If you are thinking about renovating your home, building a small outdoor structure, or making some of your own wooden furniture, one material that you might consider using is plywood. That said, what exactly is plywood, and what are its pros and cons?
Let’s take a closer look at this rather popular and widely used building material.
What Is Plywood?
Plywood, as the name implies, is indeed a type of wood. It is known as manufactured or engineered wood, as it is not just raw lumber. Plywood is made by combing many hundreds of thin strips or veneers of wood, which can come from a variety of trees and tree types, various hardwood and softwood variants.
These strips are glued together in layers, with the layers being set at 90-degree angles to one another, thus forming a so-called cross-grain pattern. The way in which the veneers are glued together at 90-degree angles allows for a great deal of both strength and flexibility. The result is a solid board or piece of plywood that can be used for a wide array of applications.
Advantages of Plywood
Although plywood may technically be a type of engineered wood, it does have quite a few noteworthy benefits to speak of.
1. It Comes in Many Sizes and Thicknesses
Due to the way in which plywood is made, it can have anywhere from three to 21 or more layers. This means that you can find plywood as thin as 1/4-inch or less and as thick as 1-1/2-inch or more. Plywood can also come in very small boards and in huge planks as well.
This variety of size and thickness makes this an extremely versatile building material that can be used for many purposes, both large and small.
2. Different Types for Different Applications Exist
Another benefit of plywood is that there are many different types, each of which has its own advantages.
You can find interior plywood, exterior plywood, structural plywood, marine plywood, hardwood and softwood varieties, and more. Moreover, plywood also comes in different grades, with A being the highest, and D being the lowest.
In other words, it’s really easy to find certain types of plywood that are designed for specific applications.
3. It Is Surprisingly Strong
Although it may not be quite as strong as real and solid lumber, plywood is much stronger than most other types of engineered wood.
Due to that cross-grain pattern created through the manufacturing process, although it’s no tank, plywood does have a surprising amount of strength (particularly when compared to MDF), the ability to bear a good deal of weight, and yet it remains quite flexible too.
4. It Holds Nails and Screws Well
Due to the cross-grain pattern that plywood features, it does a very good job at holding nails and screws into place. Those various layers that are oriented at 90 degrees from each other really wedge nails and screws into place once inserted. This is one of the reasons why it is a preferred building material.
5. It Can be Bent
Another advantage of plywood is that for its strength, it is also very flexible, and it can be bent into various shapes, which is why it can be used to make things like skateboard ramps, guitars, and other thin wooden objects that have bends and curves.
For more on the process, read my guide to bending plywood.
6. It Resists Warping
Due to the real lumber used when making plywood, the glue used when assembling it, and the cross-grain pattern it features, plywood does not easily bend or warp out of shape.
In most cases, all but the most extreme, it stays flat and even.
7. It Is Relatively Lightweight
Plywood is not the lightest building material out there, but it is lighter than real and solid lumber.
Its strength compared to its relatively low weight makes plywood an ideal building material for many purposes, not to mention that it’s relatively easy to transport as well.
8. It Is Relatively Inexpensive
While the higher grades of more specialized types of plywood may be quite expensive, in general, plywood is affordable, much more so than solid lumber.
Disadvantages of Plywood
Just like anything out there, while plywood has lots of advantages, it does also have several disadvantages that need to be taken into account.
1. Difficult to Sand and Paint
Most types of plywood are very rough, which makes them difficult to sand and paint. If you try to sand plywood, it may end up chipping and splintering, plus, layers of paint won’t look flat or even when applied.
Although it is technically possible to sand and paint plywood, doing so is not easy.
2. Usually It Is Not Ideal for Surface Use
Due to the usually rough appearance of plywood, it’s not particularly suited for surface work, at least in some cases. Many types of plywood just don’t look all that nice, which can be problematic when you want to build something that is aesthetically pleasing.
3. Many Types are Susceptible to Moisture
Although there are some types of plywood that do well with moisture, most do not.
Plywood can absorb moisture over time, at least most types do, and although the plywood won’t bend or warp, it will get weaker. That glue can start to come undone, and at the edges, in particular, the plywood can end up turning soft and mushy. If you do plan on using plywood in high-moisture areas, make sure that it is the right kind of plywood and that you waterproof it.
4. The Issue of VOCs
Plywood releases VOCs or volatile organic compounds into the air. These are not safe to inhale and can be harmful to human health. This is especially problematic during the construction process when the plywood is being handled.
5. Sawing It Is Difficult
The other drawback of plywood is that it can be hard to saw. All of those layers can end up splintering and creating really rough edges when sawed. Although, this can be avoided with the right type of saw blade and technique (see my guide to cutting plywood).
How Does Plywood Compare to Other Types of Wood?
For a more detailed comparison of particle board with other types of wood, check the articles below:
The bottom line is that although plywood may have a few minor drawbacks, as far as engineered wood goes, it’s one of the more durable, flexible, and easy to work with building materials.