If don’t show up for work tomorrow, it’s because the Asian plywood industry has taken out a contract on my life.
But here’s the truth: All of the Asian plywood I’ve purchased from the big box stores in the last five years has been almost impossible for me to build furniture with.
The veneer on the outside of the plywood is too thin. How thin? Today I carefully delaminated some plywood from a job I completed last year, scraped off the adhesive and measured the result. The exterior veneer was about .015″ thick.
Then I went and measured the thickness of the toilet paper in our publishing company’s men’s room. Let me say that our single-ply toilet paper is not the highest quality. We occasionally use it on our random-orbit sanders when we’re low on #80-grit paper (that was a joke, by the way). In truth, the stuff is rough and thin at .005″ thick.
So the veneer on the plywood is about three thicknesses of inexpensive paper. Or about two shavings from my jointer plane. Or about 30 seconds with #120-grit paper in a decent random-orbit sander. It is just too darn thin.
What’s worse, these sheet goods are also poorly sanded at the factory. There are deep machine marks that have to be sanded out , so burning through the stuff at the edges is inevitable.
And there’s more. The stuff is sold wet, has internal stresses or has both problems. When I rip up a sheet of the stuff, some of it will curl like a coopered door. So you can forget about dimensional stability (unless you build coopered doors).
I’ve had much better luck with Baltic birch-like products and some premium plywoods from specialty suppliers. But this stuff is hard to find in some locations of the country. Our retail supplier closed down a couple years ago, and I have yet to find another convenient source within 30 miles of my home.
As a result, despite the fact that I’m not opposed to plywood (I quite like it in contemporary furniture), I’ve had to rely on solid wood more and more because of the plywood supply around me.
So I was surprised by the results of our poll last week that showed about 45 percent of our online readers use equal amounts of plywood and solid wood. Either you’ve found a good source for plywood or you’re using it in places that don’t show.
Or you’re members of the plywood mafia and I should watch my back during my drive home today.
– Christopher Schwarz
P.S. How do you feel about plywood in freestanding furniture projects? Leave a comment below and let us know. Your comment might just help us improve our content. Also, if you’d like to learn more about plywood, read our free article about how we tested the different kinds and came up with surprising results. You can read that story here.
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You guys have me worried.
I have a batch of house projects coming up … kitchen cabinets, built-in desk, shelves … yup, a major remodeling project.
I haven’t worked with plywood in years (or much else, I’m still a newbie), and it sounds like I won’t be able to get decent ply to do my built-ins. [Matt J, if you could shoot me a note about our local Boston area best sources, I’d be grateful.]
Way back when, when I was my father’s helper and clamp ("Liz, hold the end of this board while I cut it") I seem to remember plywood had 1/28" (0.036") surface veneer. What happened? For that matter, how can they cut wood as thin as the do?
It almost sounds like I’d have an easier time building everything from solid wood.
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Sounds like a business opportunity for some enterprising woody type out there: premium plywood for the woodworker, wholesaled to the big-box stores. Obviously there’s a market for it — just have to work out the "minor" issues of production, distribution, pricing, and marketing ;). Any volunteers?!
Several years ago, I bought "1/2-in" C-grade pine ply to use as "temporary" hurricane shutters. They went up in ’05 when we had the year of the hurricanes. Simple screw-on jobs into CBS masonry, but intended to help me keep my roof. Fill you in, if the wind and the stuff it blows around bust your windows, you’re likely to find your roof in the next area code.
Since then, I upgraded my window protection considerably, installing my own hardware for metal shutters. So, I have this stack of ply that quite frankly I will use to add shelf and storage units to my shop / garage and possibly a workbench I designed in Sketchup. My wife has first dibs on two or three units, if not more, so the units for the house get painted. Ugly stuff – just might use poplar for the edging and beefing up the shelves and paint the whole house set. My shop units will get a couple coats of shellac. But I’m trying to recycle those sheets into some useful pieces.
From the comments about the Chinese ply, I may be lucky. In fact, some houses in our bailiwick built between ’04 and now have Chines drywall. The poor residents are suffering from smelling rotten eggs – the drywall has sulfur.
