Custom Plywood 101: Comparing Grades And Understanding Applications

Plywood is a staple material in the construction and interior design world. It's versatile, easy to work with, and has many varieties to suit various applications, even for the cricket.

Plywood is used in everything from furniture, wooden boxes and cabinetry to structural components and exterior sheathing. It's a resourceful material that's both durable and adaptable.  

To appreciate the versatility of plywood, one must first understand the grades and the applications where they are most suitable, and also woodworking techniques.

The following discussion will explore the fundamentals of custom plywood, compare different grades, and elucidate their most suitable applications.  

The aim is to help consumers make informed choices when they purchase plywood, particularly when budget is a concern. It includes identifying instances where low cost plywood cases might emerge as the best choice, balancing financial feasibility with functional necessities. 

Understanding Plywood Grades  

Plywood is categorized into different grades based on its appearance and quality. The grades are designated by letters, with 'A' being the highest quality and 'D' the lowest. The grades determine the cost, appearance, and applications of plywood.  

For example, the 'A' grade plywood has a smooth, paintable surface and is typically used in visible applications such as cabinets and furniture. On the other hand, 'D' grade plywood is generally rough, has knots and splits, and is primarily used where appearance isn't a major concern, such as in structural sheathing.  

In the middle of the spectrum are the 'B' and 'C' grades that balance cost and appearance. They can be used in applications where some knots and defects are acceptable.  

Comparing Plywood Grades  

Transitioning to comparing grades, it becomes clear how different plywood grades have unique strengths and weaknesses. 'A' grade plywood, though the highest in quality and aesthetic appeal, comes with a hefty price tag. This grade may be ideal for high-end applications where appearance is paramount.  

As mentioned, 'B' and 'C' grades balance cost and quality. They might have a few visible knots and defects but are generally smooth and hold paint well. These grades are often used in applications like subfloors and wall sheathing, where appearance isn't the top priority, but a certain level of finish is desired.  

Finally, the 'D' grade plywood is the most economical. It's not the most appealing aesthetically, but strong and functional. It's typically used when strength is more important than appearance, such as in structural applications and sheathing.  

plywood work

Decoding The Plywood Grade System  

Understanding the grading system is crucial to select the most suitable plywood for a project. Plywood sheets come labeled with the face grade (first letter) and the back grade (second letter).  

The face grade is always higher, signifying the side intended for outward-facing, visible applications. The back grade, in contrast, can have minor blemishes and is typically not seen in the finished application.

The combination of these two grades determines the overall quality and, consequently, the cost of the plywood.   

For example, an 'AA' grade has the finest quality on both sides and hence, the highest cost. Conversely, while significantly more affordable, a 'DD' grade contains visible defects and knots on both sides.  

Examining Plywood Core Types  

While the face and back grades predominantly determine the outward appearance, the core plays a pivotal role in the overall performance of the plywood. There are four main types of plywood cores:  

  • Veneer Core: Veneer cores are strong and light and offer excellent screw-holding capabilities. They're often used in applications where strength and weight are key factors, such as furniture and cabinetry.  
  • Particleboard Core: Particleboard cores are heavy but offer a smooth, void-free surface. They're perfect for veneering and laminating due to their seamless exterior.  
  • Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF) Core: MDF cores provide an excellent balance between weight and strength. They're ideal for painting and can be used in various applications that require a blend of durability and aesthetics.  
  • Combination Core: Combination cores utilize multiple core materials to create a balanced solution. These cores are versatile and suitable for various applications requiring different characteristics.  

One can select the most appropriate plywood for their project by understanding the core types and their unique properties. It's essential to remember that the core choice will affect the final product's functionality and longevity.   

Choosing The Right Plywood For Your Project 

Choosing the right plywood grade and core type for a project can make the difference between success and failure. For instance, an 'AA' grade plywood with a veneer core would be the perfect choice for a high-end kitchen remodeling project. Its smooth, paintable surface would provide a polished aesthetic, while its strong core ensures durability and longevity.  

Conversely, for projects prioritizing cost-effectiveness over aesthetic perfection, 'BB' or 'CC' grade plywood with a particleboard core would suffice.  

An example is a DIY shelving project, where these lower-grade plywood's minor knots and defects won't significantly affect the look or functionality. The solid, heavy core would offer excellent screw-holding capabilities, making low-cost plywood cases a practical and budget-friendly choice. 

