From exterior wall sheathing to cabinetry, plywood serves countless uses and is one of the most ubiquitous building materials, especially here in the Pacific Northwest. With so many uses and different types of plywood available, it’s important to know your options, understand the material, and pick the right product for your project.

For our Plywood Series, we’re joined by T.R. Cauthorn, Panel Sales Manager at Hampton Lumber, a leading sustainable lumber producer based in Washington and Oregon and one of Dunn Lumber’s long-standing suppliers. With nearly 30 years spent with Hampton Lumber, plus experience working in mills and forests with Georgia Pacific, T.R. is a plywood expert.

In today’s episode, T.R. takes us through a brief history of how plywood has been produced and used in the United States—and how the Pacific Northwest has played a role throughout plywood’s ongoing evolution. 

Watch our discussion in the video above or keep reading to get the highlights, sourced from APA – The Engineered Wood Association.

Plywood’s Early Years

While we may think of plywood as a common, modern material, the first patent for an early plywood prototype in the U.S. was issued back in 1865. It wasn’t until 1905, however, that plywood really stepped into the spotlight—and sparked a new industry—when the Portland Manufacturing Company exhibited their “Three-ply Veneer Work” panels at the World's Fair in Portland, OR. The new material drew attention, with several door, cabinet, and trunk manufacturers placing orders. 

While early customers were primarily sourcing plywood for door panels, in 1920, the Elliott Bay Mill Company based in Seattle started serving more automobile industry customers, who used the plywood for running boards. By the end of the 1920s, there were 17 mills operating throughout the Pacific Northwest. 

Though gaining popularity, plywood was held back in its early years from reaching its full potential due to inadequate adhesives. That all changed in 1934 when a chemist at Harbor Plywood Corporation in Aberdeen, Washington, developed a waterproof adhesive that could be used for exteriors. Around this time, several of the independent mills joined together to found the Douglas Fir Plywood Association (DFPA) and created product standards for plywood. The increased quality and production standard served as a catalyst for plywood’s growth and use, particularly in home construction, resulting in more than one million homes constructed using DFPA-trademarked materials. The developments in the 1930s also led to more mills producing all the way to the 1990s.

From World War II to the Present Day

During World War II, plywood use boomed as it was an important material for barracks, patrol torpedo boats, and more. The standardized product was put to the test and passed with flying colors, while the numbers of mills producing plywood in the country increased to 30 with up to 1.8 billion square feet of lumber production. 

After the war, plywood moved even more into the housing industry. By 1954, there were 101 mills across North America using douglas fir to produce plywood. In the 1960s, research led to southern yellow pine being used more frequently in producing plywood, and Georgia Pacific opened the first southern pine plywood mill.

Today, two-thirds of plywood is produced in the southern part of the U.S. due to its relatively short growing cycle of 30-35 years before timber can be harvested. In comparison, timber in the Pacific Northwest takes closer to 45 years of growth.  

According to T.R., plywood production peaked in the 1990s. Now, OSB (also known as oriented strand board—we’ll touch on this more in an upcoming episode) has replaced plywood in home building, plywood is going back to its roots, so to speak, with more industrial uses.  

At Dunn Lumber, and through the Dunn Solutions blog, we aim to provide you with comprehensive resources that you can use right now in your project or line of work. As a family-run business for more than 115 years, we also value the history behind the products, best practices, and craftsmanship we support. Check out some of our other favorite history-focused episodes like the history of manufactured decking from our Decking Series or the history of lumber sizing and naming from our Wood Technology Series.