Plywood in a Wright-designed American System-Built Home, before “plywood” was a thing

Plywood’s predecessor, so-called “pasted wood,” had developed a poor reputation around the turn of the 20th century. Some lumber yards were gluing laminated boards to bury cheaper, softer stock under prettier thin-cut hardwoods but craftsmen felt these materials were weaker and less attractive than solid wood, and glues were imperfect at the time, so the idea didn’t take off. In 1920, a Seattle company began marketing laminated woods for automotive floorboards. By 1933, manufacturers had formed an association and the term “plywood” took hold, partly to rebrand and standardize and find new markets.* Today, plywood is everywhere.

Famously, Frank Lloyd Wright would explore many creative plywood applications in the latter half of his career.

We see early versions of plywood’s predecessor in two places in the Elizabeth Murphy House, built in 1917-1918, 15 years before plywood was a thing.

  1. as hinged doors on breakfast nook cabinets and
  2. on a basement staircase newel post.

How did it get here? Did Frank Lloyd Wright call for “pasted wood” in places?

All of the examples in the Elizabeth Murphy home have an interior layer built from pieces of softer pine and the laminate is birch, to match the rest of the woodwork in the home. The interior is not a thin ply, but 1/2′ thick pine boards covered on both sides with birch veneers a hair under 1/4″. Modern plywood is made from thinner sections and more layers.

The American System-Built Home specifications, on file at the Avery Library at Columbia University, offer clues that help us understand the circumstances the led to these early laminated boards:

  • “All materials shall be only that furnished by the Richards Company.” Wright’s partner Arthur Richards had taken complete control of the material supply chain and would prepare and deliver almost all of the materials to a construction site.
  • And “all interior doors throughout the building shall be single panel veneered [material here] of thick [material here] ply laminated panel.”
  • Curiously, the specification also promises that the interior finish of the home was to be “carefully executed and the workmanship is to be what is known as ‘First Class Millwork‘” **

Another clue comes from our front door, which is much thicker overall at 1 3/4″, but that features the same almost-1/4″ birch veneer on both sides. So the cabinet doors were laminated using the same stock, probably at the same time by the same worker on the same factory work bench.

Taken together, we can see that Wright and Richards were exploring ways to ensure quality while lowering the material costs in the American System, using common parts (and scraps) in thoughtful ways and applying the most modern concepts (for the time.) And sometimes they were way ahead of their time.

But how did our basement newel end up being built with a piece of this early “ply?” (The other three sides of the post are made of solid wood.) That is a more complicated story for another time.

About this blog: The Elizabeth Murphy House is a 103 year-old American System-Built Home and the protagonist in the book “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House.”

* https://www.apawood.org/apas-history

** Specifications of Materials and Labor Required for the American Model ____ in Accordance with Drawings Prepared by Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect,” FLWFA Specs Box 2, 1112–1903, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, Museum of Modern Art, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s