Running to your local hardware shop, you’d be hard-pressed not to find plywood items or boards for sale. There is little wonder this versatile and strong wood is popular with its incredible range of uses and applications. But where and when did plywood first hit the market? Below we’ll look at the history of plywood, when it was invented, by whom, and more.
Records suggest that the first humans to manufacture a form of plywood were the ancient Egyptians. Although plywood did not fall into complete obscurity over the next millennia, it was only in the 1850s that plywood made a resurgence and grew in popularity over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Plywood is a marvelous material, popular in many industries due to its versatility, with a rich history dating back over the last 4000 years. However, how much has plywood changed since its origins? What uses has plywood had over the years? And what are some notable plywood products throughout the ages?
The History Of Plywood: Ancient Origins
Since our early ancestors chopped down the first trees, human survival has been inexorably linked to crafting wood into various tools and items. Over the millennia, the types of wood have changed drastically, usually depending on the availability and purpose.
Plywood is one of the earliest manufactured/engineered wood types, appearing in several ancient civilizations.
Although “plywood” as we know it today looks considerably different from what the early people used, there are enough similarities between the materials and methods to classify what the ancients used as plywood.
We know that plywood was popular (or at least around) in ancient Egypt thanks to a carved mural in Thebes depicting the process the ancients used to make the plywood.
When And Where Was Plywood Invented, And By Whom?
We trace plywood’s origins to (roughly) 3400 to 2600 BC, when the ancient Egyptians started gluing thin strips of wood (called veneers or plies) together to create stronger, more flexible wood.
These layers were adjusted so that grains of the layer below and the subsequent layer were at 90° of one another (called “cross-graining”).
Some scholars suggest that ancient Mesopotamia produced the first versions of plywood in 3400 BC. However, plywood was also popular in ancient Greece.
It is not surprising that the origins are somewhat blurry, as trade during this time was popular (and wars). So, whether it began in Egypt and moved up or in Mesopotamia and moved down, we know that plywood is an ancient composite material.
What Need Did Plywood Meet?
The Ancient Egyptians believed in honoring their deceased Pharaohs (rulers), and many of us know about the pyramids in Egypt. However, did you know that the Pharaohs were laid to rest in plywood coffins?
Howard Carter describes in his notes on the contents of king Tutankhamun’s tomb that a superb ivory veneer casket was carved in relief and stained. Research indicates that the coffin’s inner walls consisted of up to 6 layers, each 0.16 inches thick, glued together in a cross-grained fashion.
Scholars believe quality woods were in short supply during this eon, so the ancients glued thin, sub-quality pieces of wood together, creating plywood.
At first, the ancient Egyptians used plies (wood layers/veneers) held together with dowels and not adhesive; however, by the time of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt (roughly 4 000 years ago), rudimentary adhesives grew in popularity.
Plywood offered the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians a strong, lightweight material that did not warp, crack, or break as easily as regular wood.
Originally, plywood was ornamental and “cost-effective,” but it grew in popularity as an alternative to regular wood. The Egyptians used this glued wood to make furniture, producing a strong, beautiful product.
Some scholars identified ancient Greek furniture, which was also constructed from this archaic plywood.
Early Plywood Construction Techniques
While in the modern world, machines control the plywood construction process with pinpoint precision, in ancient times, they lacked the benefit of technology.
Unfortunately, most of the information on techniques is lost to time. However, some sources help us determine the materials and processes used.
The Materials And Methods Used In Constructing Plywood
Although not identical to how plywood manufacturers construct the boards today since its origins, plywood consisted of gluing thin wooden boards together so that the subsequent layers’ grains were perpendicular to create a stronger, flexible board.
While the information on early plywood-making techniques is limited, one of the leading British Egyptologists of the 19th Century, Sir Gardner Wilkinson, described the process from evidence.
He ascertained that the early Egyptians understood woodworking and how to use adhesive substances. The adhesive was most likely “animal glue,” a primitive collagen-based adhesive made by boiling animal hides, connective tissues, hooves, and other cartilage (in various combinations or individually).
The Egyptians added an alkaline solution to the hides, curing it and making it more stable as glue.
They would hand cut/hew wood from contrasting colored trees into thin sheets. Once cut, they applied the adhesive to the veneers, laid them at their alternate angles, and placed sandbags on top of them for compression.
The History Of Plywood: The In-between Times
While reviewing plywood’s ancient origins, we shouldn’t overlook the far East.
Although not as old as the Middle East, Chinese furniture from roughly 1 000 years ago also featured plywood elements by shaving wood and gluing the pieces together.
Aside from China, plywood popped up in several other regions across the globe.
The Use And Popularity Of Plywood In Roman Times
Like with most things, the Romans took a Greek (who presumably learned about it from other nations) idea and created their version of it.
Between 63 BC and 14 AD (the reign of Caesar Augustus), a historian described the use of veneers in Rome. These veneers were almost explicitly used for ornamental reasons because of the beautiful finishes artisans could achieve with the veneers.
The artisans could choose specific sections of wood appealing to the eye and produce a quality product superior to the original wood.
Although not specifically plywood, scholars believe that the decorative process, known as “wood marquetry,” originated roughly the 16th Century in Antwerp and other Flemish cities where cabinetmaking was popular.
