How to Make Plywood Look Good

How to Make Plywood Look Good (10+ Ways in 2023)

Plywood is a handy product that’s used to build all kinds of structures ranging from DIY projects to your floors.

However, on its own, it doesn’t always look the best.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make plywood look good. Let’s take a look at a few of them!

Using grain filler with sandpaper is the most effective way to improve plywood’s appearance, but there are other methods, some of which are easier and more affordable. Adding paint, stain, polyurethane, texturing, and drying oil can all be used to make plywood look better.

Tips for Making Plywood Look Good

A variety of methods can be used to improve plywood’s appearance. That said, what you can do to make your plywood more visually appealing will largely be determined by the kind of plywood it is, its quality, where it’ll be used, and what the project is.

As you go through each method, keep in mind that some aren’t ideal for every kind of plywood.

For example, sanding down Grade-A interior plywood would actually do more harm than good, as plywood of this quality is precisely sanded before it’s sold, meaning additional sanding would alter its texture, dimensions, etc.

1. Choose a High-Quality Plywood

The first step in making plywood look good is finding high-quality plywood.

A lot of plywood is rife with blemishes, and while it’s possible to make low-grade plywood look fantastic, to do so you’ll need time, money, know-how, and plenty of patience.

If you want a challenge, sure. But if your goal is to make plywood look attractive without spending a ton of time and money, starting with high-quality plywood is the way to go.

There are 17 types of plywood, and some plywoods are easier to beautify than others.

Grade-A interior plywood, for example, is easier to beautify than exterior Grade-C plywood. When you’re shopping for high-quality plywood, there are a few grades and ratings to keep in mind, including:

Letter Grade (A-D)

Plywood is graded A to D, with Grade-A denoting the highest quality.

Grade-A plywood is free of blemishes, smooth, even, symmetrical, and visually appealing overall. But even plywood of this quality can be improved, especially at the edges.

Grade-B plywood resembles Grade-A plywood but it’s not as good. While it’s sanded like Grade-A plywood, there are visible blemishes like small knots and holes. It’s cheaper than Grade-A plywood, of course.

Grade-C plywood is much more affordable when compared to Grades A and B, but its visual appeal is often lacking. It could have many knots and holes, as well as other imperfections.

Grade D is the lowest quality, and while it’s strong like the other plywoods mentioned, it’s the most visually unappealing. This is the main reason why it’s mostly used in spots where human eyes won’t see it.

Exposure Rating (1-2)

Plywood either has an Exposure 1 or Exposure 2 rating.

Plywood that carries the Exposure 1 rating has been treated to be moisture-resistant, so it can withstand short-duration moisture exposure quite well. However, this plywood does not handle long-term moisture exposure well, so it can’t be used to construct a dock (for example).

Exposure 2 plywood is less moisture-resistant, but it still does resist a fair bit of moisture. This plywood is mostly used indoors because here it won’t be exposed to excessive moisture.

Structural Rating

Plywood that has a Structural 1 rating is often used in the construction of large buildings, especially in areas where earthquakes happen frequently.

Structural 1 plywood is strong yet flexible, which is why it’s often considered to be “earthquake-proof.”

2. Smooth the Surface by Sanding

Sanded Plywood Walls
Sanded Walls

One of the easiest ways to make plywood look good is by sanding down the entire surface.

You should have both coarse and fine grit sandpaper, as you’ll need both to make the plywood visually appealing.

First, use the rougher sandpaper to lightly sand the surface and make the plywood smooth, and then use the finer sandpaper to achieve a detailed finish.

Make sure you don’t sand too much, as doing so can make the plywood uneven.

You can sand by hand or with a power sander like an orbital sander.

If you’re sanding by hand, it’s best to use a sanding block, as this way you won’t wear yourself out and you’ll be able to sand more accurately.

Sanded plywood is essential if you’re going to paint, stain, or apply polyurethane to the plywood eventually, as it makes the wood more receptacle to these products.

