As ordinarily made, plywood consists of thin sheets, or veneers, of wood glued together. The grain is oriented at right angles in adjacent plies. To obtain plywood with balance—that is, which will not warp, shrink, or twist unduly—the plies must be carefully selected and arranged to be mirror images of each other with respect to the central plane. The outside plies or faces are parallel to each other and are of species that have the same shrinkage characteristics. The same holds true of the cross bands. As a consequence, plywood has an odd number of plies, the minimum being three.
Principal advantages of plywood over lumber are its more nearly equal strength properties in length and width, greater resistance to checking, greatly reduced shrinkage and swelling, and resistance to splitting.
The approach to equalization of strength of plywood in the various directions is obtained at the expense of strength in the parallel-to-grain direction; i.e., plywood is not so strong in the direction parallel to its face plies as lumber is parallel to the grain. But plywood is considerably stronger in the direction perpendicular to its face plies than wood is perpendicular to the grain. Furthermore, the shearing strength of plywood in a plane perpendicular to the plane of the plywood is very much greater than that of ordinary wood parallel to the grain. In a direction parallel to the plane of the plywood, however, the shearing strength of plywood is less than that of ordinary wood parallel to the grain, because in this direction rolling shear occurs in the plywood; i.e., the fibers in one ply tend to roll rather than to slide.
Depending on whether plywood is to be used for general utility or for decorative purposes, the veneers employed may be cut by peeling from the log, by slicing, or today very rarely, by sawing. Sawing and slicing give the greatest freedom and versatility in the selection of grain. Peeling provides the greatest volume and the most rapid production, because logs are merely rotated against a flat knife and the veneer is peeled off in a long continuous sheet.
Plywood is classified as interior or exterior, depending on the type of adhesive employed. Interior-grade plywood must have a reasonable degree of moisture resistance but is not considered to be waterproof. Exterior-grade plywood must be completely waterproof and capable of withstanding immersion in water or prolonged exposure to outdoor conditions.
In addition to these classifications, plywood is further subclassified in a variety of ways depending on the quality of the surface ply. Top quality is clear on one or both faces, except for occasional patches. Lower qualities permit sound defects, such as knots and similar blemishes, which do not detract from the general utility of the plywood but detract from its finished appearance.
Wood chips, sawdust, and flakes are pressed with a binder (urea formaldehyde or phenol-formaldehyde) to form boards (sheathing, underlayment, core stock), having uniform strength and low shrinkage in the plane of the board.
Wood chips (exploded by high-pressure steam into wood fibers) and lignin are pressed to form boards of various densities. Additives may add weather resistance and other properties.