While plywood products are normally thought of as ranging from ¼” up to ¾” in thickness, with the ½” to ¾” range making up the majority of sales, plywood products are also manufactured outside this range; with products that are both thicker and thinner. The thinnest plywood on the market ranges all the way down to 2mm thick (just over 1/16 inch).
These are obviously specialty plywood products, manufactured for special applications which can’t be accomplished by any other product on the market, whether plywood or some other material. But they are used for applications where there are literally no other products available for use. While the market may not be huge for these products, it is one that isn’t likely to go away, as there is really nothing else that people can use.
What’s the best thin plywood? That all depends on the project at hand. Knowing some of the most popular types, their characteristics and how they are used will help you in making your selection, if you are ever faced with a project where these engineered wood products are needed.
Characteristics of Thin Plywood
All types of plywood are made with strong resins and wood fibers, sheets, chips or veneers, of varying quality. In general, thin plywood is manufactured in the same way thicker plywoods are made; that is by layering very thin sheets of wood one on top of the other, with the wood grain running perpendicular to the adjacent layers; then bonding them together with strong resins or glues. The minimum number of layers or “plies” for any type of plywood – even the thinnest – is three.
Using an odd number of layers in the manufacture of plywood allows the grain on both faces to run in the same direction. This is important for aesthetic purposes. But at the same time, the extra layer makes a sheet of plywood stronger in one direction, than it is in the other direction.
As with any plywood product, the manufacture of thin plywood makes it stronger, more stable and less prone to warping and twisting than boards are. However, most plywood will display a little bit of a bow, caused by the way it is banded horizontally to a pallet for shipping, with the ends overhanging the ends of the pallet. This bow isn’t much of a problem for thin plywood, because whatever structure you attach it to will be stronger than the plywood, pulling it straight.
Because of the needs of the manufacturing process, thin plywood is typically manufactured without voids, splits or knotholes found in thicker plywood, especially softwood plywood. Some types are highly flexible, allowing it to be used around curves.
Popular Types of Thin Plywood
Thin plywood is used for a wide variety of applications that call for high-strength, high-quality sheet material that offers resistance to cracks, breaks, twisting, warping, and shrinkage. There are many different types of hardwood and softwood plywood that meet these needs under specific circumstances. In many cases, a thin plywood is called for, because of the need to curve the sheet to meet design requirements.
Thin plywood can also be used to provide a decorative surface or just a smooth surface to attach other things to. When those smooth surfaces are needed, but a thicker material is not able to be used, such as in the case of underlayment, thin plywood has the strength and flatness to provide a smooth, even surface for bonding floor covering to.
Some of the most popular types of thin plywood include:
Aircraft Grade Plywood
Aircraft grade plywood was first developed during World War II for the aircraft industry. There was a limit in how much aluminum was available, as most of it comes from Africa and Australia, Africa and South America. While the third most abundant material in the Earth’s crust, it requires extra steps to mine and refine, increasing the cost. For these reasons, some aircraft were designed to be made out of thin plywood, using natural resources which were much more abundant in the United States.
In order to save weight in the manufacture of aircraft, aircraft grade plywood tends to be very thin and light. The thinnest plywood products available today are aircraft grade. Yet, even though it is thin, it still offers excellent strength. This is in part due to the rosin used for bonding the veneers; which is designed to handle higher levels of heat and humidity.
Today, the only aircraft where aircraft plywood is still in use is for restoration work and in the building of airplane models. That doesn’t mean that there is no market for aircraft plywood. It is popular for all types of model making, as well as doll houses and packaging for fine quality products (primarily cigars and chocolate). Cases for musical instruments also incorporate aircraft plywood in their manufacture.
Decorative plywood is more commonly referred to as “paneling” although this appellation is a bit unfair, as most paneling is vinyl coated with a wood-print design, rather than being made with a hardwood veneer face. While used in the same applications, decorative plywood provides a much richer appearance, as it is made of real wood.
These decorative hardwood products come in various thicknesses, with some of the most popular being very thin and lightweight. The hardwood face veneer is often ash, birch, oak, maple, mahogany, or even teak or rosewood, although literally any hardwood can be used. Manufacturers of decorative plywood often match the wood, providing the best possible appearance from their products. It is sometimes bonded with fabric or resin-impregnated paper and is useful in applications that call for dying or drawing on the wood.
The special care used in manufacturing this plywood to provide the best possible appearance shows up in the product’s pricing. You can expect to pay top dollar for most decorative plywood, but will end up with a project that reflects the money you put into it.
