Plywood and Luan are two very similar woods, but they are also quite different.
In this article, we’ll compare Plywood and Luan. The slight misconceptions that exist, the pros and cons of each and what projects they’re good for. We’ll provide you with the right information so you can make an informed choice on which one’s best for your project.
Plywood vs Luan
In short, Luan is a form of Plywood – they’re technically the same thing. Luan is a form of tropical timber which is cheap and more flexible compared to typical plywood. However, Luan is also not as strong as normal plywood and is best used for smooth finishes or cases where you need a slight bend in the plywood. Traditional plywood is better than luan for strength and hardness in most cases.
While that’s the short answer – this is actually quite an interesting topic to dive into. Below I’ve fully compared Luan to typical Plywood of all types. Read on to learn everything there is to know about Luan vs other types of plywood!
What is Plywood?
Before we start on the comparison, let’s go back to basics for a minute and look at what plywood actually is.
Plywood is a composite wood made up of thin layers known as plies that are glued together with the wood grain of adjacent sheets at angles to each other. It is the angles that are key here. This method, known as cross-graining, is what gives all forms of ply the benefits of lightweight, strength and resistance to warp.
Archeologists have found types of plywood in the Egyptian tombs, so this form of technology is not new. But it wasn’t until around the year 1800 when inventors filed patents for processes involving laminating layers of thin wood with glue. And this is the birth of modern plywood.
Plywood comes in a whole number of different types with variations in quality, wood, number of layers, types of glue and more.
What is Luan?
Luan or lauan is actually a type of plywood. It’s made from tropical timber, often from the Shorea family. The name comes from a tree in the Philippines, but you can find it all over south-east Asia. They make it from thin veneers of luan that are glued together to produce a soft plywood that has a very smooth surface.
Unfortunately, demand grew for luan ply through the 70s and 80s. Manufacturers decimated tropical forests throughout south-east Asia trying to keep up with demand. These days, they now make modern luan ply from several tropical hardwoods sourced from all over the globe. A lot of these forests are still struggling. So it’s a good idea to look out for sustainably sourced luan.
Clearing up misconceptions
So, the first thing to clear up is what you compare. Plywood is not just plywood and has vast differences in properties depending on if it’s hardwood, softwood, tropical, aircraft or marine. And as we can see from above, luan is basically a term for tropical plywood. Especially in later years, where luan isn’t the only tropical wood used in what we call luan plywood.
So, for a complete look at Plywood vs Luan, we need to take a quick look at the five major types of plywood.
For the average DIY or construction project, softwood ply is usually what you think of. Made from common softwoods such as douglas fir, spruce, pine or cedar (and sometimes a mix of spruce pine and fur which is SPF ply).
Softwood ply is the standard for normal flooring and roofing usage. It’s relatively cheap and extremely versatile. Some softwood plies are treated with glues and coatings to make them weather resistance or suitable for specific purposes.
Manufacturers make hardwood ply from trees known as dicots (flowering plants that two seed leaves). This includes oak, beech, cherry and mahogany. We know hardwood plywoods for their strength and hardiness. They are excellent for heavy-duty uses and structural support. The surface of hardwood ply is very damage resistant. Which is often why you use it for projects needing impact protection.
High-strength or aircraft ply is just as the name would suggest. Originally used in the construction of world war II era aircraft. They make the ply from mahogany or birch and sometimes spruce. The plies are glued using special adhesives that are extra strong with resistance to heat and humidity.
Mariners originally used marine ply for boatbuilding. This has expanded to include anything needing weather proofing or projects in humid environments. Usually, they make it from tropical hardwoods that they specifically select for having little or no defects. Special marine glues resistance to salt, fungi, weather and laminal separation are used to provide the necessary properties.
Luan or tropical plywood
Originally, Asian manufacturers made luan plywood from the luan tree of the Philippines. Now most factories use a variety of tropical woods. If correctly manufactured, luan ply has good strength, quality and smoothness. Typically, luan ply comes in thinner sheets of an 1/8 or a 1/4 inch thick. This makes it perfect for delicate or small-scale projects where we need shaping and flexible ply is an advantage. Or in areas where its smooth surface can be utilized.
A direct price comparison is not always easy. The various types come in different sizes and thicknesses. Exact prices change according to current lumber prices and so instead we have ranked the five types according to relative price.
- Luan – Cheapest
- Softwood – Cheap
- Hardwood – medium
- Marine – Expensive
- Aircraft – Expensive
Luan is usually the cheapest form of ply and one of the reasons for its popularity.
All forms of plywood are relatively easy to work with and extremely versatile. It’s one reason ply has become such a standard in the woodworking and building trades. But each of the categories has slightly different strengths. Let’s take a look.
- Luan – Flexible and easy to form and bend with a smooth surface that can be used for a variety of finishes.
- Softwood – Versatile and lightweight with good strength. Comes with a variety of glues and coatings for different applications
- Hardwood – Strong with excellent damage and impact resistance. Warp resistant and can come with veneer finishes.
- Marine – Waterproof and weatherproof. Strong and resistant to separation and humidity. Usually coated externally with weather and boil proof glue.
- Aircraft – Manufactured to strict standards for strength and heat resistance. Particularly good strength to weight ratio. Usually approved by an international standards agency.
So, each of the five main types all have areas they excel at and the right ply depends on the job you’re doing.
- Luan – Subfloor for vinyl and carpet, furniture veneers and bended surfaces, surfaces that require a smooth finish.
- Softwood – Home construction (floors, walls, roofs), packaging, ready-to-paint panels (if coated).
- Hardwood – Structural uses, industrial floors and high-wear surfaces, vehicles, instruments, furniture.
- Marine – Waterproofing, external protection, boat building, areas subjected to moisture (bathrooms, kitchens).
- Aircraft – Specialist applications including some aircraft and areas where heat resistance and strength are paramount.
As you can see from our comparison, there are no winners and losers. Each plywood type is best for specific applications, and if used correctly, they all have their place in different projects.
To get the right ply for your project, make sure you know what features are most important, what other materials you’re using and whether those manufacturers have requirements you need to adhere to. Then you can pick the right type for you.
- Aircraft ply is probably only necessary if you have a particularly demanding project or are actually building an aircraft
- Marine ply is the only option for boats and a good option for weather proofing or areas that are likely to get wet.
- Hardwood ply is excellent in hard-use situations or somewhere that requires extra strength or rigidity
- Softwood ply is perfect for normal house building uses like walls, floors, and roofing.
- Luan ply is a great option for furniture with its smooth finish and excellent for bending and shaping. Can be used as an underlay to some floor types
That’s it, our guide to Plywood vs Luan – differences explained and compared. Now you know the best uses for each and what to look out for.
I hope you found this article useful, and good luck on your next DIY project!