is plywood as economical as board lumber?

talley_sue_nycJuly 28, 2013

I'm building two sets of bookcases to go inside an oddly shaped closet I have--they're both going to be tall and skinny, and I'll have to make them in two pieces (one on top of the other) to be able to maneuver things around inside the closet.

So it's a lot of lumber, actually.

And I'm pretty picky about how deep I want the shelves, because I have to leave room for other stuff and how things will fit on them.

I can get the boards I need out of two 4x8 sheets of plywood (I did a diagram)--I'll have to pay the lumberyard to rip them for me at $1/cut ($12 total, I think). So, at @ $53/sheet, that's about $130.

My FIL acted like I was wrong to not use plain boards, so now I'm second-guessing myself. I'll need about 180 feet of lumber (though probably more, because that's simply adding them all together without worrying about wastage).

Isn't plywood my best bet?

(or MDF, but I'm not sure I want to use that; I'm using my new Kreg pocket-hole jig, and while it can work w/ MDF, I'm a little worried about whether I'll do it right.

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The key here is what you said "picky about the depth".
Plywood alows getting exact depth/width you desire from the minum amount of material.
The cost is close to same IF you can use a width that 1x material comes in. If you must rip down 1x material,the cost will be much higher because there will be far more waste than with plywood.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2013 at 6:08AM
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Although you can spend a lot of high quality plywood, it should cheaper than the same solid wood. It also eliminates all the prep work that comes along with using solid wood, because the stuff is never flat or straight.

What I might be concerned about is the cutting of the plywood. The actual dimension isn't as important that all the pieces be the same dimension. Let's say you'd like you're case to be 12" deep. It really doesn't matter so much if the sides are 11 15/16" deep or 12 1/8" deep so long as both sides are that dimension. That's going to be function of the person making the cuts and the equipment they're using.

MDF is a good choice for painted casework because it takes paint so well and is inexpensive.

This post was edited by mike_kaiser on Sun, Jul 28, 13 at 10:12

    Bookmark   July 28, 2013 at 10:11AM
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You're right about getting them all the same width--the lumberyard I use has a great panel saw, so that ought to work for me.

I thought about getting Kreg's ripping jig, but I don't have a circular saw. So I'll only have to worry about cutting all the shelves, etc., the same *length*--hopefully my FIL's table saw will work for that.

Thanks, all!

I thought about MDF--maybe I'll try that. Can you edgeband it?

    Bookmark   July 28, 2013 at 2:41PM
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Well, it's sort of about the yield. If you are doing five feet tall cases, then there's going to be a lot of waste with plywood (that comes in 4x8 sheets (unless you use Baltic Birch, that comes in 5x5 sheets). Similarly if you get 8' boards, but better if you can get 10' or 12' boards.

Hardwoods typically come in "random width and length" unless you're buying them at big box, where they're priced significantly more than a lumberyard and they're cut and ripped to nominal widths. If you are buying the random stuff, you'll have to worry about working around defects (even the best grades allow up to 17% wastage), ripping to width, jointing the edges, edge gluing, planing to thickness, sanding, etc.

Plywood on the other hand, is going to have waste only in the pieces that you have to cut as waste in your cutting list. But it will need to be edge banded with solid wood or veneer.

A 4x8 sheet of plywood at $53 is running $1.65 a square foot. You'd be extremely hard pressed to find any hardwood at that price.

Now if you're happy with #2 pine and all the knots and defects associated with it (surface checks, knots, warpage, cracks, poor ability to stain, propensity to dent) then the break even number might be a little different.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2013 at 5:19PM
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Are you serious? I took it that your fil lived far away and now find he not only is nearby but owns a table saw which you plan on utilizing. Now talk about edge banding which in it self requires a special tool to do it right,not to mention ability to use it. It would seem that if he is willing to cut your shelves to length,he would be willing to give you good advice and mentor you in the shop. That is unless he is loaning the saw to you which confuses me even more. If you have the experience to cut square and repeated cuts on a table saw,you certainly don't need advise on anything this low tech. Do you mind me asking how this can be?

