PlyDesign: 73 Distinctive DIY Projects in Plywood (and other sheet goods)

PlyDesign: 73 Distinctive DIY Projects in Plywood (and other sheet goods)

by Philip Schmidt


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Make sleek and functional home furnishings from inexpensive plywood and other off-the-shelf materials using only basic hand and power tools. This unique building guide offers 73 innovative ideas for using plywood to make everything from desks and workstations to children’s playhouses. Projects for every need and skill level are presented with clear assembly diagrams, step-by-step instructions, and photos of the finished product. Discover the simplistic beauty plywood can bring to your next project and take pride in making your own handmade furniture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603427258
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 04/24/2012
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 555,499
Product dimensions: 9.44(w) x 8.84(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

Philip Schmidt has been teaching readers how to do things for almost two decades. A former carpenter and longtime writer and editor, he is the author of 18 books, including PlyDesignDecorating with Architectural Details, and The Complete Guide to Treehouses. He lives in Colorado with his wife, two daughters, and too many leftover building materials.

Read an Excerpt


Shop Talk

Buying, hauling, and working with sheet goods: an unhandyman's guide to understanding plywood (and its woody cousins).

A Panel Discussion: All about Plywood

Plywood is the head of a growing family of wood-based panels generically referred to as sheet goods, or sheet stock. All of these fall under the category of engineered wood: building products that start out as trees and, after a good deal of industrial processing, end up as interchangeable products made to precise specifications. While solid wood has many undeniable merits, the beauty of the engineering is that it removes or counteracts some of wood's biggest drawbacks — namely, knots and other natural flaws, shrinkage and expansion, and war page, plus the fact that you can't buy a nice solid-wood board wider than 11?" without refinancing your house.


Plywood gets its unique blend of strength, stability, and economy from its layered construction. A plywood panel is made up of thin plies, or veneers, of wood glued together under pressure and heat. Each ply is laid perpendicular to the plies above and below. This process, called cross-graining, is key to plywood's strength and dimensional stability. Moisture causes wood to expand and contract mostly across its grain (a board gets wider and narrower rather than longer and shorter). Cross-graining effectively suppresses this movement. A plywood panel keeps its shape and doesn't constantly shrink and expand like solid wood.

Wood is by nature much stronger in line with its grain than across it. Cross-graining builds upon this strength, making plywood equally strong in all directions. This may be why ancient Egyptians used laminated wood to build caskets, some of which are still holding up today.

Cross-graining gives plywood edges a striped appearance, created by the alternating layers of end grain and face grain. In traditional styles of woodworking, the stratified edges are typically concealed by a band of solid-wood trim or other material, creating the illusion that the plywood is a solid plank. In the modernist style, not only are the plywood edges left exposed, they're often a major design element.

The plies for making plywood are cut by a big, lathelike machine that rotates a log by its ends while a long knife strips off the wood in a continuous thin layer, sort of like an old-fashioned apple peeler. For certain grades and outer veneers, some plies are cut across the log (called slicing). This yields a grain pattern more like that of solid lumber than does rotary cutting, which follows the wood's growth rings and produces wide, wavy patterns of grain.

The top and bottom layers of a plywood panel are called the face and back veneers, respectively. These are the plies that count, aesthetically, and they're usually the thinnest layers in the sheet (but thicker is always better). So that the grain of the face veneer runs in the same direction as the grain of the back veneer, all plywood is made with an odd number of plies, ranging from 3 up to 17, including the face and back. Generally speaking, the more plies, the better the plywood.


The language of plywood can be much more complex than you might expect when talking about big slabs of wood. And as with most building materials, the terminology is anything but universal. So even if you memorize everything explained here, don't be surprised if things aren't the same at your local lumberyard, and try not to feel belittled, as when talking to a computer support technician. The bottom line is that you'll know what you want when you see it at the yard (and don't be afraid to be choosy with the stock).

For furniture pieces or any decorative work where you want the edges to show, it's best to stick with Baltic birch or a general group of cabinet-grade, or furniture-grade, material generically called hardwood plywood. This plywood is made with all-hardwood plies and is much less likely to have voids within the plies than standard plywood, which often contains layers of softwood (Douglas fir, pine, et cetera). Also, the edges of hardwood plywood machine and sand more uniformly than those of standard plywood. Voids are a problem because they leave you with unsightly cavities in cut edges, and there's no way of knowing where they are before you make the cut.

