Plain Sliced Alder Plywood Characteristics

Cabinetmakers advise on what to expect from sliced-veneer Alder plywood. June 3, 2007

When I started out as a woodworker, alder was used for unseen parts in upholstered furniture. I did work for a cabinet shop in the 70's that marketed alder cabinets as "unselect birch" (funny). I understand that alder is now the rage, and I just landed a job adding on to a set of alder cabinets. I haven't worked with this wood for I don't know how long and I am curious about the veneered plywood.

I ordered plain sliced and paid almost $100.00 per sheet at .75" and $80.00 per sheet at .25". The veneers are sliced, but they are not book matched (random match?), as I had expected, and also a lot of the individual leaves of veneer are very narrow. Did I get burned, or is this typical for plain sliced alder ply these days? I am worried that the plywood finished ends and cabinet backs behind glass doors on this job will look like butcher block.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor F:
My supplier has plain sliced bookmatched alder and a rustic grade. I have used these and have no problem with them. If yours looks like butcher block, I think you could have done better.

From contributor M:
I realize this isn't an answer to the question, but along the same lines, I was surprised to find out on a recent job where I was going to use alder as a cherry substitute, that it was actually more money than the cherry - so much for "poor man's cherry"!

From contributor J:
I just did an alder job last month. The plywood in a B grade was $72 a sheet (3/4"). It was plain sliced, back was birch. It looked fantastic. Made locally, so I'm guessing we get a better deal here. I also have used some A1 which had random mismatched veneers, and I paid $84 a sheet. The rustic look is big. I believe that's where the random look is coming from. Knotty is also hot. Cabinet grade lumber is now inline (prices) with FAS eastern maple. Lower grades are still a bargain though, just more knots. When I drive by stands of alder, I often see many blown over trees. There isn't a shortage, and its prices are controlled by one company that has a monopoly on it, by buying and owning almost all of the alder lumber mills in the Northwest. Alder is a great stain grade wood, as almost no one wants oak anymore, so you've got to sell 'em something. You didn't get ripped off. Alder should be a inexpensive wood. Alder plywood sure looks a lot better than using red birch plywood. Now the alder jobs look like real cabinet work, unlike in the 70's when they just plain looked cheap.

From contributor S:
I remember alder in the 70s as a cheap substitute for birch. A cheap cabinet door of the era was called "alder/birch" and featured an alder frame and a birch veneered center panel. A light to medium stain made the two look almost identical.

Alder has been the west coast's version of poplar: a fast-growing, semi-soft hardwood weed tree used for a variety of utility purposes. In the past it became hard to find when the lumber companies weren't logging a lot of Douglas fir since alder wasn't worth logging on its own.

Now that it is popular in its own right, all that has changed. It has the advantage of being soft enough to work easily, and it does not yellow up too much with age and a clear finish alone, as opposed to the blond woods like maple and birch. I run into a lot of customers here in LA who were burned during the maple craze when their cabinets yellowed severely after a couple of years.

Like poplar, alder grows fast, but it doesn't get nearly as big. Hence the small flitches when it is laid up on sheet stock and the lack of big pieces available as solid stock.

From contributor R:
I just paid $96.64 for imported A/B gold ply 18.5mm alder. That is the standard price my supplier has charged in the past. Solid wood has gone up over the last 6 months. From less than $2.90 to $3.45 now. But it is still cheaper than cherry in SoCal.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the replies. I called my supplier and it turned out they carry a bookmatched version as well as the random match with narrow leaves at the same price for either. My guess is that they try to pawn the ugly stuff off on you if you don't know and don't specify book matched. The salesman that helped me said he thought the random narrow stuff was hard on the eyes too. This is a new one on me… I have always just specified plain sliced on any hardwood ply I ever bought and have never before gotten a random match.

From contributor B:
I'm in the middle of an alder job right now, which won't have anything but clear on it. I'm actually using Chinese birch, and the 3/4" was like $28/sheet. You can get it in natural birch or white birch. The natural is a good match with the alder solids. I've actually had better luck with this than with the "alder" plywood I've bought in the past. If you're paying $100 a sheet, look around. There are substitutes that will work and save you significant money.

From contributor T:
We have always done raised panel ends where possible because the alder ply is so much lighter in color. The lumber salesman tells me they now have the color thing fixed. Contributor B, have you had any problem with the Chinese ply warping?

From contributor B:
No warp problem with the 3/4" stuff. I use 5/8" for most all of my carcasses no matter what species the cabinets are. Normal box of 5/8" China birch with an applied panel to match the face frame and doors. Sometimes run into warp with the 5/8" stuff, but not major enough to give it up in favor of something else. No problems with the 3/4". It really seems to be good stuff. Has a lot of dark wild grain on one side, but I put that in. Had no complaints yet.