Plywood Vs. Wood: Which Should You Pick?

Plywood and wood are both have their place, but they are not interchangeable!

Plywood is manufactured by gluing wood veneers under pressure to create one board. It’s cheaper and comes is larger sizes than solid wood, making it ideal for cabinets and shelves. Solid wood is cut directly from trees and is more expensive, however wooden objects are considered unique and of higher quality.

I regularly use both plywood and wood in my projects. If you’re trying to figure out which to use (or choose for a purchase,) read on!

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Plywood Or Wood – When to Use Each

Size: The Main Consideration

The main reason for plywood’s use is that you can use wider slabs. With dimensional lumber, even the widest trees will present problems, as slabs from these trees are ridiculously heavy, dimensionally unstable, and hard to season and finish.

If you’re going to need a large, flat piece of material, plywood is probably what you’ll use. I used plywood to build all the sides of my workbench:

Plywood side of workbench

Cabinetry is also a common application of plywood, although my last cabinet project I cheated and purchased the frames from Ikea. I built the drawers from plywood, though!

The one exception to this is if you’re planning for your big flat piece to be the centerpiece of the project.

In that case, a beautiful piece of solid wood (or a bunch of smaller pieces glued together) might be the way to go.

Be aware, though, that big pieces of wood are crazy expensive. Like, thousands of dollars expensive if we’re talking about hardwood. Which brings us to our next consideration…

Is Plywood Cheaper Than Solid Wood?

Plywood is much more expensive than other natural wood alternatives like MDF (multi-density fiberboard). However, plywood is still considerably cheaper than natural wood.

Note that for this to apply, you need to be comparing apples to apples. Nice, fancy plywood is probably going to be more expensive than furring strips (basically the cheapest solid wood you can buy at Home Depot.)

But cheap plywood will generally be cheaper than cheap wood, and fancy plywood will be cheaper than fancy wood.

Plywood has a (false) reputation for being cheap, and in my opinion, it’s really not. Price-wise, even the least expensive 3/4″ “sheathing plywood” meant for roofing and other unseen applications goes for $50 for a 4’x8′ sheet at Home Depot.

Quality-wise, hardwood plywood is actually really nice, and if you’re looking to create a high-quality product, you’re probably better off going with hardwood plywood than cheaper softwoods.

Is Plywood Prettier Than Solid Wood?

Finally, the last thing I usually take into account when choosing between wood and plywood, is if the wood/plywood will be seen.

I’m much more likely to choose solid wood if I’m picking wood for the feature of the piece. This tabletop, for example, is solid pine.

My butcherblock countertops are made of utility oak:

Butcherblock countertops made of oak wood

This artwork is made of maple and cumaru.

Sometimes I’ll use hardwood plywood as the feature as well. But I guess the difference is, if something is going to be seen, I consider using solid wood.

If something is not going to be seen, then I’ll usually save the money, and go with plywood.

Other Things I Consider

Sanding

The art project I referenced above required a significant amount of sanding, which was another reason I went with wood.

If you’re going to need to sand layers off to flatten the piece, plywood is a poor choice, since you’ll sand straight through the veneer. Not a good look.

Stability

Wood comes from living objects, and therefore it moves. The grain of the wood expands as it absorbs moisture during humid weather, and contracts during dry winters.

Plywood doesn’t do this, since the layers are placed in alternating directions.

If you’re working with a piece that you need to be extra stable, plywood is the way to go.

Edging

As you probably realize, plywood has ugly edges:

Plywood Edges

Maybe “ugly” is too strong a word. Mainstream products are displaying those edges more and more often.

But plywood edges look like plywood edges, and that’s often not desirable.

Edge banding is a thing that exists to cover up plywood edges. This is one option for hiding them.

I tend to create furniture plans where the plywood is surrounded by a wood frame that hides the edges (this TV Lift Cabinet is a great example.) This is another option.

But if you’re working with something small, it might just be easier to buy solid wood so you don’t have to worry about the edges at all.

Less-Important Considerations

You might have some other concerns… let me address them, and why I don’t usually worry too much about them.

Is Plywood “Better” than Wood?

While there are some things plywood does better than wood (and some things wood does better than plywood,) it’s hard to say if one is better than the other. It all depends on what is right for your project.

One advantage of plywood over natural wood is that dimensional lumber will shrink and expand depending on the weather. Also, it is much lighter than other products, and it is easier to paint or polish.

It’s also easier to cut and quick to assemble. Joints can be made much more easily because there is no expansion or contraction in plywood.

Finally, higher-quality plywoods are aesthetically pleasing. The outer layers of plywood are selected for homogeneity and a lack of knots. This kind of uniformity is difficult to achieve edge joining dimensional lumber.

However, a good piece of wood can have patterns that are more striking and interesting than plywood, so it really depends on what you’re going for with your project.

Which Is Stronger: Wood Or Plywood?

In a comparison between equally thick pieces of wood and plywood, plywood will be stronger than wood.

Officially, there are lots of “buts” to this. Hardwood is stronger than softwood. Larger pieces are stronger than solid pieces. The direction you’re applying force (with or against the grain) matters.

In most applications, though, it doesn’t matter. Wood and plywood are both very strong materials. The slight advantage a piece of plywood is going to get you over a piece of wood is minimal, and not worth worrying about most of the time.

Additionally, plywood is only available in thinner dimensions; it is usually ¾ of an inch or less, whereas wood can be much thicker, making for a stronger piece.

Manufacturing Differences

Wood, which can also be referred to as dimensional lumber or solid wood, comes straight from a tree and is then cut to pre-determined sizes. Dimensional lumber is also dried in a kiln, making the planks stronger.

Plywood is an engineered product comprised of multiple layers of wood veneer. These layers are joined in alternating directions and joined under pressure to strengthen the product.

The layers are alternated like this so that if stress or overload causes one set of grains to break, the next layer will support the wood so that it doesn’t break in its entirety. It is called directional stability and means that plywood is equally strong in all directions.

A few things may go wrong during the plywood manufacturing process. Gaps between veneer layers caused by knots can utterly weaken plywood.

The glue and the method of pressure applied are also very important. The layers will typically separate if moisture gets in between the layers and affects the glue. This separation is known as delamination.

What to Actually Buy

So lets break this down. If you need a large flat piece of material, go with plywood. If you need it to look nice, go with hardwood plywood.

I like this Sande Plywood, and use it a lot. It’s what makes up this French Cleat wall (which is still a work in-progress!):

French cleat wall made of plywood

I’ve also stained Birch Plywood for my TV Lift Cabinet:

TV lift cabinet made of plywood

For plywood that’s going to be seen, but doesn’t need to be beautiful, I like pine plywood. That was what I used on my workbench in the photo above!

And for plywood that won’t be seen, I tend to go with plywood sheathing. Here it is on what will ultimately be countertops:

Wood

If you need smaller pieces, and want to avoid dealing with edging difficulties, wood is a great choice.

When you’re just getting started building things, cheap woods, like furring strips and pine is the way to go. I have a whole guide to making cheap wood look pretty over here, and a guide to buying wood over here.

And if you’re thinking of making a feature, or want to grow into working with more expensive woods, check out the cutoff section of your local hardwood supplier!

That’s where I found the Cumaru and maple for my art project, and they were only $1- $2 a piece!

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