If you’re embarking on a new project, you may be wondering about the strength of plywood vs. solid wood. This question is important, as the safety and longevity of your project depend on quality wood.
When comparing equally thick plywood vs. equally thick solid wood, plywood is stronger against bending forces. However, you must take into account the type and quality of the wood.
In this article, we explore these questions further. Ensuring you make the right choice for your next project.
Note: For our discussion, plywood refers to traditional multi-layered birch plywood. We are not talking about OSB or particleboard, in which case solid wood would be stronger in some instances.
What Can Make Plywood Stronger than Solid Wood?
There are several reasons plywood can rival regular wood in various arenas. Again, remember that not all plywood is stronger than all solid wood. However, if you take pine plywood and put it against a solid pine board, the pine plywood will withstand a higher bending force before breaking.
Here are three things that make plywood strong:
- Alternate cross sheeting
Let’s explore these in more depth.
Plywood Strength Through Layering
Have you ever looked at those cable cars and wondered how such a small wire could hold such a large object?
Those small cables are strong because they are not one cable – they are many cables bound together.
Similarly, plywood achieves high strength through layering. By taking multiple small boards and securing them together, you get a board that is even stronger than normal.
Layering helps eliminate problems with knots. With regular solid wood, one knot can go all the way through the board – even if it’s a thick cut!
However, with plywood, you don’t need to worry as much about knots. Yes, they are still there; however, they don’t extend through the board.
Layering isn’t the only way plywood achieves extreme strength; plywood also achieves strength through laying in alternate directions.
Plywood Strength Through Cross Sheeting
Regular solid wood is strong; however, all the grain is running in the same direction. While this creates strength under some circumstances, it can create weakness in others.
For instance, regular wood is more prone to splitting. Why? With the wood fibers running in the same direction, a split can spread through the whole board.
With plywood, we can prevent a split through the multi-layered, alternating grain pattern. Like a tear-resistant fabric, where the weaves run in alternating directions, plywood prevents splits by alternating the grain’s directions.
This strength only increases with the layers of the plywood. A five-ply board will have greater strength than a three-ply board.
Plywood Strength Through Adhesives
Maybe you’ve read something like this on your bottle of wood glue: Dries Stronger than Wood!
Indeed, if you’ve ever tried to rip apart something that was properly wood glued, you’ll often find that the wood rips, but the glue remains intact.
Good plywood uses an adhesive that acts to increase the overall strength of the wood. Sometimes, you’ll find different grades of exposures listed with the plywood.
Exposure 1: moderately waterproof, will not stand up against water over extended periods.
Exposure 2: water-resistant but should not be exposed to torrential water.
Some of the adhesives used in plywood also have a waterproofing element. Marine-grade plywood is probably one of the strongest of all the plywoods. Though it’s expensive, it lasts a long time.
When Should I Use Plywood Instead of Solid Wood?
Here are several times you should use plywood instead of solid wood.
- Some everyday projects
Below, we’ll cover these in more detail.
The advantage of plywood, aside from its durability, is its ability to be made in large sheets. Sheets of plywood come standard in four-foot by eight-foot sheets. This makes plywood ideal for sheathing.
For instance, plywood is good for covering the outside of a home before the house wrap and siding is installed. Though there are still gaps between plywood, there are not as many as there would be if the builder had used a smaller sheet of wood. In this way, plywood provides a tightly sealed home.
Plywood is also used for floors. If you cut away from your carpet or tile, you’ll likely find plywood at the base, holding things together.
Plywood on Your Roof
Roofs are also another place where builders opt to use plywood. Plywood can be impregnated with tough additives that make it resistant to rot.
There are incredibly tough grades of plywood, like marine grade plywood. This plywood is made to fight against the elements, being rated for continuous contact with water.
Everyday Projects for Plywood
Plywood is versatile. It can be purchased in large sheets that are easily cut down to the proper size.
Whether you’re building a dog house, cabinets, a couch, a table, or a box, plywood can help you out!
You can also purchase plywood in many different sizes. This allows you to build a strong structure without the hassle of shopping around for extra-large solid wood.
However, plywood is not for everything. There are times when solid wood is probably a better choice. In the next section, we’ll go over the times when you should use solid wood.
When Should I Use Solid Wood Instead of Plywood?
There is nothing like the beautiful grain of freshly polished hardwood. Solid wood has been used for structures since the beginning of time, and for a good reason.
Solid wood is strong, and some types of wood (like cedar) are naturally rot-resistant.
Here are several projects that are great for solid wood:
- Handmade furniture
- Studs and beams
- Tabletops and flooring
Below we’ll go in more depth.
Solid wood looks elegant and sturdy when used in furniture. Due to the uniform structure of solid wood, you can remove material while maintaining a beautiful finish. You can polish some high-end solid wood to a mirror finish.
Studs and Beams
Most studs are made from solid wood. Solid wood works well when builders need long stud boards. Also, large and thick pieces of solid wood can be extra strong.
Sometimes, when builders install a weight supporting beam, they will place several large boards side by side, essentially creating a supersized plywood board! They do this to take advantage of the strength of multiple boards working together.
Custom Table Tops and Flooring
Like furniture, tabletops and flooring enjoy the beauty of natural solid wood. Indeed, there can be debate about the strength of solid wood vs. plywood; however, there is no question that natural solid wood is one of the most beautiful materials in the world.
Below, we’ll discuss the strongest types of plywood.
What are the Strongest Types of Plywood?
As we stated earlier, not all plywood is created equal. Some plywood is weak and cheap, where other plywoods are extremely tough and durable. It’s important to know which one you’re dealing with before you make a purchase.
Here are several of the strongest types of plywood.
- Multi-ply plywood
- Hardwood plywood
- Sheathing plywood
Let’s take a closer look at these plywoods.
What Makes Multi-ply Plywood so Strong?
Multi-ply plywood refers to plywood that is seven-ply or more. This means that the plywood has at least seven layers.
This type of plywood is so strong for the simple reason that it has a bunch of layers. Typically, the more layers you have, the stronger the board.
What Makes Hardwood Plywood so Strong?
The second type of plywood, it hardwood plywood. Many cheap plywoods will use a mixture of pine to create the plywood. While pine plywood is decently strong, it is not as robust as hardwood, like maple or oak.
So, if you can find plywood that was made using sheets of hardwood, then you have found yourself a very durable building material.
What Makes Sheathing Plywood Strong?
Finally, we have sheathing plywood. Sheathing plywood is just your everyday plywood. However, this type of plywood is still incredibly strong.
We mention this type of plywood, as it is typically stronger than OSB or particleboard, which sometimes fall under the umbrella term plywood.
If you have a project that will contact some water, regular plywood will usually protect you more than OSB or particleboard. OSB and particleboard have a bad habit of instantly bubbling and becoming weak when they contact water.
Final Word on Plywood vs. Solid Wood Strength
Plywood and solid wood can both be incredibly strong. However, depending on how you measure strength, you may find that solid wood is just as strong, or stronger than plywood. For this article, we measured strength as the ability to withstand an equal bending force.
Of course, if you have a large piece of solid wood, it will be stronger than a thin piece of plywood.
Be sure you consider the quality of the wood you’re using, not just the type of wood. Not all plywood is created equal. For best results with your next project, match the grade of your plywood to the importance of your structure.