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The History of Plywood

Jul. 07, 2021

The history of plywood is a history of the modern world. Combining lightness, strength, and flexibility, the story of plywood is a fascinating account of the changes in society, technology, and design over the past 170 years. From leg splints to the fastest airplanes of World War II, from the Antarctic to the forests of Finland, from handmade to digitally cut, embark on a journey through ten plywood objects.

 

Plywood is made by gluing thin pieces of wood called veneers together, with the grain of each piece running in alternating directions. This creates a material that is stronger and more flexible than solid wood. The technology has been around for a long time - as early as 2600 B.C. in ancient Egypt - but it wasn't until the 1850s that plywood began to be used on an industrial scale.


The ancient origins of plywood

Archaeologists have found traces of laminated wood in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. A thousand years ago, the Chinese planed and glued wood together for furniture. The English and French reportedly worked wood according to the general principles of plywood in the 17th and 18th centuries. Historians also believe that Czarist Russia manufactured plywood forms before the 20th century. Early modern plywood, usually made of decorative hardwoods, was most often used for household items such as cabinets, chests, tabletops, and doors. It was not until the 20th century that architectural plywood made from softwood species appeared on the scene.

 Fancy Plywood

Fancy Plywood

Plywood was patented, then forgotten

On December 26, 1865, John K. Mayo of New York City was granted the first patent for what could be called plywood. The patent, which was reissued on August 18, 1868, describes Mayo's development as follows: "The invention consists in gluing or otherwise fastening together a number of these scales with the grain of successive sheets or some of them, crossed or different from others ...... "Mayo may have had a vision, but apparently had little commercial sense, as history does not record that he ever exploited his patent.

 

The Man Who Stood on Plywood 1905: An Industry is Born

In 1905, Portland, Oregon, was preparing to host the 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 the Portland Manufacturing Company, a small wooden crate factory in the city's St. John's district. Part owner and plant manager Gustav Carlson decided to laminate planks of various softwoods from the Pacific Northwest. Using a paintbrush as a glue applicator and a jack as a press, several panels were laid down for display. The product, known as "three-ply veneer work," generated great interest from visitors, including several manufacturers of doors, cabinets, and trunks who subsequently placed orders. By 1907, the Portland Manufacturing Company had installed an automatic gluing machine and a sectional hand press. Production soared to 420 panels per day. An industry was born.

 

From doors to treads: the first plywood markets

For the first 15 years, the cork plywood industry relied heavily on the single market - door panels. But in 1920, "super-salesman" Gus Bartells of Elliott Bay Plywood in Seattle began to attract customers in the automotive industry. manufacturers to use plywood for pedals. During the Jazz Age, the market took off and the industry grew steadily. By 1929, there were 17 plywood mills in the Pacific Northwest and production reached a record 358 million square feet (3/8 inch).


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