Plywood Throughout History
Ply Online believes it is important for our customers to know more on the history of plywood and how it has been used throughout the ages, and therefore we would like to provide this informative and educational article on the production and use of plywood from the ancient times to the modern day.
Plywood has been known to people since the dawn of civilization. The oldest, half-decayed piece of plywood, dates to about 2600 BC, found in Egypt in one of the tombs of a member of the family of the pharaoh of the third dynasty of Djoser. The interior of the alabaster sarcophagus was lined with what was once considered plywood; 6 layers of 4 mm thick wood veneers were fastened with wooden studs and fit extremely tightly to each other. The arrangement of the layers was mutually perpendicular, following the same idea of crossbanding as in today’s plywood manufacturing technology!
Judging by the artifacts found in Egypt, starting from 1750 BC, veneer technology has become a widespread practice. In Egypt at that time there were neither large forests nor tall trees, so local acacia, juniper, sycamore and other trees with poor-quality wood could only be used, sawn into small boards. Ebony, valued by the Egyptians, was imported from East Africa, as well as cedar and pine from Lebanon. At the time the cost of wood was very high, and this is what ultimately forced the ancient masters to use veneer technology. The production was very labour-intensive; the layers of plywood were made by hand by sawing the trunks longitudinally with thin (0.5–1.5 mm thick) copper saws with triangular teeth. Archaeologists have found Egyptian cabinetry art pieces, with layers of wood that were less than 3 mm thick and bonded with glue. This glue was made from animal sourced gelatine from bone, skin, tendons and cartilage.
Subsequently, the veneering method began to be used in ancient Rome and Greece. It is known that the ancient Chinese used a similar technique in the manufacture of furniture and paper. In these countries, as well as in Egypt, there was a constant shortage of valuable wood species; It was imported from afar and was very expensive.
Much later, plywood production technology was mastered in Europe. Furniture made by French craftsmen in the 15th-16th centuries to decorate royal and noble castles was often veneered with thin planks of valuable and rare mahogany and ebony. Such furniture cost a lot, but it was still cheaper than furnishing made of solid wood, so it was in great demand and was available to the middle class of the emerging bourgeoisie. Over time, the production of plywood demanded newer and more efficient technology and equipment, as up until the end of the 18th century veneers were sawn by hand, which caused the price of plywood to be high but it’s quality to be yearning for better.
Attempts to mechanize the veneer production process were made as early as the beginning of the 18th century. The first English patent relating to the manufacture of veneer was granted in 1635 to Sarah Jerome and William Webb, for an "engine for cutting wood into fine flakes" for making bandages, sword scabbards, etc.
However, although the production of veneered furniture multiplied significantly and the demand for higher quality veneers increased, the period from 1700 to 1830 was the heyday of hand sawing and the use of a hand cutter to obtain veneer.
The growing demand for decorative furniture by wealthy aristocrats, the middle class and the clergy of large cities in the 19th century led to changes in the technique for making veneer.
In Vienna, at that time there were many rich people who wanted to furnish their homes with furniture made from fine wood veneer, and the Austrians Alois and Martin Munding began to use a veneer cutting machine as early as 1800. This woodworking "behemoth" was 6 meters long and over 3 meters high, and was powered by two pedalling workers. In the manufacture of veneer on such a machine, wood chips and sawdust accounted for a quarter or even half of the original volume of the sawn workpiece.
In 1806, Mark Isambard Brunel, an outstanding English engineer of French origin, received a British patent for a hand-operated planer. This machine became the prototype of modern planers with a horizontally moving knife. The machine cut well straight-grain mahogany wood, but when planing dense rosewood, it failed completely. Subsequently, Brunel abandoned the principle of making veneer by planing, focusing on creating a machine for cutting wood using a segment-type circular saw. The machine developed by him, equipped with a steam engine with a capacity of 16 liters, allowed sawing boards of mahogany and rosewood to be cut into veneer with a thickness of only 1/16 inch (1.6 mm). Brunel's machines have been successfully used in veneer mills across the UK. In some factories, more than a dozen machines were installed with saws from 7 to 17 feet in diameter! The productivity of such equipment was low, since the feed rate did not exceed a quarter of a foot per second.
