Lovely, Lovely Plywood

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Computer model view of living area, as seen from kitchen. Bay is at the left.

The interior of the new cottage will be finished with plywood and the first few pieces have gone up on the walls. They look fantastic, even in Art’s cell-phone camera shot included below. Seeing those sheets in place brought a little tear to my eye—after the framing, this feels like the next major milestone and it is certainly one of the most critical finish details in the house. It looks fantastic.

View of first three pieces of Baltic birch plywood installed in corner of downstairs bedroom. Photo taken by Art Hultin, April 27, 2017.

Some who have been coming to Kingsbury Shores for a long time might be wondering why we would choose such a modern material as plywood for the interior of a little cottage on Cape Cod. After all, we’d gotten by for nearly 70 years without any wall finish at all, unlike some of our neighbors up the street who long ago installed paneling or drywall to hide the framing and make their interiors a little neater. Leaving studs and plates and exterior sheathing exposed sure made it easy to spot leaks, relocate wiring, and move windows around when needed. And it lent a pleasing informality to the place. No one fussed too much about screwing a new shelf into the wall or a stray dart poking an extra hole somewhere. It’s just the cottage.

View of living area in cottage 2, with studs, joists and rafters all still exposed. The area of vertical pine sheathing in the left of this view was to enclose the original kitchen.

But there are many reasons that the new house will have finished walls and ceilings. For one thing, because it is newly built, we were required to have insulation for the first time and the wall finishes hide and protect the fiberglass batts. We also wanted the interiors to be easier to clean for our tenants, and for us, and years of sweeping out cobwebs and sand from between the studs and rafters helped persuade me of the virtue of a neatly enclosed interior.

But still, why plywood? There are a few common choices for interior wall finish, the most common, by far, being gypsum wall board, or drywall, which is the modern, mass-produced descendant of lath and plaster. It’s incredibly cheap, takes paint nicely, and is utterly commonplace. But it is susceptible to damage, whether in the form of scuffs on the paint or holes made by errant darts or paddles or golf clubs. Drywall looks fine when it’s brand new but we thought that the rigors of the beach environment called for something a little sturdier and more durable. That said, we are using painted drywall on the ceilings, which are up out of the way.

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Computer model view of living area and kitchen, as seen from roughly the same location as in the photo of the interior of cottage 2, above.

For the walls, we might have gone with the more historic choice of ordinary wood boards, laid up as sheathing in the manner of old retail stores, but this would have been terribly expensive, even for marginal material like fast-grown pine. For reasons of economy as well as its modern appearance, we settled on plywood. In fact, I considered, for a time, using oriented strand board, or OSB, which is a very inexpensive plywood-like material composed of little chunks of wood arranged in sheets that’s ordinarily used as a structural panel. It would have had some of the informal quality of the old cottage but it also would have seemed, despite its suitably humble appearance, a little too precious—a little too clever and eccentric. OSB as a wall finish demands attention in a way that more conventional materials do not (see here, for example).

So among all the plywood choices, from pine up through oak to walnut and, wow, bamboo, we decided that Baltic birch struck the right balance of aesthetics and cost. It’s quite light in color but has a lovely grain when finished. It is made with a series of veneer sheets stacked perpendicular to one another, giving its raw edge an appearance that is beloved of modern furniture and cabinet makers. I like it, too, so where we have exposed edges at outside corners, and at the bookshelves in the living area, we will leave them exposed, without any edge banding.

Further progress on plywood interior of upstairs bedroom. The pattern of panel joints is clearer in this view of a full wall. Photo by Art Hultin, May 5, 2017.

Now there are many ways to lay sheets of plywood on a wall. What we’ve chosen is based on the house of Jóhannes Þórðarson, a friend of a friend, and an architect in Iceland. His solution separates the panels by ¼”, allowing the installers a little room for error and hiding the inevitable discrepancies in thickness from one panel to the next. We’ve also set the panels above a little baseboard, a modern echo of a traditional element. And while they aren’t set into stiles and rails in the manner of wainscoting, I think the little shadow lines between the sheets reflect the grid of traditional raised panels in a similarly familiar way. In all, it’s a simple, straightforward solution, with sheets of wood screwed directly to the studs, arranged in a grid. Nonetheless, this interior is the product of an awful lot of careful thought and planning, and requires great skill on the part of the carpenters who are installing it. That first view from Art has me very excited, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it all in place.

What’s happening on site:            installation of plywood wall finish

Eastham weather:                           63 degrees, partly cloudy


2 thoughts on “Lovely, Lovely Plywood

  1. Visited cottage in early May. Yes, very nice Plywood! Well done. Mixed emotions after 50+ yrs in cottage 1 but it’s overdue for change. We’ll learn 2 luv it. Looking forward to 2 wks in Sept.
    Gene and Carol Woods

    1. Thanks, Gene and Carol. I think you’ll learn to love it, too. We have very mixed emotions about leaving good old cottage 1 behind but we hope that the very good qualities of new cottage 1 will outweigh what we’ll miss about the old one. You’ll have a great time in September!

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