Samuel Bentham, a British naval engineer, was credited for inventing modern plywood when he applied for patents for several machines that produce veneers. He elaborated on the idea of laminating layers of veneer and gluing them to form thicker pieces. This idea, of course, aptly pertained to plywood.
Plywood is a structural panel made of wood, considered to be the first and original engineered wood product ever made. It features thin layers of plies made of wood veneers that are glued together. To many woodworkers, plywood is simply a modern invention, but its history is traceable to the ancient Egyptians, and its use dates back to 2,600 BC. Plywood exhibits strength, non-warping properties, flexibility, and affordability as a contemporary building material.
Fifty years after, the father of Alfred Nobel, Immanuel Nobel, a Swedish architect, and engineer, found that bonding very thin wood layers could create stronger pieces. He then invented Rotary Lathe for making laminated wood. From then on, plywood planks became available for supporting easel paintings, replacing the old canvas or cardboard.
When Was the First Plywood Really Invented?
The manufacturing of plywood on an industrial scale started in the 1850s. Early plywood pieces got manufactured from decorative hardwood for furniture making and items like doors, chests, cabinets, and many others. However, softwood was used only in the 20th century for making plywood.
Plywood got patented on December 26, 1865, by Willaim Everett and Drummond Libbey. Both are British men. But it was only in 1907 when Wilhelm Baumann first invented a special lathe that could take on these plies and glue them properly together. This machine is aptly called the veneer lathe.
There is a minimal record of how the rotary lathe got used for making laminated wood. Besides, little documentations exist as to when plywood got commercialized.
However, in the 1870 edition of the French Dictionary, rotary lathe veneer manufacturing got mentioned in one of the entries in that dictionary. So, we can assume that using the rotary lathe to manufacture plywood was already an established industry in France that year.
When Was Plywood Introduced in the United States?
In the United States, however, plywood got introduced in 1865. Its commercial production, however, began shortly after. The standard 4 feet by 8 feet plywood sheets got introduced in 1928 as a general construction and building material.
After the introduction of plywood, artists began using plywood to support their easel paintings, replacing the old and traditional cardboard or canvass. Ready-made boards for artists engaged in oil painting featured three-layered plywood. These boards got sold as early as 1880 in New York.
Mass-produced plywood hardly found itself in use outside the furniture industry. In 1890, laminated wood got first used for building doors. Demands for plywood increased then, and many companies dipped their hands in manufacturing poly-laminated wood planks, not intended for doors, but buses, railroad cars, and airplanes.
During World War II, plywood had little use and was of relatively low quality. Besides, it was only manufactured in limited quantities domestically for specialized applications. However, Ray and Charles Eames began experimenting on plywood during the Second World War. These two American designers tried to develop a method of molding complex forms of curved wood.
They succeeded in 1942 in designing a stackable lightweight molded plywood for use by the US navy. Soon after, they transition into making plywood parts and components for aircraft.
The first use of plywood for construction started when Steiner Brothers—a company that produced flooring made of industrially soaked-in-glue kraft papers pressed together to create panels—were used as subfloor on the subfloor of its factory.
Such panels are flimsy, though they worked well to protect the factory’s subfloor from damage. Steiner Brothers also installed plywood floors in the mansion of Governor Huey Long in Louisiana.
In 1932, Weyerhaeuser, a German firm, began using plywood to make barrel staves. Until then, staves were primarily made of solid wood pieces characterized by single-grain direction and soldered at their ends.
During the Second World War, plywood slowly replaced steel in the building of fighter planes. Soon after the war ended, manufacturers used plywood to build boats because it allowed easy molding into various shapes, enhancing performance and speed.
Plywood After World War II
After the war, building codes required using plywood sheathing on the roofs of houses. These codes were promulgated to prevent fire because plywood was designed to resist fire then. Some years after, plywood got also used on the roofs of the churches.
However, furniture manufacturers seldom used plywood for furniture making because of the costs of plywood at that time. Nevertheless, the first furniture made of plywood included a laundry chute for one of New York’s department stores. This laundry chute got made of three wood layers and beeswax.
In the 1950s and 1960s, DIY plywood became widespread, with many handypersons working with plywood at home. Since it was easy to shape and didn’t necessitate the use of complicated tools, many find it easy to work with. Besides, even amateur workers could fashion and use plywood for their DIY projects.
In 1960, Weyerhaeuser also invented the OSB or Oriented Strand Board, made of wood strands broken up by steam and heat before bonded together using resin with the help of a foaming machine. This manufacturing method of plywood was a remarkable improvement in plywood production because it produced more consistent and uniform products with enhanced appearance and strength.
Mirror dinghies, made primarily of marine plywood, became the most common and popular boats of the previous and present centuries. You can assemble this boat, which got sold as a complete kit. This type of boat was made affordable because of its less costly materials and was designed for beginner sailors.
However, plywood has become the most common building material in this digital age. Designers and makers usually share their plywood projects with others worldwide by sharing their CNC digital cutting files. They also share their videos online with other makers and designers.
Structural Characteristics and Types of Plywood
The plywood panel features face veneers made of higher-grade materials than the core veneers. The bending stresses, of course, are higher in the face veneers. As such, the core layers function to enhance the separation between the two outer layers. This way, the resistance of the panel against bending is increased. Besides, thicker panels can span greater distances even with the same loads.
Plywood comes in different varieties depending on the applications you will use them. For example, softwood is made primarily of Douglas Fir, Cedar, Pine, Spruce, or Fir.
Redwood gets also used in plywood for industrial and construction purposes. Plywood for flooring, for example, is characterized by tongue and groove to prevent boards’ movement.
There are also hardwood pieces of plywood, tropical plywood, made of tropical timber, high-strength plywood for aircraft, decorative plywood, flexible plywood, marine plywood, and many other types.
The use of plywood as a building material offers many advantages. It is versatile and has various interior, exterior, and structural applications. You can use it for structural frames; you can also use it for internal paneling. It provides uniform strength, and its use is economical.
One downside of its use is it tends to sag when given too many loads or when exposed to water. The invention of plywood, of course, was a welcome invention for woodworkers. It paved the way for developing other engineered boards like particle boards.
Liam is a 37-year-old woodworker and interior designer who loves to make every furniture project an art piece. He is very experienced in furniture design and woodworking project planning.