It's Time for a Plywood Design Renaissance

CC BY 2.0. De Havilland Mosquito via Wikipedia

You can build almost anything out of wood, and you should.

Nobody wanted the Mosquito. The Royal Airforce wanted bigger, heavier planes made out of metal, not wood; the American government asked aircraft companies to evaluate it and the inappropriately named Beech Aircraft said it "sacrificed serviceability, structural strength, ease of construction and flying characteristics in an attempt to use construction material which is not suitable for the manufacture of efficient airplanes."

But aluminum was in short supply and there were lots of woodworkers around. It could be prototyped and built quickly, so they made a few and found that it was the fastest plane in the sky, and could outrun any fighter until the jet age. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring complained:

In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that?

Today we look to wood to replace concrete and steel in our buildings, because it is strong, easy to work with, and it has a much lower carbon footprint. But why stop there? If we are going to get even close to the IPCC target of reducing our carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030, we have to change almost everything we do. We have to stop making new iron and steel, and we have to replace all our internal combustion engines. We have to stop building out of materials with high embodied energy and carbon. Why not use wood?

In the '30s cars were often made with wood because it was cheaper and easier to work with. Fancy Morgan sports cars still have wood frames.

plywood racing car

Plywood race car/ Lloyd Alter at V&A;/CC BY 2.0

Some very fast sports cars were made with wood, like this one from 1967 designed by Frank Costin, who applied the skills he learned while building airplanes.

DKW car

Lloyd Alter at V&A;/CC BY 2.0

Cars made of wood were often cheaper than metal because the wood was "strong and stress-bearing, easier to repair and quieter on the road. All the red parts in this cutaway 1928 DKW are plywood. There is a lot of embodied energy and carbon in a car, and as Luis Gabriel Carmona and Kai Whiting of the University of Lisbon noted in The hidden carbon cost of everyday products,

Carbon emissions from the exhaust pipe tell only part of the story. To get a full sense of the carbon footprint of a car, you have to consider those emissions that go into producing the raw materials and digging a hole in the ground twice – once to extract the metals contained in the car, once to dump them when they can no longer be recycled.
Beach Hyperloop

V&A; Plywood Exhibition/CC BY 2.0

Even Hyperloops could be built out of plywood, like this 1860 design for New York City by Alfred Beach, which had a plywood passenger car sucked pneumatically through a plywood tube that would be mounted on poles above Broadway.

Beach Plywood Tunnel

Beach Plywood Hyperloop/ Lloyd Alter at V&A;/CC BY 2.0

One newspaper noted that "this plan possesses the merit of cheapness of execution" because plywood is light and easy to work with.

plywood furniture

Lloyd Alter at V&A;/CC BY 2.0

And of course, furniture. After the Second World War there were many designers who took the technologies used for making planes and applied it to furniture, most famously Charles and Ray Eames in the USA,

label on furniture

Aeroclub Furniture/CC BY 2.0

...but also W. Waclaw Czerwinski and Hilary Stykolt in Canada, who went directly from making Mosquitoes to making modern dining tables and chairs. They even branded their furniture with it.

1942 Chrysler Town and Country

1942 Chrysler Town and Country/ John Lloyd on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Really, we should be substituting wood for plastic or metals wherever we can; we have to use low carbon options whenever we have the chance. And if I ever buy another car, I want it to be an electric powered Chrysler woody wagon.