Problems with Chinese Plywood

Cabinetmakers report widespread quality and performance problems with hardwood plywood imported from China. May 22, 2007

So I've been getting these salesmen dropping by with samples of what looks to be great plywood - lots of tight veneer layers much like Baltic birch. But when I get a few sheets to try, I find the board is not only warping in more directions than I have ever seen, but the board actually kinks in places, changing direction so abruptly that there would seem to be no way to use it for something like a bookcase side. In addition, the board seems to be weak - sagging shelves, hardware screws stripping out, you name it. The final straw is that the maple face veneer isn't maple at all, apparently some Oriental "white wood." The point is that when I mention these issues to my suppliers (more than one, by the way), they profess to be shocked, yes shocked! Apparently I am the only one who is not head over heels in love with this new product. So I leave it to you, my fellow box builders, to enlighten me. What am I missing here?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor W:
We have been using China ply for about 4 years now. There were some issues at first like you describe. Those problems disappeared over time as my suppliers found better suppliers in China. All Chinese plywood is not created equal. A kiln dried core is a must. This will prevent most of the warping that you are describing. The quality of the core and face veneer depends completely on the factory that it comes from. If your supplier demands quality from their suppliers, they can find it. To say that all Chinese plywood is junk is just wrong. That would be like saying that all American made cabinets are junk because you saw junky cabinets made by an American cabinet shop.

From contributor C:
I think it sucks! I've had nothing but bad things from using this one time. Luckily my supplier gave me a sample sheet to try. I will not ever buy this for building cabinets. As far as I'm concerned, this stuff can stay on the ships.

From contributor W:
You never got a bad sheet of ply from an American supplier?

From contributor T:
I got a unit in last year. I was lucky - we cut all the parts on Friday and did not start assembling until Monday. When I saw the almost unbelievable warping, I stacked it all back on the unit and returned it. I suppose with OSHA, workers comp, insurance, etc., we may not have a choice in the near future.

From contributor R:
I agree, the stuff is no good. We used it for a while because we liked the price and we could deal with the warping. Finding a sheet with blood and hair laminated into the stuff aroused some serious ethical questions about its manufacturing process. (True story.) Needless to say, we haven't used it since. They don't have that OSHA, workers comp, environmental stuff in China and that's why it is so cheap.

From contributor F:
We get ours from Emerson Hardwoods. The mill they get theirs from is almost as good as any mill here in Oregon. I gave up on the stuff a year or two ago, but have seen one of the most successful local custom shops using it all the time. So I gave it another shot. Whoever is making this brand is doing it right. Maybe not treating their employees right, but at least I'm helping to feed a starving family in China. At 28 bucks a sheet, if they keep the quality up, I'll use it. That or $45 a sheet for C-3 maple shop made locally from Murphy or States.

From contributor I:
The great thing about this race for the cheapest labor is that soon it may make slavery an attractive, low cost option. Just think, they may not be getting paid, but hopefully they will be getting fed. That should also take care of the workers comp and OSHA.

From contributor D:
We used some okume (spelling?) ply for some cabinets for the shop, and the stuff is doing things that wood just shouldn't be able to do. It's more like melting than warping. If this had been on a real job, we'd be in a heap of trouble. I'm not saying all American plywood is great, because there are bad batches, we've had 'em, but they never did anything like this stuff. That twenty bucks a sheet you save won't seem like much when you have to rebuild a year's worth of jobs. The hair and blood story I believe, because I think I found feathers in some of ours.

From contributor E:
I really don't see why this keeps coming up. I am a small custom cabinet shop and use very little sheet goods during a year. However, when I do, I specify domestic plywood. The savings of $20 or $30 a sheet is nothing to a callback. I feel that my customer wants good material or he wouldn't be coming to me; he would to go the box stores if he wanted cheap goods. So I cover the cost of material in my bid and I am willing to pay more for domestic ply. I am not saying that I haven't received some bad domestic stuff also, but the China stuff I have seen is trash. If we keep accepting this stuff it will force the local mills out of business and then it's all you will have to choose from. Just my opinion.

