Motoring

BENTLEY MOTORS: THE VENEER HUNTERS

A rare American Gum ‘liquid amber’ sourced from Mississippi finds its way into Bentley cars. Here’s how the British marque discovered its first new veneer in five years.

Thomas Billinghurst

As they traipse through the crunchy blanket of orange and brown leaves in the Mississippi wetlands, a profusion of sunlight gleams through the openings in the densely populated woodlands, illuminating their stalking ground. Suddenly, they stop. They may have spotted what they’ve come for. Their eyes narrow and their chatter dies down. These hunters — clad in chinos, Oxford collar button-downs and down-fill gilets, without a gun sight — close in on their prey. It doesn’t move. It just stands there, strong and defiant. But then, it can’t do anything else: it’s a tree.

For, it is not deer these well-attired hunter types are searching for. Nor fowl. Rather, it is a new type of wooden veneer that they seek. The excitement is palpable and almost inexplicable: this is the first natural resource they’ve found in five years which is usable. They are Bentley’s “veneer hunters”. And this worldwide search and process of sourcing a new material to be used in the luxury British cars is a prolonged and meticulous one. Axel Groh, a 40-year veneer-hunting veteran, speaking in the promo video for the newly announced wood covering, says: “Wood is my life. I’ve been searching the world for four decades [in pursuit of] the highest-quality wood.”

They are Bentley’s veneer hunters

But for the first time in half a decade, they’ve found one that fits the bill. Bentley’s new veneer, called Liquid Amber because of its perfumed scent, is sourced from the American Red Gum — or Sweet Gum — tree. It is native to the rich soil of the southeastern states of the US, and most prominent in Mississippi.

The liquid amber resin found in the middle of the Red Gum tree was chosen because it offers the most muscle and flesh through the grain, according to Bentley’s veneer hunters and design team.

It marks the British marque’s seventh exclusive veneer. The rarity of a new Bentley veneer bespeaks of the extraordinarily painstaking lengths the company goes to in order to procure the finest-quality natural resources to be used in its vehicles.

Once captured and cut down, the wood undergoes a natural smoking process, which takes several weeks, to give it a deep, rich brown lustre while maintaining the warm, red hue. The Liquid Amber veneer is then transported 4,500 miles back to the team of experts in the Bentley woodshop in Crewe, where it is examined alongside the six other carefully chosen veneers that are imported from across the globe, from Canada to China.

Bentley employs more than 4,000 people at its Pyms Lane headquarters in Crewe, Cheshire.
The fact that new veneers are an extremely rare occurrence in Bentley interiors is due to the extraordinary lengths that the brand’s team of experts go to.
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Each raw veneer is cut to a precise 0.6mm layer, and each bundle of raw veneers must pass rigorous Bentley tests for stability in UV light and consistency from tree to tree. This process takes at least 18 months. It can take a full week to review 20,000sqm of walnut material for the burr walnut veneer.

Bentley prides itself on only using the finest materials sourced from the very best species. And it insists on doing so in a sustainable and ethical way. For instance, it harvests the American Gum tree veneer just twice a year due to restricted access across the wetlands on which it grows. For similar reasons, Bentley typically rejects between 30 and 70 per cent of potential veneer material, which, according to the company’s requirements, must have high-burr density, minimal sapwood and feature no bark growth or structural defects.

“Certain species only exist in one spot on Earth,” adds Groh. “And even within those areas, some grow better than others. We are cutting down these trees selectively [in a way that] keeps these forests alive.” Bentley also announced another veneer: its stone veneer.

This innovative interior finish adds a luxurious, contemporary feel to its cars, by using a natural product that’s been forming for more than 200 million years. The slate and quartzite stone is sustainably sourced from hand-selected quarries in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh in India — a country with a long and rich culture of stone masonry.

The sections of stone are split from larger pieces and cured using glass fibre and a bespoke resin. Finally, they are shaped and finished by hand by Bentley’s world-renowned Mulliner coachbuilding team at the company’s headquarters in Crewe, England. Think of that next time you want to put your feet on the dashboard.