What is a veneer?
A veneer is a thin piece of wood glued down to another, usually less expensive, piece of wood. Because hardwood is more costly and sometimes less readily available, many pieces, both old and new, are made using veneers. What's more, I'm convinced that the quality of veneered furniture has deteriorated as, in my experience, vintage and antique furniture made with veneers seem much more durable than comparable modern furniture. For example, I have a Crate and Barrel table that is made with "hardwood and veneers" that can't even be sanded down to the fork marks my kids have left so that I can refinish it!
Years ago veneers were used to bring more variation and pattern to furniture by cutting the veneer from a more decorative part of the tree or on an angle. That's the case with the pictured buffet but after years of use the veneer is bubbling, cracking and pulling away from the "base" wood.
How to tell if you're working with a veneer:
"It isn't always obvious what's veneered and what's not. Sometimes the veneer is visible at the edge of the wood surface, a thin layer glued over the base wood. If you can't see a joint at the edge, look at an unfinished area under the piece of furniture. If the unfinished wood looks the same as the finished surface, the piece of furniture is probably solid wood. If there's a considerable difference, it's probably veneered."
Veneers are not necessarily a bad thing, but I still try to avoid them because the possibility for damage is much higher than with a solid hardwood piece, especially if the veneer is bubbling, as this is sometimes impossible to fix.
If you find something for a great price or with a shape you love and just can't pass up, keep in mind you'll be doing a lot of filling, gluing, clamping and nailing. Even with all these things, though, you'll still likely succeed in merely masking the veneer problems, not fixing them.
If you have any questions on this post or have any suggestions for furniture-related posts you'd like me to go over, please feel free to leave a comment and I'll do my best to cover it in the weeks to come. If this post was boring and uneducational, go ahead and leave a comment about that too (although I reserve the right to block meanies!) :)