From contributor Z:
Gotta watch the China stuff very closely! I see MC's of more than 20% and overlapping plies regularly. I won't touch it with a 10' stick! It is cheap, though, and appeals to some.

From contributor P:
We've used a Chinese birch multiply for kicks and other small, non-critical parts and it's been fine, but certainly wouldn't try it for cases - not the place to save a buck. Not that I've got a lot of praise for US ply either. In my darker moments, I see it as a sinister plot to convert us to MDF and particleboard. Okume has been absolutely worthless - completely unstable, delams galore, etc.

From contributor G:
My unbreakable rule is to never ever buy any material, tools, or hardware that is made in China. It is all junk. I cannot afford callbacks, plus there are plenty of good US and European suppliers that make affordable goods in all price ranges. You get what you pay for.

From contributor N:
The extra money that we pay to buy a better quality plywood is well worth it. I don't know about you, but I like to work with good materials, not something I have to play around with to make it work. Our labor is what is so precious to us. You can always buy more materials, but you only have so much time. Time taken to work with shoddy materials is time taken away from getting the next project out the door, and the next check in the bank. If you pay $25.00 more per sheet, times say 15 sheets, that's $375.00 more on an $8,000 to $10,000 job. Not much to pay for peace of mind.

From contributor K:
I use Baltic birch, from Russia primarily, for 90% of my plywood needs. I'm not sure exactly who manufactures it; it seems to have different mill names on it, but it's always top-notch. The only drawback is the 5' length, making tall boxes and long boxes a pain. Recently I ordered several hundred feet of the German beech that Pollmeier markets. The hardwood has been wonderful, the 1/4" ply not so much. The problem there seems to be it only has a face veneer on one side. Every sheet is bowed to the face. I think if it had a better quality veneer on the back, that problem would be resolved.

From contributor I:

Forget about all the problems with this stuff - worry about all the stuff they spray it with and how bad it is for you.

From contributor A:
The one sheet I cut up did smell like something from a bad pig farm. I'm very glad most of us don't use this crap. Like so many have mentioned, if you're doing high quality work, use quality materials. Good luck to whoever uses this garbage. Leave all the good ply to the ones that take pride in what they are building.

From contributor U:
My company's plywood mills are going down the tubes… I am not asking you to buy American, but don't support a cheap market for cheap and shoddy goods that puts the domestic folks out of business.

From contributor F:
For some reason, the Chinese mill that makes the birch ply I've been using is doing as good a job as States, GP, Roseburg, etc. In the past I tried it once and said I would never use it again. This mystery mill does a good job; I buy it from Emerson Hardwoods out of Portland. Other very good custom shops use this ply also. The few builders I work with won't pay the $16 a sheet upgrade to a locally made Maple C3 (States is 15 miles away). When I do custom work for homeowners, I give them a choice. Most of the Chinese stuff is junk and I avoid it. I use a lot of KV8405's, which are still American made. The import copies are not as good, but they are cheaper. Most of the local cabinet shops use the imports.

From contributor V:
I use the pricier FSC certified domestic plywood and use the responsible forestry aspect as a sales tool.

From contributor Q:
Build the cost into the price and your reputation won't suffer because you decided to go cheap. I personally have had nothing but bad luck with Chinese plywood. Very inconsistent quality. You get what you pay for.

From contributor S:
I've unknowingly picked up a few sheets of this stuff at a big box type home center in the past when I've been in a pinch. The mill stamp was GP, which may have applied to the maple face veneers, but the cores of these panels were exactly consistent with what is described in this thread. In addition to the warping/buckling issue, I had a significant problem with delamination occurring as the parts were cut. I've never seen anything like it. 40% of the parts I machined that weekend had to be discarded as they were too bent, delaminated or disfigured as they came off the panel saw. As I needed significantly more material to complete the job, it ended up costing me more time and money than if I'd used the domestic product that I was used to. It seems that big mills like GP are the only ones that will be profiting from this arrangement. I'd sooner use Canadian hardwood particleboard.