Interior Design Glossary: Plywood

Austin Interior Designer Amity Worrel Defends Plywood’s Reputation (and Covers Its Uses in Design)

Plywood Guest House

Plywood has a bad reputation, which it certainly does not deserve. Many folks think plywood is cheap and low-grade and should stay lining the walls of the garden shed where it belongs. I say it’s time we gave plywood the respect it deserves! I’ve used plywood as a finishing material in a few projects at my Austin interior design firm, and the results have been fabulous. When done right, plywood is an elevated, clean, and interesting finish that feels at home in rustic and ultra-modern spaces alike. In this Interior Design Glossary entry, I defend plywood’s reputation and review the material’s definition, history, types, uses, and complexity.


What is Plywood?  

Plywood comes from the French word plier, meaning “to fold.” It is named for the many thin layers of wood folded together to create the manufactured panel. The process involves gluing timber veneers, layer by layer, under high heat and pressure. Each layer is laid perpendicular to the next for increased strength. Plywood can have anywhere from 3 to 13 plies, resulting in a range of thicknesses for different applications. 

While plywood is often considered purely structural or functional, it makes a fantastic finishing material. A finishing material is the last layer of a project, such as a decorative tile, wallpaper, stained wood panel, or sheet of mirror. It is the visual that people will see and interact with, affecting the overall look and feel of a space. Plywood can be used as paneling, cabinetry, shelving, and in other unique applications. 


My Own Experience Using Plywood in Interior Design 

Plywood - Austin Interior Designer

In phase 1 of our Calcasieu project, our Austin interior designers used plywood to build out the entire interior of one of the guest cottages. Initially, I thought the finish would be unique, practical, and super affordable. It showed my initial ignorance regarding just how complex plywood is! There are many different types, grades, and applications — all requiring a different skill set for installation. Ultimately, the finished result was amazing, and the client is still happy with it seven years later. This was the last time I’d underestimate plywood, and I’ve held the material in high regard ever since. 


A Brief History of Plywood 

While plywood feels like a modern-age construction material, its inception actually dates back to ancient Egypt. However, plywood as we know it today wasn’t manufactured until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s. It was mainly used for shipping crates until Modernist architects of the 1930s began experimenting with the material in homes and furnishings. In the 1940s, Charles and Ray Eames used molded plywood to create the DCM chair. By the 1960s, architects like Richard Neutra were lining mid-century interiors with plywood panels. Today, plywood is again being reimaged in interiors, especially in minimalist Nordic designs. CNC saw technologies allow for precise cuts to create everything from recessed cabinet pulls to decorative screen designs in plywood sheets. 


Types of Plywood

There are many different types of plywood available and a range of finishes to choose from. Here are the basic categories. 

Plywood Grades 

Plywood can be divided into two main categories: finishing and structural. 

Types of Plywood

Finishing Plywood Grades 

Finishing-grade plywood is sanded and used for paneling, cabinetry, shelving, and doors. 

  • Grade A: This top grade is free from defects and knots, with a smooth, sanded surface ready for staining. 
  • Grade B: This less expensive grade may have a few defects patched with wood filler, but it is sanded smooth and ready for paint.

Structural Plywood Grades

Structural-grade plywood is intended to be covered with another finishing material and not showcased on its own. These are the plywood grades that get a bad rap when misused as a finishing material. 

  • Grade C: This lower grade is unsanded and features knots and patched defects. It is used for subflooring and other structural applications. 
  • Grade D: The lowest grade is unsanded and may feature knot holes and unrepaired defects. It is used for structural framing where it won’t be seen. 

For any interior applications, it is necessary to use a higher-grade plywood intended for finishing materials. 


Plywood Finishes

There are three main plywood finishes to choose from when considering it as a finishing material.

Hardwood: Hardwood plywood features layers of solid wood, such as birch, spruce, pine, maple, or oak. Each wood type has a different grain and color, affecting the final look and feel of the space. 

Laminated: Plywood can also be finished with High Pressure Laminate (HPL) or melamine. The layers of wood are coated with layers of resin and bonded kraft paper, forming a highly durable finish in various colors and patterns.  

Veneered: Like some furnishings, plywood can be veneered. These final thin layers of wood are adhered to both sides of the sheet and can be joined together in different patterns, such as bookend or corner match lays. Some veneer options include ash, oak, beech, and fir. 

Plywood Cabinetry

Uses of Plywood in the Home

There is no end to the possible uses of plywood in the home. Some ideas include: 

  • Wall and ceiling panels 
  • Flooring 
  • Kitchen or bathroom cabinetry 
  • Doors 
  • Built-in shelving and millwork 
  • Stairs
  • Furnishings 
  • Room dividers and screens 

These plywood surfaces could be finished with wood veneers, wood stains, paint, stenciled patterns, faux painting, or even clear seals to fit an endless variety of styles. Plywood has been used everywhere, from rustic cabins to minimalist Scandinavian retreats. There’s no stopping it as it gains recognition for its beauty and versatility!


Plywood is Complex and Underrated 

For almost 100 years, designers and architects have been innovating and creating daring design choices with plywood. Its flexibility, durability, and beauty make it an excellent finishing material for any room of the home (not just the shed out back). I hope we continue to realize its full potential. 


Like good design and interesting people, plywood is layered. 

Amity Worrel

Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.



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