Woodworkers can choose from a wide selection of hardwood plywood. Whatever you want is likely to be available somewhere, especially if you live in a city. And if your dealer doesn’t have it in stock, the dealer can order it from a supplier. Most places carry a pretty good selection of ¼-inch-thick hardwood plywood. If you’re forced to order something sight unseen, try to be as specific as you can about your needs. Most places will let you decline something if it’s not up to your expectations.
You’ll most likely have to make decisions about veneer slice, core type, face grade, and back grade. I put the highest value on the veneer slice, which is the manner in which the veneer has been cut. The best choices for the exterior are either a plain-sliced or quarter-sliced veneer. Both of these are cut in a straight line, duplicating the figure of sawn lumber. Rotary slicing involves centering the log in a lathe and turning it against a broad cutting knife. The grain pattern does not match that typically found in solid wood.
For a hardwood plywood core, I prefer MDF because there’s no chance of a void being telegraphed onto the surface veneers. The face grade will most likely be A if you’ve chosen plain or quarter-sliced veneer. It’s also helpful to know that veneer-core plywood tends to run a little under its stated size, usually by a light1/32 inch, while MDF core is usually dead on.
I make it a point to talk with a knowledgeable sales clerk and view everything the yard has to offer. You may find a few nice alternatives or surprises.
As you leaf through a stack of plywood, you’ll notice that the sheets come in runs, that is, there will be several sheets with veneers from the same log, or flitch. This run might be two or five sheets long. If you ask politely, most places will let you go through the stack to find a run that suits your needs. If you’re looking at plain-sliced veneer, it is likely that the veneers will be quite wide. A quarter-sliced stack will most likely consist of narrower veneers. When considering which type of figure suits your piece, consider also where the veneer joints will end up. This means you need to know your panel dimensions before you head out to the lumber dealer. A best-case scenario for a top panel might be a face-grain panel, where two book-matched veneers are wide enough to cover the entire top, with the seam dead center.
I used the top dimension as a rough guide because the sides were to be a bit narrower (due to the width of the corner post). I was able to line up the book-matched seam on the sides and the top. A second choice would have been to cover the top and the sides in four veneers (two book-matches). When neither of these is possible, I try to find a veneer that will cover the sides with one book-match and hope that a suitable cut will present itself for the top.
Plywood veneers may not be totally consistent in width. It’s usually a small variation but something to watch out for nonetheless. In deciding how many sheets I need, I play it safe. An extra sheet gives me more options when it comes to laying out the cuts.
Hardwood plywood is one of the more expensive items at the lumberyard, and most places try to take good care of it, but dings and scratches are still possible. Commercial veneer is paper thin and easy to sand through. A good rule of thumb is if there is a scratch in it now, there will be a scratch in it forever. So I choose pieces carefully and then accept minor dings as character traits. When I have found what I need, I ask for some of the 4×8 sheets of cardboard used for shipping to protect the material for the ride home and when storing it at my shop.
When picking out the interior stock, I’m not as particular. I like to use a light wood like maple. At all of the yards in my area, ¼-inch-thick maple is available only in rotary-sliced veneer, which means there will be no seams to worry about. Also, I take whoever core is available because small voids won’t be noticed on the inside.
Some of the finest logs end up as plywood veneers. Most hardwood plywood dealers sell attractive sheet goods in a variety of common species, featuring rotary-sliced, book-matched, and quarter-sliced veneers.