Softwood Plywood - A Proud History
The year was 1905. Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 26th President of the United States. Congress granted statehood to Oklahoma, leaving New Mexico and Arizona as the only remaining territories. Archeologists unearthed the royal tombs of Yua and Tua in Egypt. Berlin and Paris were linked by telephone.
And in Portland, Oregon, a small wooden box company produced the first softwood plywood, launching what would become a thriving Oregon, Pacific Northwest and eventually national and international industry.
The history of the plywood industry is one of dramatic rise, of adjustment in the face of changing resource supplies and marketplace competition, and ultimately of perseverance. 2005 marks its 100th anniversary.
The idea of using wood veneers to achieve special effects and to increase wood's natural strength and stiffness is almost as old as civilization. Ancient Egyptian and Chinese furniture, built with wood veneers, is displayed in museums. 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.
Early modern-era plywood was made of hardwoods and generally was used in decorative applications. But then in 1905, Portland Manufacturing Company produced what it called "3-ply veneer work" made of ubiquitous Pacific Northwest Douglas fir. The product was displayed at the World's Fair held in Portland that year to commemorate the arrival of Lewis and Clark in Oregon 100 years earlier.
Orders started coming in from door, cabinet and trunk manufacturers. Soon other mills began making the product and the young industry spread north to Washington and then across the border into Canada. The first Canadian plywood was produced in 1913 at Fraser Mills in New Westminster, British Columbia.
In the 1920s automobile manufacturers began using plywood for running boards. By 1925, 11 U.S. plants were producing 153 million square feet (3/8-inch basis) per year. Production lagged during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but new markets and new business gradually developed with the help of a new trade association-the Douglas Fir Plywood Association.
Founded in Tacoma, Wash. in 1933, the nonprofit trade association developed a nationwide promotion program and aided mills in assuring consistent product quality. Another major breakthrough occurred in 1934 with the discovery of a waterproof glue, which greatly expanded product application opportunities. And in 1938 a new commercial standard was developed, facilitating promotion of the product as a standardized commodity rather than by individual brand names.
By 1940 plywood was being used as subfloors, wall sheathing, roof sheathing, paneling and other building construction applications. The industry that year counted 25 mills and production topped one billion square feet. Eighty percent of production originated in the state of Washington.
With the outbreak of war in 1941, plywood production was quickly diverted to the war effort. The product was used in PT boats, assault ships, airplanes, barracks, military buildings, shipping crates, footlockers and countless other military applications. The industry grew dramatically after the war as American GIs came home and the post-war baby and housing booms took off. The number of mills grew from 40 in 1947 to 100 in 1954 and production shot up from 1.6 billion feet to almost four billion. Oregon that year counted 47 mills, Washington 36 and California 17.
By 1960, production exceeded seven billion square feet, a figure analysts only five years earlier had predicted would not be attained until 1975.
For more than a half century the softwood plywood industry was located exclusively in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia and relied primarily on the region's vast supply of Douglas fir. Research and development efforts, however, eventually gave rise to new technology that solved the problem of how to effectively glue together veneer from other softwood species. In 1964, with that obstacle overcome, Georgia-Pacific Corporation opened the nation's first southern pine plywood mill in Fordyce, Arkansas.
Today, the South accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. softwood plywood production, or about nine billion square feet. Most of the remaining one-third-some 4.6 billion feet-is manufactured in the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Canada this year will produce approximately 2.4 billion feet.
Although oriented strand board, or OSB, has since 1980 largely displaced plywood as a structural sheathing in housing construction, the residential construction market still accounts for about one-third of plywood market demand-an estimated 4.6 billion square feet in 2005. Plywood is used for subflooring, wall and roof sheathing, siding, soffits, stair treads and risers, and cabinets.
The largest single market for softwood plywood today-some 5.5 billion square feet-is the industrial sector, including such applications as pallets, crates, agricultural bins, shipping containers, furniture frames, and truck trailer linings. Remodeling is another major market, consuming approximately 3.4 billion square feet. Nonresidential construction, including panels for concrete forming, consumes approximately 1.5 billion feet. And approximately 400 million square feet are forecast to be exported to foreign markets. The country also imports about 1.8 billion square feet of plywood, primarily from South America.
U.S. and Canadian plywood mills today are in most cases marvels of modern computer and processing technologies designed to maximize efficient use of precious wood fiber resources. Plants in recent years, particularly in the West, have also largely retooled to accommodate the smaller diameter logs that have resulted from increased preservation of our national forests. Contrary to popular belief, annual national forest timber harvests have declined some 85 percent since 1987, and most mills today in all regions of the U.S. rely primarily on private forestland and tree farms for their log supplies.
Plywood is widely regarded as the original "engineered wood product" because it was one of the first-and certainly the most successful-to be made by bonding together cut or refashioned pieces of wood to form a larger and integral composite unit. Cross-laminating layers of wood veneer actually improves upon the inherent structural advantages of wood by distributing along-the-grain strength 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 wood veneer, OSB is made of wood strands bonded together under heat and pressure in cross-laminated layers.
Other engineered wood products today include wood I-joists, glued-laminated timber, and laminated veneer lumber. These products not only yield superior performance properties but also make better use of precious forest resources.
And what of softwood plywood's future? The domestic industry has shrunk in recent years in the face of stiff competition from OSB, rising imports, and the decline of national forest timber harvests. However, the industry today, as many observers point out, is technologically advanced, operates more efficiently, and by necessity has cultivated significant high-margin specialty niche markets. In other words, the plywood industry today exhibits the traits of a survivor. It knows how to succeed. And that bodes well for its future.
About APA: APA-The Engineered Wood Association is a nonprofit trade association of and for structural wood panel, glulam timber, wood I-joist, laminated veneer lumber and other engineered wood product manufacturers throughout North America. Based in Tacoma, Washington, the Association was founded in 1933 as the Douglas Fir Plywood Association. Its name was changed in 1964 to American Plywood Association (APA) in recognition of the emergence of the southern pine plywood industry. The Association was renamed again in 1994 to APA-The Engineered Wood Association to better reflect the broadening product mix and geographic range of its membership. APA represents approximately 150 mills throughout North America. APA members range from small, independently owned and operated companies to large integrated corporations. The Association's primary functions are quality auditing, applied research, and market support and development.
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