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Wood Veneer Terminology

by John Sedgwick and others

Bees' wing Bird's-eye Bird's-eye figure Blistered Book match Branch wood Burls Burrs Butts Cross Banding Crotch Crown cut Curly Fiddle back Figure Flame Flat cut Flitch Four way match Grain figure Heartwood How is veneer made? Leaf Lustre Mottled Pecky Plywood Quarter cut Quilted Rift cut Roll cut Sapwood Slip match Spalted Stump wood Substrate Vernissage


What is veneer?
Veneer is a thin slice of a tree, which is used to decorate a lesser but more stable species by laminating the two together.
One slice of veneer.
A complete matching set of veneers stacked in the original cutting sequence.

How is Veneer Made?

Veneer is cut from the log in many ways and presents a recognizable different figure depending at what angle the tree is sliced. If you visualize the tree construction as being a roll of paper wrapping vertical straws within each turn. It can be seen that a slice through the roll at 45°, will yield a series of ovals or flakes, as the straws are cut. Cathedral like curves are formed when flat cut. This knowledge is used to establish a series of predictable grain figures. The following are these terms:

  1. The first and the most common is 'slicing'. The log is cut into a square and left to soak in 160° F water for up to 24 hours depending on the species. The log, up to 12 ft long, is then held horizontally in a vice like fixture. A razor sharp blade then vertically slices the log into veneer. With each stroke the log is indexed forward at a preset distance establishing the thickness.
  2. The second method is 'roll cutting'. This procedure is primarily used to make plywood however specific figures such as bird's eye maple and olive ash are best revealed in this manner. The log is debarked, soaked in hot water then placed in a huge slow turning lathe. A long knife edge is placed against the log face and it is trued round, then the knife begins to peel off the veneer indexing forward with each revolution. Roll cutting is also the method used to manufacture most plywood.
  3. The third and not so common is by 'sawing'. Unlike the previous methods the log is not soaked. A large band saw is used to cut the leaves. This method is most often used to cut speciality veneers where there are low production requirements. It is also the most common method used to cut very hard, delicate burls or logs filled with silica. Species such as satinwood, which owes much of its lustre to silica quickly dulls the steel knives. Other species such as ebony and lignum vitae, which are so dense that they will not float, chip unless the knife blade is very sharp.
Flat cut / Rift cut / Crown cut
Sliced along the length at 90° showing a central 'cathedral figure' in the centre and straight parallel lines on each side.
Quarter cut
The log is first cut in four quarters the full length through the centre. The veneers are now sliced along the radial face of each quarter section. The figure consists of mostly parallel lines becoming wider over the width of the leaf.

Cross Banding

    Has two meanings depending on the context.
  1. The first refers to a method of strengthening the substrate to prevent joins or solid wood grain orientation from transmitting its image to the surface veneer. For example, several solid boards joined together at their edges will eventually begin to pull apart, pulling the face veneer with it. A quarter cut veneer of lesser species, or poor quality is first glued to both sides of the substrate, the grain at 90° to the joins. The face veneer will then be unaffected by the solid wood joint expansion.
  2. The second describes a method using quarter cut veneer to create a border or edge. In the case of a table top the straight veneer grain is set at 90° to the edge forming a border. In the case of an inlayed oval or circle it will radiate around the perimeter of the design.

