Although you hear the term “furniture grade plywood” bandied around from time to time (usually by people who don’t know any better), there really is no such thing. Furniture is an application in which plywood is used; but there is no such grade of plywood. Rather, the term “furniture grade” is a loosely used term, primarily referring to plywood with a letter grade identifying the quality of face veneer, which would make it acceptable for use in building furniture.
This grade of finish is normally only found on hardwood plywood, sometimes referred to as “cabinet grade” plywood, because it is commonly used for making cabinetry. But it can also be found on softwood plywood, if you look hard enough. It’s impossible to find such a high quality finish on products like OSB (oriented strand-board) and MDF (medium-density fiberboard) because of the way they are made and the material they are made from.
Most hardwood plywood used to manufacture furniture and cabinetry, such as cabinets, tables, chairs, etc., comes graded as “A1,” referring to the face side being A-grade and the back side being grade 1. The grading system looks like this:
Visible Face Grades:
- AA – Good or good sequence
- A – Good
- B – Good, sliced B, RC sound
- C – Rotary cut solid
Back Face Grades:
- Sound, same species, specifically cut
- Solid, same species, specifically cut
- Rotary Grain
- Reject Back
The idea of calling some plywood “furniture grade plywood” comes from the use of high-grade hardwood plywood for making furniture, even though it is an inaccurate term. Cabinet grade plywood, on the other hand, is a term used most commonly for birch plywood, a popular hardwood plywood for building kitchen and bathroom cabinets.
Birch plywood is popular for cabinets for two reasons. The first is that it generally has a thicker face veneer than other hardwood plywoods. This is advantageous when finishing, as you don’t have to be overly careful sanding, to avoid sanding through the face veneer. Even if you did sand through the face veneer (not that you want to), you’d find that the core veneers of birch plywood are also made of birch, unlike other hardwood plywoods, which use a softwood veneer core.
However, hardwood plywood isn’t the only thing used for building cabinets. MDF (medium density fiberboard) is a popular alternative for building cabinets which will are to be painted, rather than stained and varnished. Since the wood grain is immaterial in painted cabinets, MDF provides a smoother surface finish for cabinet work, at a lower overall cost. Cabinet grade plywood can be rather expensive.
Again, either softwood or hardwood plywood can be used in the construction of furniture. Some of the more commonly used furniture grade plywood types are:
- Oak – very popular in the US for both furniture and cabinetry. The open grain creates an excellent contrast, providing for beautiful furniture with a somewhat rustic style.
- Mahogany – this type of plywood is one of the most commonly used for cabinets throughout the world.
- Cherry – the red tone of cherry wood provides a sense of richness that is not found in other hardwood plywood types. It is most often used for high end furniture.
- Maple – another American favorite, usually stained dark.
- Baltic Birch – is commonly used for both cabinetry and shop type furniture. When used for cabinetry, it is often stained to give the appearance of other hardwoods. However, this is type of plywood usually avoided for shop furniture.
- Tiger Maple – a common choice for custom made furniture.
Any of the three types of plywood listed above, as well as many others, can be used in any furniture construction project. However, due to differences in costs and appearance, not all are recommended for every project.
For instance, Mahogany is the most often used plywood in cabinet construction projects. While it can be used to make a variety of other furniture pieces (many people also own Mahogany dining tables), it is not recommended for shop, shed, garage, etc. projects. Because Mahogany is one of the more expensive types of plywood, it should be used where aesthetic quality is extremely important.
Baltic Birch, on the other hand, is great for use in these locations since it is simple, easy to work with, durable, and cost efficient.
Tiger Maple is durable and has an interesting pattern, which makes it great for custom furniture. It is important to note that both durability and look are essential when it comes to building furniture.
The hardwood plywood that is often thought of as being furniture grade plywood is often used for what the name implies, making furniture; hence the confusion on its name. But it is also used for making cabinetry. Depending on whether you consider cabinetry to be furniture or not, calling it furniture grade could work for cabinets as well.
While not everything in a piece of furniture can be made of plywood, it is ideal for large, flat pieces, such as tabletops, the sides of carcases (dresser cases), shelving, backs, cabinet doors and facing. These plywood pieces are often edged with hardwood pieces of the same wood type, creating the appearance that the whole project has been made out of hardwood, when in fact only the edge pieces and surface veneers are of that hardwood.
