Tips For Using Plywood In Your Projects
Updated: Nov 4, 2020
By: Chelsea Rodgers
As woodworkers, we are big fans of plywood— but, like everything else, plywood has its strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to plywood, there are some must-know tips before you dive into your next plywood project. We rounded up our best plywood tips, plus tricks for working with plywood to help make your next DIY project a success!
Now, plywood is not the cure-all for every project, but it is very versatile and dependable for use in building furniture such as benches, dressers, nightstands, and shelves. Believe it or not, you can even use plywood as a budget-friendly flooring option. You can also use smaller pieces of plywood to make signs, and scraps from bigger projects.
Shopping for Plywood: Understanding plywood grades and thicknesses
Plywood comes in standard 4×8 sheet sizes, and most stores also carry 4×4 half sheets for smaller projects. Sheets of plywood also come in a variety of thicknesses, but similar to dimensional lumber, the name of the plywood thickness might not always be the actual dimensions of the sheet. On a project where every increment counts, make sure that you are getting the right thickness. If you need 3/4″ make sure it’s 3/4″ and not 11/16″ as is often the case. 7/16″ is also often mistaken for 1/2″.
Like we talked about in our blog post “Plywood Grading 101”, plywood comes in many different grades and finish veneers. The to the left graphic will give you a better understanding of the grades. The closer to the beginning of the alphabet, the higher quality the plywood and the more expensive it will be. Some projects can make do with a B/C plywood with some extra elbow grease and time spent sanding; some projects are worth spending more for a smoother, higher quality plywood.
Cutting Plywood: Tips for getting a clean-cut edge
Now before you write off all plywood projects because you don’t have a table saw — you don’t have to have one! While it is handy to have one if you’re making many long cuts or ripping plywood into strips, you *can* create gorgeous plywood projects without a table saw. Most hardware stores will cut down a sheet of plywood for you — some at no extra charge, some for a nominal fee. And bonus, then you don’t need a truck or trailer to get your plywood home! It’s helpful to bring a printed building plan with you to make sure you get the cuts that you need while at the store.
However, sometimes the store cuts are not always the most precise, so if you need a piece a specific size, you’ll be better off to have the store make a rough cut slightly larger than you need, and then you can trim it up at home with a saw like the MLCS Track Saw System, (MLCS item #1520).
MLCS Track Saw
System item #1520
You can make all the cuts you need with the MLCS Track Saw System. A table saw will save you time, but a circular saw will get the job done. For shorter cuts or smaller jobs, a smaller handheld circular saw can be nice, but a larger circular saw is more versatile for other projects since it extends the thickness you can cut.
Whatever saw you’re using, you’ll want to use one of our sharp new Combination Blades (MLCS item #9103), made of high strength steel with laser cut extra-large teeth. Remember, the more teeth, the better the cut!
Combination Blades (MLCS item #9103)
Now, some plywood cutting tips:
· A RIP CUT is a cut going with the grain of the wood. Rip cuts are generally less like to splinter.
· A CROSSCUT is a cut going across the grain of the wood, and this is where you’re most likely to get chipping, splintering, and other problems with the plywood veneer.
· To protect the veneer and ensure you’ve got a nice, clean cut), use masking tape or painter’s tape along the cut — measure for your cut, then place the tape, measure again (following the “measure twice, cut once” adage) and mark the cut in the middle of the tape. Then, just cut right through the tape — the adhesive is strong enough to keep the plywood veneer from splintering, but not so strong that it will rough up the edge when you remove it.
· When you’re using a circular saw, the blade cuts UP, so you’ll want your plywood face DOWN. A table saw works the opposite way — it cuts DOWN, so you’ll want your plywood face (or what will be the top of the project) UP.
The trickiest part of using a circular saw is how to brace the wood and the saw to get a great cut without cutting into your garage floor (or something else). Grabbers, Eagle America item #442-2034) will help give clearance for your saw blade when you’re cutting on something like a tool bench. But, if you’re cutting on the floor, you can use sawhorses.
Working with Plywood: Tips for drilling, gluing, and assembling plywood projects
When drilling through plywood, it’s most likely to splinter on the backside, so always drill from the front face, aka, the side you want to stay clean and nice to be visible in your project. If you want both sides to be clean and splinter-free, either place a piece of tape on the backside or drill into another piece of wood, clamped to the back of the plywood, so that the hard surface of the other wood can help hold the layers of plywood together and prevent chipping.
Sanding and Finishing Plywood: Getting a smooth finish
For finishing and sanding plywood, you’ll want the regular tools: an orbital sander like the Triton 5 Inch Radom Orbit Sander (Eagle America item #415-5683) or for sanding edges our Oscillating Handheld Spindle Sander (MLCS item #9557), sanding block, brushes or rags for staining, etc. This part of the process is very much like any other type of wood finishing.
Oscillating Handheld Spindle
Sander (MLCS item #9557)
Because of how plywood is created, you must be very careful when sanding. It is very easy to sand through the top veneer and cause what is called a “burn” where the second darker layer shows through. On the flipside of that, you can achieve some interesting effects by creatively “burning” the plywood and sanding through multiple layers. Plywood is layered with alternating grains and usually alternating tones, so aggressively sanding can give you a more creative finish. However, if you want a smooth and even finish, without color variation, make a couple of light pencil marks to serve as a guide to your sanding.