15 tips for better cabinets and furniture
The right plywood can make or break a project. Here’s how to get the best for your buck.
Building furniture and cabinets is an investment of both time and money. So when you’re buying plywood for these projects, shop wisely. Your choices will have a huge impact on the building process and the results. This article will help you decide exactly what you need and help you avoid common plywood pitfalls.
1. CHECK FOR FLATNESS
Don’t expect perfection—you probably won’t find it. Just try to find the best of the pile. Sight down all the edges just like you’d do if you were buying 2x4 studs. Sometimes, sheets are warped in multiple directions, resembling a potato chip. Leave these for some unlucky, lessinformed buyer. If you’re buying 1/4-in. plywood, don’t worry about flat and straight; it won’t be either. But you’ll likely fasten it to structural parts, which will keep it flat.
2. INSPECT THE EDGES
Look closely at the core veneers on the edge of the sheet. They should be straight and of uniform thickness and have few, if any, voids. If you see a lot of voids and overlapping core veneers along the edge, there will be more throughout the sheet that won’t be visible until you cut it. Overlapping veneers cause undulations that aren’t visible until after you’ve applied a finish.
3. BRING A FRIEND
Plywood in 4 x 8-ft. sheets is heavy and unwieldy. Unstacking, inspecting, restacking, loading and unloading are much easier with an extra set of hands.
4. WATCH FOR BURIED TREASURE
The most beautifully figured face veneers will be at the lumberyard. But when I’m at the home center, I like to check out the back faces of the plywood or even plywood that’s meant for underlayment. Because most people look for consistency of color and grain, there are some striking veneers that get written off as ugly. Quite often, something catches my eye that could be a really cool design element.
5. SPECIALORDER FROM THE HOME CENTER
Some home centers will special-order many different species, core options and veneer cuts. But beware: You won’t be able to look at the actual sheets before buying, and you probably won’t be able to return or reject them unless they’re damaged or otherwise unusable. If it’s just that you don’t like the grain pattern, you’re probably stuck with it.
6. USING STAIN? BEWARE OF BIRCH
Any species accepts a clear finish such as polyurethane just fine. But if you’re planning to stain your piece, beware of birch, pine and maple. These species take stain very unevenly and can end up looking blotchy. If you’re set on one of these species, use prestain conditioner, which helps them take stain much more evenly. Even better, look at samples of different species with a clear finish and see if there’s one that has the color you like without stain.
7. KNOW THE GRADING SYSTEM
Hardwood veneer plywood has a front and a back face and is graded by the quality of each face. The front face is graded using a letter (A – D), with A being the best. The back face is graded using a number (1 – 4), with 1 being the best.
8. SHOP THE HOME CENTER FOR CONVENIENCE AND SAVINGS
Baltic birch is a premium plywood found at lumberyards. A 3/4-in., 5 x 5-ft. sheet has 13 core veneers and costs about $70. Some home centers carry a similar product, called “classic birch.” A 3/4-in., 4 x 8-ft. sheet has 10 core veneers and costs $50 to $60. It’s strong with good screw-holding capability, making it a good, affordable alternative. It’s perfect for less visible cabinet parts, drawers and shelving. As for other plywood, home centers have a more limited selection, carrying mostly veneer core (maybe MDF core), grade B2 and lower. Face veneer cuts are typically rotary cut or plain sliced, and in-stock species will usually be red oak, birch and maple. But the home center is a good option to save a little money.
9. DON’T HAVE PLYWOOD DELIVERED
If you have a way to haul sheets of plywood yourself, do it. The person pulling sheets for delivery isn’t going to handselect the nicest sheets for you. If delivery is your only option, inspect the sheets before the delivery truck leaves and reject any that are damaged or unusable. You may not have the option of rejecting a sheet because you don’t like the grain pattern.
10. USING PAINT? CHOOSE MDF OR BIRCH
For projects I’m going to paint, I like MDF (medium-density fiberboard) or birch. B-grade birch or lower is fine. Sometimes, you’ll even see plywood classified as “paint grade.” Birch is closegrained with a smooth texture that doesn’t show through paint. With an open-grained species like oak, the grain is visible under paint. MDF, of course, has no grain pattern, making it a good choice for painted projects. But for structural parts, I like birch veneer. For tips on building with MDF, search for “MDF” at familyhandyman.com.
11. SAND AT YOUR OWN RISK
All plywood needs at least light sanding before finishing. Sometimes, the face veneer on home center plywood is so thin that the pink veneer adhesive shows through. On several occasions, I’ve had birch veneer turn translucent after light sanding with 220-grit paper. If you suspect that the veneer is ultra thin, don’t use a power sander. Just sand by hand.
12. SHOP LUMBERYARDS FOR QUALITY AND SELECTION
For a large selection of the best-quality hardwood veneer plywood, visit a lumberyard. A lumberyard that caters to cabinetmakers will give you enough options to make you dizzy. A 4 x 8-ft. sheet will cost anywhere from $80 to $120 or more depending on the species and the cut of the face veneer. Some lumberyards also stock 10-ft. sheets.
13. DON’T JUST GRAB THE TOP SHEET
Be picky and dig through the pile for the best sheets. Spending extra time to find the flattest undamaged sheets with appealing grain pattern is well worth the effort. But be kind and restack! And take heart; the bottom sheet is usually a bad choice anyway because it’s most prone to forklift damage.
14. WATCH OUT FOR DAMAGE
You can often cut around minor damage in an otherwise good sheet (if you can, you might even be able to get a discount). But sanding out deep dents (above) isn’t an option. You may not be able to sand out stains either. The purple stains shown result from a reaction between oak tannin and steel.
15. LOOK AT THE FACE VENEERS
If only one side of your project will be visible, like a closed cabinet, don’t worry about the back face. If you’re building an open bookcase where both faces are visible, make sure you like the look of both faces.
MEET THE EXPERT Brad Holden, an associate editor at The Family Handyman, has been building cabinets and furniture for 30 years. In that time, he has absorbed so many slivers and ingested so much sawdust that he’s practically made of wood.
Front face – A
Back face – 2
Veneer adhesive showing through