Looking for a suitable sheet material for an upcoming project? Read our ply guide, covering all things plywood types, uses and applications.
Before we jump into what plywood can be used for, it’s useful to know exactly what this wonderful sheet material actually is, and a few of its key properties and characteristics.
Plywood is essentially flat sheets of wood veneers that have been bonded together.
The term ‘ply’ comes from the French word for fold – ‘plier’, referring to the layers, or veneers, that make up a sheet of plywood.
At the very least, a sheet of plywood is made up of 3 layers of veneers.
You’ll always find that the number of layers or plies is an odd number. This is because each layer is placed on top of the other, usually at a right angle or a 45-degree angle to ensure all-around strength, balance and minimal warping.
There are different types of plywood, based on the tree the timber is derived from and the glue used to bond the timber veneers together.
The sheets are bonded together under pressure and heat, to create a strong timber sheet material.
In short – a lot!
Plywood really is a fantastic material that is used in construction, home improvement, landscaping, furniture making, home DIY projects and craft projects.
It’s quite the wonder wood that offers a blank canvas and lends itself well to a wide range of different uses.
When buying plywood for a project, it’s important to note that there are lots of variations of this sheet material.
Some plywood products are better suited to applications compared to others. The trick is, to ensure you find the right specification for your project.
First up, hardwood ply.
Hardwood ply is made from trees known as angiosperms, which is a tree that flowers.
These trees typically have a slower growth rate, and if you’ve read one of our blogs before, you’ll know that this results in timber with a higher density and overall strength. It also has a high impact resistance.
After rigorous testing, if the hardwood ply is 9mm in thickness or above, it can be classed as structural.
Because this is a high-quality sheet timber that has a smooth aesthetic finish, non-structural hardwood can be used for interior projects.
Given that it’s pretty strong and resilient to wear and tear, hardwood ply can be used for applications that require heavy-duty ply. This can include flooring and wall structures.
Non-structural hardwood can be used for joinery, furniture making, shelving and millwork.
Softwood ply is usually made from pine, fir or spruce. It’s a really versatile timber sheet product, that can be used for a wide array of applications.
Compared to hardwood plywood, it’s much lighter in weight and has a soft density.
This makes softwood ply easier to work with compared to hardwood ply – for example, drilling is much easier.
It’s important to be aware that softwood is more prone to splintering if not handled properly, with the correct tools.
Softwood ply can be used both indoors and outdoors.
It is commonly used for structural work, flooring, stud walls and roofing as well as windows and decorative furniture making.
Marine ply is kind of like an upgraded hardwood ply. It’s been specifically adapted to meet the needs of Marine and exterior use.
Marine grade ply is made from hardwood, that has been glued together with a glue known as WBP, which stands for Weather and Boil Proof.
This glue is responsible for ensuring that the ply sheet does not deteriorate or delaminate when exposed to humid conditions, boiling temperatures and moist environments.
It’s a sheet material that’s resilient against rot and harsher conditions.
With this in mind, you’ve probably got an inkling as to what this specific type of plywood is typically used for.
Marine plywood that is compliant with BS1088 can be used as a ship and boat building material.
On land, this is a superb choice for making garden furniture, in conjunction with decking or building porches, thanks to its water-resilient properties.
It’s always worth considering applying a final coat of protective sealant, or treatment, to enhance the timber’s longevity and prevent the ingress of moisture in the laminations.
You’ll have noticed that OSB, or oriented strand board, looks a little different to the 3 plywood we’ve already mentioned.
That’s because OSB is made differently to your standard hard or softwood ply – it combines the best of both!
That’s right, OSB is made from wood strands cut tangentially from debarked logs, held longitudinally against rotating knives.
These wood strands are bonded together with a synthetic resin adhesive and wax under heat and pressure. It’s typically made of 3 layers.
This sheet material may not be as easy on the eye as the other plywood sheets mentioned, but it does lend itself to a vast range of applications due to its strength.
It’s also much cheaper than other plywood, making it ideal if you’re working with a smaller budget.
One of the most common uses for OSB is construction projects, SIP’s panels for timber-framed houses and garden rooms, and often used for wall sheathing (which will be hidden), as well as flooring and flat roof decking. It’s a material of choice for packing, as well as home DIY projects, such as making your notice board and furniture building.
Whilst these are the 4 most common types of plywood, there are other types of sheet materials that you may wish to put on your radar.
MDF stands for medium-density fibre. Just like OSB, it’s made up of both hardwood and softwood. However, to make MDF, the two timbers are broken down into really fine particles, before being bound together with resin and wax under heat and pressure. When drilled into, its creates a lot of dust.
This tends to be much cheaper than ply but is still rather versatile. It can be used for wainscoting, cabinets and shelving, boxes, windows and door frames and decorative projects.
Also known as buffalo board, this is essentially a plyboard that has a waterproof, antislip covering. This comes from being coated with phenolic resin, hence the name.
The extra layer of protection makes it a perfect choice for applications where it will be exposed to water or moisture.
This includes outdoor walkways, trailer beds and horse boxes.
EKO ply is different yet again.
And, if you’re looking to add an extra sustainable touch to a DIY project, this is well worth taking a look at. This plyboard is made from recycled plywood and plastic.
It’s particularly durable and can be used for agricultural and construction purposes because it is chew-proof and non-toxic to animals.
As you’ve probably noticed, the answer to this question depends on a few factors. First, you need to identify your needs.
Softwood ply is typically cheaper than hardwood. If you’re looking for something even cheaper, OSB is a great choice, particularly if you’re not concerned about the aesthetic finish. Or you could consider MDF.
If you’re in need of a plywood that will be more resistant to outdoor conditions, marine ply is the way to go. Failing that, you could consider buffalo ply.
It’s important to ensure that if you are using plywood for construction you meet any building regulatory standards. OSB 3 is the go-to for Construction use, and it conforms to BS EN 300. Look for hardwood or marine plywood that has been certified for use on dormer and pitched roofs.