Softwood plywood is also used for more utilitarian furniture, such as workbenches, storage shelves, folding tables for laundry rooms and work tables for craft rooms. The major difference between these applications and those where hardwood plywood might be used is that there is no reason to have fine furniture used in those applications.
Going even farther down on the cost scale, MDF and particleboard are used in the manufacture of much of the commercial furniture built today, even quality furniture. In most of those cases, a wood grain vinyl covering is applied directly to the plywood. However, in the case of projects made with MDF, the surface finish of the plywood might actually be the color coat, made to have the appearance of very smooth paint. This is especially common with the type of furniture that you have to assemble yourself.
Using furniture grade plywood in your own furniture projects
The key to using hardwood or furniture grade plywood in your own projects is to hide the edges of the cut pieces, covering them with matching hardwood. Doing this usually requires some careful machining and finish sanding, so as to match the pieces up in a way that makes them look like they belong, rather than you are trying to hide something.
It is best to cut the hardwood edge and corner pieces slightly proud, allowing you to plane or sand them flush with the plywood. You can’t take off from the plywood, if it is proud, as the face veneer is too thin to allow that, without damage. But the solid hardwood edge shouldn’t have any problems being trimmed and sanded.
Care must be taken, when cutting hardwood plywood, so as to not chip out the face veneer. Always cut from the back side of the sheet, to help prevent this. Taping the cut line, on both sides, with masking tape, will also help to prevent chipping and splintering.
In the diagram above, a hardwood edge has been added to a piece of hardwood plywood being used as a shelf. This provides good aesthetics, while strengthening the shelf at the same time. The extra thickness of the hardwood piece augments the thickness of the plywood, making a ½” thick piece of plywood have roughly the same stiffness as a 1” piece of plywood would.
In this case, the edges of the hardwood piece have been rounded at a ¼” radius; but other patterns, such as a chamfer, beading, cove or roman ogee could just as well be applied, using a router and the appropriate bit.
Instead of using a piece of hardwood, either routed or plain, hardwood edging can be glued to the edge of the shelf. You can buy hardwood veneer shelf edging of this type, which comes with hot melt glue already applied to one side. It is installed by use of a clothes iron to heat the glue, adhering the two pieces together.
If you cannot find an appropriate veneer edging for use on your shelves, you can accomplish the same thing by cutting a thin strip of hardwood (1/8” thick) and gluing it on the edge of the plywood board yourself. Plane and sand it to remove saw blade marks and finish it to match the rest of the project.
In this diagram, we have two pieces of hardwood plywood, making two sides of a box. This could be a carcase for a dresser or the supporting lip under the edge of a table. Regardless of what it is, the hardwood corner is covering the edges of both pieces of plywood, finishing them. The corner piece in this diagram could be cut on a table saw or a router. While I had in mind using it as a corner on a carcase, when I was drawing it, I realized that the same construction could be used for a table leg.
You can machine your own corner pieces, giving them the profile that you desire or you can work with standard architectural trim. Creative use of architectural trim can make for some rather fancy corners on cabinetry of all sorts.
Cabinet doors can be made in a similar way, cutting out a step on the inside of the frame, for the ¼” hardwood plywood flat panel and milling the face of the frame as you desire. The edge, or frame, above has a chamfer on the inner edge and is radiused on the outer edge. However, it would be much more likely to pick one or the other, and not use both of these together.
Creating an “industrial” look
A look which has become popular in more recent times is the industrial look. This mimics the industrial furniture used in manufacturing and packaging for shipping operations. Specific hardwood plywoods are used for this, due to their durability. An unexpected result is that this look is attractive enough, that it has moved from the factory floor to the classroom and some casual stores. We now find it being used in homes, as well.
The identifying design feature here is exposed edges of plywood tabletops, side pieces, and dividers. These edges are attractive because of the types of plywood which are used, ones which have a lot of consistent core veneer layers and are made essentially without voids. Two of the most popular plywood products used for this are Baltic Birch plywood and Applewood.
Baltic Birch is an especially attractive plywood to work with, because of the core being made out of birch as well. This provides for a very stable plywood product. Because everything is made of the same wood, the face and back veneers are thicker, making them much easier to finish.