Marquetry and plywood share some similarities. Marquetry involves decorating furniture (usually cabinets or desks) with minute veneers arranged into various patterns, shapes, and pictures.
Different wood veneers produced different colors and effects, and marquetry became exceedingly popular for several centuries.
Plywood From Medieval Times Until The European Renaissance
Unfortunately, like most other forms of technology and progress, the dark ages in Europe were not kind to plywood and the use of veneers. The first important “blip” on the radar for plywood came in 1760.
The French King Louis XV commissioned the “Bureau du Roi” (the King’s Desk or Louis XV’s Roll-top Desk), which began construction under Jean-Francois Oeben and was later completed in 1769 by Jean Henri Riesener (after Jean-Francois died).
This desk is considered “plywood” due to the “marquetry” on the desk. Beautiful veneers were expertly positioned and glued onto the desk, creating a decorative overlay. After the success of this desk, Riesner made another similar (but simpler) desk for the Comte d’Orsay.
The European Renaissance saw a rebirth in the arts and sciences, and plywood also saw a revitalization.
In 1797, a British mechanical engineer, Samuel Bentham, applied for a patent on creating a thick layer of “laminated” wood by gluing together thinner veneers. This patent is one of the earliest links to modern plywood.
Manufacturers obtained suitable veneers through rift sawing, quarter, and flat sawing wood:
- Rift Sawing involves slicing the wood in a radiating pattern from the center of the tree (similar to the spokes of a bicycle). Rift sawing is a wasteful technique; however, it produces mostly uniform veneers, which are stronger/more stable than the other methods.
- Quarter Sawing involves cutting the log into quarters. Each quarter is subsequently sliced into boards along the length of the log.
- Flat/plane Sawing is the simplest technique, and it involves slicing a log down its length. The width of each slice can vary or remain identical (provided you make accurate measurements). Softwoods are usually plane-sawed.
Although sawyers employ these methods today, before the late 1700s, sawyers cut the wood by hand, a time-consuming process that produced limited lengths and widths.
Samuel Bentham, recognizing the limitations in hand-crafting wood (the time and skill required), developed machinery to simplify the process and allow “laymen” to expertly hew wood.
Bentham’s contribution to plywood was the Bentham planer of 1791. This “powered knife” allowed sawyers to cut the wood into thin veneers (called laminated wood shavings), which later paved the way for modern plywood.
Aside from a new method for cutting veneers, scholars suggest that Bentham was one of the first to glue multiple thin veneers together to create thick plywood.
Historians accredit several other modern woodworking machines to Bentham, including:
- Double-end boring drills
- Jig saw
- Metalworking planner
- Multiple spindle drills
- Single bits
The History Of Plywood: The 1800s Resurgence
Bridging the last portion of the 18th Century into the 19th, Napoleon Bonaparte, the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) French emperor, was exiled to St Helena Island in 1815.
While living out his final days, Napoleon wrote from his “fall front bureau” (also called the “Bureau de Campagne,” which Napoleon carried with him throughout his campaigns).
This beautifully constructed desk featured Dutch-Portuguese floral marquetry dated between 1780 and 1800. The marquetry included pictures of flowers, flower urns, and floral designs on the top, bureau fall front, front of the drawers, and sides.
As early as the 1830s, Michael Thonet (from modern-day Germany) began experimenting with bending plywood into various shapes. Using heat to shape and mold narrow (but thick) wood stripes, he glued these strips together (laminated).
During his experiments, Thonet discovered that these stripes could only curve in one direction until he developed a method of joining twisted and bent wood strips. These curves were to become synonymous with Thonet’s famous furniture.
The Patenting Of Plywood
Although plywood began its resurgence in the late 1700s (thanks to Samuel Bentham and others), it was only in the 1800s that plywood experienced a true rebirth.
During the 1840s, John Dresser applied for patent number 1758. The Massachusetts resident designed a machine that specialized in cutting veneers. It was a modified turning lathe consisting of a wood or iron frame, with an arbor or mandrel set on one side between dual iron stands.
Connected to the mandrel were two interlocking cogs connected to a pulley and powered by a drive belt.
This machine resembles a turning lathe with a blade angled above the carriage (where the wood moves along) for slicing off thin wood segments, creating veneers expertly, at the required size, and timeously (a critical factor).
This machine cuts veneers of uniform thickness up to a length of fifty feet in under one minute.
A significant feature of the 19th Century plywood journey was the number of patents engineers and inventors put forward.
With technological advancements improving, the speed and cost-effectiveness of plywood production improved too. It was not long before New Yorker John Mayo applied for the first plywood patent in 1865.
John Mayo’s Plywood Dream
Mayo’s patent describes cutting veneers from a log or board. Once cut, Mayo described the process as “cementing” together several veneers at alternate angles (crosswise) to form a stable material.
Mayo envisioned a variety of uses for “his” invention:
- A practical material for constructing buildings (and parts of houses like floors and inside and outside finishes).
- Furniture including bedsteads, mattresses, sofas, chairs, and various coverings.
- Boats and ships (including masts and ribs/skeletons).
