Plywood from Past to Present: UK Museum Exhibits ‘Material of the Modern World’

Plywood is one of the most common, yet overlooked materials used throughout the world today. But how has this revolutionary wood composite, dating back to 2600 BC Egypt, influenced the changing times?

A new exhibit at the United Kingdom’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), the world’s leading museum of art and design, delves into the history and versatility of plywood, exploring the handy material and how it helped move our world from the past to the present.

 “Plywood: Material of the Modern World” showcases the story of plywood and its resourceful nature, featuring everything from furniture to houses and airplanes.

Despite its first emergence in 1880, the use of plywood increased in the 1920’s, when it signified the beginning of the industrial age. Architects praised the material’s flexibility and began building simple furniture, such as armchairs and stools. An armchair by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto is just one of the pieces shown at the exhibit.

Full-scale house, built at the 1937 Madison Home Show to demonstrate the Forest Product Laboratory’s plywood prefabrication system.

In addition to early 20th century furniture, the showcase features a full-scale prefabricated plywood home, similar to the first all-wood one built here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in 1937.  “Prefab” houses gained popularity after scientists at the Lab developed a waterproof adhesive that allowed for easier construction and mass-production of the product. Many people sought and bought these humble abodes in response to the Great Depression, seeing them as a means to quick, affordable housing.

Beginning in the 1940’s at the dawn of World War II, plywood played a role once again, and FPL was at the forefront of wartime innovation. Researchers designed and created a number of military applications, including adhesives and papreg, a strong paper-plastic that was used in the floors of gliders. The 1941 DeHavilland Mosquito aircraft, on display at the V&A, was renowned for its strength and lightness. Thanks to the planes plywood fuselages, built at FPL, the Mosquito was the fastest aircraft manufactured for the war.

Other exhibition highlights include an 1800’s elevated plywood railway, an automobile, and displays showcasing how the material influenced DIY efforts of the 1950’s. Various tours and lectures on the groundbreaking influence of plywood are also offered.

“Plywood: Material of the Modern World” will run at the V&A until November 12, 2017.

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta

Veneer Today – Saw’n Tomorrow : Plywood Pioneers at FPL

Over the past 100 years, the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) has gained notoriety for pioneering techniques such as Best Opening Face (which optimized 1970’s softwood dimension sawmills and, in part, prevented an industry collapse), and more recently, cellulose nanofibril technology (which is revolutionizing the way we use low-value forest material). Despite these headline-making developments, there still exist several unsung heroes of timber processing — and although these may be less glamorous cousins to the cutting-edge biodegradable computer chips of the nanocellulose lab, they remain indispensable nonetheless.

Veneer manufacturing is generally done by cutting the tree into short-length logs (bolts), soaking the bolts in hot water, mounting them on a lathe, peeling thin layers of veneer, clipping the veneer to specified lengths, drying the veneer, and sorting and stacking.

One of these products is veneer.

Veneer is wood that has been cut from a log using a sharp knife rather than a saw. Veneer can be “peeled” or “sliced.” When peeling, like a paper towel off a roll, the log (bolt) is turned against a knife and a thin layer of wood is cut (peeled). When slicing, the log is affixed and the knife moves up and down, slicing parallel to the length of the log.

The veneer is then clipped (or sawed) to a specified length, dried, and stacked.

Although these thin sheets of wood can be used superficially to improve the appearance of counter tops and floors, veneer is also the basic component of laminated veneer lumber or plywood.

The wood properties of these laminated sheets are essentially the same as sawn wood, but the surface of the wood — as a result of cutting, drying, and laminating into plywood — can significantly change the characteristics of the veneer. FPL helped refine all phases of veneer production, so that the final products had improved surface, durability, and strength.

FPL researchers further improved on existing methods to efficiently peel the wood so that more of the log could be converted into veneer, including development of specialized pre-heating “cooking“ schedules for softening the wood prior to veneer peeling. FPL research on processing variables resulted in reduction of thickness variations caused from uneven peeler crushing because of the large difference in density between earlywood and latewood. This significantly improved the processing of Douglas-fir and southern pine, and helped turn small-diameter trees into useful structural materials.

James Brooks, with his award-winning, close-up photograph of cutting veneer.

Finally, to help transfer FPL research to industry, the Laboratory set up a Veneer Mill Improvement Program (VIP). This program measured veneer mill raw-material conversion efficiency and, with aid of a computer simulation model, could predict gains from process improvements. The VIP analyzed log bucking, block centering in the lathe, and veneer peeling and clipping. This information was used to identify areas where improvements were feasible and helped turn veneer production into a viable industry in the 1960’s.

Today, plywood remains a staple of building construction, and it stands to be a mainstay for years to come. In addition to its role in traditional walls, some new types of Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) use plywood around an thermally-efficient foam core. This sandwiched product will help us meet the stringent energy codes of tomorrow, and carry on the tradition of veneer, plywood, and research here at FPL.

For more information, please see Forest Products Laboratory, 1910–2010 Celebrating a Century of Accomplishments.