You don't have to be a linguist to draw a connection between the words plywood and pliability. Though traditionally used in home construction and cabinetry, mid-century makers like Eames and Aalto molded plywood into curvy furniture. Designers still showcase the material's versatility today, recasting the sheet good as a luxury lumber. But what exactly is plywood anyway?
Plywood is as old as the pyramids — dating back to 2900 BC, it was widely used by the ancient Egyptians, notably as coffin material for their mummies. (Archeologists are unsure whether they used it for their daddies too). In 2009 AD, plywood is assembled using similar techniques to those of Cleopatra and crew, albeit with the perks of modern technology.
After loosening up in a hot bath, the lumber is mounted on an industrial lathe and "rotary cut" or "peeled" into one continuous veneer. This thin strip is cut, stacked and glued as layers, or "plies," with the grain direction of each consecutive ply alternating 90 degrees. This cross-hatched assembly adds strength and stability, preventing the plywood from warping like solid wood. The final product is sold in grades A through D, ranging from defect-free with high-quality face veneer to knottier construction-grade wood. To really dig into the details, check out Dung Ngo and Eric Pfeiffer's useful book Bent Ply.
The pictures below illustrate the many uses of this modest material. What do you think? Does plywood deserve a prominent place in the home? Or has our obsession with all things wood gone a step too far?
• The design patent for the most famous of plywood products, the Eames LCW.
• The de Havilland Mosquito was a British WWII bomber made largely of plywood. When it first took to the skies in 1941 it was the fastest aircraft in the world, earning the nickname "the Wooden Wonder."
• Against all odds, woodturner Stephen Gleasner transforms plywood into striking painted vessels.
• Furniture designer Brodie Neill's sculptural chaise incorporates a mix of materials including plywood and plastic.
Johnny is currently blogging his experience as a student and amateur woodworker. You can keep track of his projects on his blog, Woodlearner.