Not every project for the home woodworker needs to be perfect or made using solid wood. A desk for the kid’s room, perhaps, or shelving for their stuffed animals or toys, might fit this bill. For these projects, plywood is an acceptable choice, as well as an economical one.
However, we do take some measure of pride in our work and look for ways to spruce up our projects (no pun intended). After all, there are those edges and corners where the plies will show, and wouldn’t it be great if they could be hidden? Maybe we spent up on birch or red oak plywood – the top ply of birch veneer, with lesser woods for the interior plies.
One of the options would be to encase the plywood in 1” bands of solid wood with mitered corners, a fancy solution. But is it necessary to do that? Is there another alternative that would give a good look but without the cost and extra labor of cutting and mitering and gluing, etc.?
A Little About Plywood
We’ve all worked with plywood at some point in our woodworking projects. Maybe we’ve worked for a contractor and used it as a subflooring material. Or maybe have used it for some of the bookshelves we’ve built.
We know it’s a manufactured wood product made from layers of wood veneer that has been glued together, each ply rotated by 90 degrees from the previous one. The grains are rotated to provide additional strength in all directions across the sheets. Additionally, it serves the purpose of preventing splitting when nailed and reducing the expansion and contraction that happens with the changing seasons and environmental effects.
To be sure, though, plywood is wood. Those veneers are real wood, of course. The common size for plywood is the typical 4’ x 8’ sheets, but you can also purchase specialized sizes for projects like cabinetry that will be of lesser dimensions.
As mentioned above, too, the top ply will be of a higher grade and quality of veneer, while the interior or core plies will be of lesser quality and grade. This helps keep the cost of plywood down and makes it an economical choice for many projects like those mentioned earlier.
How Is Plywood Graded?
In woodworking, we know that the grades of the wood we choose have much to do with quality and appearance. The same is true for plywoods. In their case, those grades are the obvious ones:
- Grade A. The best of the plywood options has to do with the absence of knots and defects and mars. Sanded smooth, this grade takes stains and paints well.
- Grade B. Not as pretty, with flaws readily apparent. Some of those flaws might be repaired with football-shaped patches or the use of wood filler and then sanded smooth. As long as you touch up those patches or instances of filler with a bit more of your own and some additional sanding, this grade will still take paints well for you. Those flaws, though, if you can live with them, will save you some money, as Grade B plywoods are less expensive than Grade A’s.
- Grade C. We’ll stop with this one, as you’re not likely to be wondering about edgebands on anything of lesser quality and appearance. You may not even think about that with this grade. Not sanded, more flaws, including knots and splits. With some filler and a lot of sanding, this grade might be usable for lesser projects – kid’s play area stuff, maybe, but more likely for floorboards that won’t be seen.
One more qualifier to mention about plywood is the rating, as this will impact your choice of materials when planning your projects.
We’re mentioning it only passing, though, as ratings address such things as waterproofing. Since we’re not likely to consider edgebands for plywood where waterproofing is a concern, it doesn’t really need to be addressed.
For more information about plywood grades and ratings, you can visit an earlier piece on the subject. Find it here.
The Benefits of Plywood
We’ve mentioned economy already as one of the benefits of plywood, but there are others to consider:
- A stable presence in your projects. The grain rotation in assembling the plies improves the integrity of the strength plywood brings to the project. Whether it’s a piece of furniture, a cabinet for your workshop, or that kid’s desk, the end result is a sound and stable workpiece.
- Ratio of strength to weight. Building upon the notion of strength (pun intended this time), the ratio of that strength to the weight of the plywood is why it is a good choice for subflooring, for instance. High impact resistance, stiffness to its weight, and resistance to environmental influences that cause expansion and contraction, plywood does its job quite well.
- No chemical harm will befall plywood. It is not corrosive or susceptible to damage by harmful chemicals, or contact with concrete, making it the best choice for concrete forms. You’ll see this on the job site when foundations are about to be poured.
Plywood Edges and Corners and Edge Banding To Cover Them.
We all know what the edges and corners of plywood look like – the layers of veneer that have been glued and pressed together. It’s not the smooth and pretty solid wood appearance we like to show off in our shop work.
What to do with it short of framing and encasing it in real wood? Easy peasy. It’s called edge banding, and use of it in your shop requires only one specialty tool and a common household appliance. Even the specialty tool is not absolutely necessary.
Edge banding is real wood. This means you can stain and paint it and finish it as you wish to match your plans for the piece you are building. It comes in a variety of widths to match whatever plywood you are using on your project.
Edge banding comes in rolls of various lengths, and it is possible to purchase it in small lengths, too. You will not have to store a 100’ length of rolled edge banding for a project that might require only 10 feet, although if you work often with plywood and want to give your project that professional appearance, you certainly could stock up on it.
The edge banding will be a bit wider than your plywood, the typical dimension of which is ¾”. This is to ensure a good fit with a little extra to spare. We’ll get to its removal for a flush fit to the plywood width in a moment.
The common household appliance we referred to just a bit earlier is an iron. The side of the edge band that will adhere to the plywood edge has a layer of glue.
Measure the length of the edge banding for the side it will be applied to, and add an inch. You will want the banding to go beyond the edge of the span to make sure it fits fully, and you’ll be removing the excess after it has adhered to the plywood.
With a medium temperature setting, run the iron over the banding for the entire span, pressing lightly as the iron moves along its length. The heat will activate the glue, and the banding will adhere to the plywood edge.
It’s a good idea at this point to use some of your handy blue tape to hold the banding in place while the glue dries; 3” pieces from one side of the plywood over the banding and to the other side. It won’t take long for the glue to dry.
You can use your shop’s utility knife to remove the extra length you added for a full fit, flush with the corner.
The specialty tool for edge banding is the one that removes the extra width of the banding on either side of the plywood. A FastCap trimmer will fit over the plywood with the blade removing that excess as you move the tool along the span, and will do so neatly and flush to the surface of the plywood.
To make sure you don’t take too much off or run into the grain such that it creates something less than a straight edge, you can shim one side of the trimmer. These specialty tools have blades on either side, as you might expect, and by shimming one side, you can get a clean removal of the banding excess done. Then, just flip the trimmer to do the other side, and you’ll have even and flush edges along the span of the plywood.
While that may seem a bit complicated, it is actually pretty easy. Simply repeat the process along each edge of the plywood, and you’re done. The edge banding gives the appearance of solid wood – remember, it is real wood – hiding all the plies and adding a more professional touch to the finished workpiece.
A little light sanding with high grit sandpaper completes the job, and your project is ready for the finish you’ve chosen.
These are a lot of words, we know, but his video will bring it all home for you. It’s a how-to with good tips, and it shows the specialty trimmer in action, along with the iron.
You have seen the results, and it might give you a greater appreciation of incorporating plywood into your projects more frequently. You now know how to give them that more professional appearance of solid wood. You’ll be happy to save the money, and your projects won’t have to be limited to ones no one will see anymore.