    Bookmark   July 28, 2013 at 5:38PM
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Well, klem1, I sort of mind you asking, yes. Especially since there are nicer ways to ask than "Are you serious?" I feel more than a little scolded, and that doesn't seem appropriate.

I thought my initial question indicated that I am capable of doing much of this project but just wanted confirmation of my initial frame of reference.

But since you did ask, and because I *do* appreciate the help you've given. I'll tell you why I posted my question:
Because the strength of my FIL's reaction made me second-guess myself.

As for him mentoring me in the shop--really the only mentoring I might need from him is how to turn his saw on and off. (making repeated square cuts on a table saw has to be the easiest way to cut lumber ever! There are guides, and saw horses, and stuff. That's not hard.) I've made shelves similar to these before, and I did it from plywood, again because I wanted highly specific widths.

It is only his reaction to the lumber choice that had me questioning myself. And he was sort of stuck on the idea that there was something automatically bad about plywood. So stuck, that suddenly I thought I might be wrong.

Because I haven't used board lumber for anything. So I worried that maybe my assumptions were wrong.

Perhaps because I bought into the same sexist stuff you brought up--that I'd need some guy to mentor me. That somehow I wasn't smart enough by myself.

But the info here from bobsmyuncle and Mike and you have reassured me that indeed, I do what the heck I'm talking about.

You can't rip plywood into 6.5" boards on his table saw--it's not set up that way. And I think that's why he assumes board lumber is better. (I don't live in a home w/ a garage, or I'd have a table saw that you could adapt to be a panel saw. But I've had the lumber yard rip plywood for me before, and it's just so amazingly easy for them, so maybe I wouldn't.)

Or else he's stuck on the idea of high-end. I think if I'd told him I was going to use MDF, he'd have a cow.

As to edgebanding--I edgebanded all my living room shelves using my home iron, a small block of wood, and a $12 trimming tool. They look great 12 years later. And I still have the tool (and have used it to successfully edgeband at least 3 other items in the meantime). I know there are tougher application systems out there for pros, but this has worked really, really, really well for me.

This post was edited by talley_sue_nyc on Sun, Jul 28, 13 at 18:25

    Bookmark   July 28, 2013 at 6:15PM
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I did some dinking around w/ Google SketchUp to plan out the bookcases and the plywood cuts.

I'm going to need two sheets for sure.

I'm making two different depths, and in order to reach as high on the wall as possible (it's more than 8 feet tall) and still make all the turns, etc., to get the into the closet, I'm going to need to make two units and stack them. I need one deeper and the other shallow, so that necessitates twice as much lumber for the sides.

Here's my cutting plan.

There are some sections where we'll have to rip at 10" and then cut off the 10" board before ripping the remainder down to 6.5. But it'll work. (The last time I did something like this, the guy said he'd just charge me $12 for any cuts I wanted, it didn't matter.)

Here's the plan for the book sections--it's the one that's 6.5 inches deep, because that's the largest dimension of most of the books my kids have. If we need a place for larger books, there's a different shelf. (plus, this is a spot in the closet where the on-the-wall storage needs to be as skinny as possible)

And the other shelf is the same only deeper. I'm not going to attach those shelves w/ pocketholes; I'm going to dink around w/ the router again, and sink one of those slotted shelf standards in there so those shelves can be adjustable.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2013 at 6:46PM
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Your explanation makes sense and I realize that I put it to you bluntly. Like you did with your fil,I started secound guessing the wisdom of continueing on the path. Take solace that I learned a bit about diy woodworkers and people in general through this conversation. Up until now,I never incountered anyone who had built projects in the past that required panel saw,table saw,kreg jig, edge banding and could do sketch up and estimate material needs who did not know how to figure and compare cost per board foot as well as the pros and cons of boards vs sheet goods. Traditionaly,people start out cutting material with hand tools then nail them togeather. Eventualy they ask"why are my things lop sided with poor fit",to be told a table saw along with a few other tools are nessary. Call me the nervious type but I have never shown a novice how to turn the TS on and off then left them to carry on. Anyhow,my mistake. Just shows you may see somthing new any day.

