Plywood: from the era of the pharaohs to modern craft

Plywood: from the era of the pharaohs to modern craft


  • Plywood in the interior

    • History of the issue

    • Icons and living legends

    • Difficult choice

    • Built-in and cabinet furniture from design studios

Plywood in the interior

The condescending attitude towards plywood as a rough building material often does not allow us to see its excellent potential, which professional designers are aware of. Let’s try to figure out what is so interesting about it, and in what capacity it can be useful in the arrangement and decoration of housing.

Armchairs by Alvar Aalto, Finnish company ArtekChairs designed by Alvar Aalto, manufactured by the Finnish company Artek

Modern plywood is a multi-layer material in the form of glued thin sheets of wood (veneer). The veneer is obtained by peeling, cutting off wood from a pre-steamed block. The process is vaguely similar to sharpening a pencil. The resulting web is cut into sheets, glued and pressed. The veneer is positioned so that the fibers of adjacent layers are perpendicular. Thanks to this arrangement, they mutually compensate for possible deformations. Plywood turns out to be uniformly strong, tens of times more stable than solid wood. In fact, it is a super-strong composite material that reliably holds fasteners based on threads or nails. And, unlike chipboard, fiberboard and MDF, obtained from shavings and fibers, it preserves the integrity and natural beauty of wood.

History of the issue

Sometimes veneer is called plywood, and not the ready-made glued sheet we are used to. Almost until the end of the 19th century, veneering meant hand gluing of simple wood products with plates of valuable wood species. The fact that a budgetary basis is hidden behind an expensive facade of such a trick did not bother anyone: it was beautiful and practical. The old technology involved the use of layers of different thicknesses. In the popular book “Furniture Styles” by D. Kees, there is a graphic drawing: inside – thick “rough wood”, on both sides of it a thin “rough shirt” and outside – “plywood of valuable species”. Modern plywood is usually made from veneer sheets of the same thickness and wood of the same value. There are exceptions, though.

Archaeologists believe that the oldest known piece of veneered furniture is the remains of a casket found in an alabaster sarcophagus near the pyramid of Djoser. In the 27th century. BC NS. cabinetmakers used six different types of wood for veneering (including cypress, pine, juniper, cedar and ziziphus), fastening them with wood carnations.

For centuries, veneering technology has been a very laborious procedure – wood was cut by hand with very thin saws. And only in the 19th century, with the advent of the first machines for the production of plywood, the situation improved. For this, we should thank the enterprising Englishman Samuel Bentham, who in 1797 patented machines for industrial veneering, and the Swedish engineer Emmanuel Nobel, who developed a machine that removes veneer of constant thickness.

In Russia, things got better thanks to the efforts of Martin Luther Dietrich, the owner of a pencil factory in Reval (Tallinn). At the beginning of the 19th century, he perfected a peeling machine, on which wood was cut into thin veneer sheets. However, the industrial production of plywood sheets began at Luther’s factory only in 1889. By the beginning of the First World War, 48 plywood factories were already operating in Russia. But the famous “Russian plywood” was mainly exported.

Icons and living legends

Between the two wars, plywood fitted perfectly with the avant-garde experiments of the Bauhaus school, serving well for the pioneers of modernism. But she gained real world fame thanks to the works of Alvar Aalto, the most famous Finnish architect of the twentieth century. In 1932, the first plywood chair with rounded shapes, the Paimio Chair, was born. Aalto designed it specifically for the relaxation room at the Paimio Sanatorium. The chair springs softly, adjusting to the seated person. Now this model is produced in limited editions by Artek.

Paimio Chair by Alvar Aalto for the relaxation room at the Paimio SanatoriumPaimio Chairs designed by Alvar Aalto for the relaxation room at the Paimio Sanatorium. Produced by the Finnish factory Artek

In 1940, in the USA, another brilliant Finn, Eero Saarinen, together with his friend Charles Eames, made an Organic chair with a bent plywood back. The chair successfully won a prize in the MoMa competition “Organic design at home”, but it was not mass-produced until 2006 by the Swiss company Vitra.

At the outbreak of the war, Charles and Ray Eames received an order to make ergonomic and lightweight splints to fix the leg in case of fractures, which they dealt with by inventing an innovative method of volumetric molding of plywood. This experience came in handy when designing the DCW Chair and the respectable Eames Lounge Chair, iconic models for all time. Impressed by the work of Eames, the founder of Danish functionalism, Arne Jacobsen, created his bestsellers – the chair Ant Chair (1952) and chair No. 3107 (1955), which are still relevant today. Names and models can be called further, but in general, by the mid-50s, the interest of designers shifted towards cheaper plastic.