- Tanks, tubs, cans, and pails.
- Pipes, drains, and sewers.
- Boxes, barrels, cheese boxes, and packaging crates.
- Sidewalks and fences.
- Dry-docks and canal locks.
- Warehouses and depots.
- Railway cars, railroad bridges and suspension bridges, tracks, and sleepers.
- Carriages, carts, and wagons.
Mayo also laid out various techniques for further increasing the versatility of plywood, such as wet and dry heating and increasing pliability, so that the plywood could bend to make piping. He even suggested the possibility of making air-tight rooms.
Mayo stated that he knew that the possibilities for the “scale-board” (plywood) were almost endless, describing it as strong and light, with a pleasant aesthetic, and that it would become a replacement for traditional woods.
Although Mayo applied for patent number 51,735 on December 26, 1865, there is not much evidence of what he made with plywood. The next few years saw several additional patents (re-issuing the patent).
George Gardener’s Plywood Interventions
While Mayo described some spectacular uses for plywood, fellow American George Gardener (a New Yorker from Brooklyn). Focused on using plywood for creating perforated chair seats (particularly for use in the railroad and ferry stations and hospital waiting rooms).
By the 1870s, Gardener and Company were a well-established name in the US plywood markets, and many stations featured Gardener’s impressive curved seats.
Gardener and Company constructed these seats by bending the wood while the adhesive was still wet and holding the wooden item in the desired shape until the adhesive set. Once set, the veneers were firmly in place and retained their strength from the cross-grained layers.
During the 1800s, children often found themselves in the workplace, and Gardener and Company employed these child laborers to create the holes in the seats and backrests that these chairs were famous for.
Aside from curved chairs, Gardener and Company produced several other furniture pieces, including the Platform Rocking Chair of 1872. Gardener and Company enjoyed significant popularity for most of the mid to late 1800s.
Gardener did not hold onto the plywood furniture monopoly forever, as other companies quickly picked up on the popularity of the “new” materials.
Some of the competition:
- John Belter (an American) registered a patent on February 23, 1858 (number 19 405) for a new construction method for pressed furniture (plywood) called “dishing,” producing a curved figure.
- Frost & Peterson, established in 1880.
- Frost’s Veneer Seating Company of Sheboygan, an offshoot company from Frost & Peterson in 1883.
- Frost Veneer Seating Company of Newport another offshoot company started by Frost in 1886.
- In 1893 Frost opened the New York Veneer Seating Company in Jersey City.
Isaac Cole was another American to design and produced a bent plywood chair. However, he did not produce these commercially.
Plywood Towards The End Of The 19th Century
As plywood increased in popularity, other companies began embracing the (now) cost-effective, easy-to-produce, strong, and versatile wood. A company of significance is the Indianapolis Cabinet Company.
Although this Company originally specialized in constructing and supplying sewing machines to other companies (including Singer, Wheller, and Wilson), they branched out into the plywood industry, manufacturing plywood bellows, cabinet ends, and fretwork for cabinet organs.
Although plywood met resistance from traditional carpenters and other wood aficionados, plywood continued to grow in popularity, particularly as some of its properties (increased strength, reduced risk of splitting) became more apparent.
There were several plywood factories in the US by the late 19th Century; however, by 1880, Russia had become the major global producer of plywood.
During the late 19th Century, plywood once again reaffirmed its usefulness, with plywood doors increasing in popularity (the material was stronger, better made, and becoming readily available).
By the time “flush-closing” doors became popular, plywood was the only material available from which to construct these doors.
Aside from furniture and doors, plywood saw popularity in the sleigh-making industry, with many proprietors and participants electing plywood for its superior durability and lighter weight.
Other 19th-Century Landmarks In Plywood’s History
With the developmental breakthroughs in technology during the 19th Century, wood veneers were cut through sawing, slicing, or rotary cutting.
There were several contributors to industrialization and advancing veneer-cutting technology during the early 1800s. One contributor is Marc Isambard Brunel.
In 1806, Brunel applied for a patent (number 2968) concerning the machine cutting of veneers and thin boards. After his early success, Brunel established a sawmill in Battersea.
The slicing of veneers involved a horizontal knife and moving the log/board into the blade (extending past the log’s width). As the log met the blade(s), it would slice off veneers of the desired width.
Unfortunately, Brunel’s method was not optimal (they couldn’t cut certain types of wood with this machine), and he converted his system to a circular saw.
Although Samuel Miller invented the circular saw in 1777 in England, it was not the most practical tool for slicing thin pieces of wood off of a log (in fact, it was only subsequent to the invention of the steam engine in 1805 that the circular saw rose to prominence).
Unfortunately, when used to cut veneers, circular saws produced many off-cuts and waste (sawdust). After the circular saw, the bandsaw (patented by Englishman William Newberry) appeared in 1808.
However, these saws were impractical as the blade needed to withstand incredible tension. It was not until 1846, when Mademoiselle Crepin developed (and patented) the technique for welding/joining the blade to create the circular band, that the bandsaw became usable.
By the 1870s, these saws experienced a popularity boom.
The Rotary Lathe
One of the critical moments for plywood during the 19th Century was the invention of the Rotary Veneer Cutter (Rotary Lathe).
