Plywood rant

I hate what has become to ďcommonĒ plywood, and Iím on a serious rant. There, youíve been warned.

Weíve discussed here a number of times the decline in quality of many, many things, including plywood. In my continuing cabinet project, Iíve been working with plywood a lot lately, and I canít begin to tell you just how awful it is.

Thereís better plywood to be had Ė for a price Ė but for the shop cabinets Iím building Iím using standard, common off-the-rack stuff from the local Big Box store. The stuff with Made In China proudly labeled on each piece. To begin with, finding a sheet thatís relatively flat and not twisted like a tortilla isnít easy. Then there are the edge (and, presumably, internal) voids that are everywhere. There are even surface voids with a bit of filler thatís been smeared across them that require sanding.

But the main thing is just how incredibly thin the veneer is. Itís a marvel theyíve even figured out a way to even handle veneer that thin, much less work with it Ė it must be like trying to veneer with Saran Wrap. And it might as well be Saran Wrap, because itís almost as transparent. I can literally see the grain of the substrates underneath the veneer. I went to sand off a very light pencil mark on one sheet, and started to sand completely through the veneer before getting the pencil off.

And then there are the splinters. Plywood has always been a source of splinters, but this new stuff gives me dozens of them. Big splinters, little splinters, medium splinters, you name it. And they donít just come from the edges, either, but all over the surface. Ugh.

Now, donít start blaming the Chinese manufacturers for any of this, because itís simply not their fault. They make things to a companyís specs, whether itís crummy plywood or a crummy table saw, so theyíre just delivering what the company ordered. Blame has to be placed where itís due: the U.S. company who gave them the specs. Lots of U.S. companies are holding their foreign manufacturers to very high standards and specs; others, not so much. The fault is theirs.

OK, I feel a little better now. Rant off.

Till next time,



  • Jamie Buxton says:

    No, blame for the bad stuff in your shop is with you. You bought it. You know darn well you can get better stuff, but you bought this anyhow. The importers and the manufacturers are supplying you with what you choose to buy. Why should they do any different?

    If you want better stuff, buy better stuff from the suppliers who are serving those who want better stuff.

  • Keith M says:

    I have to agree. I’ve quit buying the stuff. At any price, it’s too expensive. In addition to large voids, I’ve seen anywhere between 7 and 10 layers on the same piece. Just overlap them and let the press take care of it. I also think it’s glued together with duck spit. It delaminates at the slightest exposure to moisture.

  • terry homer says:

    how about the fact that very rarely it is square or even close

  • Right on! Even the “Russian” Birch plywood I’ve used lately is not as good as it should be. Better than the big box stuff, but still not that good. Out of four sheets, 2 were warped. Fortunately, the size of the resulting pieces for the project were small enough that the warpage wasn’t an issue.

  • Ray Goudreau says:

    Please mention ONE U.S. company which is holding its CHINA manufacturers to high quality.

  • Mike says:

    So you contibuted to the problem by using it.
    You encoureged them to make more of it

  • Bill Golden says:

    I don’t know AJ. I think the Chinese make that stuff in their factories to their specs. For their use & export. I think it comes to the big box stores straight from China & the big box is the importer.


  • Dan Walters says:

    I rarely work with plywood anymore. I found that it was not possible to sand out any surface roughness. The last time I bough from a big box store I check the outer veneer on several sheets with a micrometer and found them all to measure 0.011 or less.

  • MBK says:

    Your right it is not the Chinese manufacturer that is at fault. It is your fault, you bought the cheap plywood and you got exactly what you paid for. As you stated “Thereís better plywood to be had Ė for a price Ė but for the shop cabinets Iím building Iím using standard, common off-the-rack stuff from the local Big Box store”. You choose the quality that you would accept and have now encouraged that retailer to continue to buy and resell the quality that you have accepted. I’m not sure why so many people are compelled to blame everyone else for their poor choices. If this product was on the shelf in a wrapper, not allowing you to see what you were getting with pronouncements of the superior quality of what was inside and it was not until you got it home and cut it up that you could see the actual quality, you may have a valid complaint. By the way, since when does “standard common off-the-rack stuff” have made in China stamped on it, there are still plenty of domestic manufacturerís products available. You chose poor quality, because that is all that you would pay for to build your cheap cabinets.

    cheap: at minimum expense : cheaply

  • AJ, after an after hours social meet themed on green practices 1 1/2 years ago, I met a rep from Columbia Forest products. We shared a lot and I lamented not being able to find a formaldehyde free sheet plywood. He directed me to some vendors I was unhappy with. He said well if you really want to know Home Depot is now carrying an American made birch plywood in 3/4″ and can custom order any Columbia forest products. So now you can find a decent conscientious American made product. With a little more interest we might be able to encourage H.D. to carry a larger variety of products. Vote with your pocket books. Otter.

  • Mel Turcanik says:

    You do tortillas a serious disservice.

    Apple is ONE american company that holds Chinese manufacturers to high specs. There are many more.