This post was edited by klem1 on Sun, Jul 28, 13 at 19:23

    Bookmark   July 28, 2013 at 7:13PM
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In all honesty, I could have called the lumberyard and asked about the price per board foot, etc., but I wasn't sure even what types of lumber to ask about and it was probably going to be a confusing and time-consuming convo for them and me. I figured I'd get the reassurance I needed here quickly, helpful in the face of my FIL's frown.

I generally respect him a lot, so when his immediate assumption was so at odds with mine, it really threw me.

As for the table saw, I'm not a novice when it comes to power tools--I have a jigsaw ( think of it as a saber saw), which I've used to cut accurate and square shelves (needed to clamp a metal bar to the wood so I could slide the saw's foot plate along it--what a pain! table saw is so much easier). I have a belt & a palm sander, a drill, a Kreg pockethole jig. I used my FIL's router for the last project, and I had to teach him how to set up a guide so I could get a straight line, since his router is not on a table. It's not that hard--woodworking is pretty simple physics, actually. If the blade isn't perfectly perpendicular, you won't get a square cut. Pretty obvious--I think lots of beginners assume the tool will do more for us than it does in that regard.

I don't feel like I have the arm strength to wrestle a circular saw around. I could figure out a table saw, esp. if I had the manual, but it's faster to have the guy who's familiar with it show you how to set everything.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2013 at 7:41PM
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"I don't feel like I have the arm strength to wrestle a circular saw around"

How can you lift a full 4x8 sheet to the tablesaw, and safely push it through?

Portable tablesaws are very dangerous, for this exact reason: you can move the saw more easily than the material you're working with. When pushing a full sheet through, the saw has a tendency to move, slide, or tip over, and the results can be disasterous.

I hope you plan on using a cabinet saw, or similar type of fixed machine tablesaw.

Plan your cuts in advance to avoid crosscutting narrow stock. I try to crosscut the full sheet before ripping. For example, your sheet 1, cross cut the full sheet to 50 1/2", then do the 10" rips for both halves. Then do the 18" cross cuts and 16 1/2" cross cuts. You minimize the number of fence adjustments, so all the pieces are going to be the same size, even if you're actual dimensions are a little off.

Sheet 2, crosscuts @ 50 1/2", then 23", then 21 1/2". Then set the fence to rip 6 1/2". Rip the 21 1/2" piece 7 times, the 23" piece 6 times, and the 50 1/2" piece 4 times. Then take the remainder of the 50 1/2" piece cut the 10" x 16 1/2" pieces.

Another advantage of cross cutting first: The veneer surface is less damaged. Cross cutting takes out a piece of veneer at the back end of the cut, no matter how clean and sharp the blade. When you rip, the whole cut is clean. Best to cross cut first, then rip. All the edges and corners come out clean. This method is very important when using dadoed casing construction.

Good luck with your project!

    Bookmark   July 29, 2013 at 11:31AM
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I'm not going to lift any 4x8 sheet of plywood anywhere.

I'm going to pay the guy at the desk for my plywood, hand him my cut sheet, and then I'm going to go in the back and stand around while the guys who work the lumberyard's panel saw wrestle it around and cut it into 6.5" and 10" boards.

I'm pretty sure I mentioned the lumberyard's panel saw. (I love their panel saw--it's got this huge room all to itself, with big long guides, etc. It does a beautiful job ripping plywood into boards--they've done it for me before, and the edges were beautiful. In my next life I want to live in Alabama and have a separate two-car garage, like my brother, so I can install a humongous panel saw, just because I can.)

