Wood’s beauty has long been appreciated for both architectural ceiling and wall panel assemblies.
Significant changes during the past decade have led to new fabrication techniques and products complementing traditional millwork. These new materials extend the range of applications in which wood can satisfy the changing aesthetic and functional requirements of contemporary architecture.
This article examines these new developments with regard to veneers, panel cores, and environmental considerations.
In selecting the ideal veneer for a project, there are many considerations the design professional should take into account.
Wood species go in and out of demand in response to changing architectural tastes, supply, and social factors such as market access and environmental concerns. Use of teak, for example, declined as old-growth stocks were depleted while plantation-grown eucalyptus has risen in popularity. North American hardwoods (e.g. oak, maple, birch, and cherry) and softwoods (e.g. pine and Douglas fir) are readily available and remain perennial favorites. Yet, designers now have unprecedented access to wood from around the world, from anigre to zebrawood.
While several dozen species account for the bulk of architectural veneer, an estimated 600 commercially harvested species present a plethora of color and figure. It is important to keep in mind, however, some species vary widely in color and figure, both within a log and from log-to-log, making it challenging to find enough sufficiently compatible veneer for a large project.
There is also growing interest in veneers that are neither hardwood nor softwood. For example, bamboo (a grass) and palm (an herbaceous monocot) have unique fibrous structures and lack annual growth rings, resulting in grains and appearances markedly different from that of true woods.
When veneer options were limited, many local and regional distributors could keep the most commonly specified species in inventory. However, diversity and an international supply chain make it advisable to discuss cost and availability with panel manufacturers before specifying an exotic specie, especially if it is to be certified as originating in a sustainably-managed forest (as discussed later in the article).
Complementing these options, wood can be modified to create veneers with special properties. Some processes are long-established—walnut, for example, must be cooked to obtain a desirable coloration. Other techniques are more recent in origin.
Reconstituted wood converts fast-growing varieties to simulate the appearance of expensive or exotic hardwoods or to create looks unavailable in nature. Wood is converted into pulp, dyes introduced, the mix blended, and then pressed into ‘logs’ that, after curing, are sliced into veneer. The carefully controlled process of compiling logs results in veneer with more consistent color and grain than natural veneer. It also has a higher use factor since less veneer has to be trimmed to remove flaws.