The French inventor Arbey returned to the idea of making veneer using the horizontal planing method in 1875. The machines he developed made it possible to produce 1/100 inch thick veneer, the surface quality being so high that sanding was not required.
However, a real breakthrough in plywood production technology was made only after the invention of the technology of cutting a rotating log with a knife moving forward to the axis of rotation. The generally recognized priority of rotary veneer cutting or peeling technology belongs to Russian engineers at the beginning of the 19th century. A report published in Britain in 1817 said that a Russian inventor in St. Petersburg made a machine that produced "sheets of plywood about a hundred feet long and four, five or even more wide."
A similar machine was patented in England in 1818 by Henry Faverier. Nothing is known about the practical application of the Faverier machine. Some time later, a similar machine was developed in the USA and as "an improved steam-powered rotary veneer cutter" that was used by the industrialist Richardson in Philadelphia in 1825.
Interestingly, the design and components of modern lathes are essentially identical to the design and components of machines developed in the middle of the 19th century. For example, in the drawing for a patent issued in 1842 by Henry Humphrey, you can see a movable support with a fixed knife, crimping and supporting rollers, cutting knives, etc.
In 1843, an encyclopaedia article (Penny Cyclopaedia, 1843) described veneer cutting as follows: “In Russia, a veneer is made by means of a planer, which is so thin that it can be used for book bindings, and a strip of veneer one hundred feet long was cut by this machine in the span of three minutes."
The London Mechanic's magazine, in an article published in 1848, noted the significant productivity advantage of rotary cutting over other methods of veneer production. The article described a machine that could cut a roll of maple veneer 300 feet long and 3 feet wide from a log 20 inches in diameter.
However, the technology of rotary cutting of veneer was not immediately recognized. In 1860, George Dodd, author of a dictionary of productions, wrote: "Although more wood is used in the manufacture of veneer in England with Brunel saws, this method produces a better quality veneer than the rotary method that has become widespread on the Continent."
The introduction of pre-soaking logs (known as hydrothermal treatment) to soften the wood contributed to the improvement in the quality of rotary cut veneer. A likely innovator was Frenchman Garand, who invented this method in 1860. Soon enough the practice of soaking logs in hot water was employed everywhere, although it affected the colour of the veneer.
Disputes about the quality of veneer obtained by various methods continued in the second half of the 19th century. The famous English engineer Charles Holzaffel suggested that rotary cut veneer twists and splits after production. On the other hand, a Universal Decorator correspondent noted that peeled veneer would cause a real boom in furniture production.
The first patent for plywood as it is produced today is believed to have been issued to John C. Mayo in 1865. However, the invention he made has sunk into oblivion, since Mayo did not try to obtain commercial benefits from its use.
Machine production of veneer made it possible to significantly reduce the cost of plywood, increase the quality of the material many times over, which significantly exceeded the quality of hand-made plywood, and produce furniture at affordable prices.
Although in those days plywood was used primarily for furniture, there were also attempts to use it for very unusual projects. So, surprisingly bold even in modern times, the idea to build a pneumatic elevated subway in New York came to the mind of a wealthy businessman and inventor Alfred Ely Beach, the ‘Elon Musk’ of his time. He planned to stretch a suspension road throughout the city on column supports or attach it to the walls of buildings. A 107-foot prototype of a moulded plywood tube road was demonstrated in 1867 at the great exhibition hall of the American Institute in New York. Giant fans installed at both ends of the tube created enough air flow to allow visitors to the exhibition to ride inside the tube in cylindrical trailers, also made of plywood and accommodating ten people, back and forth.
Despite the obvious advances in both equipment and production technology, and in application, plywood became a popular building material only in the early 1900s, which was greatly facilitated by the 1905 World's Fair in Portland, USA. One of the first US plywood factories, Portland Manufacturing, was located in this city. The owner of the plant, Gustav Carlson, made several samples of plywood from local softwoods, using paint brushes to apply glue and car jacks to press them together. The new material aroused great interest among manufacturers of doors, cars, trucks, and builders. Orders began to flood in since then. By 1907, the company had installed a glue spreader and hand press. Production has grown to 420 sheets of plywood per day.
