Why is plywood good for furniture?
As you’d recognise it today, plywood has been around for a couple of hundred years. In recent times it has seen significant uptake in industries such as boat building, house building, general construction, and, of course, furniture making.
We’ve outlined below our favourite reasons why plywood makes such good furniture, included a beautiful gallery of plywood furniture and architectural spaces, and just a sprinkle of information about how plywood is made, and how it gets its amazing strength.
Plywood is a renewable resource
Ok, cool, but what does renewable actually mean? A renewable resource is one that (with careful planning, of course), we won’t run out of or “use up”.
Unlike many hardwood timbers – which come from trees that are hundreds of years old – plywood is generally made from fast-growing, plantation-grown species such as birch, radiata pine, spruce, or hoop pine.
Instead of removing these majestic giant hardwood trees, which are pivotal to their local ecosystem and take hundreds of years to grow, softwood timbers typically only take 30-35 years to grow and are usually harvested from carefully managed timber plantations.
TIP: Not all plywood comes from sustainably managed plantations. Keep an eye out for the following logos, which certify that the timber was sourced sustainably.
Plywood is beautiful
Plywood has a beautiful warmth and calming effect when used in furniture making, cabinetry, or as wall, floor or ceiling lining.
The edge profile can also make a remarkable feature when highlighted and compounded by sandwiching multiple sheets of plywood together. The fine, straight lines can draw the eye to certain features or visually extend or enhance a specific dimension.
I won’t try and summarise its beauty in words. Just enjoy this short gallery of beautiful plywood furniture and architectural features.
Plywood is incredibly strong!
Before I explain why plywood is so strong, we first need to look at regular timber, specifically the wood grain.
Timber grains are the layers and fibre of the timber that run along with the tree’s height (top to bottom). Think of these timber fibres as a bunch of straws. If you grab the straws from either end and try and break them, you’ll find they’re incredibly resilient. However, it requires almost no effort to pull them apart if you grab them from the sides.
These animations are an extract from a video by Matt Estlea. If you’re into woodworking, I highly recommend you check out his YouTube channel.
Now you know that timber is incredibly strong in one direction (along the grain), but quite weak in the other direction (across the grain), now imagine what would happen if you crisscrossed timber sheets in a way where the grain direction rotates 90° with each layer.
These alternating layers of timber result in a material that is incredibly strong and relatively light. Kilo for kilo, plywood timber has higher strength than steel!
Plywood is a very efficient form of timber
Rather than cutting slabs or lengths of timber from a log, which results in lots of unusable small pieces, plywood is made using a rotary peeling process that uses up almost all of the tree!
The logs are cut down to length and placed onto a machine that spins them at high speed. Then, starting from the outside, a big blade is slowly pushed into the log, slicing off a continual sheet of timber that’s about 1-2mm thick.
These sheets or “veneers” are sprayed with a super-strong adhesive, and layered one a top another, the number of sheets depending on the final desired thickness. This stack is then put into a huge hydraulic press to keep it flat until the glue dries.
Plywood is incredibly versatile
Used from everything to cladding, doors, flooring, framing, joinery, panelling (interior and exterior), handrails, balustrades, stairs, and furniture, plywood is one of the most versatile types of timber.
Depending on the grade and thickness of plywood, it can even be bent into all sorts of beautiful shapes, making it fantastic for furniture making. One of IKEA’s signature products was the PoÄng chair, made using steam-bent plywood.
What are the disadvantages of plywood furniture?
You wouldn’t want to use plywood to build furniture; simply if the aesthetics don’t align with what you envisage for the piece. Plywood furniture does have a unique look to it, and it doesn’t suit everyone’s tastes or the decor in their homes or offices.
When used outdoors, plywood can be susceptible to water damage unless treated or appropriately finished or if the wrong grade of plywood is selected. This situation is more of a problem with the manufacturing and selection processes than the material itself.
If you want the look and feel of a solid slab of timber, but don’t want to contribute to old-growth logging, then reclaimed wood is the way to go.
Reclaimed timber is timber that, as the name suggests, has been reclaimed from old buildings, old furniture, or even old bridges and piers. This timber is cleaned to remove nails or screws and refinished to remove the old damaged wood on the outside, revealing the beauty that lies within.
What is the best plywood for furniture?
Through the lens of sustainability, the best plywood furniture is the one that’s made from sustainably managed plantations, preferably made locally in the country where you live.
Birch plywood is popular plywood in furniture making due to its beautiful grain pattern, light, bright appearance, and durability. However, large scale birch plantations are generally only found in North America, Northern Europe and Northern Asia. This means if you live anywhere else, your birch plywood has travelled a long way to get to you.
This unnecessary transport releases additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to the acceleration of global warming – not what we want. So make sure to select plywood that’s native to your region and manufactured locally.
In Australia, the two most common plywood types that come from trees grown here are Radiata Pine and Hoop Pine. As we covered in a recent article: What is most flat-pack furniture made of in Australia, both make excellent plywood for different applications.
Our preference, though? Hoop Pine. The gorgeous grain patterns, warm colours and the fact that it’s a native Australian species make it a winner for us. That’s why we exclusively use Hoop Pine in our flat pack desks.