Figure - Fancy or Exotic

Bee's Wing or Mottled
This figure also draws its name from its comparison to a bee's wing. The figure is made up of an interlocking pattern of distorted rectangles which are slightly darker on their perimeter than at their centre. This mottled effect gives the surface an appearance of depth. It is an extremely busy figure and is usually used as a cross-banding for borders.
The most common veneer where this figure is present is sugar maple. Bird's-eye is caused by an infection which affects an annual growth ring and continues on every new ring. It is likened to a skin disorder. A mature tree may be infected early or late in its life and as such the figure is best revealed by roll cutting the log until the figure disappears. Once this was a rare occurrence, now demand has resulted in intervention to infect the tree, usually sugar maple but often oak and cherry.
Burls (Burrs)
Burls are those growths usually seen on the sides of a tree trunk which they are for want of a better comparison a tree tumour. The grain although exhibiting the basic characteristics of the tree has been scrambled into a blistered bird's-eye figure. This burl figure will also vary in colour being several shades darker than the uninfected part of the tree. Burls are usually flat sliced or sawn and depending on the species can be as large as 4 feet by 8 feet.
Curly or Fiddle back
This figure takes its name from its most popular use, which uses sycamore or European maple with this figure for the backs of fiddles (violins). This figure looks three dimensional and will present washboard like ripples at 90° to the grain line. It is usually believed that a tree which buttresses itself against north winds will have compressed annular growth rings in the area facing north and expanded rings facing south. The stress in the compressed rings is believed to cause the fiddle back figure.
Flame, Crotch or Branch wood
As the name implies this figure is revealed by slicing through the face of the branch, the figure when cut is referred to as flame (i.e.: flame mahogany or flame walnut).
Many woods are more fibrous than others and will reflect light differently when viewed from different directions. This has the effect of changing the appearance of the surface making it appear darker or lighter. Veneers which have a very high lustre are usually those which have a fine, tight, fibrous grain, and will exhibit a superior figure. The term lustre typically would apply to bee's wing satinwood or flame mahogany.
This is a strange figure and as the name implies it appears to have been pecked by some bird, leaving darkened marks over the surface. It is much like the bird's-eye figure and is also caused by the infection of the annular growth ring, It is then usually roll cut to reveal the figure. When one species, the Scandinavian birch exhibits this figure, it is called Karelian or Masur birch. It is a pinkish white veneer with dark brown peck marks over the entire surface. Another North American veneer which often displays this figure is pecan.
Quilted and Blistered
This has the effect of scales sometimes up to 3 inches around which connect to each other. Often only a small area of the veneer will be quilted while others will have the entire surface. Like many other figures there is no definite conclusion as to their formation however they are highly prized and can multiply the value of the conventional figure by many times. Among the most common species to exhibit this figure are maple and mahogany which is called 'pomelle' when quilting occurs.
This figure most often is available only in solid lumber and is rare as veneer. It usually seen in maple and divides the surface in trails of black lines, sometimes very fine and others much wider, and varying shades of grey. The figure is created by a fungus which grows in a fallen dead tree. It represents the first stages of decay and if allowed to continue, the wood will become rotten and unusable.
Stump wood or Butts
After the main veneer bearing lumber has been removed, the tree stump is pulled, trimmed and squared. The squared block is then flat sliced. The veneer figure displayed is a wild mixture of heart and sapwood, second only to a burl.


Four way match
Four leaves in sequence placed 1-4 on top of each other 1&2 and 3&4 are book matched. The two sets are then also book matched on their narrow sides all edges positioned like 4 squares within a square. Six, eight and ten way matches are also done in basically the same way.
Book match
Two leaves sliced in sequence placed one upon the other, the top leaf is then opened like a book and positioned next to the lower leaf and joined at their corresponding edges.
Slip match
Two leaves sliced in sequence placed one upon the other, the top leaf is slipped sideways and joined to the lower leaf at their corresponding edges.

Other terms

This is the centre, more dense area of the tree. It is usually identified as the darker, harder area of the leaf.
This is the latest growth area of the tree and in most cases is lighter in colour and softer.
Refers to the surface to which the veneer is glued to.
A private showing or preview of an art exhibition. Vernissage has its roots in the old practice of setting aside a day before an exhibition's opening for artists to varnish and put finishing touches to their paintings -- a tradition that reportedly dates to at least 1809, when it was instituted by England's Royal Academy of Arts. English speakers originally referred to this day of finishing touches simply as "varnishing day," but sometime around 1912 we also began using the French term "vernissage" (literally, "varnishing").

Updated July 2019