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What is the difference between plywood and OSB?

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Here’s the big question we get asked regularly when we come out of an attic: “Is my roofing sheathing plywood or OSB?” Everyone seems to have a friend that has told them that one is good and the other is bad—or, at least, not as good. OSB (which is an acronym for Oriented Strand Board) is the new kid on the block, but more popular, with almost twice as much produced annually in the U.S. This is primarily because plywood and OSB have comparable, but not identical, performance properties, while OSB is cheaper. A contractor saves hundreds of dollars by choosing OSB instead of plywood to build an average home.

   They are easy to tell apart at a glance, if you peek up into the attic at the underside of your roof sheathing. OSB (shown in the attic above) looks like wood chips laid at random angles and pressed together, while plywood has a recognizable overall wood-grain pattern.

    They are also manufactured by different methods. Plywood is made from thin veneer layers of wood that are peeled from a spinning log and laminated together. There is always an odd number of layers and each layer is glued with the grain at right angles to the one underneath it, for strength and stability of the material. OSB starts with rectangular wood strand pieces that are arranged in cross-oriented layers which are pressed and heat-cured.

   Here’s the pros and cons of each material: 

PLYWOOD

Pro

  • Both off-gas formaldehyde, but plywood produces less because not as much glue is used to manufacture it. While formaldehyde is primarily an irritant, that can cause eye and throat irritation, coughing, and allergic reactions, the EPA states that “long-term exposure to high levels has been associated with cancer in humans.” See our blog post How can formaldehyde gas in a house be a problem? for more information on this issue.
  • Plywood is slightly stiffer, by about 10%, than comparable OSB.
  • Better at holding nails and screws.

Con

  • Plywood tends to delaminate as it ages in exterior applications, especially at the base of siding in the high humidity of Florida.
  • More expensive than OSB.

OSB

Pro

  • OSB is considered a “greener” material, because it can be made from small, younger and farmed trees.
  • OSB is more structurally uniform, without the soft spots at gaps in the veneer layers of plywood.
  • Can be manufactured in larger sheets.

Con

  • Swells more when wet, especially at the edges of the panel. Stays somewhat swollen after drying.
  • About 15% heavier than plywood.

    Also, see our blog post What is the average life expectancy of plywood siding?

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  To learn more about roofs and attics, see these other blog posts:

Why is my roof sheathing sagging between the trusses?

Why is granule loss a problem for an asphalt shingle roof? 

What are the mistakes to avoid when doing attic improvements?

What causes roof shingles to curl up at corners?  

What causes shingles to buckle along a line on the roof?

What causes leaks at a fake roof dormer? 

What causes a sagging roof ridge line?

What causes bubble-like blisters in a built-up and gravel roof?  

Why does it cost so much more to replace a steep roof than a low slope roof? 

What is "ponding" on a flat roof?

Is an attic required to have a light by the building code? 

How can I inspect my roof for hurricane damage?

Why is premature curl of roof shingles a problem?

How can I tell if a roof has more than one layer of shingles? 

What are the common problems with attic insulation? 

What is the life expectancy of an asbestos cement shingle roof? 

What's the average lifespan of a roof?

Why is it a mistake to replace a roof and not replace its flashings? 

Why is there no attic access hatch in the house?

What is the building code requirement for an attic access hatch, scuttle, or door? 

Does a roof with multiple layers of shingles last longer?

What can I do to prevent roof leaks?

Are roof trusses better than roof rafters (stick framing)? 

Why is a popped nail in a shingle roof a problem? How do I fix it?

What are the most common problems with wood roof trusses?

What causes a lump or dip in the roof? 

If my roof is not leaking, why does it need to be replaced?

How can I be sure my roofing contractor got a permit?

How many layers of roofing are allowed on a home? 

What are the dark lines running parallel to shingles on my roof?

Can metal roofing be used on a low slope/pitch roof? 

How can I make my roof last longer?  

What are the warning signs of a dangerous attic pull-down ladder?

How can I find out the age of a roof? 

Should I buy a house that needs a new roof?

Should I buy a house with an old roof? 

What are those metal boxes on the roof?

What does "lack of tab adhesion" in an asphalt shingle roof mean?

Why do roof edges start leaking?

Why do my dormer windows leak? 

Do home inspectors go on the roof? Do they get in the attic?

Should I put gutters on the house? 

How much of a roof truss can I cut out to make a storage platform in the attic? 

What's the difference between an "architectural" and a regular shingle roof? 

What does a home inspector look for when examining a roof? 

Do stains on the ceiling mean the roof is leaking?

How can I tell if the house needs a new roof?  

 Why does my homeowner's insurance want a roof inspection?

What are the hazards to avoid when going into an attic? 

     Visit our ROOF AND ATTIC page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.

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