Although not strictly the “inventor” of plywood, Immanuel Nobel is often labeled as the “founder of plywood,” due to his invention of the rotary lathe.
The Swedish architect, inventor, engineer, and industrialist, discovered that by cutting thinner veneers and gluing more together, the result was a stronger, more flexible, and more durable piece of wood.
However, the hewing techniques and machinery of the day could not cut veneers thin enough to suit Nobel, so in the mid-1800s, Nobel developed the rotary lathe.
By the 1850s, most veneers were cut through steam-powered machines, pushing plywood manufacturing to industrial levels.
Plywood Took On A Global Spin
While it’s easy to think of plywood and cutting tool technology in isolation, the reality is that globally, ideas were bouncing back and forth, with many inventors claiming that they were the first to invent a particular method of making plywood.
The major contributors to plywood during the 1800s were the British, the Americans, the French, and the Russians.
An example of the cross-continent collaboration is evident when in 1884, Christian Luther (an Estonian) saw some of the bent plywood chairs produced by the Frost companies. Luther was head of lumber manufacturing and, taking the American influence, began producing bent plywood chairs in Estonia.
The chain reaction did not end there, and by 1889 (when Luther’s production of the bent plywood chairs was well underway), the British firm Venesta, Ltd., partnered and eventually merged with Luther’s firm.
Plywood Before The Turn Of The Century
With plywood’s increasing global popularity and more ingenious minds fueling progress, the final chapter of the 19th Century saw several evolutions in plywood manufacturing techniques, including new adhesives and enhanced cutting techniques.
Luther’s Company developed a waterproof casein glue in 1982 (patented), and in 1986, his Company developed a new hot plate press.
Another Estonian contribution to plywood was blood-albumin adhesives, which (consequently) bears similarity to the glue the Ancient Egyptians used. As the name implies, this glue comes from extracting the protein “albumin” from animal blood. Once extracted, the protein dries into a powder form.
To reactivate the substance, manufacturers add water. While more water resistant than traditional animal and casein glue, they are not 100% waterproof.
In contrast to the new adhesives, the French further developed the rotary cutter, allowing plywood manufacturers to cut boards (plies) of almost any length.
The History Of Plywood: The Popularity Boom Of The 1900s
With the advancements made during the 1800s, plywood was primed and ready to enter a truly spectacular leg of its illustrious history.
The 20th Century saw many tremendous technological leaps, one of the greatest economic crises of recent generations, and two world wars, throughout which plywood continued to increase in popularity.
One significant difference in plywood at the change of the Century was that in centuries prior, plywood was mostly constructed from hardwood trees. With technological improvements (and improvements to adhesives), softwoods began to increase in popularity.
With the commercial production of softwoods (and occasionally overlaid with hardwoods), plywood began to gain popularity in the construction industry (breaking free from the ornamental and furniture industries, which it had previously mostly dominated).
Plywood Before World War 1
Plywood saw incredible developments in techniques and materials used from the end of the 19th Century up until the First World War.
Although plywood was officially patented in 1865, the extent of its versatility and aesthetics was still relatively unknown. So, when the World’s Fair of 1905 arrived in Portland, Oregon, the Portland Manufacturing Company surprised many fair-goers with their “3-ply veneer work.”
As part of the Lewis and Clark 100th anniversary celebrations, the Portland Manufacturing Company (and other businesses) set up exhibits. The small wooden box factory, partially owned and managed by Gustav Carlson, made plywood (laminated wood) from various softwoods of the Pacific Northwest.
Although they used paint brushes to apply the glue and house jacks to press the plies, they achieved the desired effect and received orders from several cabinets, door, and trunk manufacturers.
Following the popular demand for plywood, the Portland Manufacturing Company improved its “production” techniques. It began manufacturing the prized material commercially, with the addition of an automatic glue spreader and sectional hand press (by 1907).
With the improvements, Portland Manufacturing Company produced an estimated 420 plywood panels daily. The start of commercial production.
Leading up to World War 1, plywood saw popularity among other industries in construction, ornamental, furniture, and musical instrument construction.
Plywood During World War 1
The war produced many tragedies in human life; however, the technological advances from that time are unquestionable, and plywood benefited significantly too.
An area of particular interest is that many aircraft used during the war consisted of plywood. The strong, lightweight wood that promoted bending while resisting splintering was perfect for the early aircraft.
The table below lists some of the quintessential plywood vehicles of the time.
|Nieuport 17 C.1
|Plywood covered the sides and top of the fuselage and top decking.
|Introduced in 1916 by the French
|Lloyd C.V aircraft
|Plywood wing coverings.
|Introduced in 1917 by the Austro-Hungarians as a reconnaissance airplane.
|The Fokker EV/D.VIII
|These planes were some of the top German aircraft and appeared at the war’s end in 1918 (last few months).
|Fake body armor
|The Kingdom of Denmark introduced a “mock-up” armored vehicle using plywood to imitate body armor in 1917.
They designed the prototype intending to purchase a real armored car in the future; however, the leadership decided it was not in their plans and scrapped the idea.
Although plywood offered planes an ideal lightweight yet strong material, the adhesives and bonding agents used were the greatest limiting factor.
