How much plywood is too much plywood?
U.S. Plywood Corp. How much plywood is too much plywood?

This post is part of a
monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems, using resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library  (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.

Wood from North America’s great forests has long played a vital role in regional building traditions. From un-milled logs to glue-laminated beams and plywood, architects, builders, and manufacturers alike have found ways to use structural and finish wood products in buildings of all sizes. The material, ubiquitous in furniture and interior finishes, remains the predominant structural component for single-family residential construction; more recently, it is being taken to new heights in tall-building construction. Trade catalogs, pamphlets, and brochures housed in the digital Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL) document the material's long history in structural framing, ornamental woodwork, architectural finishes, and furniture. Several millwork catalogs from the early 20th century are particularly comprehensive and feature wood in doors, windows, moldings, and other ornamentation as well as woven-wood fences, structural laminated timbers, wood tanks, and marquetry. The following nine historical texts help illustrate​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ the evolution of the North American wood-products industry.

Heavy Timber Mill Construction Buildings, National Lumber Manufacturer’s Association, 1920
This publication of the National Lumber Manufacturer’s Association is part of a technical series on mill construction, which it defines as a “type of building construction in which interior framing and floors are [made] of timber, arranged in heavy solid masses and smooth flat surfaces.” The organization further refined the definition by adding caveats on fire safety through “incombustible walls and partitions,” amended with a cautionary warning that an “automatic sprinkler system is of great importance.”

From Tree to Trade, Long-Bell Lumber Co., 1920
The story of how a tree becomes a building material is illustrated in this publication from the Long-Bell Lumber Co. of Kansas City, Mo. Its lumber camp and lumber mills are showcased in the brochure, along with the various uses of wood for construction. 

General Catalog, Segelke & Kohlhaus Mfg Co., 1911–1912
This early-20th century, 515-page catalog presents a comprehensive overview of architectural woodwork available for both commercial and residential buildings. Ephemera like this tend to feature items that were architecturally fashionable decades earlier and still available or in use due to their ubiquity. This catalog, produced by publisher Rand McNally, could be customized with the name of the local lumber yard, which would distribute the pamphlet to its builder customers.

Beautiful Wood for Beautiful Homes with Weldwood Plywood, U.S. Plywood Corp., New York, 1953
Fused-veneer wood sheets, marketed under the trade name Plywood, were an innovation of the 20th century that remains today among the most common building materials. This catalog explores its use in framing and decorative finishes.

Wholesale Catalog 159: America’s Most Complete Building Supply House, Morgan Wightman Building Materials, 1959
Independent building-material suppliers today face fierce pressure from big-box home-improvement retailers that can at times overlook their rich history as the primary conduit for building-product sales​. Dealers such as Morgan Wightman Building Supply would create catalogs detailing their product inventory, which often included veneered panels along with traditional millwork items. 

How to Identify Genuine Mahogany and Avoid Substitutes, George N. Lamb, Mahogany Associates, 1940
There exist—and have existed—more than a few wood-related trade groups specifically for hardwoods. Among them was the Mahogany Association, which represented wood producers in Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and Africa, and advised consumers on how to spot real mahogany versus a non-authentic representation of the material. Additionally, this informational volume features color plates showing pattern variations, which were particularly important to furniture makers.

Building with Assurance, Morgan Woodwork Associates, 1921
This comprehensive and beautifully illustrated catalog from the 1920s showcases how woodwork was incorporated into residential architecture in an era that saw a range of popular architectural styles, including Colonial, Craftsman, Mission, and Modern. This volume also features a section of house plans.

Architectural Details for Every Type of Building: a Practical Drafting Room Guide for Contractors, Builders, Lumber Dealers, Millmen, Draftsmen, and Architects, William A. Radford, 1921
The Radford Architectural Co. published carpentry manuals, building guides, plans​ books, and periodicals during the first three decades of the 20th century. This particular volume includes line illustrations of architectural framing and trim for houses, small commercial buildings, and farm structures. Most of Radford’s publications are available through the BTHL.

Rilco Laminate Wood Products, Rilco Laminated Products, 1961
Laminating wood members to create structural beams was an innovation that enabled longer clear​​​ spans and was particularly popular in religious buildings. The material was introduced in the 1930s and reached peak use in the 1950s and '60s, though it remains popular to this day.