So, you are planning on building with wood, maybe some furniture, new stairs, or a deck for your patio. Now you have to decide what kind of wood you are going to use.
Some of the most popular options at your disposal include plywood and solid wood, but what’s the difference between them and which is best for your purposes?
Plywood and Solid Wood: The Basics
Before we get into talking about what the major differences between solid wood and plywood are, let’s first figure out exactly what they are.
First off, we have solid wood, which as you can tell by the name of it, is indeed real wood, real lumber cut and milled from trees, cut into place, treated, and ready to use. Solid wood is of course a very popular choice to go with for a variety of reasons, with one being that it simply looks stunning, not to mention that solid wood is very durable too, especially the right type.
In terms of types of solid wood, remember that this is divided into two main groups, softwood and hardwood. Softwood is made of evergreen trees that don’t lose their leaves in the winter and is generally always softer, lighter, and less fire-resistant than hardwood, which is made out of deciduous trees that do lose their leaves in the winter.
On the other hand, we have plywood, which unlike solid wood doesn’t go straight from the tree to the lumber mill, and then to your workshop. Plywood is a panel-shaped material that is wood-based. It is made out of many thin layers of wood plies or wood veneers, small and thin strips of wood that are glued together at 90-degree angles to each other.
What is interesting to note is that plywood is usually always made from an odd number of wood veneers. Because plywood is made in factories, it is known as manufactured wood. Because plywood is manufactured, it can be made in many ways. In other words, there are many types of plywood, around 20 or more.
Plywood can be made out of both softwood and hardwood, it has different ratings and grades depending on its quality and what it is designed to be used for, and it can have different amounts of layers and differing appearances too.
Plywood vs. Solid Wood: What Are the Differences?
Now that we know what solid wood and plywood are, let’s take a look at the major differences between the two.
Shrinkage and Expansion
One of the issues to consider here is that one of these types of wood suffers from a problem that it may shrink over time, and therefore warp and bend. When it comes to solid wood, high amounts of moisture, especially large changes in humidity, as well as large changes in temperature, can cause it to shrink and expand.
If you have ever lived in a wooden house, those cracking sounds that you hear when the temperature changes is the wood expanding or contracting. The issue here is that when this happens, solid wood can permanently shrink, bend, or change shape otherwise.
When it comes to large wooden structures and many years, this shrinking and contracting can negatively impact structural integrity and cause joints to come loose. Due to the fact that plywood is glued together with glue specially designed to prevent this from happening, shrinkage and expansion are not a problem with plywood.
Yes, moisture resistance is related to the issue we spoke about above, but it does go a bit further than that. On one hand, solid wood can be extremely resistant to moisture when properly treated, which is why it is often used in a wide variety of outdoor applications. That said, if solid wood has not been properly treated, exposure to moisture can cause it to warp, bend, or crack.
On the other hand, while plywood won’t bend or shrink due to moisture, if the glue used is not very high quality or not rated for moisture resistance, then those layers of veneers or plies can literally pull apart and come undone. What you need to know here is that there are many types of plywood, some specially made for maximum moisture resistance and outdoor use.
Sawing and Workability
Another difference between these two types of wood is how easy they are to saw and sand. With solid wood, you can run it through virtually any woodworking machine. You can use jointers, planers, sanders, jigsaws, circular saws, and more, all on solid wood.
On the other hand, besides masking a simple rip or crosscut on plywood (which is already hard enough), you really can’t do too much with it in this sense. Many saws and machines will end up quite literally shredding those glued-together layers of wood veneer and planing plywood is not recommended.
Something that does stand out about plywood when compared to solid wood is its flexibility. Plywood is relatively strong for how thin it is, and yes, it can bend, which is why plywood is used to make curved surfaces like skateboard ramps.
While real wood is of course super strong, it just cannot bend in the same way, and bending solid wood, while possible in some cases, takes a whole lot of work and skill to accomplish.
If strength is what you are looking for, then the obvious choice to go with is real and solid wood.
It just has way more tensile strength. If you are using wood for flooring, or even for large shelves that need to hold up lots of weight, then real wood is the way to go. While plywood can still hold a good amount of weight, it really doesn’t compare to solid wood in this sense.
Applications and Versatility
What it really all comes down to is what each of these things is best used for, something we will discuss in some greater detail further below. If you need wood that is light, flat, and can bend, then plywood is a good choice, whereas solid wood is much stronger, it looks better, and it’s much easier to saw and sand too.
Yes, plywood and solid wood don’t weigh the same amount, but what is interesting to note is that depending on the type of plywood and the type of solid wood, one or the other can be heavier or lighter than the other.
Let’s make no mistake about it, many people will choose to use plywood because it is much more cost-effective. Depending on the type of wood, real wood can cost anywhere from two to ten times as much as the same quantity of plywood.
Aesthetics and Appearance
There is also no mistaking the fact that if you are going for style and aesthetic beauty, plywood can’t hold a candle up to solid wood.
Which of the Two Should You Choose for Furniture and Other Uses?
This is a hard question to answer, because which of these you choose not only depends on what is being built, but also what your budget and level of skill are. Let’s go over some general tips on which of these to use for which application:
- Solid wood should be used for framing, such as for a shed frame, whereas plywood should be used for the wall panels
- If you need thin and flat sheets of wood, as opposed to longer boards (that may also be thick), then plywood is the way to go
- If you are looking for overall durability, tensile strength, and beauty, then solid wood is the choice to go with
- If you need wood that is easy to plane, joint, saw, sand, and paint, it’s solid wood you want to choose
- If you need something more cost-effective, plywood is probably your best bet
- Due to the flexibility of it, plywood is ideal for making curved objects, whereas solid wood is more durable and best for weight-bearing applications
For the most common uses of plywood, check this article.
The bottom line here is that although both of these things have the word wood in the name, they are very different things.
Both are great in their own ways, but solid wood and plywood certainly should not be used for the same purposes.