Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Not Enough Timber

From the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth century, America’s horse drawn vehicle makers competed heavily for certain wood stocks as they were in heavy demand from a multitude of industries.  With so much pressure on the nation’s forests, the challenges to acquiring the right raw materials in a timely manner were sometimes overwhelming.
To that point, the article below is from a 1906 issue of “The Carriage Monthly.”  It outlines the struggles of supply and demand along with concerns related to vehicle quality, performance, and customer satisfaction.  In part, it also helps explain why some types of wood were in use during a particular time.  Combined with a blog I wrote back in February of this year, it’s an interesting piece giving added insight into America’s first transportation industry.

 “The growing scarcity of timber forces manufacturers to make the very best of the kind of timber they find on the market.  In the opinion of some very careful observers, the time will come when substitutes will have to be had for oak and hickory, none of which will be as good as the oak and hickory stock which contains small defects, but which do not interfere with the strength of the material.  Heretofore, it has been the custom to throw out anything with a defect, even if it did not impair the strength of the material, but the present condition of things limits the manufacturer in this respect.
Take white ash.  A few years ago it was comparatively plentiful.  Now it is practically exhausted.  No wood can easily take the place of second growth northern white ash for certain parts of a vehicle.  There is no white ash to-day that is suitable for the same purposes of the old second growth white ash of a few years ago.  It is not so long ago since that all wagon manufacturers used ash for wagon tongues and they would not hear to the use of anything else.  To-day oak is used for wagon tongues almost entirely, and it is a rare thing to find an ash tongue.  Those that are in use are inferior to ordinary oak stock.  It is true that there is considerable ash in the South, but experience has taught manufacturers that when it is thoroughly dry, it is “brash” and hardly suitable for vehicle construction. 
The inferiority of ash and its scarcity has, in a certain sense, driven vehicle builders to use oak for purposes which a few years ago were not permissible.  Besides, the supply of oak, limited as it is, affords the manufacturers a wide selection.  It is for this reason that oak is being largely used for wagon tongues; also in such articles as buggy bows, oak has almost entirely taken the place of ash.  When a builder comes across a lot of genuine second growth white ash, he feels himself particularly lucky.  Southern ash has the appearance of being tough when it is green; but when it comes to a matter of testing in use, it is demonstrated that oak is superior to ash as it is found to-day.
These are only a few of the instances which could be greatly multiplied, and which are suggested in the timber situation as it faces the carriage and wagon builder to-day.  Cottonwood has been brought out as a substitute for high-priced poplar, but it met with a great deal of opposition for awhile.  Today, wagon builders know to what extent wagon boxes are made from cottonwood, and even this number is approaching the scarcity of poplar.  The question now is, what will next be employed?
Attention is being turned to gum, and it is probable that gum will be largely utilized in the construction of wagon box boards.  Coming down to hickory, we are up against the most serious part of the proposition.  We can find substitutes for oak, poplar, ash and cottonwood, but when it comes to hickory, there is no apparent substitute, and the supply is rapidly diminishing.  The way out of the serious difficulty will be the subject of future discussions, for it is a problem which must be met and solved.”

Just as manufacturers today are dependent upon the availability of quality raw materials, vehicle makers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also wrestled with maintaining sufficient stocks of building supplies.  This century-plus-old article is just one more reminder that the ‘good old days’ were not necessarily as simplistic as sometimes portrayed.  Builders worked with purpose but often found themselves experimenting with new materials and a whole new set of advertising hyperbole.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.