It’s the battle of the woods!
In this article, we’re going to look at plywood vs solid wood – when to use each. We’ll be comparing the two, having a look at strengths and weaknesses and taking a closer look at what you might use them for.
Here, you’ll learn that plywood doesn’t expand like solid wood, that most of the time solid wood is more expensive, but not always, and that solid wood will usually give you a better finish.
Are you wondering which is best for your next project? Then read on to find out.
Plywood is just that. Plies of wood glued together. Manufacturers peel thin veneers from the tree by rotating the trunk over a cutting blade. They then glue these veneers with the grain at angles to each other. One layer on top of the other until they have the right thickness. Sometimes (depending on the grade and manufacturer) they then add a thin veneer finish to the outside surfaces.
Plywood comes in all shapes and sizes. Made with softwood, hardwood and tropical wood. With indoor and waterproof glues and fiber resin. There are variations in the number and thickness of the layers and in the quality of the wood used, and the manufacturing processes.
It is this variation that is one of ply’s strong points, no matter the application there is a plywood to fit. From aircraft to fencing panels, from boats to the bottoms of drawers, you can use plywood on any project.
Producers manufacture solid wood by cutting planks from the tree and, usually, drying them in a kiln. The drying process reduces the moisture content of the wood and makes the planks stronger.
There are as many types of solid wood available as there are types of trees. Because each tree is unique, each solid wood plank is as well. Grain, patterns and coloring all vary from tree to tree and even within the tree, making no two planks identical.
Now it’s time to have a look at the pros and cons of solid wood vs plywood – compared by category.
All wood has a grain, this is the direction in which the tree grew. And this grain dictates a lot of the woods’ features. Wood is strongest along the grain and weakest across it. When the wood absorbs moisture, most of the expansion and contraction occurs across the grain (although it moves with the grain as well). When using solid wood, you must consider these properties carefully and lay your wood accordingly.
One of plywood’s greatest strengths is its directional stability. With each plie being laid at an angle to the previous, plywood becomes equally strong in all directions. Another benefit of this cross-graining technique is that it reduces expansion, contraction and warping. So, when using plywood, you do not need to consider movement of the wood at all.
Which is stronger isn’t actually a straightforward answer. When analyzing strength, you must consider the grain of the solid wood. Parallel to the grain solid wood is stronger than plywood, but across the grain an equivalent plywood is stronger. And if we look at strength across the same thickness, then solid wood is much stronger than plywood.
When talking about strength, the other thing we must consider is the process of manufacture. They cut solid wood from the tree and dry it. Nothing else. The quality of the plank depends on the tree and the drying. There is no other human interaction.
But plywood requires a lot of steps in its production. A manufacturer must attend to each layer with care, and the wood, glue and pressing must all occur with strict controls to get a quality product. Not all plywood is created equal. Gaps between layers can seriously weaken plywood. These gaps can occur where knots or defects in the layer create small voids that attract moisture.
But the most important factor is the glue. Plywood is only ever as good as the glue used, and the method applied. In standard plywood, it is often moisture getting between the layers and affecting the glue that causes failure. And is often why you see older plywood that has separated.
Delamination, or the separation of layers, is one concern for plywood and something that happens with old ply. The glue bonding weakens with time and moisture, and the plywood falls apart.
All things being equal, plywood will always be cheaper. There are some hardwood and specialist ply’s that can be expensive, but a similar plywood will always cost less than its solid wood equivalent.
As with most things, it’s definitely a question of you get what you pay for. Low grade ply can be very cheap, but it might contain a lot of knots and defects that will affect the strength. The quality of the glue can be also be a problem with cheap ply.
At the other end of the scale, top grade or specially treated ply can easily be as expensive as solid wood.
With solid wood, it’s more a case of what you see is what you get. You can inspect solid wood for defects and knots, and the price is simply a reflection of what type of wood it is.
To work with
One of the big differentiators between ply and solid wood is what they’re like to work with. Most woodworkers consider ply the easier of the two. It is much easier to form than solid wood and can bend easier. You don’t need to consider expansion or contraction in your joints, and it can be faster to work with.
But with solid wood, you don’t need to worry about moisture and ensuring proper coatings. Solid wood is stiffer than ply and you need less support to prevent sagging. It is also much easier to repair solid wood. Treating damage or blending defects is relatively straightforward with solid wood, but can be hard and occasionally impossible with ply. Equally, restoration is much easier with solid wood furniture.
The unique properties of a wood finish are why we all love wood furniture. That each piece is original in pattern and coloring is an enduring and stand out feature of wood.
We cannot hide that a plywood finish is not the same as one of solid wood. Often the plywood veneers are thin and easily damaged. You must be careful with sanding and prepping in case you damage the veneer. Plywood edges aren’t much to look at, and it’s why most people spend extra time and effort hiding them.
With solid wood, you can sand and prep to your heart’s content. You can stain and varnish and polish, all while keeping the wood’s unique pattern. For a timeless finish, nothing beats solid wood.
Now we’ve compared them, it’s time to look at what we can use them for.
Plywood is versatile and you can use it for almost everything. Builders use it in houses as components in floors, walls and roofing. It is an excellent material for storage units, cabinets, desktops and drawers. If you need a curved surface, plywood is king and they use it in everything from skateboard ramps to boat hulls.
You can’t beat solid wood for stiffness, so it’s often the perfect choice for bookshelves, decking, or anywhere else you need an unsupported span. But where solid wood really shines is anywhere you can use its natural beauty. This is why you can often see a plywood frame being covered with a solid wood outer layer. Or even a complete plywood piece, but with solid wood edging to cover up the ply’s ugly edges.
Both plywood and solid wood are excellent at different things. If you’re looking for a versatile, lighter weight, lighter cost wood panel, you can’t go wrong with plywood. Anywhere you need to form your wood, for a curved surface or bend, plywood is definitely first choice.
But if you’re looking to build a timeless piece of furniture that will be around for generations, solid wood is great. As long as you can accept the extra cost, then the appearance of solid wood, with a unique patterned finish can’t be beat. And solid wood will always outlast its plywood friend.
And that’s it. The low down on plywood vs solid wood – when to use each. Now you know you can rarely go wrong with either. So, it’s time for you to think about your next project. Decide which wood you’re going to use and get working. Happy building.