Engineered wood products, such as veneer sheets and plywood, are increasingly popular among woodworkers and in housing and construction.
They are generally more affordable than solid wood. Moreover, manufactured wood products don’t require as much sanding and treatment as solid wood.
Therefore, often, woodworkers must choose between engineered wood and solid wood for certain projects. We’ve prepared this guide to help you choose between plywood vs solid wood.
What is the Difference Between Plywood and Softwood?
The main difference between solid wood and plywood is that solid wood is lumber milled directly from trees, while plywood is engineered wood made by gluing several wood veneer sheets. Therefore, you can think of plywood as natural wood and plywood as artificial wood.
Plywood vs Solid Wood: Overview
What is Solid Wood
The term “solid wood” refers to lumber milled directly from felled trees. You begin by cutting down mature live trees and then saw the timber logs to extract lumber for different purposes, including woodworking and construction.
The most popular solid woods include pine wood, mango wood, teak wood, ash beech, walnut, and rosewood.
Types of Solid Wood
Solid woods can be grouped into many categories. However, the two most common categories are hardwoods and softwoods.
Hardwood refers to lumber obtained from angiosperm trees. Angiosperms are fruit-bearing trees whose seeds are hidden inside the fruit. Examples include ash, birch, beech, cherry, and walnut.
Meanwhile, softwood refers to lumber obtained from gymnosperm trees. Gymnosperms are trees with naked seeds. Examples of softwood trees include spruce, cedar, pine, yew, redwood, and fir.
Natural Solid Wood Properties
Natural wood is mainly identified by the wood planks’ size, strength, and durability. First, natural wood boards typically come in thicknesses between one and six inches and widths between two and ten inches.
Secondly, solid wood planks are very strong. Most species are rated between 400 lbf and 1,500 lbf on the famed Janka hardness scale. The incredible strength levels make solid wood items durable.
Finally, you can identify different solid wood types by their colors and grain patterns. Natural wood colors range from light white shades to deep black tones and everything in between. Colorful hues, such as purple, red, and pink, are also common.
Natural Wood Pros and Cons
- Fit endless applications
- Dense and heavy
Solid Wood Uses
Solid wood has many applications, including cabinetry, furniture, paper making, and building homes and bridges.
What is Plywood
Plywood is a type of engineered or manufactured wood. Engineered wood products are composite materials formed by binding particles, strands, fibers, and veneers with adhesives. Indeed, some products are made by binding thin wood boards.
In particular, plywood is a manufactured board made by binding together thin layers (or plies) of wood veneers with glue. The wood grains of the adjacent veneers are placed at 90 degrees to one another.
Types of Plywood
Plywood comes in many forms. For instance, you can broadly categorize plywood sheets as hardwood plywood (such as birch plywood) or softwood plywood (such as pine plywood).
Alternatively, you can group them by the number of plies, such as 3-ply sheets versus 5-ply sheets, through to 13-ply sheets.
Other plywood categories include marine grade plywood, aircraft plywood, lumber core plywood, overlaid plywood, and structural plywood.
The easiest way to recognize plywood is to check the plywood edges. Plywood edges have a stacked pattern because the boards comprise multiple layers bound together. You should be able to count at least three layers.
You will also easily notice that plywood comes in large boards, typically 4 x8 feet. Standard plywood thicknesses range from 1/4 inch to 1 1/4 inches.
Plywood sheets are strong, fairly chemical and water-resistant, and significant sheer strength. The sheets are also highly flexible and bendable.
Plywood Pros and Cons
- Highly flexible
- Readily available
- Easy to work with
- Environmental friendly
- Plywood is weak
- It’s not durable
- Plywood Uses
Plywood has endless applications. These include light partitioning, formwork, furniture, cabinetry, roofing, and flooring. Exterior wall sheathing plywood is also common.
Solid Wood vs Plywood: Head-to-Head
Now we know the basics of plywood and solid wood. So, let’s compare them side by side to find out which one is better
Strength – Solid Wood
Generally, solid wood is stronger than plywood. However, the comparison is a little complex when you interrogate technical considerations, such as grain direction.
For instance, plywood is stronger than solid wood across the grain. Also, plywood is stronger than wood over the same thickness.
However, the ultimate test is usually the development/manufacturing process. Unfortunately, plywood is only as good as the components. So, poor-quality glue makes weak plywood. Similarly, delamination or separation of layers weakens the plywood sheet.
Appearance – solid wood
Generally, solid wood is more aesthetically appealing than plywood. But, here, too, picking a winner isn’t a straightforward process. For instance, some solid wood species are grossly unappealing.
They have a poor grain pattern and come in dull, uninspiring colors. So, plywood may be more appealing in such cases.
However, solid wood still wins because you have endless options and some natural woods, such as mahogany and alder, are truly gorgeous.
Moisture resistance – Plywood
Both plywood and solid wood are fairly water-resistant. But, more importantly, different types of plywood and solid woods have different water resistance levels.