Thank you for writing this article. It is nice to know that I am not the only one to notice the decline in the quality of plywood. I recently reached the breaking point when I cut into a rock in the middle of a sheet of plywood purchased from Home Depot. It ruined a $100 Freud blade. I will not buy any more furniture plywood from the big box stores. Home depot are you listening?
For furniture I use solid wood, but when building cabinets for a mud room recently I used plywood. Thought I would save some money and use the Chinese ply. On the second sheet, I cut right through a small piece of metal in one of the ply’s in the middle of the sheet. It really did a number on my Forrest saw blade. Last time I will ever use that kind of ply.
In using plywood it has been some time since I used any. I bought some from a big box store and made a nice looking night stand but when I went to put a finish it was all blotchy, not a good thing. The wood was only good for one thing and that was to paint. The foreign supplies are not a reliable source. It seems to me that all undersized woods less than 1/2 when they should be a true 1/2 inch are the problems. Am I correct in this? I will only buy true to size, domestic plywood.
after quickly reading the responses to this article, it seems that the opinion that big box store Chinese plywood is evil and I agree!
This begs the question… How do we make our opinion known to the big box stores???
Here is the URL of an article from "Woodworking" magazine a couple years ago:
things haven’t improved any since I wrote it.
Thanks for this usuful article! I been left wondering lately at the number of published plans for jigs made from plywood. As a new woodworker I made a number of these jigs a couple of years ago and was always disappointed to see them curl, twist and bend after I had made them (or even while I was making them). No more plywood for me.
I have to agree with your comments about plywood from big box stores. I was stupid enough to buy a sheet from Home Depot recently. When I cut it I found deep voids where there just was no wood and the laminations were all coming unstuck. I had to glue the sheets back together before I could use it! Needless to say I ended up using it for scrap.
I only use if where wood movement is an issue and from now on I think i’ll try MDF and home cut veneers.
It’s hard to even find Baltic Birch plywood up here in Michigan at the BORG or others…..mainly they have "Blondewood" or "Whitewood" plywood. Which from my research is mostly Spruce? If I do find a bunk fo 3/4 Birch, it’s usually less than 1/2 full and heavily picked over.
Now Oak plywood I can readily find, but, I haven’t had that many projects that use Oak.
I have always enjoyed woodworking and felt that any and every project I spent my time on should only be built from quality wood. I never use plywood, the only exception being when my wife recently asked me to build a built-in chest of drawers in the bathroom closet that she could paint white to match the walls. After desperately trying to convince her to let me make a nice wooden piece with a natural finish, I ended up losing the battle and making it out of plywood.
After looking at plywood at the lumberyard, I decided upon Baltic birch as the only option. There is not much else of a choice. I built the entire cabinet and drawers from Baltic birch and honestly can say I didn’t enjoy this project. You can’t dovetail plywood easily as it splits and splinters frequently and besides… who really cares because it’s getting painted anyway.
What’s next? OSB furniture?
I used some of the plywood from the big boxes for built-in shelves for my daughter’s room. Never again. I’m glad I planned to paint these, because that helped hide the blemishes from the cheap plywood. Some of the plywood even delaminated on it’s own in places.
I’ll use plywood for built-ins and utilitarian purposes to save time (as I don’t consider these to be potential heirlooms), but I really don’t like plywood for free standing furniture. Also, I also prefer the styles of furniture from the 1700’s, so plywood wasn’t in vogue yet.
I agree with your observations completely as I’ve experienced the same.
I may be a bit daft but I think the quality and price issues all started about the same time that hurricaine Hugo blew thru. All of a sudden the price of any wood product went sky high and stayed there. The quality hit the skids and has continued on a downward spiral ever since. I imagine pressure from the consumer has forced the suppliers to find alternate, less expensive sources. Manufacturers found ways to squeeze salable product from every ounce of raw material they receive. You can see the results of these changes are declining availability of anything resembling quality wood products.
