How to judge the face side of hardwood plywood.

​Naturally, you want the best face to show when building furniture and cabinetry from hardwood veneer plywood. Often, though, the "two-faced" nature of premium grades makes that choice a difficult one.

Only the premium grades of hardwood veneer plywood—AA, A, and A1—pose a problem in selecting the right face for a project. These grades have veneers on both sides that may at first glance look nearly identical (especially AA). However, subtle differences do exist, and choosing the right face can make the difference between a good end product and a superior one. Here s what you need to know.

There s a precept among expert cabinetmakers that says a project must be striking from afar and look even better up close. That s why they select the showing side of panels according to color first, grain second, and veneer splices last.

Color is the overall tone of the wood. In most cases you ll want a uniform veneer coloring all across the stock, or across each of several panels. In some species, where industry grading standards accept sapwood as well as heartwood for the veneer, there will be a color variation. Here, you ll want to make sure that the color variation occurs regularly enough to form a recognizable pattern.

Grain, your second consideration, also should be consistent across the face of the panel you select. If you re working with straight-grained, plain-sliced red oak, for instance, you wouldn t want a portion of it to show irregular cathedral grain. Be on the lookout, too, for exposed areas of porous end grain. These sections will soak up more stain than surrounding surfaces and appear too dark in your final project.

The selection of matching flitches, or strips of veneer that make up the panel face, was made by the manufacturer; but it s up to you to choose the most pleasing effect. Once you have chosen the grain you want displayed in your project, stick with the pattern wherever possible.

Splices, the faintly visible joints between flitches, should be your last consideration after you have settled on the side with the best color and grain. Only when these butted-up flitch edges interfere with appearance will this choice change priority (see the photographs below). When both sides look to be the same, the best face usually will have the fewest number of splices. To find them, scan the panel from side to side across the grain.

Despite quality control standards practiced in the hardwood plywood industry, slight imperfections may slip by the inspectors. These flaws may become the deciding factor in selecting which face to use in your project.

The rare, but not unknown, glue stain from the veneering process should eliminate a side, for instance. Or a depression in a core ply that telegraphs through as surface roughness. (You can find these depressions by running the palm of your hand slowly over the face veneer.) Neither of these imperfections can be sanded out, and they will show up noticeably in the finished product.

What if you can t make up your mind, even after considering variations in color, grain, splices, and imperfections? Try this test: Wipe a light coat of tung or Danish oil on both sides of the panel. The oil tends to enhance and magnify everything, including imperfections, and should make the choice all the more obvious.

Which is the best face? These photos show opposite sides of a premium-grade oak-veneer panel we purchased. Side A, below top, has fewer splices and a consistent grain pattern over its entire surface. It s our choice.