Designer for Hire

Plywood is cool – yes, really

-- Download Plywood is cool - yes, really as PDF --


The plywood ceiling and landing of Bob Lanning’s house. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Sick of cherry, pine and maple? Then allow us to make the case for plywood.

As an architect and builder of his own home in Tucson’s Barrio Viejo, Bob Lanning knows a thing or two about great materials. So if he chooses plywood to make a design statement, then it’s something for all of us to consider.

The ceiling of Bob’s home is made of 12″ wide plywood panels. For added interest, he left half-inch gaps between the panels to show off black building paper that was underneath. Plywood covers the steps of the stairs, and the floors in the second story. And in a rental he and wife Kate Hiller own downtown, there are plywood stairs and floorboards, as well as plywood on a kitchen island counter.

“Plywood gives the feel of wood but at a fraction of the cost,” says Bob. “With such a tall space [in my house] a sheet rock ceiling would have been a missed opportunity.”

Cody Lanning shows off a plywood floor. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Installing plywood meant he could have drama without the high cost,  he explains. “We did our house on a very tight budget and so we were looking at every possible way to save on construction costs.”  A good grade of plywood comes in at $1 a sq ft, he says, compared to $3 or $4 for other types of wood.

The plywood cabinets in Jason Isenberg’s loft-style home were not exactly pleasing to his eye at first. But that perhaps had something to do with the bright paint the former homeowners had used on them: gold, red, orange, green. “It was carnivalesque, like cabinets by Fisher Price,” says the Tucson landscape designer. A couple of days of sanding later, he had returned them to their original state.

plywood in Jason Isenberg's house

Plywood cabinets in Jason Isenberg’s kitchen. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Like the kitchen, the upstairs floors of Jason’s home are constructed of  Baltic Birch plywood, by nature a soft wood and thicker than the average plywood. And with two large dogs in the house, they got beat up pretty fast.

Jason says he had a choice: replace them, or embrace the lived-in look, which is not so much shabby chic as active pooch. Now he displays a sign in his guest room explaining to visitors that the previous homeowners, who installed the plywood floors, were planning on being shoe-less and dog-less. “My life is neither shoe-less nor dog-less… dogs romp, shoes clomp, and the floor remains… in its imperfect grandeur,” says the sign.

Tucson architect John Messina’slove of plywood is evident in just about every room of his historic Sam Hughes home. There’s a circular plywood dining room table, a plywood headboard in the master bedroom, plywood in the countertops of the master bathroom and – the proof that plywood is indeed a material to celebrate – a whole home office made of plywood, from floors to ceilings to built-in cabinets.

Baltic Birch is his choice too. In the office, he made things more interesting by staggering the joints of the ceiling. In the master bathroom, he glued fiber cement board – usually used for exterior siding or trim – to plywood to make a counter you’re not likely to see anywhere else.

plywood in John Messina's house

The office space in John Messina’s house has plywood walls, ceiling and desk. Photo by Gillian Drummond

plywood in John Messina's house

Plywood with a fiber cement board overlay in John Messina’s master bathroom. Photo by Gillian Drummond

It’s not the first time plywood has enjoyed a cool factor. Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife furniture design team, used it for their Herman Miller molded plywood chairs in the late 1940s and beyond.

“There is a history of architects using plywood, especially mid century architects.  It was one of the new ‘modern’ materials they were experimenting with It was readily available and conveyed the warmth of wood at an inexpensive price,” says 3 Story’s own Patty Warren of Warren Architecture.

With today’s homeowners no only looking to save money, but also to stand out with their design choices plywood may be making a well-deserved comeback.

Other plywood tips:

* Not just any old plywood will do. Go for Grades A or B rather than Grades C or D if you want to do something visual with it. A and B are higher quality, with fewer voids or gaps. Patty suggests having a Grade A or B on at least one side, the side that will be visible.

* You might have to venture further than a DIY store for higher-quality grades. John Messina’s favorite supplier is Hood Distribution on S. Toole Avenue.

* Should you varnish or stain it? It depends. Bob Lanning’s ceiling wood – far away and hardly likely to get damaged – is raw and unvarnished. But when it came to laying the floor – also 12″ wide planks – “we sanded the heck out of them and put on four or five coats of polyurethane sealant,” says Bob. John Messina says he always prefers to finish his with varnish.

* What is plywood anyway? It’s an engineered wood made from thin sheets of wood veneer stacked together and glued together.

* What is Baltic Birch plywood? It’s produced from the birch trees in the Baltics and commonly has more plies or layers of wood for a given thickness than North American plywood.

Plywood ceiling with stainless steel rivets
Photo by Madeleine Boos



Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Delicious Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Posterous Email


  1. Carole deRivera says:

    Love the story on illuminated furniture! I’m inspired, I want something illuminated!!! Love the overall look of the mag, there is a lot of energy and a broad spectum of topics that should interest the layman as well as professionals in the field-I’m telling my friends!

    • Thank you Carole. Yes, go ahead and light up your home… and then send us some photos please! And we’re glad that you want to share us with your friends :-)

  2. “* You might have to venture further thana DIY store…” Loved your article but you now need an editor (me) to check grammar. New trendy word “thana”?

    I feel remorse that I didn’t immediately praise your first edition of 3 Story magazine. It was, as is this issue, terrific!!!

    • Thanks for the eagle eye, Larry! We shall correct it forthwith. Glad you are enjoying the mag apart from its funny made-up words. :-)