The adhesive needed to hold under pressure, moisture, sunshine, cool temperatures, and many other factors, which they often did not, resulting in peeling or sometimes delaminating the plywood.
Plywood Between The Two World Wars
Although the First World War saw interesting uses for plywood, that was not the end of the line. The plywood industry saw some developments during the war (and following soon after it). For around 15 years, all softwood plywood went to making door panels.
Plywood became popular in the canoe industry when in 1917, Haskell Boat Company (from Ludington, Michigan) began producing this 17-foot, lightweight yet durable canoe. The Company continued until 1934. They used “black albumin glue” as the waterproof adhesive.
However, in the 1920s, plywood broke into the automobile industry. Elliott Bay Plywood in Seattle’s Gus Bartells convinced car manufacturers to use plywood for producing running boards.
The initiative was successful, and 17 plywood mills popped up in the Pacific Northwest. By 1929 these mills produced 358 million square feet of plywood.
Unfortunately, plywood’s adhesive once again let it down. Due to the waterproof issues, automobile manufacturers opted out of using plywood for their running boards.
One Of The Many Plywood Redemptive Arcs
Potential salvation for the plywood industry came in 1934 when a chemist (Dr. James Nevin), working at Harbor Plywood Corporation in Aberdeen, Washington, developed a new type of adhesive with superior waterproof properties.
However, the incident had already damaged plywood’s reputation. Aside from adhesive issues, the industry lacked standards and norms to guide the end-product quality. Many mills lacked the funding to promote the necessary research and marketing of plywood (particularly in the US).
In these uncertain times, the plywood industry looked to the newly established Douglas Fir Plywood Association to bolster its needs.
After several failed attempts at establishing, the Douglas Fir Plywood Association finally gained traction in 1933, before state-imposed regulations went into effect under the National Recovery Act (in effect during the great depression).
Although the Association’s start was rocky, the acquisition of W. E. Difford in 1938 marked one of many turning points for the industry.
The opportunity to standardize the plywood product and consolidate all US plywood under a single brand (instead of each mill operating independently) introduced new norms and standards, and plywood began to garner favor in the public and government eye as a sturdy construction material.
By 1940 they had built the first plywood demonstration home (called “The House In The Sun”), after which they built many low-cost houses (called “Dri-Bilt homes”) from plywood.
Plywood Outside Of The US During The Time Of Peace
After World War I, Germany was in a destitute position. No money, no friends, and a severely hurt economy, with no real sense of purpose or direction and little regard for plywood and its fortunes.
However, an architect by the name of Walter Gropius decided to reopen the “Staatliches Bauhaus” in Germany (a school for architecture, applied arts, and design). Many of the arts and certain technology and techniques were suspended during the war.
Established in Weimar, the school opened in 1919, moved to Dessau in 1932, and reached its final resting place in Berlin in 1933 (where it finally closed under the Nazi’s directive).
Gropius understood that modernizing and machinery were the tools of the future and orientated his arts and architecture school towards mass production (granting access to materials for the majority and not only the wealthy elite).
A significant element of the Bauhaus was woodworking, which included cabinet making. Among the designs and materials, plywood found its home in the Bauhaus. In 1929 the school produced plywood folding chairs, among other pieces.
The students and teachers took inspiration from various sources, kept up with the technology of the time, and created many items that translated into industrial manufacturing. The designs from Bauhaus had far-reaching impacts, inspiring many similar styles over the decades until the onset of war.
Case in point, Lloyd C. Engelbrecht implies that the work of Breuer and Mies (a student at Bauhaus and the last head, respectively) inspired the likes of Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect famous for the “Paimio chair” (which was constructed out of bent, undulating plywood).
Marine Grade Plywood
A critical development in plywood’s history was the invention of “marine-grade plywood.” In 1939 the Dutch door manufacturer, Cornelius Bruynzeel, manufactured a new type of plywood called “Hechthout.”
By 1940, Bruynzeel developed the first yacht (called a Valk) made of this new plywood, and over the next two years, they produced roughly 350 boats.
Plywood During World War 2
Unfortunately, the tenuous peace would not remain, and war broke out. If the First World War was bad, the Second was a scourge. Plywood again found itself thrust into new developments with wholesale slaughter and destruction of buildings and other industries.
Manufacturers and governments understood the benefits of plywood (particularly in the US) and dubbed it an “essential” material for the war efforts. This important status resulted in strict manufacturing and distribution control over plywood.
The 30 or so plywood mills began producing between 1.2 and 1.8 square feet of plywood annually.
Once again, plywood found a popular place in wartime vehicles. While most other planes were made of aluminum and metals, some remained true to tradition.
The table below examines some examples of plywood vehicles in World War 2.
|What was plywood
|de Havilland Mosquito
|The framework and fuselage were constructed from plywood.
|One of the most successful British planes used during WW2, the Mosquito, appeared in 1940 and was made of birch plywood and balsa wood.
|Plywood Gliders: Hotspur and Horsa
|A plywood body over a wooden frame.
|The British introduced these light reconnaissance and troop gliders in the 1940s to drop paratroopers in hotspot areas.
|Patrol Torpedo (PT) Boats
|The hull and most of the body.
|Produced by three designers, ELCO, Higgins, and Huckins. The US held “Plywood derbies” in 1939 to determine who made the best PT boat. In the end, the US government contracted all three.
|M1 and M2 assault boats
|The hull and most of the boat were made of plywood.
|These square-bowed boats were used for quick assaults, transporting troops and gear. The US introduced them in 1942.
