Avoiding the Cracks: Why Plywood is Used in Solid Wood Furniture

Beth Rice 29/03/2018

Wait a minute. You’re buying handcrafted, heirloom quality solid wood furniture. It is intended to last and look beautiful, but it’s costing you more. You’ve heard there’s a chance that there’s some plywood used in the building of solid wood furniture. Could this be right? Is this true? What’s the deal?

The answer is yes, plywood is used even in the finest solid wood furniture. But there’s a very good reason for it. Simply put, solid wood moves. Without the plywood material to handle the movement of the wood, your solid wood furniture is at risk of cracking.

Why Wood Moves

Wood is a natural material. It contains water and continually absorbs moisture from the air as well as releases it. Wood fibers run the length of a board and the wood expands and shrinks across its width.

As wood fibers absorb and release moisture, a wood board expands and contracts across its width.

Wood fibers are continuously absorbing or releasing moisture. Photo Credit: Saws on Skates 

The wood moves in response to its environment. It will absorb moisture and expand in a humid climate and release moisture and shrink in a dry climate. While the movements are small and happen over time, they can eventually contribute enough damage for a crack to form. There’s no way to stop wood from moving. It is going to move.

At DutchCrafters we recommend protecting a solid wood investment by carefully managing the heat and humidity in the home with the use of air conditioning and humidifiers. We share best practices for protecting your solid wood furniture in video and on our blog.

Protecting solid wood furniture with tips on managing humidity and dryness.

Protecting Solid Wood Furniture: Managing Humidity and Dryness also on Timber to Table.

What Is Plywood?

Plywood is made from thin layers of wood that are pressed together. The wood is layered so the grains of the boards are at right angles to each other. This reinforces the strength of the wood. It is important to note that high grade plywood IS NOT PARTICLE BOARD, which should be avoided since it is inferior in strength and substance.

Plywood is often made of the same wood species as the piece of furniture it is at part of. The plywood can be stained to match the rest of the piece or sometimes a veneer (a thin slice of the solid lumber less than 3mm, about 1/8 inch thick in the same wood species) is glued to the outside of the plywood to perfectly match the rest of the piece.

The Amish Freemont Mission Bookcase

Same species plywood is used in the back of the Amish Freemont Mission Bookcase to support its structural integrity.

The Amish Berkley Executive Desk

Same species plywood is also used in the hutch back of the Amish Berkley Executive Desk to protect it.

The Purpose of Plywood

  • Plywood is light and reduces the weight of a piece of furniture.
  • Plywood layers are so thin, they don’t absorb moisture or give it off, therefore they won’t expand and contract like solid lumber.
  • Plywood offers stability for the piece it is used in since it doesn’t move.
  • High grade plywood looks attractive and protects furniture function while maintaining the integrity of the piece.

Vertical Murphy Wall Bed and Desk

High grade plywood used in the sides of the Vertical Murphy Wall Bed and Desk reduces the weight of the bed while handling movement in the solid wood frame.

Amish Arts and Crafts Hutch

Plywood used in the back of the Amish Arts and Crafts Hutch does the same.

Places Where Plywood is Used in Solid Wood Furniture

  • Hutch backs
  • Drawer bottoms
  • Bed panels
  • Bookshelves
  • Cabinet doors and panels
  • Backs of desks that go against a wall
  • Backs of gun cabinets
  • Backs of credenzas

For frames in case goods that are susceptible to cupping and warping, plywood is the answer. It is used where it is the most appropriate choice to create a sound structure. Plywood panels used in drawer bottoms prevent the solid wood frames from cracking apart.

The Amish Executive Bookcase The Amish Boulder Creek Hutch

High grade plywood is often used in the back of case goods like the Amish Executive Bookcase and the Amish Boulder Creek Hutch to protect the framework.

The high grade plywood that’s used in Amish furniture is not there to hurt or hinder it in any way. Ply is there for protection to keep your solid wood furniture fully functioning and beautiful for generations to come.

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  • Nancy Knox
    September 23, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    How much weight do the bookshelves hold? For example, a 5-shelf open bookcase?

  • Beth Rice
    September 24, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    Hi Nancy,
    Thank you for your question. Bookshelves can hold approximately 50 pounds, possibly a little more or less depending on different factors like wood type, shelf thickness and the width of the bookcase. A fixed shelf will also hold more weight than an adjustable shelf.

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