What It Is
Plywood is a type of manufactured wood made from thin layers (plies) of wood glued together.
The veneer is the thin surface covering the face of the plywood.
There are many types of plywood, made from tropical woods, softwood (spruce-pine-fir also called SPF), and hardwood.
Softwood Plywood is graded A to D, A being the best. Finally, the letter X means the plywood is made with scrap wood inside, it does not mean the plywood is exterior grade. Softwood plywood is generally for home construction and not for furniture.
In contrast, Hardwood Plywood is a good option for furniture, and is graded with letters edge stamped (not face stamped). The letter is the best side (usually A-C) and a number refers to the worst side (1 is best) The best hardwood plywood is sometimes called furniture-grade. If you are planning to stain the veneer instead of paint, buy furniture (or A) grade plywood.
It is good for use in building cabinets, shelves, drawers and desks. But unless you plan to trim your project with wood or veneer edging, it isn’t the best in applications where you’ll see the edge, unless you like that plywood layered look.
Hardwood plywood comes in 4 varieties:
Poplar plywood (poplar all the way through)
MDF core is hardwood veneer over an MDF center
Veneer Core (VC), which is poplar plywood with a higher-cost hardwood veneer
and marine hardwood plywood which is crazy expensive and only really necessary if you are building a boat…
Doesn’t weigh as much.
Has a nice wood face that stains nicely if you want a natural wood look.
Plywood is much stronger than MDF, keep this in mind if you are building furniture that will take a heavy load (bed, bookshelf,…)
Shelves sag less than MDF
Has less discoloration, twisting, breaking and shrinking than dimensional lumber and is stronger than dimensional lumber (plain ‘ol wood lumber).
Compared with MDF, plywood is much more variable in its quality. Panels are rarely perfectly flat, can have warps and voids (open spaces in the plies). The warps in plywood are one of the biggest problems with it. Choose your sheet carefully, and work with it quickly – if you have it sit around awhile it may warp on you before you get to finish your project.
Just like MDF, plywood is usually made with formaldehyde, just not as much.
Costs more than MDF, but price varies considerably with quality. With plywood, it pays off to buy better quality.
Is susceptible to water damage.
VC weighs less and is stronger, but MDF core has no voids and is consistent and smooth. Oftentimes, MDF core provides the benefits of both MDF and hardwood plywood such as strength and consistency and the cheaper price.
Cheap plywood is ugly. Sometimes it will be sold with the outer veneer partially sanded through showing the ugly interior plies. Plywood comes pre-sanded, so do not sand it more. If the plywood is dirty, clean it with denatured alcohol, but do not sand it. If it is scratched, apply water, but do not sand it. If the plywood panel looks like it needs sanding, buy a different panel, but do not sand it. OK, if you have to sand, use a 320 grit paper on a block and sand by hand. Sanding to even out a warped or non-flat sheet will only end in disaster. If you do sand through the veneer, you can faux-finish the plywood.
The edges of plywood are layered, a striped look I particularly hate. There are two fixes for this:
glue or tack on a thin solid wood trim, but be careful. Sometimes there is a noticeable grain or color difference. Plywood edging (router) bits can help create a seamless joint with solid wood edging.
iron-on strips of veneer banding. Unfortunately, this edge banding sometimes peels off, and you will not be able to do a decorative (e.g. rounded or chamfer) edge.
In my opinion, when plywood furniture is built with a judicious blend of solid wood parts and edging, it can be very lovely.
I have it on authority that Baltic Birch is the best plywood you can buy… even so…
When you buy plywood, lay it on the ground and if it is twisted or doesn’t lie flat, don’t buy it.
Plywood 1/4” thick and thicker is available in 5 or more plies, the greater number the plies, the better the plywood.
Home Depot and Lowes don’t really have the high-end plywoods, and I’ve heard that their stuff can fall apart. If you have the money for really good plywood, buy it from a lumber yard.
Have you built anything out of plywood? What was your experience?