Nailed It! Changing the Way You Look At Plywood and How to Use It

Nailed It! Changing the Way You Look At Plywood and How to Use It

Nailed It! Changing the Way You Look At Plywood and How to Use It




Posted on August 12, 2013 at 1:03 PM

Updated Saturday, Aug 17 at 10:03 AM

If you are thinking about remodeling, be sure to read the article below about a cheaper alternative you might have missed otherwise. 

Nailed It! Changing the Way You Look At Plywood and How to Use It

Plywood gets a bad rap. From flooring to furniture building, most folks would list plywood just above cardboard and papier mâché when listing materials they would like in their home. Yes, part of this reaction is from experience, as low-quality plywood can be a nightmare to work with. However, many people are unaware that not all plywood is created equal.

Higher quality plywoods made with hardwoods can be wonderful building materials that are far less expensive than solid wood, yet they have many desirable features. Here's an overview of what you need to know.

Types of Plywood

There are two types of plywood that are very different from one another: softwood and hardwood.

Softwood. Softwood is the kind everyone is familiar with - the type you see nailed to house frames on construction sites. This is not what you want to build furniture or lay down flooring with.

Hardwood. Hardwood plywood is made to be seen, whereas softwood is considered a structural material. It's also higher quality, easier to stain, and much friendlier to work with.

Four Things to Look For When Buying Plywood

The Veneer. This one may seem obvious, but it may be the most important. Since hardwood plywoods are appearance pieces, you need to inspect the quality of the veneer. They should look like real wooden boards. Also check the grain of the boards, if you buy a stack, every other piece should look the same. The quality of the veneer will have the most influence on its cost.

Straightness. You don't need to be a lumber expert to check how straight and flat a board is. Simply lift it from the stack and stare down the edge, as if you were looking down a rifle barrel. It should be straight and true. If the board is bowed, find another. Bowed boards make for long days.

Edges. Hardwood cores, like birch or oak, are preferable to softwood cores made of pine or Douglas fir. Take a close-up look at the board from the side. You'll be able to see the layers of wood pressed together by heat. In a well-made board, the joints between the layers will exhibit straight, smooth lines. The grain of the wood should be without voids or knots on the edges, especially at the corners. Finally, you should be able to see a clear separation between the board's core and its veneer. High quality boards have thick veneers, whereas cheap boards have paper-thin veneers that are difficult to stain.

Ask About The Grade. When you're at the store buying your lumber, ask an employee to explain the different grades of wood they have. There's no universal standard for board grade, so companies often have different names for the different types in their selection (e.g., "deck grade", "flooring grade"). It can be impossible to be sure of a board's quality without asking for help, so don't be bashful with this one.

Advantages of Hardwood Plywood

  • Expense. There are times to spend and there are times to save, and sometimes it's hard to differentiate between the two. Take building free-standing shelves, for example. Traditional wisdom says to use expensive wood for visible sections and cheap wood for hidden, but many hardwood plywoods have elegant finishes that can rival (even overtake) those of traditional materials, at only a fraction of the cost. This is especially the case for large projects requiring lots of lumber. Many high quality plywoods are available in enormous 4'x8' sheets. Good luck finding that in solid wood!
  • Weight. If you've ever had the displeasure of helping someone move out who owns pieces of furniture made entirely of solid wood, then you already know how heavy it can be. Though it can depend on the wood, many plywoods, like cuts made of birch, are lighter, and therefore easier to carry. Better still, high quality plywood has a much greater strength-to-weight ratio so that its builder friendly and easier to unload and carry.
  • Safety. High-grade hardwood plywood is a huge upgrade over its lower graded cousins that have a reputation for being a nightmare to cut. In contrast to cheap plywood, and even some hardwoods, hardwood plywoods have far fewer knots in the grain. When cutting them, going with the grain also results in a smooth, manageable edge.
  • Environmental Impact. Many builders like to use high quality plywoods to decrease their environmental footprint. For example, Baltic birch trees, a common material in hardwood plywood's, grow at an extremely rapid rate, which means there is less ecological disruption when trees are felled.
  • Wide-Ranging Utility. High-grade plywood has many advantages of traditional plywood without some of the negatives. For example, plywood is a common construction material, in part because it doesn't expand and contract with changing weather, nor does it warp. Also, because of the huge variety of overlays and cuts of plywoods, they can be used for a limitless number of projects.

Do It Differently

High quality plywoods can make projects affordable that wouldn't be otherwise. For your next project, consider it as a cheaper alternative to traditional materials that may have you hovering around your budget limit.

Chris Long is a store associate at a Home Depot in suburban Chicago. Chris writes about lumber for homeowners for the Home Depot website, including plywood products for the home, fencing and composite decking.