However, aesthetic appeal takes a backseat to strength and durability when it comes to structural applications such as wall and roof sheathing. Here, 'DD' grade plywood with a veneer core would be a superior choice.  

Despite its lower grade, this plywood offers the needed strength and resilience for such demanding applications, proving that low-cost plywood options can deliver functional necessities without breaking the bank.   

comparing plywoods

The Role Of Plywood In Sustainable Construction   

The growing trend of sustainable construction has brought plywood to the forefront. Plywood production is generally more sustainable than other wood products as it uses nearly every part of the log. Moreover, its long lifespan and recyclability make plywood a sustainable choice for construction and furniture applications.   

Certain grades of plywood, like 'AA' and 'BB,' are often sourced from sustainable forests.

It makes them even more appealing to environmentally-conscious consumers. Similarly, the use of low-formaldehyde glues in the production process also contributes to the environmental friendliness of plywood.  

By considering the grade and core type, along with the sustainability factor, consumers can choose to fit their project requirements and align with their environmental values.  

The Impact Of Plywood Grades On Pricing  

The grade of plywood has a direct impact on its pricing. The highest quality 'AA' grade, with its flawless appearance and premium performance, commands the highest price. It's followed by 'BB,' 'CC,' and 'DD' grades, with prices decreasing with the increasing number of visible defects and knots.   

However, cost should not be the only factor considered when choosing plywood. While the 'DD' grade may seem attractive due to its low cost, it may not be suitable for applications where aesthetics or strength are paramount.  

Conversely, opting for an 'AA' grade for a hidden application might be an unnecessary expense. The key is to find the grade that best fits the project's requirements and budget.  

Benefits Of Plywood Over Other Materials  

Often, when embarking on a construction or DIY project, it's not just about choosing the right plywood but also considering plywood's merits over other materials. Plywood presents several distinct advantages that can influence its selection for different applications:  

  • Strength-to-Weight Ratio: Plywood is known for its exceptional strength-to-weight ratio. It makes it ideal for applications requiring robust material, such as furniture and cabinetry, that doesn't add significant weight. Plywood's strength is derived from how its layers or 'plies' are arranged, with the grain direction alternating with each ply, creating a balanced, resilient structure.  
  • Workability: In terms of workability, plywood outshines many other materials. It can be easily cut into various shapes and sizes, making it a preferred choice for intricate designs and custom applications. Plywood also accepts nails and screws well, reducing the risk of splitting that can occur with solid wood.  
  • Durability: When it comes to durability, plywood stands tall. It can resist twisting, warping, and shrinking, making it an excellent choice for exterior applications. High-grade plywood can resist moisture and humidity, boosting longevity in challenging environments.  

By understanding these benefits, one can make an informed decision about using plywood in their projects. Ultimately, the choice of material greatly impacts the success and longevity of any project.  

The Versatility Of Plywood In Interior Design  

Plywood's versatility extends beyond construction and into the realm of interior design. The unique grain patterns and warm tones of plywood can lend a natural and rustic charm to interiors.  

In contemporary design, plywood is increasingly used for walls, ceilings, and cabinetry, bringing an element of nature indoors. The different grades of plywood can cater to various aesthetic preferences, from smooth, high-grade plywood for a sleek, modern look to lower grades with knots and blemishes for a more rustic appeal.  

Additionally, plywood is a fantastic material for custom furniture. From chairs and tables to shelves and beds, plywood can be crafted into almost any furniture piece. Its strength, workability, and aesthetic appeal make it popular for bespoke interior elements.  


Plywood is a versatile and adaptable material with many grades for various applications. Understanding the grades and their appropriate applications is vital to making an informed choice. Whether it's a high-end cabinet, a durable subfloor, or low-cost plywood cases, the right plywood can make all the difference.

Author - Fred Felton
Fred Felton          

Content Creator / Editor

Fred Felton is a copywriter, editor and social media specialist based in Durban, South Africa. He has over 20 years of experience in creating high end content. He has worked with some of the biggest brands in the world. Currently Fred specialises in the wooden arts and crafts space, focussing on innovative wooden product design. He is also a keynote speaker and has presented talks and workshops in South Africa.


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