What's the difference between rotary-cut and bookmatched plywood veneer?

Q:

I visited a specialty hardwood dealer to buy some oak plywood, and he asked me whether I wanted rotary-cut or bookmatched face veneer. What’s the difference?
—George Keller, Fort Wayne, Ind.

A:

You’re fortunate to have such a well-stocked lumber supplier, George. Many dealers choose only one type of face veneer per plywood thickness.

The differences between the veneers come down to appearance, which depends on how they were cut at the mill. To produce rotary-cut veneer, the mill mounts a log between centers—imagine a massive lathe—and spins it against a long knife that slowly advances. Veneer peels off in a con­tinuous sheet, like unrolling a giant roll of paper towels. Rotary cutting is economical because there’s little waste, but it produces whirling grain patterns that sometimes appear exaggerated and unnatural.

A more labor-intensive method slices individual sheets of veneer, then joins them side-by-side. Arranging each pair of successive slices like identical pages of a book to create a mirror image effect is called bookmatching. Slicing sheets from a different angle on the log produces quarter-sawn veneer. Either way, each veneer slice has the natural appearance of a cut board. Compared to the dramatic grain pattern of rotary-cut veneer, bookmatched and quarter-sawn veneers look more natural and formal. Because of the extra labor involved,  bookmatched veneer plywood may cost more than rotary-cut. For example, one supplier we contacted quoted roughly the same price for both varieties of oak plywood but a difference of 50 cents to $1 per square foot higher for bookmatched maple over plywood with rotary-cut maple veneer.

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