Types of Plywood: A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide

Picking the right plywood for your project can feel overwhelming. Learn about the types of plywood, the grades, sizes, and how to buy it in this comprehensive beginner-friendly guide.

Plywood aisle in home improvement store

I use plywood in a lot of my projects and always get a lot of questions about the type of plywood I use for my projects, how to pick the right panel, and where to get them.

Plywood sometimes gets a bad rap because “fine” woodworkers look down on it. I think plywood is an excellent building material – especially when you are just starting out!

Plywood is commonly used in building furniture, workshop projects, cabinets, or a house and has a lot of advantages:

  • It is very strong ( compared to softwoods of the same thickness).
  • It is much cheaper than lumber for larger-sized panels. Imagine being able to build something 40″ x 30″ out of hardwood! First, you won’t find a 30″ hardwood panel easily. You would need to join multiple boards to make a panel. And even if you did find a large panel, it would be outrageously expensive!
  • It is extremely stable due to the way it is manufactured (more on that below)

When you walk into the lumber store or local home improvement store to buy plywood, it can be extremely overwhelming. There are all types of plywood at all types of price points. Which is the best plywood for your project? Well, it depends.

Let’s dive into all the details you need to know so you can pick the correct plywood for your application.


What Is Plywood?

Plywood is a composition of wood veneers (called plies) and glue (or binder). Veneer sheets are laid on top of each other, with the grain on each layer running perpendicular to each other. The sheets are glued together and then pressed to form a solid composite. 

The resulting sheet of plywood is stronger than solid wood of the same size because the veneers are perpendicular to each other. Each layer counteracts the wood movement happening on the other layer, which makes the plywood more dimensionally stable than other materials, like solid hardwood or a 2×4.

A plywood is made of three parts:

  • The core layers – the plies that make up the body of the plywood.
  • The Face – The outer veneer that is expected to be exposed in projects.
  • The Back – The outer veneer that is expected to be hidden.

The face and back veneers are usually pretty thin (although this varies depending on the grade of plywood), so you should be extremely careful while sanding to prevent accidental damage.

schematic showing the layers of plywood

When buying plywood, you will come across many numbers and nomenclature.

Plywood types are characterized by:

  • The number of plies
  • The type of outer veneer
  • The grade of the faces

Number of Plies

A common term for plywood is the number of plies, such as 5-ply, 7-ply, etc. These are the number of veneer layers that make the plywood.

The number of plies used varies, but are always in odd numbers. This is because the two outer layers of the veneer must run in the same direction to keep the panel balanced.

You can have plywood with the same thickness but different plies. For example, a 3/4″ plywood can have 7 plies or 11 plies.

comparison of 7 ply plywood and 11 - ply Baltic Birch

Since they are both the same thickness, the 11-ply plywood will have thinner core veneers. This means more layers with more glue, leading to fewer voids, more rigidity, and stronger boards. The fewer voids also allow you to leave an exposed edge on plywood and have a much better appearance. Baltic Birch Plywood is the best example of this.

As the number of plies increases, so does the cost. The number of plies you choose depends on the final application. I typically use 7-ply plywood for most of my workshops, home improvement projects, and small furniture pieces and 11-ply for the nicer projects that require strength, accuracy, and/or exposed edges.

Types of Plywood

Selecting the correct type and grade of plywood is important based on the application. A higher-grade plywood for a bookshelf or kitchen cabinet is great if you are looking for a more aesthetically pleasing surface, while lower-grade plywood is suited for subfloors and wall panels that will be covered with sheathing or painted.

Here are a few different types of plywood and how to use them:

Structural Plywood

Structural plywood, also known as sheathing plywood or construction plywood, is a type of plywood specifically manufactured and graded for structural applications in construction. It is made to be as strong as possible. However, it has a lot of knots and roughness and will take a lot of work to make it look good in a project. It is a great budget-friendly alternative for applications where you will be covering it up with something else.

Structural plywood with defects and knots

I mostly avoid this plywood for my projects. I have used it a couple of times—for an upholstered bench top and on my table saw’s outfeed table—and it has held up well, but the roughness and the knots drive me crazy!

Sanded Plywood

Sanded plywood or softwood plywood is made up of two outer plies that are sanded during the manufacturing process. This makes a great, uniform surface that can be readily painted.

