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From the forest to your jet
There's no substitute for wood. Not faux finish, not photo-film, not plastic. Only wood brings to the aircraft cabin that special look and feel of organic elegance and old-world craftsmanship.
Some may look askance at the cabinetry in today's business jet, pointing out that "it isn't really wood." Truth is, it's probably veneer, but veneer is real wood-ultra-thin slices from a log, obtained by peeling, slicing or sawing. The best veneers are rare. They are beautiful. And they are by no means inexpensive.
A single log (about eight feet long and six feet in diameter) from which veneer is obtained may cost as much as $250,000, according to Carl Booth, founder and president of Carl F. Booth & Co.
Booth's shop in New Albany, Ind., has been providing veneers to business aviation completion and refurbishment centers since 1976. His multimillion-dollar inventory currently consists of about 750 logs, representing more than 150 tree species. In addition, his 57,000-square-foot facility contains about 7.5 million board feet of cut veneer. The cost per square foot ranges from about $25 to $250.
But the wood's story begins long before the veneers are cut and is measured not in years, but in decades and centuries. Over that time, storms, droughts, lightning strikes, wind, insects, disease, soil and altitude all affect the way the wood evolves, Booth explained. Many trees produce beautiful veneers, but some are beautiful in the extreme, thanks to the forces of nature.
Burling is an example. The result of knobby wart-like growths commonly caused by disease or damage during a tree's budding years, burling is nature's way of creating a bandage. Trees with burling are prized for the unique grain patterns and hues that appear when the log is cut into planks or sheets of veneer.
Some woods are by their nature unique. Amboyna, a fragrantly aromatic wood from Southeast Asia, is commonly referred to as "the burl with the swirl," due in part to the swirling grain patterns in colors from yellow to russet and every shade in between.
Brazilian rosewood is a popular choice for business jet interiors, not only for the patterns created by burling, but for the broad range of intense colors-from deep russet to light tan to purple and orange. (Rosewood's tonal resonance also makes it a favorite with guitar makers.) In a Gulfstream business jet, a rosewood interior requires 5,000 to 6,000 square feet of veneer and can put a $250,000 dent in the customer's bank account.
Is it worth it? Some say "no," and scoff that the Brazilian rosewood tree is not really endangered because, they say, the lumber industry lobbied the Brazilian government to have it placed on the endangered-species list to keep prices high. Nevertheless, the price has soared and loggers are reportedly digging up stumps from previous cuttings and selling the wood.
Bog oak-actually European white oak that was buried years ago in a peat bog- is becoming popular. A bog oak log acquired recently near England's Sherwood Forest measured seven feet wide and 84 inches long and estimates are that it was buried 500 or 600 years ago. Other logs have been unearthed that are believed to have been buried as long as 6,000 years ago and the partial carbonization has left distinctive gray patterns throughout the natural deep brown. Other bog woods include yew and Scots pine.
An Intricate Process
Locating the wood is just the beginning of an intricate process in which craftsmen transform a log into the cabinetry that adds such luster and luxury to the airplane cabin. Logs are often not cut into veneer until a customer places an order. Then it is a matter of selecting the right species, color and grain and considering how the finished product will match the cabin decor.
Ideally, all the veneer for an airplane will come from the same log, ensuring a consistency of color and pattern. An experienced veneer maker can sometimes make an entire cabinet wall from multiple lengths of veneer, carefully cut and matched so the wall appears to have been constructed of a single sheet.
The method of creating the veneer- peeling, slicing or sawing-affects the look of the finished product by changing the pattern of the grain. It also affects cost, as some cutting methods result in greater waste.
Before cutting a log into veneer, craftsmen commonly "cook" it in steam or soak it in hot water to allow slicing without tearing or splitting the wood. As the sheets of veneer appear, they are carefully sorted and kept in order throughout the drying and storing process.
Next, the top sheet of veneer to be finished is glued to one or two additional plies, sometimes of a less-expensive wood, with a resulting thickness of about one-forty-second of an inch. When an order is placed, the veneer plywood sheets are sorted and matched according to interior cabinetry requirements and shipped to a completion or refurbishment center to be attached to cabinetry monuments and finished.
The type of finish selected, application of the finish, the cabinetry design and how it complements the overall cabin decor all affect the final appearance of woodwork. But the most important choices tend to be those made by the customer at the start of the project. Do you want the dark, warm veneer of black walnut for a men's club look, or the light, graceful swirls of tiger maple? Do you like the grain and pattern of a lighter wood like beech but prefer a darker stain?
Do you prefer the understated elegance of Burmese teak or the cream color of English pippy oak with its erratic spatters of darker burl? Whatever your taste, there is a veneer to match.