Yes, I succumbed to the lure of inexpensive plywood. I hope it won’t happen again, but human nature being what it is…
I’m in the process of building a handful of large cabinet drawers for some existing shop cabinets that I built some years ago. When I was at my local hardwood & sheet goods dealer, looking for some nice 1/2 inch hardwood plywood, I saw that they had some imported maple. I learned that it was Chinese, and everyone in the shop let me know where my expectations should be. It’s good to know it’s not being pushed as viable alternatives for the home grown stuff.
At first I was going to buy Baltic Birch, but they are no longer stocking B/BB grade (one good surface, one with the football patches). Apparently this grade is getting too expensive, so all the local dealers around me (Southern California) are only stocking BB/BB (footballs on both sides).
Next I looked at the 1/2 inch shop grade maple, and that’s where I spotted the Chinese crap – excuse me – stuff. Out of curiosity I asked the price: $23 per 4×8 sheet verses $37 per sheet of the local stuff.
I needed two sheets, and decided that this would be an experiment. If it was a total disaster I was out $50. Being the optimist that I am, I was seeing this as a learning experience no matter which direction the project took.
From the start my eyes told me that these sheets would not be earning me Best In Show for shop grade drawers. Not only did the sheets have a gentle curve (exceeding what I would ever accept from normal plywood), but they had undulations. This was going to be fun.
But I was willing to put up with surfing grade plywood because I would be cutting the sheets into much smaller components, so I figured that I’d get flat enough pieces out of each sheet. I can’t see how anyone could use these sheets for large case work. The end product would be horrible, not to mention the awfulness of having to cut such wild plywood.
I should also mention that although there were no football patches on either side, there were lots of patches, but they were done with a wood filler. I’ll leave it to your imagination.
Regarding dimensions, the Chinese have decided that shaving 1/32nd of an inch off the 1/2 inch thickness was being too generous. Instead they opted for 1/16th of an inch. So 7/16ths thick plywood is to be considered 1/2 inch in the rest of the world.
Something I didn’t pay attention to at the sheet goods dealer was the quality of the plies. This stuff consists of 9 plies (including the surface layers). That’s pretty good for 1/2 inch plywood. Knowing that this is not Baltic Birch, I was expecting to come across some voids, and perhaps some ply overlap. But the amount of overlap and voids presented in this plywood is impressive indeed.
Here is a view showing the edges of three sheets. The bottom sheet would be the ideal (you’re only seeing a little bit of the plywood here – trust me, it doesn’t last). The top two sheets is representative of what you see all over the place. Thankfully the Chinese have impressive plywood presses that can make anything flat.
This next picture is taken a few inches further down, and you can see examples of the types of voids to be expected. Impressive.
For comparison, here are a few pictures of some typical home grown plywood, showing the quality of the plies.
The first picture is of some fir shop grade plywood.
And here’s a view of some 3/4 inch maple plywood. Not a lot of plies, but they sure look good.
And here’s a couple sheets of some 1/2 Appleply. This product is really nice. I’ll probably be buying this instead of Baltic Birch in the future. The faces look great. A 1/2 inch 4×8 sheet goes for $66.
I was able to wrangle the Chinese wood through the table saw, producing the requisite amount of components for the drawers. I managed to avoid most of the voids where it counted. Almost none of the panels, the largest being 16”x 26”, were flat. But they were flat enough considering that they are pulled flat when formed into a box, and that they will be installed in cabinets with metal slides.
But since panels are not flat, you tend to get burn marks on the edges, regardless of the quality of blade that you are using. The shop had a nice burnt cookie smell when I was done.
My next concern was how they would take dominos. Would the plywood edges shatter when approached by the Domino machine? As you can see here, the plywood took to the Domino just fine.
Likewise, when I routed the dados for the plywood bottoms, would the remaining wood (the part that remains below the drawer bottom) stay attached to the plywood. As seen here, I had no troubles cutting the grooves.
Here’s a picture that shows what happens if you cut through one of those sections that have a lot of voids. The individual plies have no glue and can easily break away. I should also note that the show faces, if I’m allowed to say that with a straight face, will have a tendency to peel off the plywood if given the opportunity. So use very sharp blades when cutting this stuff, and don’t allow any rough edges to catch on anything.
So would I buy this stuff again? Most likely not. For $37 I can get American made shop grade birch plywood that doesn’t have these problems. I don’t use enough plywood to justify the potential savings in $$$ by going with the Chinese imports. If you’re a production house and need to spit out a bunch of very cheap box type items (like shipping crates), then the Chinese plywood will work OK.
For us normal folk, stay away from the cheap imports.