Plywood Vs. Solid Wood

What do you mean by "solid, dude"? In this thread, cabinetmakers communicate about wood, plywood, particleboard, veneers, core materials, core values, and symbolic forms of expression. It's all in good fun. October 8, 2005

Besides cost, I was wondering if there is any good reason why so many furniture manufacturers use plywood instead of solid wood. We're looking to add a line of bookcases to our showroom, and I'm disappointed to find manufactures who advertise their product as solid wood, only to find out the case is V/C plywood with a 1x2 oak face frame. Why can't a solid edge glued panel be used in place of a cheap piece of plywood?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor F:
One reason veneered panels are used extensively in furniture making is the cost of plywood versus solid stock. Another, and I believe larger, reason is the cost of labor to machine and assemble solid panels versus just cutting a rectangle of plywood or veneering a panel. A third reason is the problems solid wood movement can cause in furniture construction. If you design your furniture with construction methods that allow solid wood construction without self destruction, there is no reason why you shouldn't build from solid wood. I love the rich look of a solid wood furniture piece.

From contributor M
I used to make solid wood bookcases and sell them to the public through an art fair type of thing, and did quite well. I found a large number of people that were willing to pay extra money for something that was made out of solid wood. I've never had any problems warping or slipping from being made out of solid, as it was taken into consideration in the design. My shop was and is still set up to process solid wood efficiently.

From contributor R
I believe there are two basic reasons. First is the economics of the products. It is cheaper to work with sheet goods than solid lumber in terms of man hours spent and it's also cheaper for materials. One board foot of lumber costs roughly as much as a square foot of 3/4" plywood for many species and the more expensive solid woods like cherry can cost as much as 3 - 4 times the price of sheet goods.

There is one more issue that is not talked about here much, because it's very subjective, at least to me. That is the aesthetics of the product. Cabinet parts, to many people, are more attractive in the form of bookmatched veneer than the random color and grain matching of solids. I personally like the color variation of solids and the sometimes wild grain patterns. I intentionally try to use these differences to make unique looking details.

It sounds like you're saying that they are selling you solid wood construction, when in fact it's really plywood. If this is true, you have a question for a lawyer, in my opinion.

From contributor F:
I think it is legal to call plywood "solid wood" because it is indeed made up of layers of solid wood, as opposed to particleboard or MDF, which are made of pulverized wood.

From contributor B
Is not particleboard made of solid wood? I think so, but wouldn't say it to a customer. Sears advertises "solid wood cabinets" and "steel" dowels (staples). How's that for moxie? If I used oak chips to make my particles, would I have real solid oak cabinets?

From contributor I
I usually see advertisements as follows:
"Solid wood and veneers" - meaning face frames, doors, drawer fronts etc. are solid, everything else ply.
"Wood products" - meaning particle core.

I can't say I have ever seen the phrase "solid wood" without the "and veneers" disclaimer where ply is used.

From contributor D
And in the manufactured cab business, they are calling their pboard panels "Furniture Board." That is to enhance the image of the lowly and often maligned melamine coated flakeboard.

From contributor J
I think that some manufacturers like that plywood is more predictable in various climates. If you sell locally, you needn't worry as much about these things. But if you build a solid wood item in Florida, it might not look so good in Nevada.

From contributor S
The reason for it being called "furniture board" is that it is a different (higher) grade than pb used as substrate. Actually, the cheaper substrate pb is sometimes used for furniture making and that is really the reason why pb has such a bad reputation.

From contributor L
Could it not be referred to simply as industrial grade particleboard? Furniture grade particleboard just sounds like smoke blowing up somebody's... and most people pick up on that, when they're feeling drafty.

From contributor S
A great deal of furniture is made from PB and MDF. It is stable and can be made in Florida and shipped up north no problem. There are a great deal of furniture makers who pull their noses up at PB and MDF, but it is, nevertheless, easy to work with and it is saving valuable trees for generations to come. Manny high end tabletops are simply veneered MDF or PB with a wood edge. At the end of the day, solid wood is not what it is cracked up to be.

From Professor Gene Wengert:
In the USA, the Federal Trade Commission regulates the industry and its sales pitches, etc. They have ruled on solid wood versus plywood and they have indicated that there is a difference. That is, plywood is not solid wood. Specifically, The Federal Trade Commission has accepted for public comment a consent agreement with Taylor Woodcraft, Inc. (Taylor), settling charges that the company violated Section 5 of the FTC Act by deceptively claiming in promotional materials that its household furniture was constructed of solid maple or oak, when a number of its pieces contained some veneered exposed surfaces.

From contributor G
Having the topic in mind, I noticed recently an ad for Genuine Oak Veneer on a table.

From contributor S
Actually, there is such a thing as fake veneer. I have seen a paper-like material (like wallpaper almost) with the wood grain printed on it. Not sure where they got it from, but it looked almost real except dead, if you know what I mean. The guy said it will liven up when it is finished. If it comes out okay it might be a way to solve the problem we have with large tables.

From contributor D
I can tell you that in my area, the particleboard that is now referred to as furniture board is no different than it was when it was called particleboard. They just gave it a fancier name to try to improve its image. The cabinets that we get around here, like Dura Supreme, Merrilat and Kraft Maid, all use particleboard that has a lower density, weight and larger flake size than even the GP particleboard I get for countertop blanks.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all for your input. I never realized that there were so many variables involved.
We have a small showroom to show off examples of custom work, and a few years ago we ordered a line of solid pine furniture to sell off the floor. Contrary to our expectations, the stock line of furniture is doing better than our customer line. I asked the manufacturer the same question. Their pine is solid edge glued pine, but the oak line is plywood. They say the pine is solid because they can make it from a low grade of pine and cut out the defects. They claim the finished cost of panel is much less than the raw material cost of solid oak. Pine plywood, they claim, is more expensive than oak, since it's nowhere near as popular.

From contributor O
I have seen many fine examples of laid up veneers that could in no way be done with solid stock. Also, how about the fact that you can yield more beauty from a solid piece of wood if it's sliced into veneers? In my opinion; a whole project made from pure solid wood is as snobbish as a hand cut dovetail on a high end kitchen cabinet drawer. Would you rather chew up a whole truffle at once or slice it real thin and enjoy it for awhile longer?

From contributor V
To me, custom means you do what the customer wants. If they want to pay for solid wood, they get it. If they want melamine uppers, they get it. I let them know the pros and cons of their ideas but in the end, it's all about what they want, within reason. If I don't give them what they want, my family doesn't eat.

From contributor S:
Well, all of this is just fine and dandy but... If there is anybody out there who is building solid wood cabinets and remaining competitive within the cabinet market, I would love to see it. Point being, both types of material have their respective uses. I would not even consider using plywood to do face frame, nor would I put solid stock on the back of a cabinet. Burl top… veneer. Kitchen table… maybe solid with bread board ends. Bookcase less than 12” wide… maybe solid with ply back.

The answer to the question is in the reasoning behind developing plywood in the first place. You can pick up 48” x 96” ¾ ply sheets by the thousands in one phone call to your supplier, and they will match. Solid stock, you’re lucky if you get it past 12” wide x 4/4, remotely similar or straight. Let’s not even get into similar moisture contents.