The most technologically significant area of application of plywood from 1910 to 1945 was the aircraft industry; the strength and lightness of the material made it possible to design and manufacture fundamentally new, progressive aircraft designs for that time.
As early as the early 1910s, pioneering experiments with moulded plywood made it possible to build the first closed, streamlined aircraft fuselage, the monocoque (meaning "single shell" in French), which then became the standard in aircraft design.
The monocoque fuselage consisted of an outer shell made of plywood, the shape of which was held by several internal transverse bulkheads. The revolutionary design of the load-bearing monocoque had a smooth, streamlined shape, characterised with its strength, rigidity and lightness. The French engineer Luis Bequero in 1911 first used plywood monocoque construction in the fuselage of the Deperdussion racing monoplane.
Later, the plywood monocoque fuselage design was used by aircraft manufacturers to create the most famous and fastest fighters of the First World War, like the Bleriot-SPAD and Albatross D-III.
In the 1930s the USSR was experiencing an acute shortage of aluminum, so plywood was the primary material used in the aircraft industry. Domestic engineers of the USSR crated original and innovative plane designs from plywood.
In 1928, at the Leningrad Institute of Railway Engineers, in a student aircraft club led by V. F. Rentel, the idea to make an experimental plywood plane occurred. The widespread use of plywood in the construction industry led to the second name of the aircraft: "Plywood-2". Built in a small series, these aircrafts were successfully operated on Aeroflot's local lines, in the Arctic and the Far East.
Plywood was widely used in the construction of combat aircraft during World War II. The British Aircraft de Havilland Mosquito (DH-98), one of the most famous aircrafts of the era, had a moulded plywood monocoque fuselage that was light and streamlined. Therefore, even with rather low-power motors, it was so fast that it flew without defence measures installed. German air defence fighters simply could not catch up with it.
The British Air Ministry wanted an aircraft made of metal to enter service, and initially rejected the plywood aircraft project idea. However, the designers of the de Havilland Aircraft Company proved that it is possible to create a technologically advanced and cheap plywood aircraft using unskilled labour of furniture makers and woodworkers from the UK, Australia and Canada.
The most striking example of the use of plywood in aircraft construction is the Hughes H-4 Hercules transport flying boat, developed by the American company Hughes Aircraft under the direction of Howard Hughes in 1947. This giant 136-ton aircraft was originally nicknamed Spruce Goose. Despite the "coniferous" name, the aircraft was built almost entirely from birch plywood glued in a pattern. The H-4 is the largest flying boat ever built, with a wingspan of 98m that held the record for the largest aircraft until 2017. For comparison: the ultra-modern Airbus A380 has a wingspan of 80 m.
At the beginning of the 20th century, designers and engineers experimented with plywood as a material for car production. Strong, light and elastic plywood was used to make body parts for cars, strollers and vans. The use of plywood in the automotive industry has been influenced by developments in aircraft and boat manufacturing technology, with several companies working with plywood in several areas.
The fruit of developing cars from plywood was the Hispano Suiza H6C Tulipwood racing car, with an open cigar-shaped body, a 7982 cm3 engine and a power of 200 hp, released in 1924. Its body, made using aviation technology and with a frame pasted with 3 mm aircraft plywood, was produced by the French aircraft manufacturer Nieuport, known for its combat fighters from the First World War.
Plywood soon became the primary material inexpensive cars were made from. The German company DKW has used moulded and flat plywood for family car bodies. To combat the prejudice that plywood is unreliable compared to metal, DKW showcased the strength of plywood by posting photos of factory workers standing on the roof of one of the production cars to the public. After the Second World War, a lot of these cars came to the USSR.
After the war, an analogue of the F7 model under the IFA brand was produced in the GDR until it was replaced by the famous Trabant.
