Laminate and veneer furniture can look alike and feel alike, making the differences difficult to notice. However, the two materials are different, made in different ways and out of different materials. A veneer will generally give you a better look for your furniture, while a laminate surface may have greater durability. Which works best for you depends largely on your own plans for an item's use.
Laminate furniture is not made of real wood. There are real wood products in laminates, notably particleboard, but the material is also based on paper and plastics, usually plastic layers over a particleboard core. Manufacturers print wood colors and textures on paper, cover them with plastic coating for protection, then glue the laminate layers to furniture bases.
Veneer resembles laminate and is also a thin strip applied to furniture, but it is actually made of a thin layer of real wood. The wood layer is carefully glued down onto the furniture base wood. Because veneers are typically a higher grade or quality of wood product, they can enhance the look of the furniture, giving it the color, tone and depth of an alternative type of wood product without the expense of buying furniture made only with that wood.
Durability ranges between laminates and veneers. Veneers, however, are only as strong as the wood they are made from. Hardwood veneer layers will resist scratches and dents better than softwood veneer layers. Laminates, however, are durable based on the quality of their construction and what types of plastic or particleboard are used. High-quality laminates can resist damage, but low-quality versions can scratch or puncture easily.
Laminates are not designed to be painted and may not bond well with paint. You cannot stain or varnish laminates the way you can stain or varnish real wood. Veneers, on the other hand, can be stained like real wood, although they often come pretreated. If you plan to paint furniture with a colored paint, laminates may be your best option, but get a laminate that can bond with paint, and vice versa.