I used to build custom cabinetry and the occasional furniture items such as dressers and such where sheet goods were a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to achieve the desired outcome without using "real" wood with its attendent enviromental reactions. 3/4" Lauan plywood could be used to make end panels and frames without the need to "hide" its face on interior areas, Can’t do that anymore. I have to agree that it’s getting really hard to find any quality sheetgoods at any price here in NE PA. What a shame.
There’s plyboo, the sheet good made out of bamboo. Formaldehyde free. But it costs as much as (or more than) solid wood….
The best hardwood plywood I’ve found around here I get from WoodWerks (in Columbus OH). I purchased some 3/4" maple the other day, and I just measured the face veneer at about 0.025".
But even that’s not good enough much of the time. Surface flatness is only so-so. And even if you manage to avoid sanding all the way through the veneer, it’s easy to sand far enough that you reach some discoloration, the result of adhesive soaking into the veneer from the back side.
Overall, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that unless it’s something like Baltic Birch or Europly, both of which have quite thick face veneers, sheet goods are only to be used as substrates for veneers that I apply myself. For that I’ll use MDF (very smooth and flat, but heavy and not very strong), a torsion box covered with 1/8" hardboard skins (strong, smooth and light–good for shelves), or hardwood plywood (easy, intermediate in weight, strong, but not particularly flat).
For veneer I generally go with paper-backed sheets (from Oakwood Veneer, for example). It’s pricy, but so easy to use that it’s worth it. The veneer layer is very thin (about 0.015", like the Chinese ply), but it lays up so smoothly that it’s rarely an issue. You just have to be very careful when you’re trimming an applied solid-wood edge, etc.
I agree with what you say Chris. Last year I made a simple cutoff sled for my table saw using 1/2′ Baltic birch plywood (from a home center) as the plan specified. The sled had a hard wood runner and a 5/4 X 3′ fence. It was straight and flat when finished and worked fine. Even though it was stored suspended vertically from a hook, within several months it was no longer flat or useable. I’ve noticed the same tendency with 3/4" BB ply as well, which I used for some shop cabinet doors.My shop is humidity controlled.
I don’t like it, but I’m limited by geography and economics, so I try to find ways to work around its flaws. Scratches and chatter marks go in the back parts of shelves, where they won’t be seen. Rather than try to do edge-banding, I round over all the edges, turning the plywood into a design feature, rather than a dirty little secret. And I use a pretty light hand in sanding it.
If there’s going to be an area that really shows, I dig around for the best face to use, just like I would if I were using hardwoods.
Honestly, I’d love to use high quality materials, but I live in a small town, and my main choices are the big box stores or a lumberyard that prefers to deal with contractors over consumers. There are some local sources for hardwoods, but you have to know a guy who knows a guy, and you need a planer, one of the many tools I’ve yet to invest in.
I don’t like that cheap plywood, either. When I need something like that, I will use Baltic Birch and vacuum bag veneer it with stuff I cut on my band saw. I leave the thickness at between 1/16" – 3/32", and the result is that I don’t have the problem sanding through anymore.
It’s allot of work, but for projects that really matter, I find this has some real advantages. I get stability, and I have control on the design and how the wood will look.
I don’t use this for everything, but for the projects that really count, it works really well.
I used big box plywood to build some shelves for my son’s room. Good thing they were painted. Neither side was particularly clear, with the backside requiring significant filler just to level off the veneer holidays. I also had to deal with the typical, in-sheet variation in thickness and warping, etc. In my area, cabinet grade plywood is hard to find, usually requiring you to purchase at least 5 sheets, something I can’t afford monetarily or accommodate storage wise. So, when faced with the need for side panels for my Robert Lang-designed prairie chair, I opted for solid panels in place of the more authentic plywood panels. I still need to work on producing these thin, glued-up panels consistently (I’ve gotten weird splits/cracks in the middle of a couple of 1/2" panels I’ve made in the past), but I like the thought that I can machine and finish my solid panels without having to worry about the thickness of the veneer.
As others have mentioned, I get very little chance to do "fine furniture"–most of my work is more utilitarian. Shop cabinets, laundry room organizers, paint-grade shelves, etc. In these circumstances, as long as it doesn’t actually delaminate it’s not a big deal.