The adhesives of animal and vegetable origin used at that time for gluing plywood, such as bone and fish, casein and albumin, had limited water resistance. Numerous studies to develop the formulation of water-resistant adhesives did not give results, so it was necessary to protect the plywood with varnish applied in several layers, sometimes even five or more. Each layer of lacquer had to be dried, which greatly affected productivity and made assembly line production impossible. In addition, varnishes of that time did not have high weather resistance. Under the influence of weather conditions, sooner or later, the layers of varnish began to peel off and crack. As a result, the plywood from which body parts were made would begin to delaminate under the influence of water, which forced automakers to abandon plywood in favor of stamped metal.
This refusal was a strong blow to the plywood industry at that time and a became the sign that a fundamental problem had matured in the production of plywood. The lack of a waterproof adhesive that would provide plywood with high weather resistance gradually undermined its credibility and led to the bankruptcy of many plywood manufacturers during the Great Depression in the United States of 1929-1933.
The real technological breakthrough in the production of plywood, however, occurred in 1934. American chemical engineer from Harbor Plywood Corporation, James Nevin, proposed using water-soluble aldehyde resins for gluing plywood. The waterproof adhesive developed by him made it possible to significantly expand the scope of plywood, making it fully resistant to external atmospheric influences. Interestingly enough, attempts to make water resistant adhesives from natural materials like fishmeal continued and the production of such resources were in much larger scales than the synthesis of phenol-formaldehyde and other aldehyde resins (which were fairly new at the time).
The progress in plywood technology associated with the invention of water-resistant adhesives was so obvious that plywood made with these adhesives began to be produced in the United States under the separate brand name Weldwood. According to the advertising booklets of those years, Weldwood plywood was suitable for the production of siding, billboards and road signs, agricultural buildings, truck bodies, trailers, store fronts, basement panels, boat building - in short, in all areas where plywood could be used to a certain extent.
The invention of James Nevin gave a powerful impetus to the use of plywood in shipbuilding. If, before the advent of waterproof adhesives, small canoes and pleasure boats were made from it in limited quantities, then with the advent of new technology plywood began to be used for the production of lifeboats, boats, yachts, racing boats and even combat ships - landing, patrol and torpedo boats.
One of the clearest examples of the use of plywood in small-scale shipbuilding was canoes, which were manufactured by the American company Haskell in the 1920s. The canoes were made by hot pressing plywood into a shaped mould using albumin glue, which was developed by the firm's owner, Henry L. Haskell. Canoes were incredibly light - up to 27 kg (60 pounds), very strong and durable. The promotional photo below shows the canoe holding the weight of seven grown men standing on it. Later, the company used its experience with shaped plywood in moulds with water-resistant adhesives in the production of plywood aircraft and vehicles.
Following the entry into World War II, the United States experienced a severe shortage of metals, especially aluminum, driven by increased demand from shipbuilders and aircraft manufacturers. The army and navy needed designs for military equipment and training equipment that could be made from plywood. Investment in Weldwood factories immediately began to grow. Plywood became a strategically important material, almost the entire volume produced went to the needs of the industry, with the intention to be used in war.
In huge volumes, ships were built from plywood, which were actively used by the Americans during landing operations in the Pacific Ocean. During the Normandy landings, Allied troops crossed the English Channel in ships built in the United States and Great Britain from plywood. Higgins Boat alone built about 20,000 36-foot LCVP boats with a capacity fit for 36 people.
Fun fact: the future President of the United States at the time, John F. Kennedy, served on one of the PT-109 patrol torpedo boats built from plywood during the Second World War.
In the USSR, similar vessels were also produced in large quantities. One of the serial samples of the project 183-A torpedo boat had an outer skin made of arctilite. This material was made from layers of birch veneer, interspersed with layers of calico fabric and fine steel wire mesh. The layers were impregnated or coated with an alcohol solution of phenol-formaldehyde resin and, after drying, were pressed at high temperature. Arctilite, although it had high strength, was not widely used.
In the 1930s–1950s, plywood was widely used in the production of passenger and freight cars and refrigerators. The Paciﬁc Car and Foundry Company alone produced more than 1,000 fruit refrigerators in four months of 1941. Every 40 minutes, a brand new refrigerator came out of the gates of the plant, the production of which took about 280 m2 of plywood. The use of plywood made it possible to significantly simplify the assembly, excluding scarce metal from the structure.
