Going against the grain: Craftsmen are making plywood their material of choice
It's lumped together with chipboard and MDF, but plywood is affordable, durable, attractive and environmentally friendly.
Friday 02 December 2011
The raw charm of a solid hunk of wood – fashioned into a cabinet or a table that will last your family and your family's family a lifetime – rarely gets questioned. But solid wood is an expensive material and a dwindling resource. Its sturdy heft also makes it inflexible to work with.
If you're looking for an affordable, durable, attractive and environmentally friendly building material, something that will weather the years and might be a talking point, plywood may well be the answer.
It's a re-formed wood and, when it comes to contemporary furniture, has often been associated with chipboard and MDF as a cheap and fairly crappy poor man's substitute for a dense hunk of authentic wood.
This is a mistake, explains Olivier Geoffroy, plywood evangelist and one of a number of ecologically minded modern craftsmen and women who are using the material in technologically advanced production methods and inspired design.
"Ply is the most efficient use of fast-growing, renewable soft wood," says Geoffroy, who sources all of the birch ply he works with from an off-grid factory in Latvia, which grows all the trees it makes the ply from and recycles the waste to generate enough power to keep the whole place going. One of the benefits of ply is that there is very little waste.
To make it, a massive, thin "carpet" is hewn from a whole log, which is then sliced into sheets and layered up into a plywood board. As each board is compressed, the grain laid in opposing directions in each new layer. The result is one of the strongest materials around, far stronger than MDF, for example, which is too weak to be made into a chair.
It's so tough that spruce ply was used during the war to make the de Havilland Mosquito plane. Earlier this year the Splinter Bike, a model made from birch ply, broke the wooden bicycle land speed record.
Geoffroy, who makes and sells his furniture from his east London workshop and shop, Unto This Last (untothislast.co.uk), likes playing around with the stuff. He has made prams and cots from plywood for his sons as well as a vacuum cleaner. His designs stand out because they expose the stacked appearance of the ply, which is traditionally hidden behind a laminate of some kind, considered too ugly to grace our homes. "Most other man-made boards, such as chipboard and MDF, have very ugly edges," he says. "Ply is beautiful, so we don't have to hide it."
His striking sideboards, chairs and shelves show off the birch ply in all its naked glory, making a feature out of the material, instead of hiding the way it has been processed under the pretence of an item of solid wood.
Apart from the aesthetics, there are a few reasons we have been conditioned to believe that a piece of solid wooden furniture is inarguably superior to a ply alternative. Although plywood will change less than a piece of solid wood, if you damage its edge it is near impossible to repair, whereas a length of oak or walnut will wear in a pleasing way, gaining a desirable "lived-in" appearance as it ages.
Paul McCormack, a bespoke furniture maker (mccormackjoinery.co.uk) who works with a number of different plywoods for domestic and commercial clients, points out that solid wood will last longer than ply and does not require the same energy-heavy manufacturing processes, but much more of the tree is wasted.
Plywood is also an incredibly flexible material that lends itself to many designs that solid wood does not. You can mould it and shape it and use it to create huge flat areas, such as bars or large work surfaces. One of McCormack's biggest ply projects was designing a large office space with what he calls the "plywave", a long curve of birch ply manipulated to carve out individual working spaces and storage, which shows off the ply edge.
"It's a love/hate thing with ply," he admits. "Some clients hate the idea of a visible ply edge because they think it's a tacky material. Other people love that look."
Simon Springford runs TinTab (tintab.com), a company in Newhaven, East Sussex, which imports and produces Multiply, a brand of plywood with ash, beech, cherry, larch, maple, oak, pine and walnut in its range. He is confident that Britain is on track to fall for the wonders of ply, which most of our European neighbours have been in thrall to for decades. "Furniture made from good quality ply is the future," he says. "In 100 years, ply furniture is what we will consider to be classic furniture."
Springford, along with McCormack and Geoffroy, uses laminates of different finishes and colours and solid-wood veneers, to get the look a client wants. He opened TinTab 15 years ago to serve clients who wanted "a sleek look that lasts a long time". He says the key is to use a thick veneer that is very durable and that by using good quality ply he can make furniture that looks and functions just like solid wood.
Using plywood in great design is far from a new concept. In the 1940s, Charles and Ray Eames showed how versatile, hard-wearing and good-looking a material it was by making some of their most famous chairs out of moulded plywood, as well as utilitarian products such as a widely praised leg splint.
It was also a political statement, showing that good furniture needn't be made from expensive materials like solid wood alone, and could and should be available to as many people as possible.
"Plywood made furniture available to the masses," Geoffroy says. "Eames were the founding fathers of plywood design and, as a company, Unto This Last relates to the material as designers, by using it to make useful products for everyone."
In the 70 years since the Eames designs, Britain has been slow to catch on to the possibilities of ply. "There's a lot of scope with ply, but we only use it one way in this country," Springfield says. "In Europe they've been using Glulam beams – timber beams made in the same way as ply – for a long time, whereas here we still use solid joists. There are tall buildings made of ply. It doesn't fall apart as it once did, so it's a great material for construction."
If nothing else, we could certainly look across the channel to the production ethos when it comes to ply. We use mainly birch ply here, but it is not all FSC-certified wood like Geoffroy gets from Latvia.
Springford sources his ply from a number of factories across Europe, run along similar lines to the Latvia factory, yet we are still importing plenty of unsustainable ply.
If we're ready to reconsider ply as a material to show off in our homes, we should also be ready to consider its origins.
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