  • Mark Bedrich says:

    I began using imported plywood when all of my vendors replaced their domestic inventory with this stuff. I was told the domestic plywood was just too expensive in this economy to sell anymore. I have encountered all of the previously mentioned problems from three separate sources. At least it is consistent! Remember a few years ago when a few builders thought that nothing could possibly happen from using drywall made in China. They are still paying the price for that. It amazes me that economists are surprised when retail sales post an improvement yet manufacturing jobs are still dragging bottom. Do we still make anything in this country?

  • Jack Gavin says:

    I have to agree with all those who posted here, you get what you pay for. As a cabinetmaker with 30 years experience, the quality of high-end plywood has not come down, although the price has gone up. Big Box stores do not carry professional quality materials, go to a real supplier. From crappy plywood to crappy woodworking machinery to poisonous sheetrock to melamine in pet food, the Chinese are innundating us with poorly made junk, and we buy it because it is cheap.

  • Don Willaims says:

    If I can buy something made in north America I WILL NOT BUY “MADE IN CHINA” I have not found the quality there that I find in our products, And besides that I support the people that support me and Chinese people don’t buy my products.

  • A.J. Hamler says:

    Geez, guys, don’t mince words. What do you REALLY think?

    However, you’re all correct… sorta. And you’re all wrong… sorta.

    You may have missed my point — or I may have been too subtle. Either way, I’ll explain further in the Friday blog.


  • Randy Sprague says:

    I agree, the quality of plywood available today is getting much worse. Our company uses birch and maple plywood, and the veneer is getting to be about the thickness of a sheet of paper. If you have to sand anywhere on the panel you can count on going right through the veneer. I don’t buy the argument that if people wouldn’t buy the cheap stuff that the manufacturers would make a better product. I don’t remember anyone asking a vendor to reduce the quality of the plywood product we use. The manufacturers did that to us under the pretense of cutting costs. Over time, the product quality has gone down to the pathetic level it is now.
    We use wood supply vendors with much better quality than the box stores can provide. And even with the high prices we pay, the plywood we get reminds me of cheap wood paneling where the woodgrain is just printed in ink on a thin sheet that is glued onto the backer panel. There are less voids in the more expensive panels, but I have not seen a sheet of plywood with veneer thicker than .025 for a very long time.
    As for the made in America comment, Amen to that! Try the website for listings of products that are still American made.

  • Rick says:

    I made the mistake of using china birch to do a job where the customer wanted very basic shop cabinets and I thought this would be the best way to deliver the strength of 3/4 ply with a lower cost.

    I’ll cut to the chase… ripping into the first piece, my TS blade started sparking and it turns out that I hit a piece of thin, flat metal that was laminated into the sheet’s core. With that blade now in sore shape, I finished out that job and don’t plan to use import product again. I hate that it warps very easy and has all the issues listed above.

  • kevin says:

    I must agree with all the comments. My solution: veneer the stuff myself. Commercial veneer comes in 1/42 of an inch when it is raw, its laminated to the substrate and then run thru a timesaver. The cheaper plys are less uniform in thickness and the timesaver removes the same amount of material resulting in differences in veneer thickness. Depending on the quality of the job ,I purchase goods accordingly. If its shop cabinets I am building I have been using a Poplar Ply called ‘sand ply’ from the big box that has a 1/16 top sheet( essentially a cleaner core layer that has been sanded). I also try to pick from a full palet( they tend to be flatter than the stuff that has been sitting on a rack which has arms 6 feet apart and causes the sheets to ‘drape’). Suppliers ‘sticker’ there goods because its good for there business.
    I just built some cherry veneer cabinets, using off the rack sheet goods from Atlantic Plywood and it was very good. I did make sure to tell my supplier I needed (good stuff) though. They selected it for me and I was very happy. I never sand veneer ply with anything more agressive than 220 grit on a cork coverd block, and I remove pencil with an erasor.

    If the customer wants quality, I suggest veneering it yourself. It allows you to control every aspect of the job. my veneer press will flatten any warp and it stays flat once cured.This also allows for real 1/42 inch veneer that you start with that can be sanded.

    We must also remember that this stuff is not ‘your Fathers plywood’ The resources available to manufacturers today is not what was available 20 or 30 yrs ago, ( remember ‘lumber core ply’ solid core with 1/8 inch face layers. I regret that its only going to get worse.there are 3 billion more people on the Earth then when I began woodworking (20 yrs).

  • Don says:

    Dear Abby,

    Like Rick mentioned, I hit a piece of metal in an imported piece of Chinese plywood and broke several teeth off my $125 plywood blade. In another piece I found a piece of rubber laminated in. I’ve yet to use one that did not delam within a couple of days of getting it home. Shop has radiant floor heating and temperature and humidity is very stable.

    I was not a happy camper and will not purchase the stuff again. I don’t purchase any plywood or other panel products from the big box store.

    One thing I’ve found difficult with plywood today (domestic brands) is the amount of thickness variation allowed. When using a CNC to cut cabinet parts with mortise and tenon joinery, varying thickness play havoc on proper fitting joinery. I’ve had American maple plywood vary as much as .05 in thickness across the sheet. This was high-end prefinished maple plywood that I was told was made specifically for CNC work.

    Signed, Not sure what to do.. ūüôĀ

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