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Is plywood really the best choice for shelves?

By Abhijit Phadke

A lot of people build shelves out of plywood, and it works out well for some people, and for some others it doesn't.

And here's the reason.

There are two main factors worth considering when building a shelf.

1. What will be the length of the shelf?

2. What is the expected load that the shelf will have to take?

For shelves of shorter length, plywood can be a choice worth considering, and can serve its purpose quite well.

However when the shelf size is longer (~ above 4 or 5 foot), plywood becomes unsuitable for this task, or requires additional supports resulting in increased carpentry work.

Don't get this wrong. Plywood is a very strong material especially if its made from high quality hardwoods. But it also has a peculiar drawback. Plywood has a tendency to bend or sag in the middle when lengthy pieces are used, spoiling the entire appearance of the shelf.

So, what's the suitable alternative?

Well, in India, carpenters seem to have a clear consensus about which material to choose for long shelves. Instead of plywood they opt for blockboard, which is made from blocks of wood that form the core of the board, covered with wood veneers on either side.

Blockboard is not only better suited for this application, it is also comparatively cheaper than plywood.

For making a shelf, solid wood is actually the best option, except for the fact that its very costly.

Because of the face veneers, the blockboard surface looks similar to plywood, however a closer inspection of the edges confirms the difference between the two.

Blockboard is not only better suited for this application, it is also comparatively cheaper than plywood.

Here's how the inside of blockboard looks like;

Blocks inside a blockboard
The damaged backrest of an old wooden bench that reveals the blocks inside the blockboard, after the outer layer of wood veneer has come off.

Blockboards are available two varieties:

1. MR (Moisture resistant grade), which is suitable for making book shelves or for any other indoor use.

2. BWP (Boiling waterproof grade), which is suitable for exterior use (outdoor shelves) and for kitchen shelves that are likely to get wet.

For the same reasons, blockboard is also the preferred choice for making benches, backrests, wardrobe doors, and any other piece of furniture, which require lengthier pieces of wood.

To enhance the beauty of the shelf, it can either be stained, painted or laminated. Amongst these, using decorative laminates (e.g. Sunmica) is more common these days, not only because of the wide variety of textures, patterns and colours available, but also because it makes the shelf more water-resistant.

To cover the sides, edge-banding is the most common choice, in which either plain or decorative wood strips are pasted to the sides of the board.

So, to summarize, if you are considering building any kind of shelf, be it a bookshelf, or a kitchen shelf, or a shelf for displaying your trophies, you can definitely consider using block board instead of plywood.