However, if you must pick a winner, plywood takes the cake. It’s true that some wood species, such as ipe, are almost waterproof. However, others are also extremely water-absorbent.
On the other hand, all plywood types are highly water-resistant. More impressively, some plywood types are waterproof. Want to make your plywood water resistant? Here are 5 effective ways of making plywood waterproof.
Directional stability – Plywood
All wood has grain, including engineered wood products, such as plywood. More importantly, wood and wood products are strongest in the grain direction.
Therefore, if the wood absorbs moisture or expands due to heat, it does so across the grain (the weaker dimension).
Unfortunately, this means that solid wood is dimensionally stable along the grain and unstable across the grain. In contrast, plywood whose grains are laid 90 degrees to each other is dimensionally stable in all directions.
Weight/density – solid wood
It’s a little complex to compare the densities of solid wood and plywood. Naturally, you would think that plywood is lighter, and in many cases, it is. However, this isn’t always true.
For instance, whereas solid birch wood weighs 670 kg/cubic meter, birch plywood weighs 680 to 700 kg/cubic foot.
Similarly, solid pine wood weighs 350-800 kg/ cubic meter, while pine plywood weighs 500-600 kg/cubic meter. But, generally, solid wood is heavier.
Workability – Plywood
If workability is at the top of your list, pick plywood without flinching. Plywood is a lot easier to work with than solid wood. It is much easier to form and bends easier.
It’s also easier to saw and nail. On the other hand, solid wood is hard and thus difficult to saw. Additionally, solid wood is bulky.
However, don’t forget that plywood sags more readily than solid wood. Moreover, treating damages and defects is much easier on solid wood than plywood.
Finishing – solid wood
First, each piece of natural wood is original, with no duplicates. Secondly, wood comes in a wide range of colors and grain patterns, providing you with endless and unique finishing options.
Above all, you can coat solid wood in any finish and refinish it as often as you want. Unfortunately, you cannot say the same about plywood.
First, plywood isn’t unique. Secondly, it comes in a smaller range of colors and grain patterns. Finally, you cannot sand and refinish plywood as you wish.
Cost – Plywood
Plywood is generally cheaper than solid wood. However, this doesn’t mean all plywood sheets are cheaper than solid wood planks.
For instance, some hardwood plywood types and specialist plywood cost $40+ per board. Few solid wood planks cost this much.
That said, low-grade plywood is cheap, typically below $5 per board (4×8 feet). Many solid wood species cost much more per board foot.
Maintenance – Plywood
Both solid wood and plywood are easy to maintain. However, plywood is a little easier to maintain as it’s scratch-resistant and water-resistant. Moreover, you can easily wipe laminated plywood with a damp cloth.
Unfortunately, solid wood isn’t as easy to maintain. For instance, you must resand and refinish solid wood items every 2-3 years to maintain the shine. Additionally, solid wood requires protection from heat and moisture.
Solid Wood vs Plywood Applications
Below is a quick comparison of solid wood and plywood when applied to common woodworking uses.
Plywood vs solid wood cabinets
Solid wood and plywood are equally suitable for cabinetry. Generally, solid wood cabinets are stronger and more durable.
Additionally, the cabinets are more resistant to everyday wear, including dents. On the other hand, plywood cabinets are more affordable. Moreover, plywood makes lighter, more portable cabinets. Here are the best plywood for cabinets.
Plywood vs solid wood tabletop
Solid wood is a better choice for table tops than plywood. Although plywood is a welcome alternative for smaller tables, solid wood is stiffer and stronger.
Therefore, plywood table tops need less support to prevent sagging. That said, plywood is a great alternative for office desktops and other lighter applications.
Plywood vs solid wood shelves
Plywood is a better choice for shelves than solid wood. It is lighter, easier to work with, and, above all, more affordable. And, yes, plywood is sufficiently strong for shelves.
Indeed, one of the main downsides of solid wood shelves is weight and low workability. It’s a lot easier to turn plywood sheets into shelves.
Plywood vs solid wood furniture
Solid wood is a better choice for furniture than plywood. It’s strong and durable. Moreover, solid wood offers a wider range of styling options, from knotted planks to straight wood grain patterns and endless natural color options.
Good quality solid wood is also more pest and moisture-resistant.
Solid Wood vs Plywood: Verdict
It’s easy to see from the above comparison that plywood is a slightly better choice than solid wood for many applications.
It’s moisture-resistant, directionally stable, more workable, and requires less maintenance. Above all, it’s more cost-effective. However, ultimately, your choice should depend on the application.
When to Use Solid Wood: We recommend solid wood for heavy-use applications and projects that require more durable materials. Solid wood is also a good choice for furniture and flooring.
When to Use Plywood: Plywood is better suited to lighter woodworking and construction applications, including cabinetry, shelving, and interior partitioning.