Plywood has been around in various forms for centuries, with a long history leading up to the iterations we rely on today. The following is a brief look into the history of plywood and its many applications.
The earliest records show that plywood was first invented and used by the ancient Egyptians in 2600 BC. In fact, the methods they used to manufacture plywood were similar to those we currently use. However, developments in recent years have made today’s plywood far more reliable than what ancient civilizations used.
Before the 19th century, plywood wasn’t typically used to construct furniture. Instead, it was primarily used for boat building and general construction. It was also used in the development of the first underground railway in London. During the 1800s, plywood started being used for antique furniture building; however, it was only used for small sections of furniture, not entire pieces.
The first recorded instance of plywood in antique furniture came about in 1850, when John Henry Belter used plywood, along with other materials, to manufacture his signature Belter Chair. Eventually, plywood would proceed to be a popular option for furniture into the 20th century.
On December 26, 1865, New York City resident John K. Mayo became the first recipient of the patent for what we now know as plywood. He was re-issued the patent on August 18, 1868.
According to the patent, the invention comprises multiple wooden sheets that are cemented or otherwise fastened together. The grain on each successive wood sheet runs either diversely or crosswise from the others.
While Mayo may have been the first to patent plywood, records don’t show much success in Mayo’s business venture.
In the beginning, the softwood plywood industry had a focus on door panel construction. However, in 1920, Elliott Bay Plywood salesman Gus Bartells started finding a new market for this material in the automotive industry. Bartells was responsible for developing the first plywood dealerships in the U.S. and encouraged automotive manufacturers to construct running boards for vehicles using plywood. During the Jazz Age, this material was a popular option in many vehicles, and by 1929, there were 17 plywood mills across the Pacific Northwest that produced a record 358 million square feet of plywood.
During the Great Depression, the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) developed ideas for experimental all-wood homes that could be produced in factories using plywood panels and then quickly constructed on-site. In 1936, FPL constructed a fully-furnished demonstration house, which attracted a crowd of over 12,000 visitors. The demonstration left many visitors impressed, as these homes took a mere 21 hours to construct in the hands of seven men.
Plywood was declared an essential war material during WWII, and strict controls were placed on its production and distribution. On an annual basis, wartime mills produced about 1.2 to 1.8 billion square feet of plywood, which was used by several branches of the military during this time. For example, the Navy used plywood PT boats to patrol the Pacific, and the Air Force flew plywood gliders for reconnaissance missions. Additionally, the Army used plywood assault boats to cross the Rhine River.
American designers Ray and Charles Eames experimented with plywood during WWII, developing a technique for creating complex curved shapes. In 1942, they used this technique to design a stackable molded leg splint for sailors in the U.S. Navy. They later went on to develop plywood parts for military aircraft.
In addition to ships and aircraft, other applications for plywood during WWII included barracks, crating for machinery parts, lifeboats, and more.
Fast-forward to today, and plywood has many uses across a range of products. At Thomes Canada, we offer high-quality plywood made with ultra-thin birch veneers that adhere to Germanischer Lloyd (GL) standards. Various products use this particular material because of its superior quality, offering high levels of flexibility, workability, strength, and lightness.
Over the years since our establishment in 1963, Thomes Canada has grown into North America’s largest supplier of manufactured Baltic birch plywood. We source our plywood materials from Baltic countries like Latvia, working with a list of trusted partners such as Koskisen, Latvijas Finieris, SyPly, and Plyterra.