Flexible plywood is sometimes known as bendy ply or wiggle board and in the UK, it is nicknamed hatters ply because it was used for making stovepipe hats during the Victorian era. This is usually lightweight and is the best thin plywood for making curved parts for projects of all sorts.
The plywood is made flexible by a combination of different techniques, not just making it thin. Thin hardwood plywood, even 1/8 inch thick, still isn’t very flexible, although aircraft grade plywood tends to be more flexible than other hardwood plywood; but it isn’t as flexible as plywood products made for that particular purpose.
Each flexible plywood product is designed for a specific bend radius. When shopping for it, you need not only to know what thickness of plywood you want to have; but also what radius you are planning to bend it to. The same manufacturer might provide more than one plywood made to the same thickness, but with different bend radiuses. This bend radius is only in one direction; typically the panel is rather rigid in the other direction.
Flexible plywood can be used in a wide variety of projects, especially architectural uses, such as making columns, and in the manufacture of furniture, where curved wood panels are necessary. It has also found a home in the marine industry, where it is used for the furnishings inside of yachts, many of which have to be built with curves to match the shape of the boat’s hull.
Thin plywood can fit into one of the categories above and also be marine plywood. What makes it marine plywood is that it is manufactured to meet a specific set of specifications. The most important parts of those specifications is that the plywood panel is without voids and that moisture resistant adhesives are used in its manufacture. Many marine grade plywoods are rated as being WBP (weather and boil proof).
Marine plywood such as Okoume is typically available in very thin sheets that are both strong and lightweight. Even the thinnest Marine plywood tends to be a bit pricey in comparison to most other types of plywood, but its special characteristics make it well worth the investment.
As mentioned in the section on flexible plywood above, marine applications require some flexibility, which requires the use of thin plywood. Marine grade plywood is used, because it is less likely to delaminate under the moisture conditions that marine applications subject the plywood to.
Working with Thin Plywood
Cutting thin plywood with a saw can be extremely difficult. In some cases where the fence doesn’t fit snug to the table, it’s possible to get the edge of the plywood sheet caught under the edge of the fence, making it stick. In other cases, the blade will chip the plywood badly, especially the surface veneer.
The solution to this is to cut the plywood with a utility knife. This is especially useful when crosscutting the surface veneer, as that’s when you’re likely to have the most problem with chipping the veneer. At the same time, the inner layer’s grain is going to be running the direction of your cut, making it extremely easy to snap it off in that direction.
What you’ll want to do is measure your plywood and mark it on one side. Then, using a straight edge and a utility knife, score the surface of the plywood. Lean the point of the knife’s blade into the straight edge, to ensure that it doesn’t wander off, following the wood’s grain. Score the same line several more times, making it deeper.
With one side scored. Use a pencil to transfer the cut point to the edge and from there to the other side of the panel. That’s more accurate than measuring it again. Then score the second side in the same manner as you did the first. Once the scored line is deep enough to go through the face veneer, simply snap the board off at the cut line by bending it.
Because these plywood panels are so thin, it is difficult to nail them in place and the nails are quite likely to pull through the plywood. Even staples can pull through with enough strain put on them. Therefore, it is typical to glue projects made with thin plywood. Nails, more specifically brads or staples can be used to hold the plywood parts in place while the glue dries; but the major structural support comes from the glue, not the fasteners.
With this in mind, it’s possible to make projects using thin plywood without using any sort of fasteners. However, you will need to clamp your parts well, until the glue has a chance to dry. Keep in mind that the thin plywood is more flexible, so it will not apply pressure across a large span by itself. You may need to use some sort of temporary backing board as part of the clamping setup, in order to hold the whole surface that is being glued snug up against the framework it is being glued to.
Professional Recommendations when Choosing
When choosing plywood, consider what characteristics are most desirable for the project at hand and make your decision based on the product’s ability to meet your needs. Looks, strength, weight, even the price, and the ability to withstand wear are some to keep in mind. Musical instruments, models, and cabinets are some of the most popular items made with thin plywood, and other items such as kites, miniatures, and even things like hockey sticks and blades for wind turbines call for quality plywood that’s much thinner than the wood used in heavy-duty applications.
Ensure that you check to determine whether the product you are considering is rated for indoor or outdoor use, and be sure that it offers the amount of flexibility or rigidity desired. Ultimately, the best thin plywood is the one that is best suited to the job it will be performing.