History of Plywood

Perhaps because I have them so rarely, I love a good idea.  And if that idea is cost-effective, saves natural resources and has a Pacific Northwest twist, well honey, we got us a trifecta.  Hunker down, kids, we’re talking…plywood.

Laminating thin pieces of wood together have been found in pharaoh’s tombs, in China a thousand years ago and in French and English furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries.  But in a move prescient of our current laws on intellectual property, John Mayo of New York was issued the first patent for plywood in 1865.  Even though there’s no evidence he ever made anything out of plywood, he renewed the patent in 1868.

And so things sat until 1905, when Portland, Oregon, hosted the World’s Fair as part of the 100th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  With a dearth of interesting things to see, local businesses were asked to prepare exhibits and Gustav Carlson from the Portland Manufacturing Company used paint brushes to spread the glue and made up several door panels out of plywood.  That door panels should create considerable interest among fair goers implies a stunningly boring World’s Fair.  But their practicality was their main selling point and by 1907 the company had installed an automatic glue spreader and was making 420 panels a day.

It took the selling skills of Gus Bartells of Elliot Bay Plywood in Seattle to move to the next step, talking car manufacturers into using plywood for their running boards.  All the more remarkable because the glue wasn’t waterproof, which is why car manufacturers switched to metal running boards. By 1929, however, there were 17 plywood mills in the Pacific Northwest and production was 358 million square feet.

Dr. James Nevin, a chemist at Harbor Plywood Corporation in Aberdeen, developed the first fully waterproof adhesive which opened up new markets for plywood.  Unfortunately, there were no standards in the industry and product quality and grading techniques varied widely from shop to shop.

Trying to protect their industry from standards emerging under the National Recovery Act, industry leaders met in Portland on May 17, 1933, to adopt the first trade practices for plywood production.  Contentiousness was overcome within a month and the Douglas Fir Plywood Association held its first meeting in Tacoma on June 13, 1933.  In 1938, laws were amended to permit registration of industry wide trademarks and the FHA accepted the standards for both interior and exterior plywood, converting a specialty product into a commodity.

More than a million homes were constructed “Dri-Bilt with Plywood”, showing that the public accepted both the product and a misspelled slogan. War was good business for plywood and the 30 war-time mills produced between 1.2 and 1.8 billion square feet annually. These made plywood barracks, plywood PT boats, plywood gliders for the Air Force, plywood crates for machinery parts and plywood huts for the Seabees in the South Pacific.

By 1954, 101 mills were producing 4 billion square feet of the stuff and production skyrocketed to 7.8 square feet in 5 years.  By 1975, production was 16 billion square feet, more than double what had been forecast 20 years before.

As you know, plywood’s strength comes from the alternating grain of the layers of veneer. It is also remarkable because it allows the use of softer and more plentiful woods like fir and pine to be used in products that formerly called for hardwoods.  Its efficiency was enhanced in the late 1970’s with the introduction of oriented strand board or OSB.  Instead of solid sheets of veneer, OSB uses small wood strands glued together in cross-laminated layers.

And there you have it, just like a 1950’s elementary school filmstrip, “Plywood Through the Ages”, and every bit as interesting, I’ll bet.  Next time we’ll really run this into the ground by talking about the use of plywood in furniture design.

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