Some projects require that you use or at least understand plywood. This material is a very popular construction tool, because the layering of thin sheets of wood gives it great flexibility and strength. Knowing about plywood can save you money and may mean the difference between a successful project and one that fails.

For example, you don't need to buy an expensive piece of plywood that's perfect on both sides if only one side will be seen. Similarly, there's no sense in paying for 1/2-inch thickness when 3/8-inch plywood is really all you need. Plywood also comes with different glues, veneers, and degrees of finish. By knowing these characteristics you may be able to save money as well as do a better job.

Plywood
Plywood is a commonly used material because it resists shrinking and cracking.

Available at home centers, hardware stores, and lumberyards, plywood is better than lumber for some jobs. It is strong, lightweight, and rigid. Its high-impact resistance means plywood doesn't split, chip, crack all the way through, or crumble; the cross-laminate construction restricts expansion and contraction within the individual plies. Moreover, you never get "green" wood with plywood. When you buy a sheet of plywood, you know exactly what size you're getting, unlike with other types of lumber that have nominal and actual measurements. For example, a 4 X 8-foot sheet of 1/2-inch plywood measures exactly 4 by 8 feet and is exactly 1/2-inch thick.

Plywood is broadly categorized into two types: exterior and interior. Exterior plywood is made with nothing but waterproof glue and should always be used for any exposed application. Interior plywood, made with highly resistant glues, can actually withstand quite a bit of moisture. There is interior plywood made with IMG (intermediate glue), which is resistant to bacteria, mold, and moisture, but no interior plywood is made for use outdoors.

When purchasing plywood, look for a back stamp or edge marking bearing the initials APA or DFPA. APA stands for American Plywood Association, while DFPA is the Douglas Fir Plywood Association. These two organizations represent most of the plywood manufacturers, and they inspect and test all plywood to ensure quality is high and grading is accurate. The most critical plywood grading category for most home projects is the appearance grade of the panel faces (see the chart on plywood grades below).

PLYWOOD GRADES
Interior Grade  Face  Back Inner Plies Common Uses
A-A  A  A  D Cabinet doors, built-ins, and furniture where both sides show.
A-B
 A  B  D Alternate for A-A. Face is finish grade; back is solid and smooth.
A-D
 A  D  D Finish grade face for paneling, built-ins, and backing.
B-D  B  D  D Utility grade. One paintable side. Used for backing, cabinet sides, etc.
C-D  C  D  D Sheathing and structural uses such as temporary enclosures, subfloor. Unsanded.
Underlayment  C-plugged  D  C,D For underlayment or combination subfloor-underlayment under tile and carpeting.
Exterior Grade  Face  Back Inner Plies Common Uses
A-A  A  A  C Outdoors, where appearance of both sides is important.
A-B  A  B  C Alternate for A-A, where appearance of one side is less important. Face is finish grade.
A-C  A  C  C Soffits, fences, base for coatings. 
B-C  B  C  C For utility uses such as farm buildings, some kinds of fences, base for coatings. 
C-C plugged  C-plugged  C  C Excellent base for tile, backing for wallcoverings, high-performance coatings. 
C-C
 C  C  C Unsanded, for backing and rough construction exposed to weather. 

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