In the United States in the 1940s, plywood was developed and widely used, lined with stainless steel on one or two sides and received the trade name Armorply. The plywood was 1/4–3/4 inch (6.5 to 20 mm) thick, the steel 0.0156 inch (0.4 mm) thick. Before facing, the plywood was impregnated with flame retardants.
Armorply was used to make the body panels of the US legendary Zephyr diesel-electric high-speed train, named "Mark Twain".
In the production of packaging, plywood began to be used at the beginning of the 20th century, to which Ernest Shackleton unwittingly contributed to. The famous Antarctic explorer ordered more than 2,500 plywood boxes for the storage and transportation of provisions and instruments. Shackleton was very meticulous about the preparation of the expedition, and plywood was chosen by him because of its strength and lightness. After the expedition, the surviving plywood boxes were used to make furniture and even as the binding of the book "Aurora Australis" written by Shackleton about the expedition.
Plywood was used to make boxes for equipment, fruit, tools, suitcases, cases for radios, sewing machines, etc.
With the spread of the modernist style in the 1920s, architects and designers began to use plywood to create intricately curved pieces. Plywood was well suited for mass production, and the technology used symbolized a new age of technological progress.
During that time the produced furniture, which still delights designers with its elegance of form to this day, also featured simplicity yet ingenuity of technical and design solutions.
Here, for example, is a chair designed by a world accredited Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. A thin curved seat is suspended between two narrow closed frames and seems to float in the air. Furniture created by Aalto was exported to the UK and the US, where this revolutionary design decision to use plywood made a significant impact on other designers and the era of interior design during that time period.
The possibilities of plywood were clearly demonstrated by American designers Charles and Ray Ames, who experimented with plywood during World War II to develop methods for forming complex curved shapes.
They designed a chair with a three-dimensional moulded seat, which later became one of the most famous chairs of the second half of the 20th century. The chair was copied, and millions of copies appeared around the world and used in communal spaces like schools. The eminent English industrial designer Robin Day said the following on the heyday of the chairs: "Every designer I knew had a photograph of an Ames chair pinned to a drawing board."
To be fair, Charles and Ray Ames were not pioneers in the use of curved plywood. Back in the Victorian era, curved plywood was used in the manufacture of furniture. Nevertheless, they were the most influential furniture designers and managed to reveal all the natural beauty of wood, giving it bizarre and at the same time neat forms. After their success, a whole galaxy of young designers appeared who began to use plywood in their work.
In construction, plywood has been widely used only after the late 1930s. Doors and partitions were made from it, used for interior decoration of residential premises. A truly revolutionary breakthrough in the use of this material in housing construction occurred after the advent of weatherproof plywood. In the USA plywood was not only used to make walls, load-bearing structures and other building elements, but entire houses.
The construction of such low-cost houses flourished in the United States in the 1930s, due to unemployment, low incomes for the general population, and a severe shortage of cheap housing during the Great Depression. The design of the houses made it possible to quickly produce house kits and easily assemble houses. The plywood worked well for standard lightweight panel systems that could be factory made and assembled on site.
The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) has published plans to build an "All from Plywood" Experimental House using standard plywood panels; it could be produced in a factory and then quickly erected on site. In 1936, a demonstration house was built in Madison, with 12,000 show goers queuing to see the house. All parts were made in the factory and seven men assembled the house in just 21 hours.
During a skilful advertising campaign, all the advantages of using plywood in the construction industry were demonstrated. In a fairly short time, more than 1 million inexpensive houses of this type were built, costing from $2,000 to $7,000. For comparison: a simple Ford car could be bought at that time for $800, and a prestigious Cadillac for $3-$3.5 k.
In housing construction, plywood was used not only as a building material; Architects and designers of that time used it to create beautiful interiors and facades of buildings.
The history of the creation of the plywood industry in pre-revolutionary Russia and in the USSR until the 1940’s is usually presented as follows.