For this style, plywood panels are usually used in conjunction with a welded metal framework. The attaching hardware is often finished to match the framework and could be installed countersunk or left proud with a face washer. The edges of the plywood panels are routed with an oval bit, giving them a curve, which helps prevent splintering, without having to go to a full bullnose. The basic difference between the two is that a bullnose is a half circle, while the oval edge is a half oval.
PVC and plywood
Another style which is becoming more popular for classrooms, children’s beds and play rooms, and for patio furniture is to combine furniture grade plywood with furniture grade PVC. Since PVC pipe was invented, it seems that people have been on a continuing quest to find new ways of using it. A wide range of projects have been completed, including greenhouses, bike racks, soccer goalposts and furniture. The ease of working with PVC, coupled with the wide variety of connectors available, make it a prime building material for quick and easy projects.
Furniture grade PVC pipe is typically Schedule 40, just like the pipe used for plumbing; but it is available in a wide range of colors. The couplings however, are not rated and are usually a little thinner walled than those used for plumbing. That’s okay, as they are not put under the same stresses. The fittings do not have all the mold marks and markings on them, that you would find on fittings intended for plumbing use.
Combining cabinet grade plywood with the PVC provides much more strength than the PVC can provide alone. The weight of whatever is going to be on that piece of furniture can be held by the plywood, spreading that weight out, so that it doesn’t break the PVC framework. Attaching the plywood to the PVC pipe is done with hardware, just as with the industrial style furniture mentioned above.
When making cabinets, hardwood plywood is used in a slightly different way, than when making furniture. Rather than trying to hide all the edges, the cabinet face pieces are often cut out of ¾” hardwood plywood and then assembled, as if the plywood was solid hardwood. Although the edges are left exposed, the only place where they will be visible is on the inside of the door opening, someplace that people don’t bother to look.
Generally speaking, when the front outside edges of the cabinets will be visible, such as the upper cabinets next to the sink, will have a trim piece attached at the corner, covering up the edge of the plywood. In all other cases, the edge of the plywood won’t be visible, once installed, because the cabinets will be butted up against one another or against appliances.
Using hardwood plywood in this case helps control the cost of the project, as the plywood is considerably less expensive than hardwood would be. It also provides a surface which will match the ends of the cabinets and doors, helping to keep the entire project looking consistent.
Fastening furniture grade plywood
Furniture grade plywood is expensive and easily damaged. Therefore, you want to take care in how you cut it and fasten it. Cutting should always be done with extremely sharp saw blades, to help prevent chipping and splintering. Cut from the backside, whenever possible.
As a general rule of thumb, projects made with furniture grade plywood are glued together, rather than screwed or nailed. That’s not to say that neither screws or nails are used. Nails, especially pneumatically driven brads, are often used to hold projects together while they are drying and screws are used to attach hardware or to attach plywood panels to metal or PVC framework.
When gluing plywood panels together, or gluing plywood to hardwood pieces, it is essential that you are not only gluing end grain. End grain joints are not very strong, as the dried glue can pull out of them over time. Glue should be applied to the side grain, where it will have a good “bite” into the pores of the wood and will not pull out. Fortunately, the edge of plywood sheets allows for this, as it has both end grain and side grain in it.
Always use clamps when gluing, to hold the parts together. The tighter they are held together, the better the glue seam. Ideally, a minimal thickness of glue is all you want. Excessive thickness does not make the joint stronger. All glueups should be clamped to push the parts together and thin out the layer of glue.
Nails, specifically air-driven brads, can be used to clamp plywood projects together and left in place as part of the joinery. It is best if these nails are driven in from the back side of the plywood, leaving them hidden, rather than having them exposed on the face of the workpiece. No matter how carefully you fill the nail holes, they will almost always remain visible to those who look for them. Better to not give them anything to look for.
Screws are often used to hold plywood panels together, but not on furniture. Rather, screws are used commonly for more casual projects which will be used in the workshop, laundry room or other work area in the home. While screws are a better fastener in plywood than nails are, they are also much more visible.
Any plywood can be purchased directly from the producer or manufacturer. However, manufacturers are usually only interested in selling full bunks of plywood. If you don’t need that much if someone does not want to go this route because of cost, timing, location, or whatever, many different types of plywood are always available at any local hardware store, lumberyard or home improvement center. Some will even do special orders for you, allowing you to buy products they don’t normally have on the shelf.