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The beginner's guide to Woodworking Materials

By Abhijit Phadke

This is a comprehensive article about materials used in woodworking, that provides simple concise answers to many of the frequently asked questions related to various materials such as plywood, mdf, veneers, laminates, particle boards, OSB, natural solid wood, blockboard, flush doors etc.

The article is quite lengthy and takes a long time to read in its entirety, hence if you are looking for something specific, please use Ctrl+F and search this page, to jump directly to the areas that are of interest to you.

So, here are the FAQ's related to woodworking materials, and the answers to them.

1. Is particle board the same as MDF?

No. Particle boards are made from small particles of wood (sawdust) while MDF (Medium density fibre board) is made from wood fibres. MDF is a stronger and also a costlier material compared to Particle boards.

2. What are the types of plywood in India used for making home furniture?

Two types of plywood are mainly used for home furniture. The first type is commercial MR grade plywood, and the other one is called BWR grade (Boiling Water resistant) plywood. MR is moisture resistant while BWR grade is waterproof plywood. BWR is of better quality compared to MR grade. MR plywood is also known as Interior grade, while BWR

Carpenters and Interior designers in India often refer to BWR grade plywood as Marine ply, though technically speaking Marine grade plywood is different than BWR plywood.

3. What is Marine grade plywood?

Marine grade plywood is specifically made for extreme exterior applications such as for building boats, and for the woodwork to be done in ships. Hence its said to be of marine grade quality. It's generally not used for furniture since its much costlier compared to MR or BWR plywood.

4. What is veneer?

Veneers are very thin slices of wood obtained from tree logs. Decorative veneers are often used to increase the beauty of furniture. Most common ways are glueing veneers on top of plywood or MDF in the case of kitchen cabinets, or over blockboard in the case of veneered doors.

5. What is blockboard?

The blockboard core is made from rectangular blocks of wood called batons. These batons are sandwiched on both sides by thin layers of plywood veneers. This is the reason that from the outside blockboard looks just like plywood, but on the inside its very different. The blocks inside are generally obtained from softwood trees. Pine wood blocks are the most used ones for making blockboard. Blockboards are cheaper compared to plywood.

6. What is softwood and hardwood?

Softwood and hardwood are the two categories of wood obtained from different types of trees. Hardwood is considerably better in strength and durability compared to softwood. Examples of hardwood are teak wood or gurjan wood. Examples of softwood are mango wood or pine wood.

7. Which wood is used for making plywood?

Most of the plywood manufactured is made using hardwood obtained from hardwood trees. Such hardwood plywood has good structural strength, durability and dimensional stability. Having said that, softwood can also be used to make plywood, though it will be of a lower quality. Some manufacturers may also make plywood using both hardwood and softwood. In such cases some of the layers (plies or veneers) used for making the plywood are softwood and the others are hardwood. If all the plies used are hardwood veneers, then the plywood is called a 100% hardwood plywood. The most popular wood in India for making plywood, is Gurjan wood (pronounced as Garjan wood), which is a good quality hardwood.

8. How is plywood made?

Plywood is made up of several layers of plies. Each individual ply is called a veneer. These veneers are obtained from tree logs. The logs are mounted on a woodworking machine, and are then rotated about their longitudinal axis while a cutter peels of thin layers (veneers) from the log. These veneers are then placed upon one another and pressed together in a hot-press machine under high pressure. The grain direction (direction of tear lines) alternates at right-angles in each adjacent layer of the plywood, which makes the plywood strong. The number of plies in a plywood is usually an odd number, such as 3-ply, 5-ply, 13-ply etc.

9. How good is particle board when compared to plywood?

Particle board is much weaker in strength compared to plywood. Its also a lot cheaper. Most of the customized furniture that is built by carpenters is by using plywood, while particle board furniture is usually available ready made in furniture shops in India. Particle boards are much lighter (and less denser) than plywood, and can easily be identified by tapping such furniture with the fingers or knuckles (it sounds hollow and weaker). Though particle board furniture is weaker, less moisture-resistant and less durable compared to plywood, it does usually come prelaminated and looks quite attractive.

