s worth the extra cost.
On the other hand, an advantage that veneer has over solid wood is that flat panels are far less prone to warping, and except in the most humid environments, will be more dimensionally stable. MDF panels are notorious, though, for their relatively low strength and tendency to swell if water gets at them. Some of the modern substrates, like lumber core panels with thin layers of MDF on both sides, combine the strength of solid wood with the absolute flatness that good veneer work requires. Because most veneers are only 1/32” thick, any surface irregularities will be immediately apparent.
The biggest issue, however, is perhaps aesthetics. As styles in kitchen cabinetry and furniture in general have swung from a preponderance of traditional motifs towards more contemporary themes, and with technological advances used by the best cabinetmakers, attitudes about the use of solid wood versus wood veneer have also changed. In designs using large expanses of flat surface, as with much of the currently popular modern minimalist pieces for which consistency of pattern and color are important, veneer is essential. Many slices of similar grain and color can be taken out of a single log and repeated across wide panels. Solid wood gives itself away, for better or worse, with the joints showing between each board.
A fairly recent option is reconstituted veneers. In this case, many layers of veneer with relatively bland grain are glued together under tremendous pressure, then sliced into sheets across the grain, creating a perfectly consistent straight-grain effect. It doesn’t masquerade as natural veneer, but it is real wood with the advantage of a completely predictable and repetitive pattern. Other treatments, like grain relieving on thicker sheets of reconstituted veneer, can add textural interest.
The question remains: Solid or veneer? Ultimately, it’s your specific requirements that will lead you to the best answer.