Plywood often gets a bad rap in fine woodworking because of the quality of materials used in carpentry and the building trades. However, plywood is also available in high-quality, cabinet-grade sheets.
Photos via wooden-box-maker.com
Why use plywood?
This plywood has a finer core, without voids, and the surface faces can be made from any of a number of fine veneers. It can be beautifully made and appropriate for fine work. In fact, high-quality plywood often gets some of the best-looking wood cuts and because the veneers are cut so thin the wood goes a long way.
Plywood is dimensionally stable and strong, so it is a good choice for cabinets, bookcases and even furniture. If you are going to use plywood, however, you need to think about the edges.
Mind the edge
There are several reasons to cover the edge of plywood. It looks better, it allows you to put a profile on the edge of the board and it can add strength.
The quickest way to edge band plywood is with iron-on banding. This banding comes in a roll that is usually a bit over 3/4” wide and it’s available in several common wood species.
It is applied with a hot iron that melts the glue, sticking the banding into place.
The result looks fine, although it is nothing spectacular. It simply hides the plywood core.
Solid wood edging
If you want something a little nicer, or would like to put a profile on the edge you can use solid wood edging. Solid wood gives you a lot more flexibility. You can choose whatever wood you like and you can mill it to your preferred size.
If I’m making cabinets, I usually glue the edging flush on one face and leave the other a bit over size (up to an eight or so). That way I don’t have to worry about any seasonal wood movement. The glue holds the wood in place where it is flush and any expansion or contraction will happen on the face that has the overhang.
If I need to add strength to the plywood (on a bookcase shelf, for instance) I will make the edging even wider. The thickness of the facing helps keep the shelf from bowing.
The easiest way to attach solid wood edge banding is to simply glue and clamp it onto the plywood. If you don’t have enough time and/or clamps, you can use brad or finish nails. Of course, then you have the added work of filling and sanding the holes. The same thing applies to screws and plugs.
If you want added strength without seeing the fasteners, you can use biscuits, tongue and groove, or a loose spline (shown in green in the drawing above) to attach the solid wood to the ply. If you use a spline, watch the grain direction. You need to make sure the grain strength is perpendicular to the facing or the spline can split. This can also be a problem with tongue and groove. If you make the tongue too long, it too can split, so it is better to make a stub tenon.
These methods add strength to the joint so if the piece is going to be under stress it is a good idea to add additional fasteners, whether mechanical (nails, screws) or by the joinery itself (biscuits, tongue and groove).
Whatever method you use, whether it is glue-on banding or solid wood with a fancy profile, adding something to the edge of your plywood will certainly add to your project.