THE BLOG

5 Reasons to Love Plywood

10/25/2012 12:14 pm ET | Updated Dec 24, 2012
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Ever heard of Alvar Aalto? How about Gerald Summers? Ok, here's an easy one: Charles Eames. Aside from being pioneers of modern furniture, there's one thing these designers had in common: They all loved plywood so much, that they devoted a good part of their careers to cutting it, steaming it, gluing it, bending it, molding it, coaxing it -- and probably a lot of praying for it -- to get it to do just what they wanted it to do. And in the end, plywood came through for them. That's why we have such seminal pieces as Eames' LCW chair and Sori Yanagi's Butterfly Stool, as well as plenty of accessible designs, like Ikea's Poäng chair, by Noboru Nakamura. If that's not enough to warm you up to engineered wood, here are some other reasons to consider using plywood for your next DIY project or groundbreaking modern (or traditional) creation.

1. It's good lookin'.
Don't forget, plywood is real wood. The inner layers may be made with utility-grade material, but the outer veneers can be just as rich and lustrous as a plank of solid cherry. Or hickory, apple, alder, mahogany, walnut, afromosia... If you've heard of a species of wood, chances are you can find it covering a panel of plywood. You can also get plywood made entirely of bamboo (which, technically, is a grass), and it's reeeaaal perty.

Edged with hardwood trim, a plywood sheet assumes the appearance of solid wood, but modern designers prefer to show off the material's stratified edges. The even layering of dark and light wood lends a crisp, linear detail to any project and reminds us that plywood is both a natural and man-made animal.

2. It's cheap and it's big.
"Cheap" is relative, I know. And if you've recently called your local lumber supplier for a quote on a sheet of maple plywood, you might still be reeling from sticker shock. But here's why plywood is a good deal: A full 4-by-8-foot sheet of 3/4-inch plywood in a standard species, like oak or birch, costs about $70 to $80 (that's for the good stuff, not the big-box stuff).

That might seem pricey to some, but what you're getting is 32 square feet (or 24 board feet) of usable material, provided you make it home without the panel tearing the roof rack off your car. There are no dinged or cracked edges to cut off, no out-of-square ends, no mill marks, no knots -- it's all useable material. By contrast, solid-wood boards often bear many of these flaws, or you'll pay extra for super-clean material. The price for 3/4-inch oak or birch stock starts at about $6 per board foot, or $144 for 24 board feet. I have nothing against solid lumber, and it's clearly the best choice for many applications, but the value of plywood, for so many other uses, is hard to deny... or resist.

The substantial size of plywood means something else: loads of design potential. For example, I've used a single 4-by-8-foot sheet of ply to make a pair of 84-inch-tall closet doors (too tall for standard prefab doors). A 5-by-5-foot panel of Baltic birch became a one-piece headboard for my queen-size bed, with plenty of material left over. One of the designers in my book turned a single sheet of plywood into a 40-by-72-inch dining table, and he had enough cutoff material to build up the edges so the tabletop appears to be 1 1/2-inch thick. That's a lot of project for $80.

3. It's reliable.
Wood is a lovably and maddeningly fickle material. It swells and stretches with humidity. Often, it bows, cups or twists due to internal stresses that are hard to predict or prevent. And knots definitely are not without their challenges. Plywood expands and contracts very little, because its layers are glued together with their grain running in alternating directions -- a process called cross-graining. This also helps prevent warping and other bad habits of wood. Knots typically aren't a problem because plywood face veneers (on at least one side of the panel) don't have any. You can run into knots in the interior plies, but these tend to be small and usually don't affect your finish. All of this means that plywood is exceptionally user-friendly.

4. It's bendy... and it's not.
One of the best examples of plywood's unique qualities is the skateboard deck. After over four decades of skateboard production and countless advances in building materials, decks are still made with good ol' plywood for four primary reasons: it's lightweight, it's moldable, it's strong and it's elastic. And, as mentioned above, it's also attractive -- and all skaters know that a new deck has to look absolutely beautiful before you start abusing the hell out of it. In its many forms, plywood can be as supple as posterboard and as rigid as hardwood. Use 3/4-inch or even 1-inch ply to make a coffee table or a countertop. Use 1/8-inch ply for laminated projects or anything with curves. There's even a type called "bendy plywood," which is made with three or more layers with all of the wood grain running in the same direction (as opposed to cross-grained), making it especially flexible.

5. It's resource-efficient.
Generally speaking, plywood is made with very thin sheets of wood sliced from logs, and mostly from logs that wouldn't make very good solid lumber. Even when cutting from nicer material for the pretty face veneers, you get a lot of mileage out of a log, as the faces are only about 1/32-inches thick. Yes, there's a fair amount of industrial processing involved in making a finished plywood panel, but when you consider the time is takes to grow hardwood trees, resources used in the factory seem insignificant. As America and the rest of the world continues to move toward sustainable building materials, plywood is certain to stay near the top of stack.