Bent Ply: The Best of Both Worlds

So far this week we’ve been chatting up cork as a great sustainable material, which it is, when used correctly and enjoyed in moderation. Of course, materials use isn’t all there is to sustainable design or engaging in green behavior or buying green stuff; production methods and the way things are built play a big (if not bigger) role in where our stuff comes from. One of our favorite methods (and one we’ve mentioned before []) is bent plywood, also known as bent ply. But what makes it so special?

There are two sides to this method that come together to make a really effective, efficient material. Let’s start with the necessary raw material: a tree. While the sustainable use of trees involves geopolitics and considerations galore, at their root (ha-ha), they are a renewable resource; if you cut one down and plant another one in its place, it’ll grow back. Wood is also an excellent way to sequester some carbon dioxide, since trees breathe the stuff in and then don’t release it again until it’s burned or biodegraded; while the wood is in use, it stores the greenhouse gas and keeps it out of the atmosphere. So wood is a good material to start with; next comes the way it’s processed.

Once at the mill, plywood, yet to be bent, can be “shaved” or “sliced” from the round tree, rather than cut into blocks, boards, and other usually square or rectangular timbers. Since trees are round, this process leaves lots of off-cuts, scraps and other bits ‘n pieces that aren’t very usable. When harvesting plywood, the shaving/slicing process mentioned above can use much, much more of the wood, because the plywood comes off the tree much like a paper towel from a roll; this leaves very little waste behind and puts to use almost all of the available wood.

After the sheets are harvested, and the second half of the production starts up, we can really see how the material can boast such efficiency. Instead of being milled, cut and re-cut and then joined, bent ply furniture carefully bends the sheets of plywood so that entire pieces of furniture can be built from a single (or maybe two) sheet. Again, cutting is minimized so as much of the wood as possible is used; Peter Danko’s work, pictured above, is a great example of the modern beauty and clean lines that can be derived from this process. After all is said and done, the bent ply process is somewhere between 8 and 10 times more efficient than other more traditional furniture-making techniques, and if you can get eight bent ply dining chairs, for example, for the amount of material it takes to make one chair otherwise, that’s a good thing, right?

Stay tuned tomorrow for some of the best of the best examples of putting bent ply to work.