Chairs from the DCW collection (Dining Chair Wood), Vitra.  Designed by Charles and Ray EamesChairs from the DCW collection (Dining Chair Wood), Vitra. Designed by Charles and Ray Eames

Eames Style Lounge Chair & Ottoman.  Designed by Chalz and Ray Eames, produced by VitraEames Style Lounge Chair & Ottoman. Designed by Chalz and Ray Eames, produced by Vitra

Difficult choice

In Russia, plywood as a promising material for design began to be perceived with the advent of high-precision carpentry equipment and design software. But working in this segment was not so easy. More than 60% of our excellent quality plywood goes abroad, which affects the availability of good sheets in the domestic market. According to GOSTs, plywood is divided into 4 grades depending on the number of wood defects (knots, wormholes, cracks) and processing (edge ​​defects, glue seepage, etc.). There are always two numbers in the grade designation, for the front and the seamy side.

For the production of furniture, as a rule, grades of at least 1/2 or 2/2 are used, which are almost never found in popular hardware stores, only from factory dealers. In addition, within one batch, the quality can also “walk”. It’s good when the craftsmen have stable contacts with reliable suppliers, and you still have to look for suitable plywood. The moisture resistance of plywood is determined by the type of glue, which, in turn, determines the environmental friendliness of the material. FK grade plywood of medium moisture resistance is considered safe for use in residential premises, in the production of which urea glue is used. FSF plywood has increased water resistance, but the glue in it is based on phenol-formaldehyde resins, and it is better not to use this for indoor use. In Russia, high-grade FC plywood is produced by the Arkhangelsk Plywood Plant, the Murom Plywood Mill, the Yaroslavl Plywood and, of course, the Sveza company, the world leader in the production of birch plywood.


Built-in and cabinet furniture from design studios

High-grade plywood is strong and durable. When home improvement, it can be used to make various storage systems. So, for a young family who bought an apartment in a new building, the architects of the Praktika bureau implemented a project with built-in furniture. Proving that a beautiful interior can be done without colossal costs. Architects admit that they do not often work with plywood, but they love non-trivial tasks.

DSC_6014.jpgPraktika Architectural Bureau. Apartment in the town of Pushkino. The storage system in the living room is made of plywood according to the architects’ sketches. Photo: Katerina Reischer; Architectural bureau “Praktika”

There are craft companies for which plywood is one of the main materials for creativity. “There will be more or less well-known workshops in Moscow, probably a little more than twenty. Our furniture is made of plywood by small design production. So far, this is a niche story, – says Ivan Khodyrev, object designer, founder of the iM studio. – In workshops you can often find completely unique products, here they are sensitive to quality. Many who have opened this business themselves are happy to work with their hands. ”

IM Studio.  Educational children's toyIM Studio. Educational children’s toy

The arrangement of rooms for toddlers and teenagers is the main theme of PLAYPLY. Designer Andrey Anisimov and architect Maria Anisimova-Karasik create a comfortable and creative environment in close cooperation with specialists in the development of intelligence, carefully studying foreign experience. Production continues to expand, we have our own know-how. The furniture has recently been certified for gardens and schools.

PLAYPLY studio.  Children's room interiorPLAYPLY studio. Children’s room interior

PLAYPLY studio.  Children's furniture collection ClicPLAYPLY studio. Children’s furniture collection Clic

Colleagues in the shop perceive the PLY team as reliable experts who are in love with their work. In this architectural bureau and at the same time a furniture workshop, they are sensitive to global trends and love to experiment with plywood and topcoats. Surfaces made of micro-concrete, experiments with liquid metal and paints – in ten years more than 3000 various products have been made here, and even serial production of furniture has been established.

PLY Architectural Bureau.  Apartments in the residential complex PLY Architectural Bureau. Apartments in the residential complex “ArtResidence”. Wall of perforated panels in the kitchen

Fineobjects studio has long been a recognizable brand. She has her own circle of admirers and clients and well-sold models: elegant furniture, dressers with branded 3D facades, acoustic systems. Not specifically advertised. Loved for their ability to create striking objects that are appropriate in any environment, and an uncompromising attitude to quality.

Fineobjects studio.  Chest of drawers BIO ARRAY3Fineobjects studio. Chest of drawers BIO ARRAY3

The LoftLab team managed to find a very special niche – they produce plumbing fixtures from birch veneer – bathtubs and sinks. Technologies used in shipbuilding are applied. The laboratory has developed a special composition based on natural oils and resins.

Studio The LoftLab.  Wooden sink ROUNDStudio The LoftLab. Wooden sink ROUND

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About Leona Smith 115 Articles
Hello! My name is Silke and this is my travel blog. I want to show you fascinating places off the beaten track, give you a gentle introduction to history and culture, and help you get around Berlin. After 13 years in Sydney and Andalusia, I now live in Berlin, Germany. I am a travel writer, translator and book author. Read more about me here.

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