Thanks to the advancements made by Cornelius Bruynzeel in marine grade plywood, plywood boats during the war were feasible. These boats were relatively quick to produce (taking 60 to 120 days), which meant that the supply for the war effort remained relatively undisturbed.
Aside from vehicles, plywood saw many other uses during the Second World War:
Marine-grade plywood was useful for more than making boats. During World War 2, the British, Germans, and Americans (and other nations) used plywood-based barracks. These barracks were quick to set up, portable, and strong.
Other designs included the “yurt-like” prefabricated tents.
These mobile barracks and troop accommodations allowed personnel to better endure the elements, protect food supplies, and act as a minimal “defense.”
The “Seabees” of the US navy were often tasked with constructing plywood-based huts and other accommodations during the war. These skilled artisans were deployed in various areas of the war effort.
Aside from vehicles and accommodations, plywood was essential for many other aspects of the war. Thanks to its lightweight structure, plywood was easy to transport on the battlefield, and due to its strength, plywood supported a variety of uses:
- Crates and storage units. Plywood made cheap and light storage containers that were also waterproof.
- Splints and body litter. Injuries and casualties were an everyday occurrence during the war, and plywood made effective first aid equipment. Charles Eames became a well-known supplier.
Aside from splits, the body litter (a type of stretcher) was also plywood. Eames again invented the medical tool to assist in evacuating injured soldiers from the battlefield.
Metal stretchers often caused a lot of trauma (due to the impacts of traveling), so he opted for plywood to cushion the trip.
- Plywood was popular for making packboards – frames for carrying items (like a backpack). Until World War 2, the conventional war allowed pack animals to carry most supplies. WW2 saw soldiers carrying their supplies, so a lightweight pack was essential.
The plywood packboard weighed roughly 4 pounds (a far cry less than the 7-pound alternative) and remained the standard issue for 30 years after the war. These boards often carried equipment, medical supplies, and other critical items for the unit.
Plywood After World War 2
After the war’s end, plywood remained an essential material in the lives of many people around the world.
In the US, the plywood industry grew from producing 1.4 billion square feet of plywood in 30 mills in 1944 to a staggering (almost) 4 billion square feet annually (produced in 101 mills) by 1954. Market estimates foresaw that demand would approach 7 billion square feet by 1975.
They were severely short of the mark. By 1959 they produced around 7.8 billion square feet of plywood. The US alone produced 16 billion square feet of plywood in 1975.
Plywood in the US hit another milestone when Herb Fleischer discovered an adhesive that produced a superior plywood product when used on Southern Pine trees. The Georgia Pacific Company opened the first Southern Yellow Pine plywood mill in 1964 in Fordyce, Arkansas.
Although a Canadian plywood mill existed since 1913 at Fraser Mills, New Westminster, British Columbia, no other mills opened until 1935.
However, after the war, five Canadian companies founded the Plywood Manufacturers Association of British Columbia in 1950 (which later changed to the Canadian Plywood Association), and in 1953, the Canadian Standards Association published the Canadian Plywood Standard.
Plywood became a cheap source of material with extensive benefits across multiple industries.
Plywood As More Than A Tool For Destruction
With the war over, plywood manufacturing could once again move away from making machines and technological advancements that benefited soldiers only and move back into other fields.
Coming out of the War, Ray and Charles Eames showcased some of their other work with plywood. In 1946, their (entirely) plywood side and dining chairs were a prominent feature at the Museum of Modern Art exhibition.
The plywood industry opened up many new doors for further technological developments and advancements in woodworking.
During the 1950s and 60s, plywood became more readily available, and many lay-folk began constructing boats, cars, and items out of plywood. The ease of use, lack of specialized tools, and cost allowed many to make plywood items from home.
Plywood’s Journey To The East And Subsequent Concerns
Plywood won favor in the people’s hearts during the 20th Century and proved its invaluable worth many times during World War 2. However, since the 1950s, many western countries began sourcing plywood from the far East as a cheaper source of wood.
Although outsourcing plywood allowed countries to meet the ever-increasing demands for the material, it paved the way for exploitation and other significant issues and concerns.
Some of these reasons for concern in the plywood industry include the following:
- Toxic fumes – with the transition from organic to synthetic adhesives, toxic fumes became more of a concern. Although relatively inert when glued, the fumes from urea-formaldehyde are toxic when hot. Those working and living close to mills and production sites were particularly at risk.
- Deforestation – Indonesian Forests are under severe pressure from deforestation. Although the plywood operations began in the 1950s, they increased exponentially during the 1970s and 80s in Indonesia. This rapid growth placed tremendous pressure on the indigenous forests.
Although the struggling Indonesian economy benefited from foreign investment, removing natural resources is cause for concern. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.