A plywood panel gets two grades, one for the face veneer and one for the back. The most common standard grades for face veneers, from best to worst, are N, A, B, C, and D. With hardwood plywood, N and A grades should be "clear" or stain-grade, meaning they look good enough not to be painted. B-grade veneers are smooth and have only minor flaws but may contain patches; they are generally used for the back or less-exposed side of a piece. C-grade is used for fully concealed surfaces, like the back of a bookcase. D might as well be code for Downright Ugly; it's found only on construction-grade material.

For back veneers, some suppliers assign one of these letter grades, while others use a number, such as 1, 2, or 3. Typically, the number grades of 1, 2, and 3 are loosely equivalent to an A-minus, B, and C, respectively.

Veneer Matching

In addition to the general grading, the face veneers on cabinet-grade plywood can be categorized according to how they're made. A face made with a single sheet of wood, with no seam, is called single-sheet, or whole-sheet, veneer. When the face is made of two or more sheets butted together lengthwise, it's "matched" veneer, categorized according to how the grain patterns of the different pieces are arranged. Book matched veneers consist of two mirror-image patterns opened like a book and laid flat. Plank matching arranges mating pieces so all the grain runs in the same direction, but the grain patterns are random. This results in a look that's most similar to sawn boards that are edge-glued together. It's not quite as dramatic and interesting as book-matched veneer, but it looks more realistic to a discerning eye. Both book-matched and plank-matched veneers are arranged for consistent coloring. Unmatched veneers (typically rotary-cut) are arranged with no intentional order to the grain or color.


A standard "full sheet" of plywood is 4 feet wide and 8 feet long. Some suppliers sell sheets in smaller pieces, such as 2 × 4 feet and 4 × 4 feet, while online you can find such oddities as 12" squares of Baltic birch for about $2. And sometimes that's all you need. Length and width measurements are generally true to their named, or nominal, dimensions.

Sizing is not quite as simple when it comes to panel thickness. Standard thicknesses are as follows, in inches: 3/16, ¼, 3/8, and ¾. Some suppliers also offer 1" – thick material. Seems simple enough, but don't be surprised if you run into nominal (and actual) dimensions like 7/32", 15/32", and 23/32". The lumberyard staff will probably still call these ¼", ½", and ¾", respectively.

When working on projects, be sure to measure the actual thickness of your material, and always run test cuts for things like dadoes, rabbets, and slots. Assuming your stock is ¾" when it really measures 23/32" could get you into trouble.

Other Sheet Goods You'll Find in This Book

While most of the projects here use hardwood plywood as the primary material, a handful of designs call for different engineered wood products. And you can make substitutions with a fair number of designs–for example, using MDF instead of plywood.


Medium-density fiberboard comes in 4 × 8-foot panels made of tiny wood fibers glued and pressed into a perfectly uniform, color-through material. The color happens to be a dull puttyish hue that can look pretty good with a clear finish, but most applications call for paint. MDF has no layers (and no voids) and cuts and routs like butta'. It's a good substitute for plywood on painted projects because it's cheaper, takes paint better, and is sanded smooth at the factory. MDF is also dead flat, with no surface deviations whatsoever.

The main drawbacks of MDF are important to note: When unfinished, this material is highly susceptible to water damage; imagine a roll of paper towels set down on a wet countertop. Its compressive strength (flat pressure) is high, but its tensile (bending) strength is much lower than plywood's. You also must be careful when screwing or nailing MDF: it splits or chips if you're too close to the edge, and screws can strip out fairly easily, especially on the edges. Always drill pilot holes for fasteners in MDF, and seal the edges before painting (see Finishing Plywood and MDF). Finally, be prepared for a blizzard of dust when cutting or milling MDF, and work outside whenever possible. The dust is superfine, and it gets everywhere.


Regular plywood, with all natural-wood plies, is technically called "veneer-core" plywood. You need to know this only to distinguish it from a group of plywoods made with one or more layers of MDF. MDF-core plywood is a nearly full thickness of MDF with face and back veneers of real wood. It's very flat, and it's void-free, but it has the same drawbacks as regular MDF.

Combination-core plywood has a center of three or more wood plies sandwiched by layers of MDF and finished with pretty wood veneers. The result is a panel that's stronger than MDF with ultraflat surfaces that you can't always get with conventional plywood. Both of these hybrids are a good option for large, flat panels that will have their edges covered (with solid wood, veneer edge tape, mating panels, et cetera).