10. What is the difference between MDF and HDF?

MDF is medium density fibre board, while HDF stands for high-density fibre boards. In woodworking the general rule of thumb is that higher the density of wood, the stronger it will be. HDF is denser, and hence better and stronger compared to MDF.

11. What is the difference between decorative laminates and decorative veneers?

Decorative laminates are artificially created materials that are made from paper and plastic resins, while veneers are actually thin slices of natural wood. Veneers obtained from some trees are preferred over others for their beauty. Some examples of popular veneer types are teak wood veneer, oak veneer, and maple, cherry etc. Decorative Laminates that resemble wood veneers are also quite popular. Veneers are generally costlier than laminates.

12. How exactly are decorative laminates made?

Laminates are a blend of paper and plastic. Two kinds of papers and two kinds of resins are used in its making. A brown paper is soaked and saturated in phenolic resin, and another decorative paper that contains the printed design is soaked and saturated in transperant melamine resin. These resins make the paper hard and brittle. These two papers are then pressed together under high heat and pressure to make the laminate surface. Laminates are scratch-resistant and water-proof, and are the most common way of decorating plywood.

13. Is solid wood better than plywood?

Natural solid wood is a homogeneous material, while plywood is made from layers of wood glued together. In very extreme adverse conditions, the layers of plywood can come apart but with solid wood such problem cannot arise. Having said that, solid wood can also have its own share of problems such as the wood can contract or expand, or it can develop cracks. The general consensus amongst woodworkers is that natural solid wood is better compared to plywood. So that means that a table made from solid teak wood is better than one that is made using teak wood plywood. However, natural solid wood furniture also costs a lot more than plywood furniture.

14. What is veneered MDF?

Veneered MDF would mean that a natural veneer has been glued over a MDF wood substrate. Usage of such materials is quite common in the making of kitchen cabinet doors.

15. What does decorative plywood mean?

Some plywood companies nowadays also offer prelaminated plywood. This eliminates the cost and time required for carpenters to glue laminate sheets (such as Sunmica or other brands) over plywood. Such kind of ready to use prelaminated plywood is also known as Decorative Plywood.

16. What are the IS codes for plywood used for home furniture?

ISI marked plywood has the IS code number mentioned above the ISI mark, and a CM/L number mentioned below the mark. The IS code is the document number that contains the detailed quality specifications of that type of plywood, and the CM/L number can be used to identify the company that has made the plywood. The IS code for MR grade and BWR grade plywood is IS:303, and the IS code for Marine grade plywood is IS:710

17. What are artificial veneers?

Artificial veneers would mean decorative laminates or any other material that looks like a wooden surface. On the other hand, veneers means natural wood veneers obtained by slicing tree logs. Natural veneers are costlier.

18. What are rotary-cut and slice-cut veneers?

Veneers are usually obtained by rotary-cut method, in which the timber logs are rotated while a cutter peels off layers of veneer from the log. The slice-cut veneers on the other hand are obtained by slicing the logs without rotating them. The slice cut method is used with very costly wood types since this method is capable of producing decorative veneers of very high quality.

19. When to use blockboard instead of plywood?

Plywood has a tendency to bend or sag in the middle when very lengthy pieces are used. Such a problem does not arise in blockboards which are made from a core of blocks. Hence while making any type of furniture, whenever the length of boards exceeds 7 feet or so, using blockboard is preferred compared to using plywood. This is the reason why wardrobe doors, book shelves and panels are often made using blockboards.

20. What is a flush door?

Flush doors are a kind of blockboard that has very thin layers of plywood (around 2.5 mm thickness) on its faces. Flush doors can be solid core or hollow core. Solid core means there are solid softwood blocks inside, while hollow core means its hollow on the inside having just a bit of supporting structure inside. Hollow core flush doors are commonly used for making partitions, while solid core flush doors are used for making the entrance doors of rooms in houses.

21. What are the standard dimensions of plywood sheets (size and thickness) in India?

The most common size of plywood sheets in India is 8' x 4' (8 feet by 4 feet). Here's the link to standard plywood thickness and sizes in India.

22. What are the standard dimensions of laminate sheets (size and thickness) in India?

The most common size of laminate sheets in India is 8' x 4' (8 feet by 4 feet). Here's the link to standard laminate thickness and sizes in India.