Sanded plywood is pretty commonly available in hardware stores and is one of the cheaper options for plywood.

The outer layers of sanded plywood are made of pine or softwood and can dent easily. Therefore, you should avoid using them for projects that get a lot of heavy use like table tops. They are, however, great for simple, quick projects and make a great plywood to start using as a beginner.

On that note, I did use sanded plywood for this A-frame desk, and it has held up well with no dents for almost four years with a tween/teen using it every day.

Hardwood Plywood

Hardwood plywood, also called cabinet grade plywood, has a core of regular veneer plies, with two outer surfaces veneered with hardwood for great-looking projects. Walnut plywood, Maple plywood, and Birch plywood are examples.

Birch, Oak and Walnut Plywood

These are the best types of plywood for projects, and I typically use them for most of my projects. They are more expensive than sanded plywood, but the best end results are totally worth the price.

I like using Birch plywood if I plan on painting the project, like a nightstand or closet organizer.

Maple and Walnut plywood are a great option to use when the plywood is left exposed. I used walnut plywood for the bar cabinet and the dresser and maple plywood for the headboard.

Maple plywood headboard in room with white bedding

Sometimes, you can combine the plywood you are using in the project like with the record player stand – I used birch for the painted parts of this project and walnut for the rest.

Walnut and white record player stand

If you are building cabinets and plan to paint them, birch plywood is the best choice. You can find specific cabinet-grade plywood with a “finished” or lacquered surface on one side. This side goes inside the cabinet, making it easy to clean.

Baltic Birch Plywood

Baltic birch plywood has a core veneer that is completely free of voids and is 11-ply or higher. It is great for furniture or pieces where you want an exposed plywood edge. The cons of this material are that it is expensive and much harder to find in typical hardware stores. If you are making patterned plywood, you definitely want to use this!

Apart from these, there is also marine-grade plywood made using waterproof adhesive to bond the plies together. It is specifically designed and manufactured for use in marine environments where the wood will be exposed to moisture, humidity, and even immersion in water.

Plywood Grades

Most plywood will be categorized into different quality grades based on the quality of the outer veneers.

A higher grade of plywood is important for aesthetics and places where plywood will be seen, but a lower grade is perfect for structural or hidden applications.

There are different grades that apply to the front and back.

  • For most hardwood sheets, the front face is designated with a letter, and the back face is specified by a number.
  • Softwood sheets typically are graded by a letter on the back and front. 
  • You can special order some hardwood plywood sheets that have a letter grade on both the front and back as well

Sometimes a sheet of plywood will have two different grades on each face of the plywood. For example, a Hardwood sheet may have A grade on the front and 2 grade on the back.

Plywood grades work as follows:

Front or Face Grades

ASanded smooth surface, either ready for paint or stain. Free of knots and defects.
BVeneer may be patched or filled in areas. Small knots and defects, but a mostly smooth surface.
CKnots and defects present, may have some splits in veneer and discoloration. 
DA larger amount of knots and defects.

Back Grades

1No knots or defects present.
2Some small knot holes and filled areas present.
3Larger knotholes and repairs present, with some splitting in veneer.
4This veneer can have an unlimited amount of knots and repairs.

You can also find plywood with AB grade – which means one face is A grade and the other is B grade.

Plywood Sizes

Plywood is available in various thicknesses and dimensions.

Plywood Sheet Sizes

  • Most sheet goods are offered in 4-foot wide by 8-foot long sheets. These are called full sheets.
  • You can also buy select plywoods in half sheets (4 feet by 4 feet) or quarter sheets (2 feet by 4 feet).
  • Some specialty plywoods, like baltic birch, are offered in 5×5 foot sizes.
  • Utility plywood, or materials used for building, can be offered in sizes up to 4×10 feet long. 
Plywood SheetSize
Full Sheet4′ x 8′
Half Sheet4′ x 4′
Quarter Sheet2′ x 4′

Plywood Thickness

Plywood is offered in thicknesses between ⅛ ” and 1 ¼”, but most standard plywood goods will offer ⅛”, ¼”, ½”, ¾” as their options. It is important to note that these are nominal thickness, and things like sanded plywood or hardwood plywood are not manufactured to actual thickness.

