History of Plywood

Here's an interesting ramble through woodworking history, covering the invention of plywood in ancient Egypt (or before), and some anecdotes about lacquer. October 2, 2007

I'm a draftsman and I do mostly architectural woodworking and furniture. I'm creating a poster to be printed in blueprint style that is full of interesting woodworking facts. Some of the good stuff I've found so far is stuff like...

"The dovetail joint probably pre-dates written history. Some of the earliest known examples of the dovetail joint are in furniture entombed with mummies dating from First Dynasty of ancient Egypt, as well the tombs of Chinese emperors."

Plywood was invented during the Second World War but it was primarily used to build PT boats and landing craft for the military. After the war they began using plywood for residential construction and furniture but by the end of the 1940's, there was a severe shortage of lumber suitable for making plywood. Particleboard was invented in 1950 as a substitute for plywood, but it didn't receive much public attention at first.

Formica had been invented in 1912 by alternately layering craft brown paper or cloth and melamine resin. Initially it was used to make circuit boards for radios until 1951, when they came up with the idea of using a finished design pattern on the top layer, which created the Formica that we still use today.

Does anybody have some good stuff that would make things more interesting? I'd love to hear it.

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor J:
I'm not sure when modern plywood was developed, but you may want to dig a little deeper. I remember reading, many years ago, that the ancient Egyptians had developed some form of simple plywood. Sound like an interesting project anyway.

From contributor D:
Sorry, but you better do a reprint - plywood's older than WW2.

From contributor B:
A 15 second Google search turned up this Wikipedia article and several other sources stating the same information.

"Plywood has been made for thousands of years; the earliest known occurrence of plywood was in ancient Egypt around 3500 BC when wooden articles were made from sawn veneers glued together crosswise."

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
An interesting project, but your source of information is inaccurate in many areas. You stated "by the end of the 1940's there was a severe shortage of lumber suitable for making plywood." Plywood is made from veneer and veneer comes from logs, etc. The plywood industry was huge at this time and did not suffer from lack of raw materials.

Interestingly, there were a lot of Southern pine trees, but until Herb Fleischer found that PF adhesive could produce a superior plywood product, there was no SYP plywood. Then Georgia Pacific opened the first SYP plywood mill in 1964.

The first patent for what could be called plywood was issued December 26, 1865, to John K. Mayo of New York City.

In 1905, the city of Portland, Oregon was getting ready to host a World's Fair as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Several local businesses were asked to prepare exhibits for the event, including Portland Manufacturing Company, a small wooden box factory in the St. Johns district of the city. Part owner and plant manager Gustav Carlson decided to laminate wood panels from a variety of Pacific Northwest softwoods. Using paint brushes as glue spreaders and house jacks as presses, several panels were laid up for display. Called "3-ply veneer work," the product created considerable interest among fairgoers, including several door, cabinet and trunk manufacturers who then placed orders.

Plywood was used for many items in WW II and not just PT Boats. Plywood barracks sprung up everywhere. The Navy patrolled the Pacific in plywood PT boats. The Air Force flew reconnaissance missions in plywood gliders. And the Army crossed the Rhine River in plywood assault boats. There were thousands of war accessories made of plywood - from crating for machinery parts, to huts for the famed Seabees in the South Pacific, to lifeboats on hundreds of ships that kept supply lines open in the Atlantic and Pacific.

From contributor B:
Gene, good stuff! Thanks.

From contributor Y:
Laminating veneer is a tradition that won't die. Speaking of which, you might want to look at the work of Belter in the 19th C. He was big on ebony plywood, ornately carved.

From contributor K:
You might want to research when drywall took over plaster as a building material. I did research for an economics class on the use of wood flooring. It apparently peaked in the fifties and then tailed off, being surpassed by carpet and vinyl flooring. Have you ever seen heart pine flooring covered by carpet in an old home? Yikes.

From contributor Z:
Check out Howard Huges's spruce Goose - yup, plywood. Also the British Mosquito, which was so highly regarded by the Germans, they attempted to copy it with plywood also, except I understand they had a real problem with their glue, so it never really made it into production.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
The US Forest Products Lab has an old, short publication (author was Hallock or Mitchel, I believe) about the history of saws that might prove interesting. Also Wood in American Life, 1776-2076 by W. G. Youngquist and H. O. Fleischer is full of fun facts.

From contributor T:
There's a book by Eric Sloane called "A Reverence for Wood" that you should check. It's out of print but available through Amazon or maybe the library. It's a brief study of wood and woodworking in North America from the early Native Americans to more recent times. A beautiful piece of Americana.

From contributor G:
This is difficult to research, but I've heard that the widespread usage of nitrocellulose lacquer came about as a way to use up the leftover munitions after WWII.

From contributor S:

Nitrocellulose was developed in 1845 and was used to make all sorts of plastic objects, from shirt collars to billiard balls. They stopped making billiard balls from it due to a slight tendency for it to produce very small explosions when balls cannoned into each other with some force. Loud cracks in a typical Western saloon would invariably lead to drawn revolvers and a death or two in the ensuing gunfight!

From contributor H:
Contributor G, I don't understand "hard to research," but I do understand "I've heard..." and then repeating it mindlessly. Had you said after WW1, you might be forgiven falling for an urban myth. Cars were first painted with lacquers in the 1920's, furniture well before cars, and most furniture was finished with NC lacquer by the 1930's.

From contributor G:
I did not say NC was invented after WWII, I said "...I've heard that the widespread usage of nitrocellulose..."

