Engineers from FPL and the VA Inspect 134-Year-Old Milwaukee Medical Center Building

The first building in what is now the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was originally approved for construction by President Abraham Lincoln just one month before the end of the Civil War, for the care of disabled soldiers. That structure was completed in 1869.

Originally called the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and nicknamed the “Old Main,” the Zablocki VAMC now consists of 20 buildings.

Adam Senalik, FPL Engineer, visually inspecting the studs of a wall on the top floor of Building 7 at the Zablocki VAMC.

Last week, it was time for an inspection of Building 7 – the Soldiers’ Home. Like Buildings 2 and 5, it was built as a barracks for soldiers receiving care at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home. Consisting of three stories and a large basement foundation, the Soldier’s Home, designed by celebrated architect Henry Koch, was ready for business in 1888. Building 7 now supports the offices of the Compensated Work Therapy Department. New IT requirements require the VAMC to update the structural integrity of some of the older buildings.

Bob Ross, FPL Engineer, investigating the structural members in the wall system on the top floor of building 7. Note that the outer layers of the wall have been removed to expose the structural members.

To that end, Forest Products Laboratory Research General Engineers Bob Ross and Adam Senalik took the 90-minute drive to Milwaukee to join Erik Billstrom, on-site engineer for the VA, to carry out the necessary structural analyses.

Erik Billstrom, VA engineer, examines a large white pine timber in the high ceiling of the basement maintenance room and finds he is easily able to remove wood samples by hand.

According to Bob and Adam, FPL regularly receives requests for structural condition assessments, mostly dealing with historic wood structures, structural assessment, inspection, and assignment of allowable design values.

“We usually try to provide direct assistance to other Federal agencies and Departments,” said Bob. “This is especially true for the DoD and Veterans’ Administration.

“What matters most here,” added Bob, “is that this campus does good things for veterans.” The Zablocki VAMC serves more than 64,000 U.S. veterans every year.

Bob added that the book he coauthored, Wood and Timber Condition Assessment Manual, now in its second edition, summarizes structural condition assessment research currently used for wood and timber structures. The publication can be found at:  https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/fplgtr/fpl_gtr234.pdf.  A previous FPL LabNotes article provides a summary of the manual here:  https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/labnotes/?p=4599.

Bob Ross reveals a deteriorated nail from the basement ceiling

Starting on the third floor of building 7, the three engineers began to examine the condition of the walls and ceiling.

“It’s in pretty bad shape,” said Adam. “But about what we expected.” Previous engineering analyses had found that the structural beams were not designed for heavy weight. 

The group then climbed up into the dark attic above the third floor and removed a few samples of wood. The blackened strips of wood appeared as if they had been in a fire.

“Maybe they were at one time,” observed Bob. “Further analysis will tell us.”

Satisfied with their inspection and the samples they had acquired, the analysts moved down to the utility room on the basement level. Here, the late 19th-century origins of the building were even more apparent, with period arches and a brick wall that had survived more than a century of water damage. The wall appeared not unlike a medieval dungeon in its heavily “blurred” condition.

Erik set up and climbed a tall step ladder to examine a large white pine timber across the ceiling of the basement. He reached in and was able to effortlessly lift spacers out of the surrounding structure. Finally, the three engineers placed all their gathered samples into large, labeled plastic bags.

“It was a good inspection,” Adam concluded. “I only hope that this building can be saved.”

FPL Scientist and UW-Madison Bring Science and Art Together

Alex Wiedenhoeft invention contributes to new Audubon Exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art


Detail of Carolina Parrots from The Birds of America, John James Audubon. Photo courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art

Alex Wiedenhoeft has contributed so much of his hard work and knowledge to the Forest Products Laboratory in the more than 20 years he has been with us. One of his most useful inventions is the XyloTron, a desktop device that provides high-resolution images of wood.

In his effort to make the XyloTron less costly and more portable, Alex also developed the XyloPhone, a small device that attaches to a smartphone and provides the same resolution as the much larger XyloTron.

In just a few months, the Xylophone has contributed greatly to the ability of scientists in the field to identify and photograph wood. But not just wood.

Artist Emily Arthur, associate professor in the UW-Madison art department, learned about the XyloPhone through her colleague Anne Pringle, professor of Botany at UW-Madison, who studies lichens and fungi in her lab. During Emily’s ongoing collaborative research with Robin Rider, curator of special collections, Memorial Library, the XyloPhone became a way to examine rare books and works on paper.

“I knew this device would be invaluable for the purposes of this research,” said Emily Arthur. “And I was right! Being able to examine the hand-colored engravings from The Birds of America at such a detailed level has revealed new information on the printing techniques that were used in its production between 1827-1838.”


Alex Wiedenhoeft demonstrates wood identification using the XyloTron system. He also developed the XyloPhone as a smaller, more portable device that attaches to a smartphone, but with the same remarkable scanning ability. Photo by Andrew Averil, Hardwood Floors Magazine

The focus of the exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art is not just the gorgeous creations of the renowned naturalist, John James Audubon, but in particular the methods that formed a tradition of exactitude in engraving that lies behind the work of printmakers like Robert Havell, Jr.

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Research on Electronic Components Made from Wood Continues to Advance

The Forest Products Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) have a history of collaboration aimed at making electronic components from wood. From flexible electronic screens to computer chips, this partnership has produced fascinating results. Learn more about the latest development in the following article from the UW.

Critical communications component made on a flexible wooden film

By Jason Daley

In the not-too-distant future, flexible electronics will open the door to new products like foldable phones, tablets that can be rolled, paper-thin displays and wearable sensors that monitor health data. Developing these new bendy products, however, means using materials like new plastics and thin films to replace the rigid circuit boards and bulky electronic components that currently occupy the interiors of cell phones and other gadgets.

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FPL Researcher Awarded Fulbright Fellowship

Chris Hunt, a research chemist at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), has been awarded a Fulbright fellowship to work in Tallinn, Estonia from February to August, 2021.

Chris Hunt, FPL research chemist

The Fulbright Program is devoted to increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Hunt proposed to work on improved techniques for characterizing wood veneer surfaces with respect to bonding performance. His application also included the goal of promoting FPL to European institutions as a destination for scholars wanting to conduct wood science.

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Insect Societies Have A Lot to Teach About Healthy Social Living

Ants Macro on Green Leaves, Naypong Studio – stock.adobe.com

Agriculture is widely considered the start of humanity living in large, closely inhabited settlements as opposed to small nomadic tribes. With any behavioral change, there is a cost-benefit. We are currently experiencing a real-time cost-benefit of living in an agricultural society with the development of the coronavirus pandemic. Social living has increased humanity’s ability to do just about everything including pathogen (bacterium, virus, disease causing microorganism) transmission.

However, humanity is not the only agricultural society successfully living on Earth today. If we look closely—very closely—there are tiny, yet massively populated societies facing the same pathogen transmission challenges.

Some of these societies have developed unique strategies to protect themselves—like a certain species of aphids whose soldiers explode their abdomens to seal and defend their colony from disease threats.

Others employ versions that we see in human communities, like developing a diverse gut microbiome for strong immune systems.

Taking a closer look at social insect models could be the key to unlocking more effective human strategies for pathogen management.

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