Plywood at the Victoria & Albert—A London First

Don’t miss it. Make a trip to the V&A London. You will love it. More than that, there are dozens of other exhibits to broaden your perspective with. Hannah and I had an educational visit planned and this week  it all came together when we explored to exhibits, the Plywood Exhibit and the Furniture Exhibit.

Plywood containers are stackable, water resistant and extremely strong.

I don’t think any of us can or indeed should be dismissive of plywood. It is truly a marvellous material, one worthy of its place in the entrepreneurial hierarchy of invention. Understanding its past will help us to trace an unravelling path into its mass-manufacturing present. It may well reach back to two or more millennia, but it’s more its worth in our culture this past 100 years that will be of greater interest I think.

The first exhibit defies thinking about. A Formula Two racing car from as recent as the late 1960s. All credit to its designer, Frank Costin who was discovering that plywood can be lighter, stronger per weight to strength ratio and more flexible than metal.

Visiting the V&A (Victoria and Albert) museum and seeing their presentation of Plywood: Material of the Modern World was worth visiting simply because individually we might never be able to pull so many exhibits together in a few hours.

Birch formed into a drum wrap and crisscrossed gives the super-strength of an oval.

Most of us involved in woodworking crafts like carpentry, joinery, boat building and furniture making to name a few will be used to its ubiquitous presence in both sheet form and convoluted shapes of every kind. That said, there are many surprises for those searching to understand what plywood contributes to our world whether indeed we are woodworkers or students of design concepts. I am not sure if I found any surprises but that’s because ever since my youth and the laminating of thin sheets in the pre bag and vacuum-press days of lamination I have always found plywood such fascinating stuff. For anyone with little experience of plywood but interested in materials and the study of the use of wood a visit is really a must. The presentation is very well worth the experience and I must thank the V&A for their being so central a venue for this exhibition.

A canoe worthy of note and a forerunner to our modern day counterparts.

Hollow vessels from thin wood, carved out wood and then birch bark alone span the centuries. In times past the development of fibreglass and resin didn’t exist yet still vessels found their way through, loaded with pioneers on most continents. A canoe hang next to planes and boats that took on new developments both through and since the second World War.

Our trip was twofold. Hannah came with me too and it enabled us to approach the world of plywood and discuss a material and its relevance to us. Although plying wood and alternating striations in thin layers may open doors into all manner of shapes and sizes, the ultimate predominant presence of plywood in our present world is in the mass making of manufactured goods via assembly lines. Plywood prefaces pressed fibreboard, wafer boards like OSB and then MDF as so called sheet goods or engineered wood. Skin any of these with a veneer of thin wood or plastic and the sheets cab be stacked and racked and packed to create the plethora of choice we in the western world place high demand for. Of all the engineered boards made, plywood remains the very strongest and the most resilient for long term use. Hence boats now formed from flat pack kits are the modern way for forming many types of vessels ranging from canoes to yachts.

I think we both found the furniture choices interesting in that once more we see the quest of many designers through the decades was and is to come up with designs that can result in their being ultimately mass made through an economic use of motion and time. Predictably the outcome looks exactly as you might expect.

I was glad to see these represented. Many of us will remember tea chests being used for house removals and wide range of other uses once the tea was packaged.

This design methodology seems to be the product of many colleges worldwide and I wonder all the more if that isn’t because ultimately success is seen in developing a design that can be mass made to make millions, be that quantity in product parts or in dollars.

12 comments on “Plywood at the Victoria & Albert—A London First

  1. Plywood is indeed a versatile material. The DH (DeHaviland) Mosquito born in the 1940’s was perhaps the first “multi role combat aircraft” and for a time the fastest! The airframe was made almost entirely of laminated ply which gave the aircraft lightness and strength. Wooden aircraft were fast being superseded by all metal aircraft at the time yet the Mosquito with its twin Roles Royce Merlin engines out-classed most of its metal contemporaries in terms of performance. Many furniture makers of the time were contracted to make sub-assemblies so production was less effected by bombing raids on the main aircraft factories. Of course being mainly wood, it’s radar signature was also found to be far less than metal aircraft – could it have been the first stealth aircraft? I beleive a demonstration tour in the USA during the war had a stopover at a large US Army Air Corp base. In the morning when the RAF crew returned to the hangar to continue the tour, they found a large pile of saw-dust under the fusalage with a sign planted into the pile declaring “Beware – Termites at Work!”.
    The DIY TV personality Barry Buttler (or was it Buckler?) promoted the home building of a still popular small sailing dinghy made from two sheets of 8×4 half inch ply. It was somehow sponsored through the UK daily newspaper, The Daily Mirror and the boat took on the name of The Mirror class dinghy.
    Unfortunately to get decent plywood these days is increasingly difficult as many DIY stores sell inferior cheap imports. The most annoying defects being voids or spaces that appear during cutting. Some of these voids are filled with a kind of plaster filler. The best quality marine ply is I beleive made to BS1088 standard, it has the fewest voids and uses a higher grade of waterproof adhesive.