- Inferior quality products- when mass production becomes the focus, there is often the risk of poorer quality items. With outsourcing, you don’t always know the other countries’ norms and standards when plywood production is concerned.
An inferior quality product builds up a bad reputation, something plywood and its manufacturers worked hard at developing over the centuries.
Plywood In The Modern Era
Technology has not stood still, and plywood remains as popular as it was during the early 20th Century. Plywood is widely used in the construction, automotive, furniture, film, and electronics industries, to name a few.
Today, plywood comes in various forms and is made using various techniques with synthetic adhesives:
- Aircraft plywood (mostly hardwoods like mahogany and birch) is high-grade and durable for airplanes and boats.
- Exterior plywood is weather and water-resistant to cope with rain, wind, and other weather conditions. It is usually multi-ply from various kinds of wood.
- Hardwood plywood (birch, maple, oak, poplar, and walnut) is mainly for furniture, musical instruments, and objects requiring strong frames.
- Lumber core plywood is mostly 3-ply consisting of a thick middle (core) and thinner outer layers (usually hardwood). This plywood is great for screwing into.
- Marine plywood has a water-resistant coating, and it is usually at least B-grade wood. It is not, however, waterproof, and it may still rot unless treated.
- Overlaid plywood is similar to most other plywood, except it has an “overlaid face,” which gives it a better look (i.e., more ornamental).
- Softwood plywood (cedar, redwood, and pine) is mainly for construction (including flooring, roof sheathing, and sheds).
- Structural plywood is for framing and building structures, and it is strong but “ugly,” so it is usually covered.
There are several other categories of plywood as well. While each category possesses differences in how (and what) it sticks together, plywood still follows the concept set out by the ancient Egyptians: gluing boards together in a cross-grain fashion.
Plywood also comes in various “plies” (the number of layers). The most common are:
The Uses Of Plywood Through The Eons
Although plywood has been popular since the time of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia, it was not often widely available. The veneers for making plywood were hand-cut, a labor-intensive activity, which resulted in a high price for plywood (veneered) items.
It was only by the 1800s that plywood became more affordable due to technological developments and machinery that allowed swift(er) cutting of the veneers.
At the start of the 20th Century, plywood production switched to an industrial scale, and the superb material began to break into various global industries.
Plywood As A Decorative Material
Most of the early uses of plywood were limited to furniture, decorations, and ornamental designs, as veneers from particularly desirable wood were hewn and attached to other, less attractive wood.
During the 1850s, veneers were usually cut from hardwoods for decorative purposes. However, once plywood industrialization was fully underway, various softwoods gained popularity as plywood materials.
Following the World Wars (and during the time around the wars), plywood retained its popularity as a decorative material, mostly featured in furniture designs, doors, and cabinets.
Plywood In The Automobile, Aviation, And Boating Industries
Although plywood saw a rocky start in the transportation industry, it eventually gained popularity. The turning point was in 1934/35 when chemists discovered synthetic adhesives. These game changers allowed plywood manufacturers to waterproof their products.
A waterproof adhesive (heat and bacterial-resistant) meant that the plywood did not delaminate under adverse conditions (a significant problem and why plywood was not popular in these industries).
Chemists developed phenol formaldehyde and urea formaldehyde for plywood in 1935, and by 1939, they synthesized melamine formaldehyde resins.
Once plywood maintained its integrity, its popularity in these industries grew rapidly, with many important boats and planes made partially or entirely of plywood.
A stand out in the automobile industry is the family car range produced by German company DKW in 1928. They made these cars’ bodies from molded and flat plywood to produce affordable, strong cars.
Plywood In Other Industries
Although the automotive and design industries featured a significant amount of plywood, it was not limited to these industries.
Plywood grew in popularity in many other areas:
The Musical Instrument Industry
From 1830, instrument manufacturers began using plywood for its lightweight, durability, and aesthetics.
An example is the Cabinet Piano, a popular instrument by the end of the 1830s, as plywood creates a fantastic soundboard for pianos and other instruments.
Crates, Storage Units, And Transport
One of the significant objectives of transporting goods is to do so quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. Using plywood crates, shipping companies reduced the cost of moving items (particularly when airplanes and ships were not as powerful as modern examples).
During the war, ammunition and other supply crates were constructed out of plywood, as it was readily available, relatively cheap, strong, and waterproof.
Old storage trunks like the “Barrel Top Trunk” were popular during the late 1800s for their durability and strength.
A superb example is from 1907 to 1909 during the Antarctic expedition. Due to the success of plywood packaging crates constructed by the Luther Company in the 1880s, Ernest Shackleton requisitioned 2 500 crates for his expedition for their supplies and equipment.
Plywood is the ideal wood for restoration projects. An example is stage coaches from the early 1800s.
Instead of replacing entire panels with expensive wood, adding an outer veneer of the original wood to “cheaper” quality wood inside allows you to replace the damaged sections at a reduced cost (and it will remain stronger/more durable).
Restoration is not limited to carriages and cars, as plywood restoration works on buildings too.
The Construction Industry
Although there was widespread use of plywood during the Second World War to construct temporary troop accommodations and barracks, its use in the construction of permanent structures dates back to at least 1928, when the first “standard” plywood timber beams became available.