Even if you’re keeping the plywood’s natural finish, you should sand it at least once to ensure it’s visually appealing with a smooth surface, easier to clean, and safe.

3. Fill Cracks With Grain Filler

Using a wood grain filler with sandpaper can also make your plywood visually appealing.

In this case, you’d be using the wood grain filler to plug present gaps, cracks, and holes and make the plywood smooth overall.

Especially if you’re working with Grade-B or Grade-C plywood, it’s wise to use wood grain filler, as plywoods of these qualities are often rife with the defects that this substance remedies. Just make sure the wood grain filler is the same color as the plywood so it doesn’t look discolored. You can also check out these tips to make wood filler look like wood!

Once you apply wood grain filler, you’ll need to sand the plywood gently. Then let the wood filler dry. Once it’s dry, give the plywood a final all-over sand and it should be good to go. Just be sure to wipe any sanding dust with a damp cloth before painting or staining.

Note: This method can be a bit challenging and messy for the uninitiated, but if you’re patient and careful you can make even lackluster plywood visually appealing with grain filler and sandpaper.

4. Stain the Surface

Staining plywood can do wonders to its appearance.

Stain is often applied to exterior plywood—the wood that’s used to create decks, sheds, and other outdoor structures—specifically because it’s both visually appealing and strong.

Wood stain is a protective substance that wood absorbs, and it comes in a variety of colors.

You can also get “natural” stain to accentuate the plywood’s natural color, but keep in mind that all natural stain makes plywood look darker—even “light” natural stain.

You’ll need sandpaper to apply wood stain properly. Specifically, you’ll need to sand before applying stain, and you may have to sand multiple times (if you’re applying stain multiple times).

If you stain when imperfections are still present, the stain could accentuate these, which is why it’s best to stain only after present blemishes (cracks, holes, gaps, etc.) have been addressed.

Stain is used on both interior and exterior plywood, and it’s weather-resistant and long lasting—provided it’s applied properly (Internal link to “How to Apply Stain Article”).

In short, if you want to improve your plywood’s appearance while making it stronger—and you don’t want to use paint—going with wood stain is a great move.

5. Paint the Surface

If staining isn’t your cup of tea, you may prefer painted plywood.

Painting will eliminate most of the wood’s natural look, but some features may remain regardless of what the plywood’s color is, like knots and the grain.

Unlike stain, paint dries on the outermost layer of plywood; it does not get absorbed into the wood.

When you’re applying paint to plywood, sanding is even more important, as if you don’t sand before applying paint it may not adhere properly. Adding a coat of primer before the first coat of paint will also help with adhesion. You can check out some of the best primers for plywood to get the best results.

You may need to apply multiple layers of paint to achieve the finish you want, in which case you’d need to sand the plywood lightly multiple times. Just don’t sand too much after paint has been applied, as if you over-sand you can take off the whole layer of paint you just put on.

There are many different painting options including whitewashing plywood that can yield a cool finish. 

You can even spray paint wood for a quicker job!

The Kind of Paint You Use Matters

There are a variety of paint colors to choose from, and you can find paint that’s specifically for indoor plywood as well as paint that’s specifically for exterior plywood.

Keep in mind that the type of paint you use will in part determine how long it looks attractive.

For example, if you’re using oil-based paint, the plywood will have a richer color and look visually appealing for longer, whereas a water-based paint will not be as bold and may fade quicker.

Lastly, just like with stain, if you don’t address blemishes that are present in the plywood before applying it, you could accentuate these and achieve the opposite of what you were going for.

6. Add Polyurethane

Types of Polyurethane

Adding a coat of polyurethane can also improve plywood’s appearance and give it a shiny finish.

If you want the plywood to have a high gloss finish on top of being smooth, applying polyurethane is the way to go. And if applied properly, polyurethane will also act as a long-lasting barrier, one that’ll make the plywood more dent-, scratch-, crack-, and moisture-resistant.

But applying polyurethane alone will not make the plywood smooth.

