The journey of plywood

On 19th July members of the board of the Wood Technology Society of IOM3 were treated to a tour of the “plywood” exhibition at the V&A with curator Christopher Wilk.

The exhibition, which is free, is well worth a visit if you are in London with some time to spare.  It is quite small, but tells a good story of plywood from the late 1800’s to the present day.  As Christopher explained to us, there is a history before that date but the exhibition has to start somewhere and we pick up the story about the time that plywood starts being a common product thanks to developments in making the veneers cheaply and in large quantities (go here for some extra history on veneer cutting).

The exhibition tells a story of plywood’s visibility and public image – and there is plenty of plywood on show…including the stands that hold the exhibits and the information panels.  It goes into some good detail about the way plywood is made, which is necessary for the visitor to understand the history and technical developments.  It ends with an information board about sustainability – definitely the weakest part of the exhibition. It is good to have at least something about that, but a missed opportunity to educate the public about how to check their wood products they buy are sustainable…and totally misses the problems in temperate forests.

It’s a challenge to put a frame around something so common and so varied but the exhibition does a good job – even surprising the experts.  The word plywood is less old than plywood itself – being coined in the early 1900s …in London says Christoper…but he thinks it might be from Russian speakers.  These days we call the veneers plys and might assume the world plywood is simply referring to wood built up from plys …but actually it seems to be the other way around.  We did not have time to ask, but perhaps ply refers to the sense of folding something (like pliable)…or related to the way we use ply in phrases like “ply a trade”, “ply a route” and “ply with drink” (to work steadily, regularly, continuously).

Christopher has written a book about the history of plywood which details many interesting things he found out in his research for the exhibition.  Unfortunately the V&A shop was closed by the time we finished.

The exhibition runs until Sunday, 12 November

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