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Plywood Buying Guide: Sizes, Rating, Grades, and Types of Plywood

Confused with all the different types of plywood? In this article, we’re breaking it all down with a complete plywood buying guide for beginners! Learn about the most common types of plywood so you know what type to choose for your next project.

Believe it or not, there are many different types of plywood. Each of them has a different use, grade, size, and rating. The options can seem endless! 

Whether you are a beginner DIYer or a seasoned woodworker, it’s important to understand which type of plywood is the best for your project.

We’ve done our fair share of DIY projects, and some went better than others. In most cases, when a project didn’t go as planned, it was because we were using the wrong materials. When you are starting a new project with plywood, there are a few important things to consider: appearance, stability, and exposure.

The following is a guide for the different types of plywood, sizes, grades, ratings, advantages, disadvantages, as well as plywood alternatives.

This types of plywood guide contains affiliate links, but nothing that I wouldn’t recommend wholeheartedly. Read my full disclosure here.

What is plywood?

Plywood is an engineered wood made up of thin sheets of veneer from different softwoods and hardwoods. As a popular choice for construction and DIY projects, plywood is a strong, durable, and low-cost option.

We’ve used plywood for so many different projects: we created a faux shiplap wall, a giant pegboard, benches, and even cabinetry. It’s an incredibly versatile material and works well for many projects inside the home.

Most people assume that because it’s plywood, the end result will look cheap and unattractive. That’s simply not true. While there are types of plywood that are better for certain projects, there are several items on the market to help smooth rough edges and boost the appearance of plywood projects.

Just like there are many different types of wood, there are also different types of plywood.

Common Types of Plywood:

Sanded Plywood: The top and bottom plies are sanded during the manufacturing process, so this type of plywood is smooth to the touch. Sanded plywood won’t require a lot of additional sanding and is commonly used for cabinetry, shelving, and paneling.

Hardwood Plywood: As the name suggests, this plywood is made from hardwoods like birch, maple, and oak. It’s heavier than other types of plywood, which makes it a great choice for furniture or projects that require a load-bearing frame. This is a good option if you’re planning to stain your finished piece (like we did with this banquette) because the wood grain will be prettier.

Structural Plywood: Also known as plywood sheathing, this type of plywood is designed for permanent structures. Structural plywood is unfinished making it a good option for framing, beams, flooring, and other projects where it will be covered by other materials.

Project Plywood Panels: These are pre-cut, ready-to-use plywood boards – a great option for beginner DIYers. Panels come in different types of wood, and even plywood alternatives, like MDF, OSB, or particleboard.

Marine Plywood: Marine plywood is the strongest and toughest plywood on the market. Because of the high-quality glues holding the plies together, this type of plywood is structurally sound and resistant to moisture. It’s an excellent choice for bathrooms and basements.

How is plywood made?

Plywood is composed of veneer layers called plies, created from different types of wood. These plies are glued together in alternating angles to create a cross-grain pattern, giving plywood its strength and stability.

The ply is used to create plywood’s varying thicknesses – the more plies, the thicker the board. In order to be technically considered plywood, a board must have at least 3 plies. Specialty plywood can have any number of plies above three, but most plywood comes in an odd number of plies.

Infographic showing the back and face veneer of plywood with text overlay

Number of plies on plywood

Except for specialty plywood, most plywood is available in 3-ply, 5-ply, or multi-ply boards or sheets. 

  • The most common type of plywood is 3-ply. Since it is thinner (about 2-3 millimeters thick), it looks a little more decorative than thicker boards, so this option is great for indoor decor projects.
  • At about 4 millimeters thick, 5-ply is the most versatile of the three types of ply. You can use this for indoor projects; however, it’s not suitable for building structures. 
  • Multi-ply refers to any plywood with seven or more plies. Stronger than 3-ply or 5-ply, this type is the best for structural projects, like framing or roofing.

It’s important to note that plywood with fewer plies is still weaker than a board with more plies. When you are looking for strength, choose a board with more plies instead of a thicker board with fewer plies.

What is plywood used for?

Plywood is one of the most multipurpose and versatile building materials. It can be used for everything from furniture to manufacturing, boats, tables, cabinetry, and more.

