Specifying the right plywood for concrete formwork

Manufacturers produce various grades of plywood form panel products, often treated with a release agent, for most general concrete-forming applications.
Images courtesy APA

By Mark Halverson

Concrete formwork may represent close to half the cost of a concrete structure. For cost-effective building, contractors select forming panels that will stand up to the job and to multiple uses.

Member manufacturers of APA−The Engineered Wood Association produce a variety of plywood form panel products—Plyform—designed for most general concrete-forming applications. Usually pretreated with a release agent to facilitate stripping, these panels are available in many grades from basic B-B to products with overlays (i.e. Medium-density Overlay [MDO]) and High-density Overlay [HDO]) that add stability, resist abrasions, and provide a smoother and more durable forming surface.

Each producer of overlaid concrete-forming panels offers proprietary products offering a variety of different features and benefits.

Choosing panels
When planning multiple reuses, it is best to use plywood with more durable construction. All Plyform panels have more solid and stronger veneers than traditional sheathing panels, offered in a range of durability. These panels are rated as Class I, which means they are manufactured with the strongest and stiffest veneers. The grades of veneer used in Plyform panels are indicated in the APA trademark.

MDO and HDO overlaid panels have resin-impregnated cellulose fiber sheets laminated to their faces, and can have either single- or double-sided faces. With careful handling and maintenance, any double-faced forming panel, from B-B Plyform to the overlaid panels, can be poured against on both sides.

HDO forming panels have a greater amount of resin in the overlay; their surfaces are harder and more impervious to water and impacts than MDO forming panels. A greater number of uses and smoother finish on the surface of the concrete can be expected when using HDO Plyform.

Forming panels with MDO faces are often only overlaid on one side, but may have pourable faces on both sides of the panels. While MDO surfaces are not as smooth and durable as HDO panels, a contractor should expect to get more pours from them than the panels without overlay or other surface treatment. The finish of the concrete from an MDO surface will be softer and not as slick as that formed against HDO panels.

There are many different types of overlays and treatments for Plyform that can be used to maximize durability. B-B and B-C panels can be made more durable and resistant to moisture with a coating such as polyurethane or other type of liquid surface treatment. One of the newer high-performance overlays is phenolic surface film.

It is important to remember not all MDO and HDO overlaid panels (e.g. some General and Industrial products, respectively) are designed for concrete formwork. Care should be taken when specifying and purchasing concrete-forming panels; one can look for the APA trademarks clearly identifying the panel grade and type.

An example of a Plyform label.

How many pours can you get from a concrete form panel?
The question of how many pours are achievable with a single concrete form panel depends not only on the product itself, but also its care and maintenance. Nearly all types of plywood panels can be used in concrete-forming, from common roof and wall sheathing to sanded panels. APA Plyform panels, however, are specifically designed to withstand the wear-and-tear of repeated concrete pours, as well as to provide a smoother and more consistent finish to the concrete’s surface.

Many factors can affect the number of pours anticipated from concrete-forming plywood, including:

  • desired finish on the concrete;
  • durability of the panel’s surface, including overlays;
  • types of concrete formulation; and
  • which release agents are used.

The most critical factor is the handling and care of the form panels.

For example, because panels absorb water, and the increase in moisture content usually causes the panels to expand and move, it is important to adequately fasten the form panels to the framing and to leave space between the panels that allows for their flatwise movement within the formwork.

With reasonable maintenance, more than five pours can be expected from a B-B grade Plyform, while HDO panels can withstand up to 20 to 50 reuses, and MDO Plyform somewhere in between. In fact, with proper care, some proprietary concrete-forming panels can achieve more than 100 reuses.

Caring for the panels 101
One can optimize the life and performance of forming panels if they are adequately maintained. Here are some commonsense considerations:

  • apply a release agent prior to every pour;
  • only use non-ferrous wedges and tools (e.g. wood or softer plastics) to remove excess concrete from the faces and edges of the panels;
  • keep the panels stored face to face to protect cleaned surfaces;
  • protect vulnerable corners and edges of panels during removal and handling;
  • if form panels are cut, reseal the ends and edges to protect them from excessive moisture; and
  • consider admixtures in concrete formulations when choosing a type of forming panel, understanding that overlaid panels provide greater resistance to chemicals.

To determine the optimal panel for an application, design/construction professionals can visit PerformancePanels.com to see lists of manufacturers, access product specifications, and read APA’s Concrete Forming Design/Construction Guide.

Mark Halverson spent more than 15 years in the building products distribution industry prior to joining APA−The Engineered Wood Association in 1990. He has served as a manager for APA since 1994, starting with management of industrial markets and then moving on to management of the group’s field staff. In this capacity, Halverson oversees a team of engineers, architects, and technical experts who provide engineered wood and systems information and recommendations to construction and design professionals. He can be reached at mark.halverson@apawood.org.

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2 comments on “Specifying the right plywood for concrete formwork”

  1. I’m building a cabin in a remote area of West Virginia and looking to do poured foundation, out of necessity. We can get 6×6 concrete trucks to deliver, but impossible to find block mason willing to drive the hour+ it takes to get to the site each day. I’ve built several houses, but never liked doing block work, so want to DIY concrete plywood forms. If I use the 2×6 studs one foot on center with 3/4” plywood, with snapties between each sheet, will it hold. (I want to reuse plywood and studs for framing and floors). If ICF can hold that kind of weight I don’t see why 2×6 can’t do the same.

  2. Snap-Ties are only manufactured for 2X4 Construction, however if you have a bit of skill and sum common sense you can get long ties, run your whalers horizontally and either (A) rip your vertical stiff backs down to 2-inches and secure with a wedge clamp, or (B) drill a 3/4″ hole to match the vertical pater of your snap ties and use 2 wedge clamps at the end of each tie, the double wedge will act like a shim and will save you a lot of time ripping wood and wasting wood.

    Hope this was helpful.

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