Here is a helpful chart for determining actual thickness:

Nominal ThicknessActual Thickness

You should ALWAYS check the actual thickness of the plywood when using it for a project so you can make any adjustments to the project as needed. This is especially important when building drawers, making dados or for joinery.

Note: Baltic birch can be found in more specific thicknesses and is true to actual thickness.

Non-plywood Sheet Goods

Apart from plywood there are a few other types of sheet goods available in the stores and are often used in projects.


Short for medium-density fiberboard, MDF is made of resin, wax, and shredded wood fibers instead of layers of veneer. This makes for a dense and uniform material. MDF is brown and has no grain pattern. Its smooth surface makes it a great candidate for painting.

MDF in home improvement store

You can even find MDF with a melamine coating, making it easy to clean and ready to use without the need for paint or stain. This is commonly used in closet organization systems or mass-produced furniture (like Ikea or Walmart).

MDF is pretty inexpensive compared to plywood and other lumber. The manufacturing process removes all moisture from the dense material, making it extremely resistant to warping.

However, it is pretty heavy and can swell easily if exposed to moisture. 

MDF is great for cabinets in low moisture areas, like kitchens or closet systems, and is also very commonly used in sign making.


Hardboard, also known as high-density fiberboard (HDF), is made from wood fibers that are compressed under high pressure and temperature, similar to MDF. The difference is that it is extremely compacted and thinner.

Hardwood sheets in home improvement store

Hardboard is known for its strength, stiffness, and dimensional stability. It’s resistant to warping, bending, and cracking.

It can be found with both sides smooth or one side smooth and other textured. You can even find hardboard coated with melamine that works well as a whiteboard.

I like to use it as a budget-friendly alternative to 1/4″ plywood. I use it as drawer bottoms, the bottom of the kid’s table with storage, as well as the backs of bookshelves, etc.

Particle Board

Particle board is compressed wood chips mixed with resin and is much cheaper than typical plywoods. Particle board typically has a lower density compared to MDF and plywood. It’s lighter and less dense, which can make it easier to handle and work in certain applications.

particle board coated in melamine
board chipboard cut parts

Particle board surfaces can vary depending on the manufacturing process and quality. Some particle boards have a relatively smooth surface, while others may have a more textured appearance due to the wood particles.

Particle board is generally less strong and durable than MDF and plywood. It’s more prone to damage from moisture and impact, and it may not hold screws or hardware as securely as other engineered wood products.

I do not recommend using this for projects.


Also known as oriented strand board, OSB is made of rectangular strands of wood that are laid on top of each other in different directions and bonded together with a waterproof resin.

OSB in home improvement store
A stack of OSB sheets stacked one on another

OSB is typically made from fast-growing softwood species like pine, spruce, or fir. The wood strands or flakes are layered in cross-oriented patterns (oriented strands), which contributes to the board’s strength and dimensional stability.

OSB is known for its high strength and stiffness, making it suitable for structural applications in construction. It’s commonly used as sheathing for walls, floors, and roofs in residential and commercial buildings.

It does not have a clean look and is impossible to paint or stain to look great. I have used this for applications where you will not be seeing the wood – like the upholstered top of benches.

How to Buy Plywood

When you buy plywood, like with any other lumber, it is important to check the sheet thoroughly before buying.

  • Check to make sure that both faces and all corners are free of damage
  • Check the sheet for flatness by placing it flat and looking for any warping.

If you aren’t able to fit a full sheet of plywood in your vehicle, you can ask the store to help cut it down for you. I recommend getting the cuts a few inches larger than you actually need because the saws at the store make rough splintered cuts, and the measurements aren’t always super accurate. Once you bring the plywood home, you can cut it to the accurate size you need.

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Anika's goal is to inspire and empower beginners with woodworking, DIY, home improvement, and home decor ideas.
She wants everyone to unlock their creative potential and experience the feeling that comes with making something. Nothing feels better better than seeing something and saying "I can make that!"

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One Comment

  1. Wyatt Smith says:

    Thank you for this information regarding plywood. I make custom cornhole boards and I have used several types of plywood, because of price. I spend more time fixing lower priced plywood, so I only use the Birch grade for my boards. The thickness chart was invaluable. I only use 1/2″ (15/32″) and 3/4″ (23/32″) boards. Thank you

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