  2. Very interesting, how does one curve plywood? Is it through steaming, or a special type of ply?

    Interestingly before modern plywood was patented in the US the Ancient Egyptian’s were making a 3 layered plywood out of thicker stock and i understand they used dovetails too.

    • Dehaviland’s in Hatfield laid up the fuselage skins as individual layers so each layer conformed during gluing up on large moulds. Two sides of the main fuselage were made separately, a port and starboard, rather like the plastic Airfix kits two decades on. They (Dehavilland) had a history of constructing all wood aircraft including the famous racing aircraft The Comet (not the later jet airliner of the same name). Very unusually before each fuselage side was mated to its partner, a lot of the fixtures, fittings, wiring etc were installed on the open halves of each fuselage side. Access was therefore excellent for the workers to do this.
      I may be quite wrong but I’m guessing that laying up the seperate layers like this is called “cold moulding”. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.
      Cold moulding was a favourite technique for several boat builders including “Fairy” who made cold moulded hulls for a number of successful boats and yachts. A lot of the vessels strength came not from stringers, ribs etc that traditional ship building employed but from the hull skin itself. Very similar to what was called “monocoque” construction.
      I’m not sure you can steam bend plywood to any great extent but again someone may well correct me on that assertion. I seem to remember school furniture in the 60’s made of laminated beech that was described as steam bent but in reality may have been laid up in moulds as individual laminations.

    • Often times we simply bend the single sheets to a form or former with glue in between or applied to one face. Adhesive can be either simple adhesive form such as PVA or activated by some other means, usually heat. For high production methods they often heat the formers themselves, the glue becomes soften and tacky or even liquid and when the heat is removed the formers stay in place until the glue cools and hardens or in some cases with chemical adhesives, cures. In small shops where one of a kind products are made we usually rely on strong see through plastic-type bags that allow the mould and the material inside the bag. By pulling a vacuum on the bag with a special vacuum pump the air is removed and the material is compressed to the mould. On the other hand, for smaller components we use simple moulds, perhaps cut on a bandsaw to shape, and the plied pieces crisscrossed between the shaped parts. Applied clamped pressure or wedges, the one form presses against the exact opposite and surplus glue and air is forced out. Allowing for cure or drying time, often several hours, when the pressure is removed the ply keeps its shape.

  3. This was truly fascinating. I couldn’t help but think of the De Havilland Mosquito of WW2 fame. An aircraft manufactured principally of plywood. This is what Hermann Goering, head of the German Air Force in the war said about the Mosquito: “In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that? There is nothing the British do not have. They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops. After the war is over I’m going to buy a British radio set – then at least I’ll own something that has always worked.”
    High praise, both for the design and the craftsmen and women who built it. The Mosquito was also the aircraft my Father flew. He loved it.

  4. Glad to hear so many folks bring up the Mosquito. Surely no proper British exhibit of plywood can be complete without including the Mossy.

  5. Far beyond WW2 wooden aircraft were in common use. I learned to fly gliders in some of them in the mid-90s (Schleicher K7 and K13 2-seaters and K8b single-seater), though the fuselage wasn’t made of wood but a steel frame covered with polyester cloth. But there were (and there are quite a few still flying around) entirely wooden gliders, such as the Ka-6. Plywood is extensively used in these. They were built by Schleicher, a German furniture company that switched to glider construction. From fine furniture to fine aircraft, so to speak.

    Come to think of it, I even learned to read and write sitting on a school chair made of bent plywood. They were the standard furniture in primary schools in The Netherlands in the early ’80s. Perhaps they still are.

    The dinghy in the picture is a good example of the ‘stitch-and-glue’ construction method. Simple and effective (also because of the now available strong adhesives such as epoxies).

    If one searches the web for ‘Friend Wood velomobile’, an example can be found of a velomobile built entirely in wood and plywood. To build such a contraption (but then in GFRP, possibly in sandwich-construction) is still on my ‘to-do’ list. One day….

    When I see a piece of plywood being thrown away, it gets to come home with me. 1001 uses for it. One piece even got used for a Paul Sellers shooting board.

  6. Paul, at my daughter’s school I have agreed to help run a portion of a science Olympiad in which the students need to make the lightest structure out of wood (or homemade but not store bought plywood). The lightest structure that can support 15 kg wins.

    Would home made plywood be a better choice than say balsa or bass wood?

    There are certain height and diameter requirements and bonuses for larger structures. I think the minimum height is 12″ and a 5″ diameter minimum in the middle.

    • Just an idea, boat builders often make up a sandwich of a balsa core and skin it with GRP (fibre glass). This type of structure is commonly used on some GRP yachts (cockpit soles or floors). Instead of GRP, Dehavilland’s Aircraft used birch outer and inner skin. You could do a similar thing but use 2 thin veneers of birch wood or similar from a craft shop if you can’t produce the veneers yourself. You would in effect make your own balsa cored plywood. Make sure the grain directions are not aligned, i.e. the two outside veneers at 90 degrees to the balsa core. You could make up test pieces to see what the best strength to weight ratio you can get depending on thickness of veneers and core.

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