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Milestones in the History of Plywood

Ancient Origins of Plywood

Archeologists have found traces of laminated wood in the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. A thousand years ago, the Chinese shaved wood and glued it together for use in furniture. The English and French are reported to have worked wood on the general principle of plywood in the 17th and 18th centuries. And historians credit Czarist Russia for having made forms of plywood prior to the 20th century as well. Early modern-era plywood was typically made from decorative hardwoods and most commonly used in the manufacture of household items, such as cabinets, chests, desk tops and doors. Construction plywood made from softwood species did not appear on the scene until the 20th century.

Plywood Patented, Then Forgotten

The first patent for what could be called plywood was issued December 26, 1865, to John K. Mayo of New York City. A re-issue of that patent, dated August 18, 1868, described Mayo's development as follows: "The invention consists in cementing or otherwise fastening together a number of these scales of sheets, with the grain of the successive pieces, or some of them, running crosswise or diversely from that of the others…" Mayo may have had a vision but apparently not much business sense since history does not record that he ever capitalized on his patents.

1905: An Industry Is Born

IndustryIn 1905, the city of Portland, Oregon was getting ready to host a World's Fair as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Several local businesses were asked to prepare exhibits for the event, including Portland Manufacturing Company, a small wooden box factory in the St. Johns district of the city. Part owner and plant manager Gustav Carlson decided to laminate wood panels from a variety of Pacific Northwest softwoods. Using paint brushes as glue spreaders and house jacks as presses, several panels were laid up for display. Called "3-ply veneer work," the product created considerable interest among fairgoers, including several door, cabinet and trunk manufacturers who then placed orders. By 1907, Portland Manufacturing had installed an automatic glue spreader and a sectional hand press. Production soared to 420 panels a day. And an industry was born.

From Doors to Running Boards: The First Plywood Markets

During its first 15 years the softwood plywood industry relied primarily on a single market-door panels. But in 1920, "super salesman" Gus Bartells of Elliott Bay Plywood in Seattle began generating customers in the automobile industry. Bartells had earlier established the first plywood dealerships around the country, and was equally successful in getting car manufacturers to use plywood for running boards. The market took off and the industry enjoyed steady growth during the Jazz Age. By 1929, there were 17 plywood mills in the Pacific Northwest and production reached a record 358 million square feet (3/8-inch basis).

A Technological Breakthrough: Waterproof Adhesive

Lack of a waterproof adhesive that would make plywood suitable for exterior exposure eventually led automobile manufacturers to switch from plywood to more durable metal running boards. A breakthrough came in 1934 when Dr. James Nevin, a chemist at Harbor Plywood Corporation in Aberdeen, Washington finally developed a fully waterproof adhesive. This technology advancement had the potential to open up significant new markets. But the industry remained fragmented. Product quality and grading systems varied widely from mill to mill. Individual companies didn't have the technical or in most cases marketing resources to research, develop and promote new uses for plywood. The industry looked for help from its newly formed trade association, the Douglas Fir Plywood Association.

Founding of the Douglas Fir Plywood Association

Several failed attempts to establish a plywood association were made in the early years of the industry. Finally, on May 17, 1933, several fir plywood manufacturers met at the old Portland Hotel to discuss the advisability of adopting certain trade practices before the industry would be forced to do so under the Depression-era National Recovery Act. The act was later declared unconstitutional but for a time put pressure on the plywood industry to organize. A month of negotiations followed and on June 13, 1933, the Douglas Fir Plywood Association held its first regular meeting at the Winthrop Hotel in Tacoma, Washington. The new association struggled until, in 1938, it hired a legendary business development guru, W. E. "Diff" Difford.

