One of the most common questions I get asked on the sales floor of my shop or via internet selling channels is "Is it solid wood?" Usually this is in reference to a dining table or perhaps a sideboard or chest of drawers, and usually the answer is "no, it's a veneer". Evidently, this is usually the WRONG answer, resulting in a downcast look from the in-person customer and a dropping off the face of the earth from the virtual customer.
Just last week, a woman living in NYC emailed to inquire about a specific dining table. After a few emails back and forth, the inevitable question popped up: "Is it solid wood"? I replied "no, it's a veneer". She wrote back "well, we like the look of the table a lot but we're really only looking for tables that are solid wood".
Since she had provided me with her phone number, I decided to call her and probe a little bit and see what her her desire for a solid wood table was based on. As I suspected, it turned out that she was under the impression that solid wood tables were somehow "better quality" then their veneered counterparts, and that most pieces made by major Danish designers such as Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl were made from solid wood.
I told her that yes, there is ONE Finn Juhl dining table that I know of that's made from solid teak - however, practically every other mid century dining table that I can think of, even those by big name designers including Juhl and Hans Wegner, are veneered (the glaring exception to this being some 1950s American modern furniture, such as that produced by Heywood Wakefield and designed by Paul McCobb and Russell Wright - but these pieces, although solid wood, were produced from lower cost woods such as maple and birch).
I went on to explain that while solid wood is all very nice in theory, in practice, it really doesn't make that much of a difference when compared to a quality piece of veneered furniture. In fact, if they aren't cared for properly, solid wood tables and case pieces can actually present a problem, in that solid wood is MUCH more prone to warping and cracking than veneered wood. Other than that, the only other real advantage I can think of to solid wood is aesthetic (which, even then, is in the eye of the beholder), and the fact that solid wood pieces are a bit easier to bring back from severe damage than veneered pieces are, since you don't have to worry about sanding through the veneer. However, the process for dealing with severe damage such as a cigarette burn or a deep gouge is exactly the same with a solid wood piece and a veneered piece - you still have to fill the void and color match the fill to the rest of the finish.
So, when dealing with mid century modern furniture, the issue of solid wood vs. veneer is almost a non-issue. Solid wood simply doesn't offer that many advantages, and pieces that are solid wood are not particularly worth more than those of similar quality that are veneered. As I said above, it pretty much boils down to an aesthetic/taste issue more than anything else. By the same token, some people may like teak wood better than walnut, but one is not inherently better or worse than the other.
Having said that, being able to distinguish solid wood furniture from veneered furniture IS a useful skill when looking for vintage furniture for your home, and there are a few simple ways to distinguish between the two (keep in mind that when someone selling a piece of furniture, especially on a venue such as craigslist or eBay, claims that a piece of furniture is solid wood, there's a very good chance that it isn't).
The first (this applies mainly to tables) is the presence of edge banding, as you can see on the detail of a Hans Wegner dining table below:
Edge banding simply serves to cover up the unfinished edge of the piece of veneered wood that comprises the main tabletop. Edge banding can range from as thin as 1/8" up to over 1" in thickness. Thicker edge banding on a table is a definite sign of quality. Even if you didn't know that the table above was designed by Hans Wegner, the fact that it's banded in a 3/4" piece of solid teak would give you a clue to its quality. If a piece of furniture has a bullnose edge like the one on this table, but you can't find any evidence of edge banding, the piece is probably solid wood.
Another very easy way to tell solid wood (once again, mainly for tables) is to look at the underside of the piece - does it look like the same piece of wood as the table top? If not, then it's probably veneered! Veneered tops will usually have a nicer wood on top (such as teak, walnut or rosewood) and a less expensive/less attractive veneer on the bottom.
The third and final way is to look at the edge of the piece of wood and see if the graining on the top carries through on the edge - the way marbling does in a good piece of steak. If this is not the case, you are looking at a veneered piece. Below, you can see the detail of the edge of a solid teak coffee table designed by Finn Juhl to get a visual on what I'm talking about:
While a solid wood piece is not necessarily better or more valuable than a veneered piece of comparable quality, the presence of solid wood in a piece does give you an idea of the quality, even if you don't know anything else about the piece. The fact that a piece is solid wood might also potentially give you a clue that the piece is handmade, or at least custom made, since so few factory made pieces of mid century furniture (apart from the major exceptions, as noted above) were made of solid wood. So, while the presence of solid wood is definitely a tool that you can use to determine the quality of a piece of furniture, it should not be the sole determinant in your search, unless you have very deep pockets and a considerable amount of time on your hands. Likewise, if you unexpectedly find yourself with a piece of solid wood furniture, think of it as a bonus, and a nice selling point if you ever want or need to re-sell the piece!