Plywood or solid wood: which is better?
Customers often ask – is plywood or solid wood better? When buying a new piece of furniture, customers want to know if natural wood is actually worth it. The short answer is: YES! Solid wood is simply superior to plywood. Not only does it look better and last longer, but real wood will save you money in the long term.
What is the difference between plywood and solid wood?
Plywood is a manufactured product made from thin layers of wood (plies) sandwiched together with binders and preservatives, then compressed and heated. The result is a large sheet of material that has a very good strength to weight ratio and can often be lower in cost that a solid wood equivalent. Plywood is ideal for cabinet sides and backs, interior shelves and other surfaces that are not commonly seen during everyday use.
It’s important to keep in mind that the binders, adhesives and preservatives used in plywood often contain chemicals that offgas toxic fumes for months or years. If you are sensitive to formaldehyde or other preventives, you may want to avoid plywood in your home, or at the very least make sure it is sealed very well.
If you are sensitive to chemical offgas, insist on furniture made from solid wood with a low VOC finish such as Tung Oil.
Why is plywood used?
Now, this is not to say that good quality plywood is useless. Plywood is great for areas that need lightweight strength while not being seen. At Solid Custom Heirlooms we use high quality plywood for things such as drawer bottoms, cabinet backs and some interior bed pieces that are hidden from view during day to day use.
We use plywood for these applications items because of its strength to weight ratio. For example, to use hardwood for the unseen back of a dresser, we would need to use a 1 inch thick panel. Compare this with a 1/4 inch thick piece of plywood which has similar strength while being significantly lower in weight and consumes less space. This not only creates a design that is better, but it reduces shipping costs by reducing weight.
Not all plywood is created equal
Before we continue, we must point out that not all plywood is created equal.
We only use very high quality plywood made in the US. This plywood is usually made from real wood veneers glued together with resin, and then pressed under thousands of pounds of pressure. This creates thin sheets of a highly dense and durable material that is very good for retaining heavy loads over long periods of time.
But, this is for very high quality plywood. It is similar to marine grade plywood, but marine plywood is treated with waterproof glue. Ours is finish grade plywood.
However, your average “big box store” piece of furniture is not made with this material. Rather, it is made with a low cost type of plywood also known as particle board – a sheet material made from wood scraps, chemicals and glue. You can learn more about the disadvantages of particle board here.
Often the manufacturer will put a sheet of wood veneer made out of natural solid wood over particle board to make it look nice, but it will come apart under any serious pressure.
You are in essence buying the wood version of Spam. Put too many books on a shelf made with that stuff and it will snap in half. So much for the decorative veneer!
Why is solid wood better than plywood?
At this point, many of you will ask, “this American plywood sounds pretty good. It seems stronger. Why not make everything out of this laminated plywood?” Well, there are things that good quality solid wood can do that engineered wood simply cannot.
First, strength is not the same as durability. And second, there are qualities of real wood that plywood is simply incapable of matching.
Strength of plywood vs solid wood
Have you ever seen a professional weight lifter? They are really strong at certain motions. However, try to make them stretch in ways that they do not usually do. What happens?
They get really stiff or hurt. Plywood is the power lifter of the woods we use. They are really good at holding heavy things.
However, if you knock them against something, those strips of veneer will come unstuck from each other. Plywood gets chipped. The plywood strength is often not compromised, but it starts to not look very good. It gets damaged.
Real wood is durable
However, natural wood is durable and gets better over time. It is elastic. It pops back. It is like a scrappy endurance athlete. It may not be able to lift twice it’s body weight. But it can take the same movements again and again, while staying the same. It is simply more durable.
This is partly due to the wood fibers in solid wood. The strength from these fibers make solid hardwood ideal for cabinets dining tables and dressers.
Hardwood’s unique qualities
Hardwood is beautiful. It simply is. It is solid and dependable, yes, but the first thing you notice when you look at a beautiful piece of Oak furniture is it’s intricate outer layers, its straight wood grain patterns and polish. You can tell that it is high quality.
Because of that stability, it’s beauty will never diminish. Also, hardwood can be shaped into intricate shapes that bring out it’s grain. Plywood by nature cannot do that.
Hardwood has the added bonus of saving you money by being durable. If your furniture never breaks, it never needs to be replaced. It can be repaired and last for generations.
The beauty of hardwood is that it ends up being cheaper than plywood in the long run. Since hardwood is more durable you can expect it to last for decades, outlasting your average plywood. While solid wood furniture might be more expensive upfront, it is worth the cost in the long term.
5 disadvantages of plywood
- The edges of plywood show the induvial ply layers and must be covered or painted
- Plywood is difficult to refinish and repair if damaged
- Plywood is not moisture resistant, and can warp or separate if exposed to water or high humidity climates
- Plywood is made with chemicals and adhesives that can offgas toxic fumes for months if not years
- Solid wood simply looks better than plywood
Simply, both plywood and solid wood furniture have different advantages. Those advantages often complement each other, which is why we use both when making furniture.
Plywood is great for strength, and hardwood is great for durability and beauty.
Simply, an engineered product simply cannot match a product that comes straight from nature.