Builders use hard and softwood plywood during construction, as each wood type brings various strengths to the table. Plywood is an ideal material for this industry because it reduces construction time, and is strong and versatile.
Within the construction industry, plywood is most frequently used for the following:
- Exterior trimming
- Flooring (finished and sub-floors)
- Wall panels
By 1937, the Forest Products Laboratory attempted to construct a house out of plywood. They planned on making cheap, factory-produced houses to combat the struggling economic conditions of the post-Depression era.
Notable Items Constructed From Plywood Through The Ages
As plywood developed into the popular and versatile material today, there has been a long list of important plywood inventions over the last several millennia.
Below we’ll investigate some of the stand-out plywood items.
- 1860 Belter Chair. The back of this chair features molded plywood and represents the ingenuity of the 1850s to 1890s in shaping and molding plywood. This chair is named after John Belter, who discovered the molding technique in 1958.
- 1900 Autumn (oil on plywood). This painting of Fall scenery by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) showcased the versatility of plywood in the arts. Not only was plywood shaped into art, but you could also paint art onto it.
Another painting from the 1900s is the Madonna (oil on plywood).
- 1907 Aurora Australis cover. Shackleton covered the first book written in Antarctica in plywood to protect it from the harsh Antarctic conditions.
- 1932 Paimio Armchair. Embracing the advances in molding and shaping plywood, Alvar Aalto designed this chair for the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanitorium (Finland).
- 1941 de Havilland Mosquito. One of the most successful British airplanes during the Second World War, they built this plane almost entirely from plywood. Not only was the plane fast and light, but it was also cheaper to make than metal planes.
- 1960 Mirror Dinghy. Marking the movement away from the war, the Mirror Dinghy allowed civilians the opportunity to build a boat of their own. These boats came in “assembly kits” and were exceedingly popular.
- 2013 Opendesk. Although there were important developments between the 1960s and 2000s, a notable addition to the plywood repertoire is Opendesk and other digital platforms.
Representative of the digital age, this company posts open-source plans for cutting out various plywood objects (provided you have the CNC cutting device). The Computer Numerical Control allows users to cut out various items from plywood, provided you have the specs.
Plywood Startup Ideas Which Never Made It Past Begin
Not all ideas are pure gold, and with plywood, some inventors had high expectations, only to be cut down to reality harshly as their ideas and plans never found fruition.
Here are some of these great ideas which never made it to reality:
The Elevated Plywood Railway
During the 1800s, plywood was still new to the general populous, and the possibilities were endless. During this time, inventors sought new ways of addressing growing concerns. In this case, the crowded London streets and the lack of efficient transportation.
In 1863. London made history with the first underground railway. Although it alleviated the streetside congestion, air quality in the tunnels, and the overall expense of the endeavor were areas of concern.
The Americans decided to “improve” on the design by creating an elevated railway, and in 1867, they built the 107-foot prototype out of plywood with large fans acting as propulsion.
Although the prototype was a hit (75 000 people rode on it) at the American Institute Fair in New York, this project never went further than the prototype phase.
The “Spruce Goose”
Although Howard Hughes developed the “Spruce Goose” as a troop-carrying plane for use during the Second World War, the war was over by the time he’d finished its construction.
Making its maiden (and ultimately final) flight on November 2, 1947, Hughes constructed the massive airplane (up to six times larger than other planes of the time) out of birch, spruce, and plywood.
The rationale behind Hughes making a plan out of wood was that during World War 2, aluminum, steel, and other metals were in short supply. If they could construct a float plane out of wood to deliver troops to counter Nazi U-boats, then they would help the war effort.
Although its maiden flight was successful (the plane flew for around 1.6 miles for 26 seconds), they scrapped the idea after one flight. The plane took too long to make, so the war was already over by the time it was built, leaving it without a purpose.
The other contributing factor was the cost. In 1947 the plane had cost investors roughly $23 million (which equates to roughly $283 million by today’s standards). This endeavor was not cost-effective, so they decided to shelve the project.
The German Replica Of The British Mosquito
The de Havilland Mosquito rose to prominence during the Second World War and became one of Britain’s most prized airplanes. The Germans wanted in on the action and tried to build a plywood replica of the plane.
The Germans built the plane (called the “Moskito”) with a plywood fuselage and used a phenolic resin adhesive (called Tego Film).
The Germans were unsuccessful for several reasons:
- The allies bombed the factories producing the Tego Film. Only one factory in Germany produced the adhesive, so the bombing caused a significant delay in production and availability.
- After the factory closed, the Germans switched to a less reliable adhesive, which led to many of the German prototypes crashing.
- Germany was at a difficult place during the war. They had lost significant territory to the Soviet Union (particularly where aero research and development was underway).
These issues hampered the German’s attempts at creating plywood planes, so they scrapped the idea.
Wood is interwoven in the history of human society, and plywood existed close to the beginning. Through the millennia, plywood has served various purposes and taken many forms.
It has seen the succession and fall of empires, lived through two Great Wars (and several others), and has persisted into the digital age when computers are an essential part of our lives. It is safe to say that plywood has left its mark on humanity, and we would be a lesser species without it.