Standardization and Improved Quality Testing Boost Sales

The Douglas Fir Plywood Association was among the first to take advantage of a 1938 law that permitted registration of industrywide trademarks, which allowed plywood to be promoted as a standardized commodity rather than by individual brand names. That same year, FHA accepted exterior plywood, based in part on a new Commercial Standard that included performance tests for both interior and exterior plywood. These developments helped clear the way for more successful promotion of plywood's benefits to the construction industry. "Dri-Bilt With Plywood" became a familiar advertising slogan. More than a million low-cost Dri-Bilt homes were constructed featuring DFPA-trademarked PlyScord subfloors and sheathing, PlyWall ceilings and walls, PlyPanel built-ins, and PlyShield siding. In 1940, the association sponsored "The House in the Sun," the first of many plywood demonstration houses. Plywood's growing reputation as a strong and durable construction material was soon put to the extreme test by war.

Plywood Goes To War

World War II was a proving ground for plywood. The product was declared an essential war material and production and distribution came under strict controls. The industry's war-time mills—by this time numbering about 30—produced between 1.2 and 1.8 billion square feet annually. Plywood barracks sprung up everywhere. The Navy patrolled the Pacific in plywood PT boats. The Air Force flew reconnaissance missions in plywood gliders. And the Army crossed the Rhine River in plywood assault boats. There were thousands of war accessories made of plywood-from crating for machinery parts, to huts for the famed Seabees in the South Pacific, to lifeboats on hundreds of ships that kept supply lines open in the Atlantic and Pacific.

The Post-War Boom

With the war ended, the industry geared up to meet growing demand in the booming post-war economy. In 1944, the industry's 30 mills produced 1.4 billion square feet of plywood. By 1954, the industry had grown to 101 mills and production approached 4 billion square feet. That same year, the Stanford Research Institute predicted that demand for plywood would rise to 7 billion feet by 1975-21 years into the future. Although some were skeptical, production rocketed to 7.8 billion feet in just five years, and by 1975 U.S. production alone exceeded 16 billion square feet, more than double the forecast.

Plywood Goes North

With its rich forest resources, it was only natural that Canada should join what eventually would become a truly North American plywood industry. The first Canadian plywood was produced in 1913 at Fraser Mills, New Westminster, British Columbia, but it wasn't until 1935 that a second mill was opened-by the H.R. MacMillan Company. In 1950, five Canadian companies founded the Plywood Manufacturers Association of British Columbia (PMBC), which eventually evolved into the present-day Canadian Plywood Association (CANPLY). The Canadian Standards Association published the first Canadian Plywood Standard in 1953 based on specifications developed by PMBC.

The Rise of Southern Pine

For more than a half century the softwood plywood industry was located exclusively in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia using the region's vast supply of Douglas fir. Until mid-century, it was not known how to effectively glue together veneer from softwood species grown in other regions. But research and development efforts changed that in the late 1950s and early 60s, and in 1964 Georgia-Pacific Corporation opened the first southern pine plywood mill, in Fordyce, Arkansas. The Douglas Fir Plywood Association changed its name to the American Plywood Association that same year to reflect the fact that the plywood industry was now national in scope. Today, some two-thirds of all U.S. plywood is produced in the South.

Technology Marches On

Plywood is often called the original engineered wood product because it was one of the first to be made by bonding together cut or refashioned pieces of wood to form a larger and integral composite unit stronger and stiffer than the sum of its parts. Cross-laminating layers of wood veneer actually improve upon the inherent structural advantages of wood by distributing along-the-grain strength of wood in both directions. This idea of "reconstituting" wood fiber to produce better-than-wood building materials has led in more recent times to a technological revolution and the rise of a whole new engineered wood products industry. In the late 1970s and early 80s, for example, the plywood principle gave rise to what today is a worldwide oriented strand board, or OSB, industry. Instead of solid sheets of veneer, OSB is made of small wood strands that are glued together in cross-laminated layers. Other engineered wood products today include wood I-joists, glued-laminated timber, laminated veneer lumber, and oriented strand lumber. These products not only yield superior performance properties but also make better use of precious forest resources. And it all began with plywood.