I personally only have to wrestle the 8'-long boards onto my FIL's table saw, or I will use the Kreg cutting jig w/ my jigsaw. I can lift just fine--I can't necessarily grip something sort of heavy that is biting into wood, and steer it. Maybe I'd be OK w/ a lightweight or small table saw.

I like your suggestions about crosscutting, though. The first sheet lends itself to that very easily. I'll have to look at sheet #2 and see if I can minimize the number of cuts.

It means paying the lumberyard for more cuts (since I can do the crosscuts on the boards easily enough), especially since by crosscutting the sheet, then I pay for twice as many rips. I also run the risk of them reading the cut sheet wrong and leaving me w/ pieces that don't work--that's been my experience w/ all sorts of things. I feel confident w/ my knowledge of what each board should turn into, so I don't really want to delegate that to someone else.

I had planned to cut all the 50.5" pieces at once, so that if the guide is the tiniest bit off, at least they'll all be exactly the same size and so that I don't have to keep resetting the guides.

Just because unit is boards doesn't mean I'm going to cut one board into all of its sizes all at once. I can set the excess aside while I continue the 50.5" cuts, and then do all the 18"-ers or 16.5"-ers at once. I figure the only real problem is keeping track of what piece is supposed to come out of what board--and that's what blue painter's tape and a marker (or a carpenter's pencil) is for, right?

Isn't there a way to prevent veneer rip-out when crosscutting plywood? Doesn't everybody have to crosscut plywood at some point?
For this project, I don't care--it's a closet shelf. But I'm curious.

This post was edited by talley_sue_nyc on Mon, Jul 29, 13 at 12:06

    Bookmark   July 29, 2013 at 12:04PM
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"Isn't there a way to prevent veneer rip-out when crosscutting plywood? Doesn't everybody have to crosscut plywood at some point?"

The way to prevent it is to plan ahead. Cross cut first. There will be a small amount of tear-out, at the back end of the cut. No way to prevent this. The way to get rid of the tear-out is to have extra material; trim off 1/4" from the first and last rip. That way you'll have 100% clean corners. When working with plywood sheets, it's easy to plan so the waste material can be utilized as the "trim buffer" to take away the tear outs.

You should only pay the lumber yard for 6 cuts: Cross cut the first sheet 3 times: 50 1/2", 18", 16 1/2". Cross cut the second sheet 3 times: 50 1/2", 23", 21 1/2".

Tell them that to please use a nice clean, sharp, cross-cutting blade for the panel saw. Your $6 cutting fee should pay for that luxury.

The pieces will now be about half a sheet, or less. You can safely rip these yourself on the tablesaw you have access to.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2013 at 12:37PM
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So you cannot "crosscut first" unless you are guaranteeing that you will have wastage?

I'm not ultra interested in ripping something that's 50" long on the table saw I have access to. It is not set up to handle anything longer than 24" with any accuracy whatsoever. It can only really cut what will fit on the existing table, and my FIL doesn't have support for the front or back of the board to rip it. It's not my table saw, so I don't have much say over how to set it up.

Of course, now that I really think about it, it'll be harder, probably, to crosscut an 8' board in his garage than it would be to rip a 50"-er.

So if I ask the lumberyard to crosscut, I'll have to pay more. But I could pay them only for some of the ripping. Though I'd hoped to do all the ripping at the same place, so that the width would be exact.

But I'll have to look at my diagrams to see how to maximize crosscuts. And maybe check out my FIL's tablesaw to see how difficult it would be to rip boards on it.

And as I said, this is in the closet, so tearouts won't matter that much to me for this project.

Thanks for the info, though!

For an earlier project, I eliminated tearouts on the pieces I cut with my jigsaw by clamping a scrap board to the underside; this moved the tearout to the scrap wood. I do the same thing when I'm drilling something that I want a clean "exit wound" on. You can't do that w/ a tablesaw, though.

But I do still have my jigsaw, and would have enough scrap wood that I could do that process again. It's more fiddly, and it means I don't get to play with the tablesaw.

