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Advantages and disadvantages of plywood

By Abhijit Phadke

When it comes to acquiring wooden furniture for our homes, there are so many options these days that its quite daunting to make a quick choice. Should we opt for the time-tested solid wood furniture (made from teak? oak? which one?), or will it be better to hire a carpenter and get custom-made plywood furniture built as per our requirements, or should we just walk into some furniture showroom and get all those ready-made pieces made from particle board or MDF? Which of these materials are better and what will be the comparative cost?

This article discusses the advantages and disadvantages of plywood for making furniture, and compares it with the other choices available such as Particle boards, Blockboards, and Solid wood.

But before we do that, lets take a quick short look at what plywood actually is, so that we can understand its pros and cons more clearly.

A damaged sheet of plywood
Here's a plywood piece that was damaged during the Mumbai floods in the year 2005. The individual layers of ply that are seen coming apart. Also notice the tear lines seen on the individual sheets, and how these tear lines (grain patterns) alternate and are perpendicular to each other in each successive layer of the plywood.

As seen in the image above, plywood consists of several layers of very thin slices of wooden sheets (called wood veneers) that are glued and joined firmly together using heat and pressure.

Advantages of Plywood

1. Good uniform strength

Plywood is a strong material, especially if its made from strong woods (hardwoods) instead of the weaker woods (softwoods). The image above helps illustrate where this strength comes from. The darker lines (or the tear lines) that you see on the face of the plywood is called the wood grain pattern. It is quite easy to tear an individual veneer along the grain, and equally difficult to tear it across the grain. This is why, whilst making plywood the layers are arranged such that the grain pattern alternates in each layer, and this is what makes plywood sheets such a strong material.

2. Can be used for making interior home furniture as well as exterior furniture.

Plywood is available in different grades such as MR grade (moisture resistant) for interior use, and BWR grade (boiling water resistant) for exterior use. So furniture that is likely to get wet, such as that in the kitchen or the garden can be made from BWR Water-proof grade plywood, while elsewhere such as in the living room or bedroom, the cheaper MR grade plywood can be used. This is a distinct advantage over cheaper materials such as Particle board which is meant for indoor use only.

3. Available in large sizes compared to solid wood

Its very easy to get a nice looking uniformly thick 18 mm plywood sheet of size 8'x4' (8 feet x 4 feet) from the market, but quite impractical to get solid flat wood of such a size (which tree could be cut and how?). According to me, this is the most significant benefit that plywood offers compared to solid wood, and that's the reason it became so popular since its discovery. These large sized engineered plywood sheets allow for a variety of applications that would be difficult to achieve using solid wood.

4. Economical use of wood by mixing various woods together

Some woods are prized for their beauty (teak, oak etc.) but are also costly. The veneers of such woods can be used to form the surface layer of the plywood, while the inner layers could be composed of other strong but cheaper woods. Such a mix and match is possible while constructing plywood and the financial benefits accrued from this, can be passed on to the end consumer.

5. Available in varieties such as flexible plywood.

Several interesting varieties have now come up in plywood. One of them is flexible plywood (also known as bendy ply). It can be rolled up or bent to form curved surfaces and allows for more applications in furniture and home decor.

6. Lesser wastage of wood

In comparison with the process of acquiring solid wood blocks, the plywood making process has less wastage of material (tree logs), since both the rotary cut and slice cut methods of making veneers do not produce too much waste. So we can utilize more part of the tree logs in this way.

7. Versatile material that has many applications.

Plywood sheets not only find their way into our homes, by becoming a part of our furniture, but they also have several industrial and structural applications. e.g. Concrete shuttering plywood, Marine plywood for boat-making etc.

8. Durable material

Plywood furniture made from good quality hardwood (such as teak or gurjan wood) is quite durable and lasts many long years. Not as long as solid wood pieces, but much much better compared to the cheaper Particle board furniture, which eventually needs to be replaced.

9. Less costly compared to solid wood

Solid wood is better, because its a natural product, but its also very costly. Plywood costs lesser in comparison. So a reasonable trade-off for most people is to opt for decent quality plywood to meet their furniture requirements.

Disadvantages of plywood:

1. Water can damage MR grade plywood

The layers of plywood can come apart on prolonged exposure to water. This drawback can be overcome by choosing BWR Waterproof grade for plywood furniture that is likely to get wet.

2. Can bend or sag when longer pieces are used.

Plywood is not considered suitable for applications that require longer pieces of wood such as our front doors, benches, wardrobe doors or any other place where long panels are required. This is because plywood has a tendency to sag or bend from the middle in such cases. The better option to overcome this disadvantage is to opt for blockboard, which is technically better-suited in such cases as also cheaper than plywood.

3. Difficult to judge the quality of a plywood sheet.

As a customer, its difficult to judge which wood has been used for making the plywood. The outer surface veneers can be seen, but what about the inner ones? The market has several varieties of plywood, from locally made products to those from reputed brands. Its important to choose wisely and buy from a trusted source irrespective of whether we shop offline or online.

4. Plywood usually needs additional enhancements.

Solid wood in itself looks beautiful. Whereas most commercial grade plywood on the other hand, needs to be covered by laminates (such as Sunmica) so as to enhance its beauty and to increase its life. These laminates when glued over the plywood also improve its resistance to damage from water.

5. The edges also need to be covered with suitable pieces of wood.

Other than laminating the surfaces of the plywood, the edges of the wood also usually need to be covered by glueing wooden strips over them, to make the furniture look better.

6. Costlier compared to blockboards, or particle boards.

Plywood is costlier compared to particle boards or blockboards. And in addition to the material cost, the carpentry costs also get added. So for those people who are looking for short-term furniture solutions, the ready-made furniture made from particle boards or from the stronger MDF can be worth considering.

7. Manual and Time-consuming process.

Furniture has to be created manually using pieces of plywood, as opposed to machine assembled MDF or Particle board furniture. Which means that making most plywood furniture is not a one-day activity. You will need to hire a carpenter, acquire all the proper materials, specify your exact requirements, and then wait while the carpenter does his job. Its a slightly time-consuming process. So if as a customer, you are in a hurry, or dont want all this hassle, you can opt for ready-made furniture.

8. The adhesives used may be ecologically damaging.

One important aspect of plywood is that its important to check which chemical glue has been used from sticking the veneers together. Urea formaldehyde adhesives which were used prior to phenolic resins are not considered very safe for use, and can also pollute the environment. Probably a reason why solid wood smells better than newly made plywood. However, plywood made by following all the safety rules and regulations can be considered safe to use.

9. Not considered as strong as solid wood.

Plywood is not as strong as the heavier and denser solid wood (though it compares favorably against other options such as particle boards or blockboards). However the plus point is that plywood costs lesser.