23. What is the basic difference between plywood and plyboard?

Plywood is generally called ply, while blockboards are generally called boards. The term 'plyboard' is often printed on the finished products and generally means that the company manufactures both plywood and blockboards. Some companies print it as 'plyboards', others as 'Ply & Board', and still others as 'Plywood and Blockboard'. Most of the plywood companies in India also manufacture blockboards, since the two materials are so closely related to each other.

24. What is flexible plywood?

Flexible plywood also called bendy plywood, or hatters ply or flexi ply, is a special type of plywood that can be bent without breaking it. It is used for making curved surfaces. For example, if a circular column of a building needs to be covered with wood, flexible wood can easily be bent and used for such a purpose, while other woods cannot. Thinner flexible plywood sheets can have a very small bending radius, while in the case of thicker sheets, the possible bending radius increases.

25. What is fire-retardant plywood?

Fire-retardant plywood does not burn up as easily as regular plywood. It has a lesser tendency to catch fire, the fire does not spread quickly over the surface, and the plywood burns up much more slowly. Fire retardant plywood is often used in public places such as the kitchens of restaurants, auditoriums, theatres, museums, and for the woodwork in public vehicles such as trains.

26. What is concrete shuttering plywood?

Its used in building construction work. For making concrete slabs or columns, wooden moulds are created. These moulds are called formwork, and shuttering plywood is used for making such formwork. Its a very high quality plywood similar to Marine grade, and is completely waterproof, can withstand changes in temperature, and has excellent dimensional stability. Shuttering plywood often has a phenolic film surface (same as a laminated surface) and hence is also known as film-faced concrete shuttering plywood.

27. What is phenolic plywood?

Phenolic plywood means the same as Phenolic film-faced shuttering plywood that is described in point no.26 above.

28. What is phenol-bonded plywood?

Any plywood in which the individual veneers are bonded using phenolic resins (synthetic plastic resin) can be termed as phenol-bonded plywood. BWR (Waterproof exterior grade) plywood as well as Marine grade plywood is made by bonding the veneers using phenol formaldehyde which is a phenolic resin. On the other hand, MR grade plywood is made using UF (Urea formaldehyde) resin.

29. What is OSB?

OSB stands for Oriented Strand board. It is another kind of engineered wood product, in which strands of wood (or wood flakes) are layered over each other in specific angles or orientation. Such placement of strongs makes OSB a strong material. Glue is mixed with the strands and the mixture is compressed under high pressure to make these boards. It is considered to be a good material for indoor use, and is often used in flooring and sheathing applications, and only sometimes for making furniture. Oriented Strand boards are very rarely used in India.

30. What does lumber and timber mean?

Trees are felled (cut) for obtaining logs of wood. These logs are further peeled to produce veneers and plywood, or chopped up into standard sizes for use in other applications. Lumber and Timber mean the same thing more or less. It is felled wood which is either in its raw state or in one of its stages of processing. The meaning varies slightly from country to country. In India, the term 'timber' is the one most commonly used. Hence you can find the so-called 'timber marts' on the outskirts of most of the cities in India.

31. What is carved wood furniture?

Natural solid wood, such as Sheesham wood (Indian rosewood) is often handcarved with a intricate Jali finish. Such carved furniture looks quite beautiful, but its also costlier compared to smpler plywood furniture.

32. What is the basic difference between Sunmica and Laminates?

Sunmica is one of the well-known brands of laminates in India. It was an early entrant in the laminates industry in India, and hence many people in India, including carpenters and interior designers often refer to laminates as Sunmica. There are also many other well-known brands of laminates available in the markets, e.g. Formica and GreenLam laminates.

33. What is the basic difference between Sunmica and Veneers?

As mentioned above, Sunmica is the one of the well-known brands of laminates in India. The difference between laminates and veneers is described in point no. 11 above.

34. What is sapwood and heartwood?

Sapwood are the outermost layers of a tree (the outer rings), while heartwood is the central portion of a log of tree. The sapwood of a living tree supplies water from its roots to all the leaves of the tree. In many of the tree species the heartwood is usually of a darker colour, and is drier, denser and harder compared to sapwood. However sapwood has a smoother finish, while heartwood usually has knots in it.