Working with Plywood
Furniture-grade plywood is great for some aspects of furniture construction because of the stability of the parts. Not dealing with the swelling or shrinking of components is a powerful draw to this style of building. Though, it’s not without its challenges. Plywood requires special consideration for joinery, often requiring metal fasteners or connectors. You also need to be careful when cutting plywood as it’s not as straight forward as solid wood.
Furniture-grade plywood comes in different forms and qualities. I usually aim for the higher quality materials, but what does that mean? Different sheet goods come with different cores, so I typically choose ones that are referred to as veneer core. This is what you would first think of when someone says ‘plywood’. With veneer core, there are a number of thicker veneer sheets laid with the grain running 90° to each other. This creates a core that is typically quite stable. I usually avoid things like particle or MDF cores because they are too soft for my preferences and they don’t take fasteners very well - it’s like driving screws into cheese.
I like to breakdown the sheets first using a track saw so that the pieces are more manageable on the table saw. Don’t feel that you need a table saw though, all of your work can be done with a track saw. Regardless of the saw you use, the key is to use a sharp, clean blade that is designed for plywood and laminates. These blades make all the difference when working with veneered plywood. Ignoring this advice and using an inappropriate blade will lead to a mess. Gummy, dull blades will rip out the outside veneer and expose the core beneath so be sure to remove any pitch or send the blade out for sharpening.
Another practice I use when working with plywood is that I always make sure the cut is backed up. With my track saw, I make sure that the splinter guard is in place and in good shape. I also do all my cuts on foam insulation sheets.
Using these sheets as a sacrificial substrate protects the surface of the plywood and backs up the underside to further prevent splintering. Over time the foam will get saw kerfs all over it, but that’s okay. I have two sides to work with and they are fairly inexpensive to replace. On crosscuts I go even further by taping the cut line with a strip of blue painter’s tape.
Using furniture-grade plywood is a great way to save some time on a project and is great for built-in furniture or stand-alone pieces alike. All you need is a little bit of extra care and attention to have success with this material.