Also, baltic birch gets a lot of use in utility drawers, both in the shop and in the house.
Gene suggested Hardwood Lumber and More in Milford, and they do sell good plywood and will sell by the full, half or quarter sheet.
Paxton is still selling retail in Madeira at the Woodcrafter’s Store. They just cut their open hours to Mon-Fri, 9-4, eliminated anything that wasn’t lumber (got some killer prices on cans of General Finishes products they were closing out last year) and they won’t cut to sell. You buy the board or you don’t and plywood is sold in full sheets.
Last time I was there, about 2 months ago, they had some gorgeous sapelle plywood in addition to the usual domestic species.
Hey Chris Just wondering if you ever tried C.R. Muterspaw Lumber. he’s out in Xenia, Oh and carries hardwood and ply. He’s a one man store but he will deliver free to Cinti, Dayton, and Columbus. he carries baltic birch. If you haven’t check out his web site please do.
Hope this helps
Chris – There’s another reason to avoid Chinese ply. Much of it is assembled with "old school" glues that off-gas a great deal of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Much of this VOC is formaldehyde.
Hi Chris……..interesting post, I was surprised at the percentage also and in speaking with some internet woodworking guys brought that survey up.
The same problem you have with plywood, I have with solid wood. Even though I have been first to the delivery, selection is limited and its already been picked over at the mill.
I have no problem with the big box flat panels for shop cabinets (all unfinished) and they are great full scale drawering boards. Also the 1/8" masonite is cost effective for making veneer platens.
The key to flat panel building is understanding the material first. Heck its handled different, you have to look and "see what the sheet has to offer". Chatter marks on the ends are part in parcel with sheet goods, so you cut them out. A flat panel will offer just as much in appearance as solid wood, but finding it, cutting it, flipping it, is what the material is about. Understanding what each core can and cannot do is also part of understanding sheet goods.
It’s a progression to finding high grade furniture sheet goods. To get what you finally need, you really have to either lay-up your own panels or purchase panels from companies that specialize in architectural flat panels. Even the quality there, is not as good as laying the veneer yourself. Business being business, a small panel order could be laid up with cut offs. But its a place for a good quality start.
This progression is as your scope and ability to use the material increases, one eventually realizes and says "I can make my own panels better." Creativity will blast off the drawering board.
Once a woodworker understands what the material can do, the most efficient area to design in are transitional pieces. Yeah you can make contemporary pieces which is the materials forte, but nice book-matched figured cherry with solid wood icons from the 18th century go a long way in builds for the home.
I happen to like the material very much….. on my terms.
I haven’t been there yet, but I think these are some of the guys who used to work at Paxton Wood in Madeira. They’ve opened a store in Milford. Probably worth a quick drive over after work.
Solid wood is the only way to go.
Keep it up Chris.
I expect some of the secret to that 45% is that a lot of use build a lot of things that don’t even approach fine furniture. Everything from basement storage to utilitarian kitchen stuff.
In the Boston area, I can get all kinds of plywood. But the quality varies as much as any lumber product, and it’s all about finding the right people to buy from. Of course, those people usually charge more for the good stuff.
Check the label or price tag on the ply itself. It should say where it’s made. I’ll the stuff I’ve had problems with was made in China.
If it doesn’t say, I would definitely ask. If I didn’t get a good answer, I’d keep looking. Trust me, the stuff is evil. And I’m not too hard to please.
i haven’t done any woodworking for a couple of years, and am just getting the shop back up and running. I haven’t heard of Chinese ply….who is selling it? Is it marked with some certain maker name?
Thanks for the help in avoiding a disaster.
I won’t come near the Chinese ply. In fact, I think the last time I used plywood was when I made the carving and the sharpening storage shop cabinets for Sandy.
Hard woods for me…
You forgot the other reason we use it:
We build ugly stuff with it, and use lots of wood filler. One day I’ll redo those computer desks in real wood, but not today.
The guys here are spoiled — in the women’s room, I think the paper is #20 grit.