This discussion and info has been really useful. I'm rethinking some of my assumptions about the order of the work, and the tools to use.

I appreciate the help and the info/insight!

    Bookmark   July 29, 2013 at 2:11PM
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Do you have the same tear-out problem with MDF?

And, does MDF need to be cut with the grain?
(I do that w/ plywood bcs my dad told me to, and because the one time I didn't, that piece bowed a lot and I had to toss it.)

Because after Mike's comment, I'm considering MDF.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2013 at 3:19PM
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Thanks to everyone's excellent input, I have come up with a new cutting plan! And I think I can even use the same number of cuts to get me to a place that it manageable on my FIL's tablesaw.

I can do all the crosscuts (except for one, where the pink & green are side by side, which I'll need to rip before I can do the second and third crosscuts) AND all the *long* rips (for the 50.5"-ers), and leave me with reasonable rips to do at my FILs.

Thanks, you all--this has been amazingly helpful.
(see, klem1--I learned a lot by asking for confirmation on a question I *mostly* knew the answer to)

    Bookmark   July 29, 2013 at 7:37PM
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I am not a fan of MDF and here is why. Strength. At the length of your shelf if you don't fully support the entire shelf will bend over time.

The way I deal with rip out from any wood - including plywood - is to wrap it with painters tape. This will not eliminate the tear-out but will reduce it. Also having a good quality saw blade helps.

I can't carry a 4x8 sheet of anything so I typically get my local lumber store to cut it to size. Their cuts seem to be clean and better than what I can cut at home. Their accuracy isn't always the best though so I try and get them to cut everything that will be of that size. For example I am currently making kitchen cupboards. I needed the plywood to be 10" wide. I go them to cut all of the 10" pieces. This way if they are 10 1/16" - they all are this size. At least everything matches.

If you have access to a router you could cut rabbed's into the side panels to hide any tear out - this also helps with alignment.

My shelves typically consist of both solid wood as well as plywood.

For closets I like to get the pine shelving I get it in the width (or close to it and rip it to size) I need and cut it to length. Simpler and the solid pine can hold a lot more weight than plywood. I also don't have to worry about edge banding or how to hide the plywood. Of course the look of pine isn't for everyone.

Here is a closet organizer I made for my daughters room using this method.

I, like you, am limited to what I can cut and break down from the larger sheet. I have tried in the past to cut the 4x8 sheet on my table saw but I don't recommend it. You really need a cabinet or panel saw for this. While it is doable, you run into accuracy issues as the large piece moves around. It also isn't the safest.

One think I started doing with all of the shelves I make is to cut dadoes into the side panels to add Pilaster Strips for adjustable shelves. Simple and reasonably inexpensive. Mostly I do it because it because it is easier than trying to align all of the shelves.

Anyway good luck with the project.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2013 at 11:04AM
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really, solid pine can hold more weight than plywood? I thought ply was stronger.

I went ahead w/ the MDF. It's a closet--I don't care.

Oh, and my shelves are pretty short--16.5" and 21.5". The longer ones will hold a single layer of books (17.5 pounds--I weighed them). I'm not that worried about them sagging anytime soon.
According to the Sagulator, the sag for that setup is 0.033 total; target is 0.02.

The guy at the lumberyard said, "Oh, I'll cut them all for you--it'll be easier for you." And he was going to charge me $10, but I gave him $20.

I love that panel saw! It's huge, and cool.

Anyway, I have the pocket holes drilled. Since it's MDF, I think it would be best to clamp them for assembly, and I didn't buy the 90-degree angle clamp when I bought my jig (dumb of me), so I'll try to assemble next weekend instead of this.

But I'm going to use my FIL's router tomorrow to inset the shelf-support strips on the deeper unit that *won't* be used to store books. I want adjustable shelves on that unit. (The books unit will have permanent shelves 9.5 inches apart.)

    Bookmark   August 3, 2013 at 6:33PM
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