This is the new kid on the block, and he's very proud of how green and cool he is. He's made with cross-grained layers of bamboo, which acts like wood but is really a woody grass. The layers consist not of thin plies but of narrow, edge-glued strips of solid bamboo, making for very distinctive edges and very beautiful faces. Bamboo is considered an environmentally friendly natural resource because of its rapid renewal rate–some species can be harvested and replenished every three to five years.

Bamboo plywood is a strong performer and comes in a limited range of colors, including natural blonde, carbonized (a dark brown created by boiling the raw material), and an eye-catching "zebra" whose pattern comes from a blending of light and dark layers. Panel thicknesses range from 1/40" to ¼" single-ply veneers to ½", ¾", and 1" laminated structural panels. As of this writing, the price of 4 × 8-foot bamboo panels can range from 30 to 100 percent more than that of hardwood plywood, but prices are trending downward as the material reaches a broader market.


Oriented-strand board is similar to plywood, but it looks like someone put the plies in a blender before gluing up the panel. It's made up of a few layers that are cross-grained, like plywood, and has two outer layers that share the same "grain" direction. OSB is cheap and reasonably strong. In specific applications, it can be a good plywood substitute, whether for economy or the interesting look of its surfaces; for example, it looks pretty cool with a semitransparent paint job.


Also known as high-density fiberboard or by the popular brand name Masonite, hardboard is commonly available in 4 × 8-foot sheets of 1/8" or 3/16" thickness. It's dark brown and has one smooth side and one rough side, which has a slight waffle-grid texture. Hardboard is, literally, pegboard without the holes. You won't use it for any building projects (unless you really want to), but it's a good material for making templates for tracing and routing your work pieces. Hardboard is thin, void-free, and much easier to cut and shape than ¾" plywood, for example. It's also very cheap, so you won't mind messing up a template or two.

Where to Buy Sheet Goods

Now to apply all that we've learned to the real world: If you browse the aisles at a local "big box" home center, you'll likely find lots of construction-grade plywood (for things like roof sheathing and subflooring), as well as ¾" (23/32") plywood with red oak and birch face veneers. This is pretty standard seven-ply stuff and will probably have some voids inside, so it's not the best choice if really nice exposed edges are important.

Be very wary of 2 × 4-foot precut panels that are often sold in an aisle endcap. Sometimes these panels can have decent-looking face veneers, but always check the edges: if the plies are inconsistent and overlapping instead of flat, continuous layers, you don't want the panels, unless you're using them to hurricane-proof windows.

Other sheet goods, including MDF, OSB, and hardboard, are likely to be of the same quality at big boxes as anywhere else.

A better option for finding good plywood is a well-stocked lumberyard or hardwoods supplier. Lumber prices can vary widely even in the same town, so it's best to call around first. Always ask how many sheets they have in stock–you don't want to make the trip only to find that their "selection" is one sheet from the bottom of the bundle.

Lumberyards often carry a few sizes of hardwood plywood in birch, oak, maple, apple, and other common veneer species, as well as Baltic birch (see box above). Hardwoods suppliers will carry all that plus cherry, walnut, alder, hickory, and things you've never heard of, like wormy maple, kewazinga, and afromosia. Prepare for severe sticker shock with some of these species.

Considering how much mileage you can get out of a full sheet of plywood, it's a real bargain compared to clear solid lumber. Try to keep this in mind when you're out shopping. It's almost always worth it to spend a little more for good plywood, both for the all-important void avoidance and for quality face veneers.

Hauling & Storing Sheet Stock

For beginners, trying to wrestle a full sheet of plywood to the top of a car can quickly turn into a Buster Keaton routine, spelling certain embarrassment at the lumberyard. The following tips can help you get your goods home safely with your pride intact.

First, here's the one and only proper way to lift a panel: Stand it upright on one of its long edges. Position yourself at the rear end of the panel, with one hand on the top edge and the other ready to grab the bottom edge. Lift the panel enough to grab the bottom rear corner with the lower hand, then raise the rear end of the panel while pivoting the front bottom corner on the ground. Move both hands (along with the rest of your body) to the center of the panel, then rock the panel back to raise the front end. Carry the panel with your hands in the same positions, tilting it against your shoulder at a comfortable angle.