In 1819, Professor Fischer came up with a method for obtaining facing plywood using peeling. On the machine invented by Fischer, which was also known as a plywood planer, it was possible to cut a strip of veneer from a rotating log. The knife of the machine was located on a tangent to the growth rings of the wood.
Plywood in the form in which we are accustomed to seeing it today appeared in Russia later, around the middle of the 19th century. In 1881, the inventor and designer O. S. Kostovich developed a technology for the production of three- and multi-layered plywood, which he called arborite, and the design of machines for peeling veneer and gluing sheets with "glue-cement", invented by him.
In the 1880s, O. S. Kostovich equipped a small factory "Arborit" near St. Petersburg. The main products of this enterprise, which employed only 40 workers, were a variety of arborite products: barrels for wine and kerosene, boxes, chests, suitcases, building parts, and even plywood collapsible houses. On a trial basis, products from plywood pipes were made in small quantities: stairs, spars of sailing ships, etc.
In 1906, Mr. Kostovich patented arborite production technology in the USA.
In 1885, carpenter Alexander Luther and merchant Markel Makarov, for the first time in Russia, launched the production of plywood furniture, which was in demand not only in Russia, but also abroad. In 1890, this furniture was awarded a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Madrid, and six years later, at the Nizhny Novgorod Fair, furniture from the Luther factory was awarded a large gold medal. After the waterproof glue invented by the company chemist O. Paulsen was patented, the products manufactured by this factory were invariably in high demand on the Russian and international markets.
The first factories for the production of plywood were built in 1894 in St. Petersburg, and in 1896 - near Kazan’ (Zelenodolsk plant). Since that time, the production of plywood began to develop rapidly, and by the beginning of the war in 1914 in Russia there were 48 factories producing 258.5 thousand m3 of plywood per year.
These were small factories producing plywood using the so-called raw gluing process. There was no mechanization on them at all. The equipment used, even for those years, was extremely primitive. The lathes had a manual calliper feed, the presses were equipped with a manual hydraulic pump. The ridges were hand sawn into blocks, which the workers carried to the machine on their shoulders. Glue was applied to the veneer sheets with a brush, and the finished plywood sheets were cut with a hand saw.
After the Civil War, only 28 plywood enterprises remained in the country, and most of them were destroyed, 16 partially operating plants produced only 21.5 thousand m3 of plywood per year. In 1922, the plywood factories, which had been inactive before, were transferred to the Plywood Trust, organized by the Supreme Council of the National Economy. From that moment, the restoration, or rather, the creation of the Soviet plywood industry, began. From 1922 to 1928, almost all plywood factories that had been operating before the revolution were restored and put into operation.
Simultaneously with the struggle to increase production, significant work has been done to improve the quality of plywood; in those years, factories began to switch to a new method - dry gluing; the production of special plywood for the aircraft industry begun, and the first attempts were made to produce shaped plywood.
By the end of the second five-year plan, the number of plywood factories had grown to 36, and plywood production had reached 672,300 m3. During the years of the second five-year plan, the Proletarskaya Svoboda plant mastered the production of most types of plywood equipment, which can be considered a major achievement of Soviet industry. The USSR has its own high-quality peeling machines, driven shears, edge-cutting, edge-gluing, trimming and cutting machines, waste crushers, breathing presses, and roller dryers. The plywood industry was freed from import dependence.
The central laboratory of Fanerotrest (later the Central Scientific Research Institute of Plywood - TsNIIF, the only scientific research institute of the plywood industry in Europe), created at that time, made a great contribution to the development of plywood production. The employees of this institution developed technological documentation for all the main processes of plywood production. Finally, a wide network of equipped factory laboratories was created, which made it possible to establish a systematic control of production technology and analyse adhesive materials and plywood quality.
Studying the history of plywood, one involuntarily thinks: does this material have a future? Or will synthetic plastics, chipboard, OSB and MDF boards eventually push plywood out of our lives? We don't think this will happen in the foreseeable future. After all, plywood is the same wood, only slightly improved by man. With its attractive lively beauty and inner warmth, not a single most modern synthetic material is able to parry with it.
Credit: Alexander Fillipovich