Plywood is a great solution for woodworking projects. It’s a super versatile material that can be used for:

  • Projects that require a little more support, like walls, floors, and roofs, where the panels can be tucked away from view.
  • Projects that enhance the appearance of the home, like decor items, shelving, cabinets, and furniture.

We’ve used plywood in so many applications! We love that we can paint or stain it. Plus, it’s inexpensive and easy to work with.

Projects with Plywood:

Plywood sizes, ratings, and grades

Plywood is available in varying sizes, ratings, and grades. Base your selection on the type of project you are working on.

Man carrying a sheet of plywood through the snow with text overlay

How big is a sheet of plywood?

Plywood is sold in various sizes, so you will need to choose based on the type of project you’re working on. 

The most common plywood sizes are 4- x 8- foot sheets. You may also see 5- x 5- foot sheets of plywood, but not traditionally at a big-box home improvement store, like Home Depot or Lowe’s.

Additionally, many hardware stores have precut project panels available in different sizes (usually 2- x 4- sheets). These panels cut down on cost and eliminate waste. Plus, they are easier to transport than full-size panels.

What is the standard thickness of plywood sheets?

Just like sizes, plywood is also available in multiple thicknesses. The most common thickness available is ½-inch but can range from ⅛-inch to ¾ inches.

Plywood Ratings 

When choosing plywood, it’s important to know if your project will be indoors, outdoors, and what weather elements it will be exposed to. The plywood ratings will help you determine which is best for your project.

  1. Exterior: Plywood panels have been waterproofed and can withstand inclement weather. Plywood with this rating is ideal for outdoor structures and projects.
  2. Exposure 1: These panels have been waterproofed and can withstand exposure during construction, but are not suited for long-term exposure.
  3. Exposure 2: These panels can be exposed to occasional moisture but aren’t fully waterproof. Use these panels for indoor projects.
  4. Interior: These panels can not withstand any moisture and are for interior use only.
  5. Structural 1: This is the strongest rating. Panels with this rating are designed to be earthquake resistant.

Where to find the plywood rating?

When you’re shopping for plywood online at a store like Home Depot, the plywood rating may be called “Exposure Durability” instead. If you are in-store and can’t find the information you’re looking for, it can be helpful to have the mobile app, which allows you to scan the barcode and learn more information about the product.

Plywood Grades

There are four basic veneer grades: A, B, C, and D. These classifications refer to the quality and appearance of the plywood-veneer. 

Grade “A” is the highest quality and the most expensive, while “D” is the lowest quality and least expensive. 

Beginning with the highest and most expensive, these are the four grades of plywood:

  1. “A” Grade: The veneer is smooth, sanded, and paintable. If there are any wood defects, they have been repaired with synthetic filler. This grade is ideal for furniture and cabinet doors that will be stained.
  2. “B” Grade: This grade is also smooth and sanded but may have minor repaired defects that are visible, such as patched knots or wood filler. No chunks of wood should be missing from the plywood.
  3. “C” Grade: This grade should be used when appearance is not important. The veneer is unsanded with several minor defects that need to be repaired. Knots, splits, discoloration, and sanding defects may be visible.
  4. “D” Grade: This grade is similar to “C” but with larger knots (up to 2 ½ inches) and similar defects. 

Occasionally, you may also find ratings with two grades, like AC or BC. In this case, the first letter of the grade denotes the face veneer grade, and the second grade is for the back veneer. Less frequently, you will find a sheet with a third letter that designates the sheet for exterior use.

Sometimes you’ll also notice a number after the plywood grade, like B2. In this instance, it means that the front side is a B grade and the backside of the plywood sheet is a “2”. The back grades are best to worst 1, 2, 3, and 4.

  • A1, A2, B1 and B2 are good two-sided panels where the plywood would be seeting from both sides.
  • A3, B3, and C3 are great for projects where the backside may not be seen, but it still needs to be clean (like the sides of the dresser where the inside won’t necessarily be seen).
  • A4, B4 and C4 plywood ratings are adaquate for projects where only one good side is needed. Think drawer bottoms or pieces where one side will be against a wall.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Using Plywood

Advantages

Plywood is an excellent tool for all kinds of projects from home decor to furniture and structures. 

