Hospitality casegoods vary greatly in terms of design, style, and function. But most share a few common construction elements, not the least of which is the “panel.” Although they vary in size and shape and function, the key component of a typical case good―from tops and sides, backs and bottoms, to doors and drawers―is that they are all made from panels.
Panels are constructed from a variety of materials, but can generally be described by a combination of faces, cores, and edges. Materials are selected using a number of different criteria, but the final selections are usually based on aesthetics, function, and price.
Faces determine the general look of the case good. The faces are where we see the species, grain, and figure of the wood. The faces are where we see color and sheen, accenting and highlighting the natural beauty of the wood. The most common face materials are real wood veneer, high pressure laminates, and melamine.
Veneer is nothing more than very thin slices of wood. The manner in which it is sliced from a log determines the appearance of each slice, as well as the yield and price of the material.
After being cut from the log, the individual slices or sheets are typically re-stacked in the same order, resulting in a log-shaped bundle of sheets called a flitch.
There are many types of veneer, but the most common types are:
- Rotary cut
This is an extremely efficient method of reducing a solid wood log into sheets of veneer. The process resembles unrolling paper towels, with the thin veneer coming off the log in a continuous sheet.
Rotary-cut veneers are generally considered the least desirable and are most often used in the production of plywood cores.
- Flat cut
Flat cutting or plain slicing is also an efficient method, as the log is sliced from top to bottom in one simple setup. This is probably the most recognized method of veneer slicing, as the resulting sheets in a given flitch are representative of the solid wood boards one would expect if sawing the same log into solid wood lumber.
Plain slicing yields veneers with the familiar cathedrals found in flat cut lumber, the straight grains of quarter sawn lumber, to the perfect linear stripes of rift sawn lumber. Regardless of the method used to slice the veneer, the individual sheets are joined together to make faces in a process called splicing. These faces can be assembled to resemble a solid wood panel, or they can be arranged into an infinite number of patterns and styles, each one as unique as the wood itself.
Real wood veneers retain the same appearance and many of the same physical properties as the solid wood from which it was cut. They can be finished to perfectly match the solid wood, making the use of veneer panels a beautiful yet cost-effective alternative to traditional solid wood construction.
High-pressure laminate, or HPL, is a synthetic alternative to a natural product such as veneer. HPL has several advantages over natural products including durability, repeatability, availability, versatility, and cost. These products have been in use for decades, providing years of service with little or no maintenance required. With thousands of patterns, colors, and textures from scores of manufacturers, the options seem limitless.
As with HPL, melamine products offer some advantages over natural products. Melamine papers or “foils” are available in countless colors and patterns, with modern versions offering very lifelike grains and textures. While they offer many of the same advantages as HPL, they are not considered as durable as comparable HPLs. But all else being equal, melamine products are the most cost-effective face materials suitable for use in the hospitality industry.
Whether it’s a real wood veneer face, a high-pressure laminate, or melamine product, the decorative face must be bonded to a substrate to produce a panel with the desired thickness and structural properties. These substrates are referred to as “cores,” with several options commercially available to the trade.
Cores vary in terms of construction, materials, strength, stability, and cost. Commonly used cores include:
Solid wood panels are the choice of high-end traditional cabinet makers and case good manufacturers. They are strong and stable and hold fasteners well, but are generally too expensive for hospitality furnishing.
Made from sheets of veneer bonded together with alternating grain patterns, plywood is pressed into rigid boards under heat and pressure. The result is an extremely strong and time-tested material. Plywood accepts HPL and real wood veneer faces well, but the variable nature of the individual layers, or plys, makes it an unsuitable choice for the thinner melamine foils.
Also known in the trade as “chip core,” particle board is made from small pieces of natural wood bonded together to form a perfectly flat, homogenous, and dense substrate. Because particle board lacks any longitudinal grain structure, it generally requires structural support in the form of solid wood frames or edges, especially when used on horizontal surfaces. But what it lacks in structural rigidity it makes up for in surface perfection, often considered the best substrate commercially available for any laminate, natural, or synthetic.
Particle board is also known to hold fasteners well, and remains a cost effective alternative to plywood and solids.
Medium density fiberboard has become one of the most important substrates in modern furniture manufacturing. It’s a perfectly suitable core for most wood veneer applications, both in terms of surface quality and bonding ability. It’s widely available and usually the least expensive option when selecting a substrate.
MDF machines very well, but lacks the strength and fastening properties of other core materials. But when used properly it can provide years of service in hospitality furnishings.
Once the faces and cores have been selected, the panels must be assembled into components suitable for furniture construction. Panel construction is typically described by the faces, the core, the number of layers or plys, as well as the type of edge treatment the finished panel will receive.
3-ply wood veneer panels are most often used when no solid edge treatment is specified. These panels are generally joined and secured to a case good in a groove or recess joint, so the edges are not visible and require no further attention.
If the edges of a 3-ply panel are exposed, an edge treatment must be applied to conceal the core. There are many options for edge treatments, but they are usually thin wood or composite “edge bands,” which are applied to the edges as tape. Alternatively, metal, PVC, or solid wood strips can be applied if a more substantial or decorative edge is required.
5-ply wood veneer panels are necessary when edges, especially those with solid wood profiles, frame the panels. These panels are very often found on doors and drawers and tops, as the solid wood edges provide additional strength, and allow for decorative profiles to be machined into the substrates.
In a 5-ply configuration, the faces and the backs are both made with two layers, the exposed outer layer and a cross band. The cross band is positioned on each side of the core to act as an insulating layer, effectively conceding the solid wood joints. Without this extra layer the glued joints “telegraph” through to the exposed face, leaving unsightly lines in the finished piece.
Solid wood panels
In some cases, the solid wood used to form the core has been selected to match the case itself. For example, a wardrobe door could be made from walnut solids, finished to match the rest of the case. But in many cases, a solid wood core might be made using a less expensive secondary wood, using a walnut veneer over the solid core to save significant material cost.
When using melamine or HPL, similar panel construction techniques are employed. All can be characterized as 3-ply, as the 5-ply cross bands are unnecessary when using the manmade face materials.
Material selection and panel construction greatly affect the cost of a case good. When specifying one option over the other, these factors should be considered as each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Understanding the intended use of each piece and writing specifications accordingly will result is a case good that will provide years of service at a price that fits the budget.
By J. D. Tyler
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: J.D. Tyler is the Vice-President of Marketing at VendorsDepot.com, a new online shopping platform geared specifically toward the hospitality industry. Vendors Depot connects manufacturers and wholesalers with buyers and procurement professionals in the hospitality, multi-family, and assisted living industries.