Plywood vs. Solid Wood: Which Should You Use?
Wood is one of the most popular materials used in construction and many other applications.
Although wood is typically sourced from a tree as a solid piece, there are also engineered wood products like plywood that are made by bonding layers of wood veneer together.
In this post, we’ll look at the key differences between plywood and solid wood, as well as their pros and cons, to help you decide which material is best suited for your needs.
What is plywood?
Plywood is a type of manufactured wood panel made from thin sheets of veneer by bonding them together with an adhesive. It is a popular choice for construction and furniture-making because it is strong, durable, and easy to work with.
Plywood is available in a variety of grades, thicknesses, and sizes. There are also different grades of plywood depending on the intended use.
For example, there are construction-grade plywood panels that are designed for structural applications, as well as furniture-grade plywood panels that are meant for aesthetic purposes.
What is solid wood?
Solid wood as its name suggests is a single piece of wood that comes from a tree. It is the traditional choice for construction and furniture-making because it is strong and has a natural look and feel.
Solid wood is also available in a variety of grades and sizes, depending on the type of tree it is sourced from.
For example, hardwoods like oak and maple are often used in furniture-making because of their durability, while softwoods like pine are often used in construction because of their affordability.
What are the differences between plywood and solid wood?
There are a few key differences between plywood and solid wood that you should be aware of:
Plywood is made from layers of veneer, while solid wood is a single piece of lumber.
Therefore, the mechanical properties of plywood (strength, stiffness, etc.) largely depend on the type of wood used for the veneers, as well as the adhesive used to bond them together.
On the other hand, the mechanical strength of the solid wood mainly depends on the species of tree it is sourced from. For example, hardwoods are typically stronger than softwoods since they have a denser grain structure.
While solid wood has a more consistent grain structure, plywood can be made with a variety of grain patterns depending on the orientation of the veneers.
This can give plywood an advantage since stacking veneers with different grain patterns can create a panel that is stronger than a solid wood panel of the same thickness.
But when it comes to mechanical strength there is no clear winner.
Solid wood can be sourced from a variety of species that have different strength properties, while plywood can be made with different types of wood by orienting the veneers in different ways to achieve the desired strength properties.
Considering the other factors like adhesive type, the number of veneers it is made with, and the grain pattern, it is hard to say which material is stronger in general.
Certain applications require resilience to certain load types which each type of wood is better equipped to handle.
Solid wood has a limited board width and length due to the size of the tree it is sourced from. The board thickness is also limited by the sawing process used to cut the lumber.
So, if you need lumber that is larger than what is available, you will have to either source it from a different type of tree or use multiple pieces of lumber to achieve the desired size.
The process of joining multiple pieces of lumber is very difficult even with modern tools and techniques. This is because the lumber will always have different moisture content levels, which can cause warping and crack over time.
Plywood, on the other hand, can be manufactured in a wide variety of sizes and thicknesses.
The veneers used to make plywood can be sourced from different types of trees, so creating a panel with the desired dimensions is much easier.
Dimensional limitations are one of the main reasons why plywood is often chosen over solid wood for construction and furniture-making.
That said, plywood can only be produced in a limited thickness due to the size of the veneers.
Most plywood panels are 3/4″ (18mm) or less in thickness. So, if you need a panel that is thicker than 3/4″, you will have to use multiple layers of plywood or solid wood to achieve the desired thickness which is not an applicable solution for many applications.
You won’t find plywood in frame lumber thicknesses. This is why lumber is chosen for load-bearing applications such as framing walls and roof rafters. If you are looking to frame a house, you will have to use solid wood.
One exception is LVL (laminated veneer lumber) which is a type of engineered wood that is made from thin layers of wood glued together.
LVL can be produced in very thick boards, which makes it a good choice for load-bearing applications.
It is hard to season and finish solid wood. The process of seasoning wood is very time-consuming and difficult to get right. If the wood is not properly seasoned, it can warp, crack, or split over time.
Plywood is much easier to season and finish because it is made from thin layers of wood that are bonded together. Each layer of wood is individually seasoned before being glued together, so the finished product is much more stable.
The process of seasoning and finishing plywood is much simpler and more reliable than solid wood, eliminating one of the main disadvantages of using lumber.
Solid wood has a more natural appearance than plywood because it is a single piece of lumber. The grain pattern is also more consistent since the wood is cut from a single tree.
Plywood, on the other hand, has a more artificial appearance since it is made from multiple layers of veneer. The grain pattern can also be more varied since the veneers can be sourced from different types of trees.
The appearance of solid wood is more consistent and natural, while the appearance of plywood is more varied and artificial.
That said, the appearance of plywood can be improved by using veneers with a consistent grain pattern or by finishing the surface with a layer of wood putty or veneer.
Solid wood is very heavy because it is a single piece of lumber. This can make it difficult to work with and transport.
Plywood is much lighter because it is made from multiple layers of veneer. This makes it easier to work with and transport, which is a major advantage over solid wood.
Solid wood is very difficult to work with because it is a single piece of lumber. The weight and size of the lumber can make it difficult to cut, sand, and finish.
Plywood is much easier to work with because it is made from multiple layers of veneer. The thin layers of wood are easy to cut, sand, and finish. The workability of plywood is a major advantage over solid wood.
Solid wood is more expensive than plywood because it is a single piece of lumber. The price of solid wood also depends on the type of tree it is sourced from.
Plywood is less expensive than solid wood because it is made from multiple layers of veneer. The price of plywood also depends on the type of tree the veneers are sourced from.
That said, plywood is generally less expensive than solid wood due to its flexibility in size, weight, and workability.
Although solid wood is a single piece of lumber, it is still susceptible to warping and cracking. This is because solid wood has different levels of moisture content and material inconsistencies through the lumber.
Plywood is much more uniform because the thin layers of wood are bonded together. The process of bonding the layers of wood together creates a more stable and uniform product.
Due to the better uniformity, plywood is less likely to warp and crack over time than solid wood. It is also more dimensionally stable than solid wood, meaning it will retain its shape better over time.
Due to its alternating layers of veneer glued together, plywood is more dimensionally stable and not prone to splitting. Whereas the long grain of solid lumber can separate or “check” due to natural fault lines in the wood.
Plywood is often used in places where it doesn’t require a lot of strength, such as in sheathing, underlayment, or subflooring. Solid wood is often used in places where it does require a lot of strength, such as in framing, trusses, or joists.
However, this doesn’t mean that plywood can’t be used in places where solid wood is typically used. Both plywood and solid wood can be used to build furniture, cabinets, and other woodworking projects.
There are softwood plywood and hardwood plywood. Depending on the intended use, one might be better suited than the other.
Softwood plywood is typically used for construction purposes, while hardwood plywood is typically used for woodworking projects.
The same goes for solid wood. Depending on the project, hardwood or softwood lumber might be better suited.
Hardwoods are typically used for furniture and cabinetry, while softwoods are typically used for less demanding woodworking projects and construction purposes.
Plywood and solid wood are both versatile materials that can be used for a variety of projects. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages that should be considered before making a decision.
In general, plywood is less expensive than solid wood, easier to work with, and more dimensionally stable. It can replace solid wood in many applications like construction and woodworking.
Since it can be manufactured in different sizes of sheets, plywood is often used where solid wood would be impossible or impractical to use. It is also used as an inexpensive way to add strength or stability to a project.
On the other hand, solid wood is a single piece of lumber and preferred material in applications where plywood might not perform as well, such as in framing or trusses.
Since plywood can only be manufactured to a certain thickness, solid wood is often used where the sheet size isn’t a limiting factor but the thickness is.