The great thing about plywood is that it comes in so many sizes and thicknesses. Whether you need a small board or a huge plank, it’s easy to find the right solution for your project. 

Another advantage of plywood is that it comes in many different types, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. You can find options for interior use, exterior use, and even those that can withstand hurricanes.

Additionally, it’s surprisingly strong, yet flexible, and easy to work with. Plus, it holds nails and screws well, which makes building everything from shelves to framed structures a piece of cake. 

Plywood sheets can be lightweight and inexpensive, making them a great choice for beginner DIYers. Depending on the grade, some plywood sheets can be completely waterproof and resist warping, unlike other types of wood.

Disadvantages

While plywood is a great solution, it’s not ideal for every woodworking project.

Depending on the specs of the plywood, some types can be difficult to manipulate. While it’s possible to sand and saw, chipping or splintering is more common with plywood because the top veneer is so thin, and it can leave behind a rough edge.

Because most types are unsanded, plywood has a rougher appearance, which can be problematic when you are trying to create an aesthetically pleasing project. Plus, most types are not waterproof which will weaken the boards.

Additionally, plywood releases VOCs into the air, especially during the construction process. These volatile organic compounds are not safe to inhale and can be harmful to your health.

Plywood Alternatives

Other engineered woods such as MDF, particleboard, or OSB are also great options when you need to save a little money on your projects. Much like plywood, these other types of manufactured wood come in a variety of sizes and thicknesses to be used in various applications.

If you are looking for a plywood alternative, consider these types of wood:

  • MDF: Medium Density Fiberboard is a wood composite made up of compressed wood fiber and resin. This alternative is cheap and strong. It is not suitable for load-bearing projects. You can read more about MDF here.
  • Particleboard: This is a great option for basic projects that do not require a lot of strength or contact with moisture. It’s a weaker option, but it’s much cheaper and eco-friendly than plywood. We used particleboard for the bottom side of an upholstered bench that looks great in our daughter’s bedroom!
  • OSB: Oriented Strand Board is created by rectangular-shaped strands of wood that are woven together and bonded with moisture-resistant adhesive. It’s cheap and great for projects that are on a budget! We used OSB for our large chalkboard in our backyard.

How do I choose plywood?

When you are choosing plywood, consider your end result, first. Also, consider where and how you will be using your project. Depending on your project, using plywood or plywood alternatives can save you a lot of time and money.

FAQs

Is plywood used for furniture?

Plywood can be used for everything from furniture to manufacturing, boats, tables, cabinetry, and more.

Can plywood be sanded?

Plywood can be sanded, but keep in mind that you don’t want to sand too much because you’ll sand through the top veneer.

How thick is plywood?

Plywood comes in varying thicknesses and plies. The most common thickness available is ½-inch but can range from ⅛-inch to ¾ inches.

How is plywood made?

Plywood is composed of layers of veneer called plies, created from different types of wood. These plies are glued together in alternating angles to create a cross-grain pattern, giving plywood its strength and stability.

What is the cheapest type of plywood?

D-grade plywood is the cheapest type of plywood. It also has the most noticeable flaws and can have knots up to 2.5 inches. You wouldn’t want to use this type of plywood for anything where the plywood would be exposed or stained.

Is MDF stronger than plywood?

No, plywood is a much stronger material than MDF.

What type of plywood is strongest? 

Marine plywood is the strongest and toughest plywood on the market. Because of the high-quality glues holding the plies together, this type of plywood is structurally sound and resistant to moisture. It’s an excellent choice for bathrooms and basements.

Do I need to prime plywood before painting? 

Yes, using a primer on plywood before painting will prevent the paint from being absorbed by the wood.

Although there are several types of plywood, it’s fairly easy to choose the right one for your project if you know what you are looking for. Consider the finished product first (indoor vs outdoor, painted vs stained). Next, decide what size plywood sheets you’ll need by making a woodworking plan or using one of the many free simple woodworking plans available online. Lastly, consider what type of rating and grade you desire for your project. Once you have these things figured out, you’re ready to head to the home improvement store to buy your lumber!

What of these types of plywood for projects is your favorite?

Let us know in the comments below!

Closeup image of 5 sheets of plywood stacked on top of each other next to screws and a yellow level with text overlay

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