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Translucent Veneers
A new trend in veneered projects but there is very little information available and there are no easy answers.
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QuestionThere is a growing trend in woodworking where veneer is used to make lamp shades. I frequently receive emails requesting help choosing a translucent veneer for a customer's upcoming project. It's probably safe to assume that the light tone species such as ash, maple and poplar will allow the more light to pass through. Unfortunately, that is the most information I can provide.

There are numerous road blocks that prevent me from offering anything of value for this type of project. Here's why...

  1. My 20+ years of experience with veneer has been limited to standard furniture projects. I've never built a lamp shade from a veneer so I've never evaluated a sheet for its translucent characteristics.
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  2. Any veneer, regardless of species or grain pattern, will change moisture content with seasonal changes in ambient humidity and this will lead to buckling and warping of the veneer if it's not backed with a rigid substrate such as plywood or particle board. A lamp shade made from veneer could (and likely will) deform within one or two seasons.
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    This is why I keep our veneer warehouse climate control for humidity year-round... and at a huge expense. Otherwise, the swing in humidity from the change from cooling to heating season would cause our veneers listed as "flat" to buckle. Even if a finish is applied to both sides of an unbacked veneer, moisture changes in the wood cells will occur - though at a slower rate, and the veneer will deform in time.
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  3. Even the veneers that are sold in sequence (as it comes from the tree) can vary in thickness. This variance is small but it will surely affect how much light can pass through the veneer. The problem here is that there is no way I can examine every sheet of veneer for thickness variance.
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  4. It might seem that a paperbacked veneer will keep the veneer from buckling. That may be true for many species but the paperbacking will not allow light to come through. The veneer lamp shades found online or in a decorator's showcase are usually made with a translucent backing that requires specialized machinery for application to the raw wood veneer. I've not yet found any supplier willing to spend the money to apply a specialized backer for what little demand that exists.
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  5. Some customers have told me that their intention was to use a veneer for a lamp shade and I've asked nearly all of them to contact me after the project is complete so I could ask a few questions. So far no customer has offered any feedback. I assume it was because their project was not a success.
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  6. There is also a huge liability for me to recommend this type of use for a veneer. A lamp shade made from veneer will likely require an LED bulb but if an incandescant bulb is put in the socket by mistake, there could be a huge potential for fire.