Why You Should Choose Plywood for Your Next Project

Let's face it, plywood gets a bad rap. When non-woodworkers see it, they typically associate it with something being cheap and assume anything that has been built with a solid piece of wood is far superior. Sometimes this is true. Hell, a lot of times this is true. However, I would actually choose to use plywood over solid wood as a material for many projects and here's why you should too.

Plywood is easy to work with

Plywood comes in standard dimensions, it is usually just under 3/4 of an inch thick and can be bought in sheets of up to 4' x 8'. You can buy one 4x8' sheet and immediately begin cutting it down to size to form your project because it is likely already in a size that will be perfectly suitable for whatever project you are undertaking. It is usually very straight and flat and holds its shape very well.

Need a long, straight piece of wood? You've got up to 8' of whatever width you want right there, just cut it to size. Need a large, flat surface for a table top? Just cut it to size. There is no joining or planing or 100 clamps and glue to deal with, you have it already constructed for you. All you need to do is cut it to the correct size.

The fact that many of the more complex woodworking tasks are already out of the equation means that people that are new to woodworking can buy a piece of plywood and immediately get to building something with it. If you are interested in some of the types of projects you can build with plywood, I highly recommend checking out PlyDesign: 73 Distinctive DIY Projects in Plywood (and other sheet goods). This book is great for beginners and seasoned woodworkers. It has tons of (well 73) ideas of a wide range of furniture pieces that can be built with just a sheet of plywood.

Plywood is dimensionally stable

When you are just starting out, you may be surprised to find out that solid wood usually isn't truly square, flat or straight when you purchase it. Or if it is, shortly after taking it home and setting it aside prior to building your project, you realize it has shrunk, expanded, cupped or twisted into a slightly out of square, undulating hunk of wood that will now need to be coaxed back into a shape which can be used to build with.

Because of the way plywood is constructed it is very resistant to changes in shape due to humidity. Plywood is simply thin sheets of wood glued together, but during the lamination, they typically glue the sheets with woodgrain following an opposing pattern with each sheet successive sheet. This means that the forces that typically cause a piece of solid wood to change shape are somewhat "locked" in place as those forces will oppose each other to form a very stable piece of wood. The dimensional stability of plywood is one of the most compelling arguments for using it as a furniture material.

Plywood is beautiful

Some people hate the way that an uncovered edge of plywood looks. I personally like how the bare edge of plywood looks aesthetically. Here is an example of some of what I would consider some beautiful plywood projects look like (with completely uncovered plywood edges): Kerf Design. I personally love the look of Kerf's projects. If you look closely, you'll notice they use the edges as a part of their design to add contrasting colors and add striking visual elements to their designs. I love that they are taking something that some would perceive as a weakness and turning it into a strength.

But what if you think plywood edges are ugly? Easy, you simply edge band the plywood. Edge banding is just the process of gluing a thin piece of solid wood veneer to the edge of plywood to give it a more traditional hardwood appearance. They even make (and many people use) iron on edge banding. You may be surprised to find that one of your favorite pieces of furniture or some cabinets or book cases you think are really nice looking have edge banding on them. If they do, guess what? That piece of furniture is plywood.

You may head to your local Home Depot, take one look at their pile of plywood and think there is no way you could build a fine piece of furniture with wood that looks like that. However, plywood is graded just like traditional solid wood lumber. If you want a high end look, you can find a better wood supplier and pay a bit more to get a very high grade of plywood that will have a face that looks much better than what you'd find at the hardware store. If you go to the right store, you can also find walnut-faced (and other wood species) plywood. This can really make your project look stunning and convince even your most avid cork sniffing friends that the new bookcase you built is on par with their $5,000 antique solid wood credenza.

Plywood is cheap

When I was just starting out, I could buy an entire 4x8' piece of plywood for $44. You can build a LOT of furniture with a 4x8' piece of wood. These days the price is closer to $80. But still! That is very cheap for the majority of the material that you'd need to build say a desk, or a book case.

The other advantage to using a cheap material when you are starting out, is that you can reduce the anxiety of making mistakes. I find myself sometimes thinking about how much material cost me before I attempt to cut or shape a piece of wood. Just in the very back of my mind I start doing calculations. "If I mess this up, I'm going to have to spend another $50 to fix it" or whatever. I think this fear of mistakes holds us back a lot of times, so anything that can be done to put this out of your mind is a major bonus as far as I'm concerned.

Legitimate reasons why you wouldn't want to use plywood

I love building projects with plywood. I think it is beautiful, easy to use and accessible. However, sometimes I think it is a bad choice.

If you are building a small, intricate piece and surface durability is important (like a jewelry box or a cutting board), you should probably just reach for the solid wood. This is simply based on the fact that solid wood for a small project is economical and you have many more options of wood types to choose from. Plywood has a thin face that is easily damaged and cannot be sanded to repair said damage.

I recently built a small keepsake box and was able to find a very nice piece of Mahogany for $20 or so, I built the box out of that single piece of wood and it turned out very nice. Could I have built it out of plywood? Yes. But for small projects I prefer to be able to select a particular piece of wood for its qualities like color, density and durability.

Additionally, building with plywood may give you pause because of the chemicals found in some of the laminating glues that are used (particularly by inexpensive manufactures of plywood). This is totally valid and understandable. If you were to read off the list of chemicals that have been used in the glue in a piece of plywood, you may tend to freak out a bit. Or, even worse, the person you are selling the piece to may freak out. You can buy plywood from manufacturers that deliberately avoid any chemicals that may be hazardous to mitigate this, but the fact of the matter is that plywood does introduce an additional chemical bonding agent into the equation. This could be a problem for some people.

If you are building something that you plan to sell and misconceptions will hurt its profitability, plywood could be an issue as well. Let's face it, people think plywood is associated with cheap furniture. You could build a plywood table that is superior to a solid wood table in every way, but you will run across people that are unable to accept that it is a "nice" piece of furniture simply based on preconceived notions. I would say to just tell them to take a hike, but if you are looking to build furniture for profitability, admittedly a solid wood piece of furniture typically has a premium associated with it and you may be able to command a higher profit simply because it is solid wood.

Choose plywood, I do

I build with plywood and solid wood and personally I like plywood for most things. I have built desks, shelfs, storage, and even a bed with plywood. Plywood reduces some of the headaches of woodworking, it's cheap, readily available and easy to work with. It can be darn beautiful too.