I think I saw it in one of the many finishing books I have read, but don't recall which one. I may have heard it from one of the paint chemists that I have spoken with. It was the baby boom after the mid-40s that boosted the use of the leftover nitrocellulose as lacquer on the furniture that was in demand by the young families. A lot of leftover munitions were dumped into deep water, but that is not pertinent.

I had better luck Googling "model t ford paint":

"Original Model T Ford Paint Colors are all but impossible to duplicate accurately today. The paints used in the very early cars (1909 -1914) were varnishes and had a relatively short life. This was also true of the later enamels (1926) and pyroxylins (1926-1927), although they were a good bit better than the earlier varnishes."

Not NC lacquer.

From contributor H:
I'm starting to feel foolish regarding WWll comparison to WWl. Same smokeless gunpowder in munitions, thus possible available "surplus" to be siphoned off into finishes. The 1920's represented one of the US economy's biggest boom periods (lots of consumer goods). I reiterate that NC lacquer was in widespread use long before WWll, including on automobiles. The widespread use of everything went up after WWll!

Reference to Model T finishes prior to topic(s) of issue is moot. Old Henry is reputed to have said "You can have your Ford any color you want, as long as you want black."

From contributor G:
Now let's discuss those exploding billiard balls. I've a feeling that may be one of those urban legends.

From contributor U:
I saw it on "James Burke's Connections" on the BBC, which was a serious science fact program in the 1980's. Cellulose nitrate is, in its raw state, relatively unstable and has to be stored underwater, or damped down. Don't forget, it is one step away from guncotton. Next time you watch "Under Seige," fast forward through the bit with Erika Eleniak getting out of the cake and watch the bit where they are loading the big guns. The cylindrical cotton plugs that they are loading are the guncotton charges, which only need a small percussion cap to set them off.

From contributor G:
It is hard to find any corroboration, but if you say you saw it, I reckon that's good enough.

From contributor O:
"Connections" was a good show, stone axe to space shuttle in about a dozen key steps, pretty cool.

Okay, now for my little tidbit. I read or heard somewhere that the "Gopher Wood" used to build the Ark was in fact not a type of tree, but rather a type of laminated wood. Just an interesting thought.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
The exploding billiard ball item is indeed true, but they did not make a million balls... It was just a few until they developed a more stable form of the material. From my perspective, it looks like a small incident has developed an exciting story.

There is fairly good evidence that Hebrew word translated as "gopher wood" is a scribal error and should be bitumen and wood. (The translation to English was the King James Version and did not use old Hebrew manuscripts but relied on the Latin Vulgate Bible.) The Hebrew letters are nearly identical for both words (gopher and bitumen), gopher wood appears nowhere else in the Bible, gopher wood is not a known species name, and other non-Hebrew flood stories include an ark made of wood and bitumen. The bitumen is a sealer.

The New English Bible went back to the Aramaic texts and many of the 4000 early manuscripts available (versus most translations that modernize the KJV) and they have the construction of the ark translated as "Make yourself an ark with ribs of cypress; cover it with reeds and coat it inside and out with pitch."

From contributor K:
Okay, if the ark was made of cypress, would that not put its remains somewhere in South Louisiana where I am from, and Cypress trees thrive?

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
Cupressus sempervirens is the species that grows in and around the Mediterranean region. In your region, it is Taxodium distichum.

From contributor K:
Gene, somehow I know you were going to say that.

From contributor E:
There's a stagecoach at our County Museum, and the panels in the body of the stagecoach are plywood. Built in the late 1800's.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
Plywood was not a commercial product until after 1905. We did not have exterior adhesives for plywood until 1934. The plywood in the coach is not original, but was added after 1934.

From contributor U:
Let me guess, John Wayne drove it and Doris Day rode shotgun!

From contributor E:
Okay! I'll go in today and get the date of manufacture of the stagecoach. I think we are going to split the difference on the time. No, it wasn't driven by John Wayne, but was last owned by Tom Mix and was used in several of his movies. There's more to the story but I'll make sure I have the facts straight.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
If it is rotted, but not badly delaminated, then it is definitely an exterior adhesive. Early plywood would delaminate long before it would rot. So, again, it seems like post 1934. Look for an ink stamp on the plywood too. Sounds like a poor restoration.

Incidentally, almost all plywood was made in the Northwest US, so where was the coach built? It would be unusual to have the coach made in the Midwest using imported woods, when there was plenty of cheap native wood. It must also be remembered that these coaches were not built to last 100 years... they were built with a 5 (+ or -) year life expectancy. Also, weight was important, but strength was even more important. (Is this coach in Laramie, WY? I saw a plywood one there a few years ago, restored.)

From contributor E:
This stagecoach is in the Miami Co. Museum in Peru, Ind. Now what I'm going to tell is what is on the plaque in front of the stagecoach. No doubt this needs more in depth investigation and I am going to do what I can to look into it. So far it has been fun. The stagecoach was made by Abbott, Downing and Co. in Concord, NH and called the Concord Stagecoach. The company made their first coach in 1827. It says that this coach was bought by the US Government for use in Yellowstone Park. It was later bought by Tom Mix in 1914 and he used it in his western movies and for three years while he was a featured performer in the Sells-Floto Circus. He gave the stagecoach to the museum in 1933 while he was working for the Sam Dill Circus. Now the coach is all plywood panels, so I'm assuming that it was redone by someone, but so much of the plywood has delaminated. Looks like it was left out in the elements at some point in time. I've got more digging to do.