Going against the grain: Craftsmen are making plywood their material of choice

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It's lumped together with chipboard and MDF, but plywood is affordable, durable, attractive and environmentally friendly.

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.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Provisioning Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Provisioning Specialist is required to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Support Engineer is required to join a well-...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Administrator - Swedish Speaking

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum