“Plywood Jungle: 20th Century Transformations of Tropical Hardwoods”

This post is contributed by Maddie Connolly, a SCARC Student Archivist, and a senior majoring in archaeology, and minoring in French and history. Her Honors thesis focuses on redware ceramics in medieval England that were excavated from a witch’s house!


brock1Dr. Emily Brock recently completed a two-month stint as resident scholar in the OSU Libraries. Brock came to OSU to conduct research in support of an upcoming book on the 20th century roots of the plywood industry. Her interest in the history of plywood originated in 2013 when she worked as a Fulbright scholar in the Philippines, where she observed the country’s significant involvement in plywood production and exportation. Her research was especially exciting for the Special Collections and Archives Research Center as she made use of several natural resources collections that have not otherwise been heavily used.

Brock’s research on the development of the plywood industry focuses on the American presence in Southeast Asia in the first half of the 20th century, and on the subsequent rise of American-style multinational corporations in the region. One specific focus is on the role that the international plywood industry plays in stripping away the natural context of harvested trees, thus encouraging apathy on the part of consumers towards the origins of source materials. This apathy in turn has worked to diminish reverence for the incredible biodiversity of Southeast Asian tropical hardwoods forests, an unusual turn in light of modern ecological awareness movements.

Timber production in Southeast Asia increased significantly following the diminishment of the presence in the Philippines at the onset of World War II. The timber industry of the era was one of the most lucrative in Southeast Asia, where most countries at the time were struggling economically following years of occupation by neo-colonial powers and, later, destruction wrought during the war. The need to clear agricultural lands for food production, much needed for war-torn countries, accelerated deforestation in the region.

During the war, plywood was developed and marketed as a cheaper alternative to expensive and inefficient traditional wood sources and also to metal resources that were scarce during the war years. Initial uses for plywood as a metal substitute included medical and military contexts including, for example, leg splints and instrument panels in motorboats, ships, and aircraft.

Lauan wood, a genus of tropical hardwood which makes up a significant portion of Southeast Asia’s tropical forests, was one of the most common types of wood used to produce plywood in the early years of the product’s development. Contemporary “lauan” plywood, despite being marketed as such, is not actually made of lauan wood because, like many tropical hardwoods indigenous to Southeast Asia, lauan species have become endangered as a result of the success of the plywood industry. That said, tropical hardwoods are favored for plywood production because they are cheap, there are no knots in the wood, and they do not have growth rings.

Plywood is composed of thin layers of wood held together by glue. It is considerably cheaper and more efficient to produce than are traditional wood products and it enables the use of scrap material, since the actual kinds of wood used in plywood production are less important to its functionality than are the number of layers and the types of glue used to create the product. Put differently, the material characteristics of plywood are not dependent on the species of wood used but rather on the production process. The combination of the international production line and the relative insignificance of wood types leads consumers to conceptualize plywood as distinct from its source materials. Consumers tend to prioritize indications of how plywood will behave over information about what makes it up.

The price and quality of plywood dropped as the industry expanded out of Japan and the Philippines into other regions of Southeast Asia, including Korea, Taiwan, and eventually Indonesia. Manufacturers began sneaking durian wood into the inner layers of their plywood, which became an issue because durian wood smells just as bad as it infamous fruit and, when used in building materials, the smell lingers and permeates the structure. This issue came to a head rather quickly as product came to be used in the construction of residential homes. Brock points out that problems of this sort are made possible as a result of the extreme disinterest of consumers toward the source materials used in plywood production. Indeed, the major draw of plywood is that one does not have to know exactly what it is made of to know how it will perform.


residentscholar_logoThe Resident Scholar Program supports researchers from around the world in their use of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center’s holdings. Applications to the program are accepted from January to April; more information can be found on the program website.

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