If you're practical and nerdy enough to own a minivan (like this book's author), chances are you can lay down flat a full 4 × 8-foot sheet of plywood in the back, so that it sticks out only a couple of feet. The trick is to stack up a couple of shipping pallets (or a pallet and some 2 × 4s on edge) so the plywood rests above the seat brackets and the curve of the hatch door opening. The same thing works in many SUVs. Be sure to run a tie-down strap over the rear end of the panel to keep it from sliding out when your turbo boost kicks in (if only minivans came with turbo). For those of you with pickup trucks, you can stop snickering now and skip ahead a few paragraphs.

If you have a car, your only option for hauling a full or half sheet is to throw that sucker on the roof rack or the roof itself. Be sure to pad the roof or rack with a blanket, to protect the car and the panel. Center the panel on the roof. Open the doors, and strap the panel down through the doors, using ratcheting straps (webbing with come-alongs, or mini hand winches; you can buy a whole set of these for $10 to $15 at any home center) or strong rope. Don't use bungee cords, which are made to stretch, of course, and can't handle strong forces.

Next, run a strap or rope from the right front corner of the car over the panel crosswise, and tie it to the left rear corner of the car. Repeat with a crossing strap going from the left front to right rear. These are the most important tie-downs, because most of the wind uplift will come from the front. Drive home with care. And whatever you do, don't take the highway!

If hauling a full sheet just isn't feasible, you can have your panel cut into more manageable sizes right there at the lumberyard; see Making Straight Cuts. Or, if you're buying more than one sheet, you can probably have the panels delivered for free.

Once you get your material home, proper storage is key to protecting your investment. Above all else, remember to keep it flat and keep it dry. Stack panels flat, whenever possible, placing them back-face down on flat 2 × 4s or other scrap material to keep them off the floor. Stack multiple panels face-to-face, aligning their edges neatly. You can cover a stack to keep the material clean, but always allow for plenty of air circulation. If stacking is not an option, stand the panels up on their long edges, against a wall, and resting on top of some scrap 2 × 4s.

When you're moving panels around, be very careful to set them down gently, lest you ruin a perfect factory edge with a ding or gouge. As mentioned earlier, moisture will quickly ruin MDF, and it's not great for plywood either. That's the main reason to keep the panels off the floor or ground. All panels can start to sag if left upright for long periods, so find a place to lay them flat if you won't get to them for a while.


Excerpted from "PlyDesign"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Storey Publishing, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Shop Talk
A Panel Discussion: All about Plywood
Other Sheet Goods You'll Find in This Book
Where to Buy Sheet Goods
Hauling & Storing Sheet Stock
Essential Techniques
Finishing Plywood and MDF

Chapter 2: Surfaces I
Florence Table
RTA Desk
8 x 4 = 2 Tables
Bubbles (Desk & Drinks Trolley)
One-Sheet Table & Benches
Lap Desk
Birch Ply Dining Table
Peninsula Workstation

Chapter 3: Surfaces II
Type A Coffee Table
Striated Ply Table
Alliance Table
Plane Table
Mind the Gap Table
Tank Table
Swing Table
Cantilever Table
Eclipse Coffee Table
Bowlegged Plant Stand
Tea Table
Reluctance Sofa Table

Chapter 4: Seating
Flat Pack Stool
TAB-1 Chair
Bug Stool
Symbiosis Chair
Chalk Back
Three's Company
Children's Chair
Rubber Hose Chair
Telephone Book Chair
Ribbed Bench

Chapter 5: Places for Everything
Revue Magazine Table
Stacked Box
Dyed MDF Storage Cabinet
Pinstriped Console
Angle Shelf
Paint Chip Modular Bookshelf
Laptop Stand
Drunken Monkey
Super Shelves
Hardwareless Shelf
Mudroom Organizer
Sliding Mirror Shelves
Cantilevered Shelves
Built-In Hutch

Chapter 6: Art & Deco
Light Within
Resin Art Panels
Whitewashed Ply Paneling
Book of Plies
Desk Coverlet
Light Headboard
Groovy Headboard
File Cabinet Cap
Twinkle Board

Chapter 7: Playthings
Indoor Doghouse
Jumbo Eames Cards
Doggie Dwelling
Tot Cart & Cradle
Donut Table
Old-School Skateboard

Chapter 8: Advanced Projects
modBOX 2010
store + explore
Bamboo Ply Wall Unit
Cornhole to Go

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