Again, you’ll need to sand before applying polyurethane, as doing so will ensure the polyurethane adheres well. And like with paint, you may need to apply multiple polyurethane coats to get a first-rate finish. Just be sure to let the polyurethane sealer dry between coats to ensure a quality finish.

Once you’ve applied a coat of polyurethane, be careful not to bear down too heavily when sanding later, as you may take off too much of the polyurethane and elongate the process.

And remember that polyurethane will not affect the wood’s natural look, so you should remedy all gaps, holes, and cracks before applying it, as these will be accentuated if you don’t. 

7. Texture the Surface

Texturing plywood so it looks like barn wood is another way to boost its appearance.

However, transforming plywood in this way can be both time-consuming and expensive.

You’ll need a wire brush attachment, a power drill, fine grit sandpaper, and stain to make this happen.

Start by lightly going over the wood with the wire brush attachment, and follow the woodgrain so you don’t damage the wood. Next, sand it down and then apply the stain. Once enough stain has been applied, you should add a layer of polyurethane or epoxy resin to seal and strengthen the wood.

This barnyard look has become popular in recent years, especially amongst homeowners who like to combine modern decor with traditional elements. Turning plywood into barn wood is one way to make plywood stand out, whether it’s indoors or outdoors.

For example, you could have barn wood partitions in your walk-in closet to make it more rustic. Or you could construct a tool shed out of barn wood so it fits in better with surrounding greenery.

8. Use a Drying Oil

Minwax 67500000 Tung Oil Finish, quart
  • Easy to maintain, it is the ideal protective finish for woods that have been refinished because it penetrates wood pores to restore vitality to dry, thirsty wood
  • Wood finished with minwax tung oil can be periodically refreshed by simply applying another coat
  • Recommended uses: furniture, antiques, woodwork, cabinets, doors, paneling, accessories

You can use drying oil to make plywood more visually appealing, but be aware that this is an unconventional method that may not yield the results you desire.

Drying oil is mainly used to waterproof plywood, and when it’s applied to wood it slightly darkens it and even gives the wood a bit of a shine (depending on how much is used).

Since exterior plywood is waterproofed during the manufacturing process, using drying oil on this is essentially pointless, so it’s best to only use drying oil on interior plywood. But again, with so many conventional, time-tested ways to improve plywood’s visual appeal available, you should choose any of these before you resort to drying oil specifically to make the plywood look better.

9. Iron-On Edge Banding

I discussed how plywood comes in a variety of grades at the top of this article, and I pointed out how Grade-C and Grade-D plywoods are often rough and rife with imperfections. The thing is, Grade-A and Grade-B plywoods can be rough too, but the roughness is confined to the edges. So what can you do if you have rough plywood edges?

One thing you can use to improve the edges is iron-on edge banding.

As far as colors go, this banding comes in natural wood and white, and all you have to do is cover the edges with it and iron it on. Once it’s been ironed on, roll over it with a mini roller so it sticks to the surface.

Now you have plywood edges that are easy to paint. And if you’re using the natural wood finish, you can just keep it as it is. How long the banding stays on is collectively determined by the strength of the adhesive used as well as the way in which it was applied.

10. Cover the Plywood Surface

If all the methods above sound unappealing, perhaps you should cover the plywood with drywall instead.

Of course, this is only possible on the inside of a building such as interior walls. After all, if drywall is overly exposed to moisture—as it would be outside—it will break down rather quickly.

Installing drywall, especially if you’re doing things DIY, is not all that expensive. And if you’re only putting up a small section, this won’t take long at all. Plus, painting drywall is much easier than painting plywood.

Perhaps you’ve just finished your basement and some plywood partitions are still visible. These can be covered with drywall to make the space more cozy and refined.

Final Thoughts on How to Make Plywood Look Good

If you want to improve the appearance of your plywood surface – you have plenty of options.

The sandpaper-grain filler method is arguably the most effective, but you can still use paint, stain, texturing, polyurethane, drying oil, or sandpaper alone if you don’t have access to wood grain filler.

Any of these methods will give your plywood a new look that you desire!