Build It Better:
Tips for Picking the Right Plywood

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Build It Better: Tips for Picking the Right Plywood
Plywood is used so commonly in projects that you may buy and use plywood without ever giving it much thought. But there’s more to plywood than meets the eye.

Plywood is a great material for building many types of projects. Plywood is less expensive than solid wood, it’s readily available in home centers and lumberyards, and the large sheets make it easy to build big structures. Here are a few tips that will help you select the best type of plywood for your next project.

 
The Core of the Issue
Core Image 1 As the name implies, plywood is traditionally created by layering thin plies of wood together to form large sheets. Those layers are laid up with the wood grain running in alternating directions, as shown in the cutaway photo. This adds a lot of strength, and it helps keep the sheet stable and flat, so it won’t warp, cup, and twist like a solid-wood board. The more inner layers a sheet has, the more stable and strong it will be. The face layers—the ones that show—are made from thin veneers that are oriented so the wood grain runs lengthwise on the sheet.

Core Image 1These days, though, you may find plywood that’s not made with this traditional “veneer core” construction of alternating plies. There are several other types that, while not as common, are growing in popularity.

Instead of a core made from thin layers of wood, MDF-core plywood is made using Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) that is covered with thin wood veneers on the faces. The main advantage of MDF core is that it’s less expensive than veneer core, and it’s very flat and smooth. But a sheet of MDF core can weight twice as much as veneer core, and it doesn’t resist sagging or hold screws as well. Still, MDF core offers a great alternative for many kinds of structures.

A relatively new type of plywood, called composite core, is being produced to combine the best properties of veneer-core and MDF-core versions. Composite-core plywood is made using veneer-core inner layers with outer layers of composite material—usually MDF or particleboard—directly under the face veneers. This construction produces sheets that are strong at the core, with flat, stable, and less-expensive layers under the face veneer. While composite-core is a nice option for projects, it’s usually only found at lumberyards and specialty lumber dealers. It will become much more common eventually, though.


Best Face Forward
Of course, when you go to purchase plywood, the type of core isn’t generally your primary concern. You’re interested in the part of the plywood you see—the face layers. You may be looking for a specific species of wood, such as oak, birch, or maple. Or you may want plywood with face veneers that are suitable for painting. In either case, you’ll find plywood with face veneers that are made in one of four different ways. Each provides a different look.

Rotary-cut VeneerRotary-cut veneer: Rotary-cut veneer is the most common. This veneer is created by spinning the log and peeling off a continuous sheet. Think of a roll of paper towels, and you get the idea. This is the least-expensive way to produce the veneer, and it can be laid onto the plywood core layers in one big sheet, so this type of plywood is usually the least expensive, as well. Rotary-cut veneer has wild, random grain patterns, though, so it’s best suited for projects that will be painted.

Plain Sliced (or flat cut) Veneer Plain Sliced (or flat cut) veneer: Plain Sliced (or flat cut) veneer is the next most common. In this method, the log is repeatedly sliced parallel to the center. It’s the same way most boards are cut, just in much thinner layers. The veneer slices aren’t wide enough to cover a sheet, so they’re laid out side by side. The result is a sheet of plywood that looks like multiple boards, each with the typical arched or “cathedral” pattern in the grain that comes from cutting parallel to the growth rings. Most of the oak, birch, or maple plywood you’ll find in home centers is flat sawn.

Riftsawn Veneer Rift-sawn veneer: If you’re after a more straight-grained look for your plywood project, you’ll want to look for a sheet with rift-sawn veneer. It’s made by tilting the log to a slight angle, so that the slices are more perpendicular to the growth rings. Just like with the plain-sliced, the slices get laid out side by side, but the grain pattern shows up as fairly straight lines instead of as a repeating arches. You may even have to examine the plywood sheet closely to tell where the individual veneer slices begin and end. Rift-sawn isn’t typically found on home-center shelves, so you’ll have to special-order, or turn to a woodworking specialty store or hardwood lumber dealer. Also, expect to pay more of a premium price for rift-sawn because the veneer-making process is more involved and creates more waste.

Quartersawn Veneer Quartersawn veneer: One more type of veneer, called quartersawn, is also made for very specialized applications. Oak is probably the most common species that gets made into quartersawn plywood because oak, when cut this way, has distinctive “flecks” in the grain that are one hallmark of furniture made in the Craftsman or Arts-and-Crafts style. Other species are made in quartersawn, too, but they’re less common. In any case, quartersawn plywood will almost always be a special-order item from a woodworking store or specialty lumber dealer.


Kreg K5

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