Plywood from Past to Present: UK Museum Exhibits ‘Material of the Modern World’

Plywood is one of the most common, yet overlooked materials used throughout the world today. But how has this revolutionary wood composite, dating back to 2600 BC Egypt, influenced the changing times?

A new exhibit at the United Kingdom’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), the world’s leading museum of art and design, delves into the history and versatility of plywood, exploring the handy material and how it helped move our world from the past to the present.

 “Plywood: Material of the Modern World” showcases the story of plywood and its resourceful nature, featuring everything from furniture to houses and airplanes.

Despite its first emergence in 1880, the use of plywood increased in the 1920’s, when it signified the beginning of the industrial age. Architects praised the material’s flexibility and began building simple furniture, such as armchairs and stools. An armchair by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto is just one of the pieces shown at the exhibit.

Full-scale house, built at the 1937 Madison Home Show to demonstrate the Forest Product Laboratory’s plywood prefabrication system.

In addition to early 20th century furniture, the showcase features a full-scale prefabricated plywood home, similar to the first all-wood one built here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in 1937.  “Prefab” houses gained popularity after scientists at the Lab developed a waterproof adhesive that allowed for easier construction and mass-production of the product. Many people sought and bought these humble abodes in response to the Great Depression, seeing them as a means to quick, affordable housing.

Beginning in the 1940’s at the dawn of World War II, plywood played a role once again, and FPL was at the forefront of wartime innovation. Researchers designed and created a number of military applications, including adhesives and papreg, a strong paper-plastic that was used in the floors of gliders. The 1941 DeHavilland Mosquito aircraft, on display at the V&A, was renowned for its strength and lightness. Thanks to the planes plywood fuselages, built at FPL, the Mosquito was the fastest aircraft manufactured for the war.

Other exhibition highlights include an 1800’s elevated plywood railway, an automobile, and displays showcasing how the material influenced DIY efforts of the 1950’s. Various tours and lectures on the groundbreaking influence of plywood are also offered.

“Plywood: Material of the Modern World” will run at the V&A until November 12, 2017.

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta

All In a Day’s Work: Identifying Wood Species in Antique Horse Hames

Mike Wiemann, a botanist in the Forest Products Laboratory’s (FPL) Center for Wood Anatomy Research, has a special skill: identifying wood species, often with just a quick look through a tiny hand lens he carries in his pocket.

Mike Wiemann, FPL botanist, prepares a sample for identification.

Mike Wiemann, FPL botanist, prepares a sample for identification.

While most of us simply see wood, Wiemann can recognize varying species by looking at the end grain and evaluating the size and arrangement of the tissue components. And he did just that recently for a visitor to the Lab with a unique collection.

Willis Parker, a retired veterinarian, has an extensive collection of hames, two curved pieces of iron or wood forming (or attached to) the collar of a draft horse. Parker has collected nearly 400 hames over several decades, and is working to clean, photograph, identify wood species, and name the makers to preserve the history of their use.

Willis Parker shows Wiemann his hame collection.

Willis Parker (left) shows Wiemann his hame collection.

Interestingly, Wiemann happened to know what a hame was thanks to his college days. “In 1964, a requirement of the Intro to Forestry class I took my freshman year was to memorize and identify the parts of a harness,” said Wiemann. “I never thought I’d use that information again!”

With special permission from Wiemann (whose skills are in high demand), Parker brought 22 hames to FPL one sunny afternoon for wood identification. Some were well-worn and simple in design, used for work horses that pulled plows; others were painted and ornate, used when pulling carriages for wealthy passengers.

Parker laid out the pieces of wood, most dating from the early 1900s, and Wiemann got to work. What he found were hames made from ash, beech, red oak, white oak, hard maple, and elm.

Parker carefully tagged and labeled each hame after Wiemann announced the species, and he thanked Wiemann repeatedly for helping gather such useful information about his collection.

Wiemann was more than happy to help, as here at FPL, public service really is all in a day’s work.

hames5

Wiemann looks at a wood hame through his hand lens to identify the species.

 

 

Thowback Thursday: The Evolution of FPL Statistics Section

Statistical analysis is at the core of many scientific fields, and its use in research at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) is no exception.

The first statistical group, or section, at FPL was commonly known as “Computing.” Its job was to summarize test information generated by engineers and scientists. Because much of this was done by hand and simple adding machines, the work required a number of people.

Members of the Computing section, 1912.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the section was known by a number of names, such as “Administrative & Technical Services,” “Mathematical and Computing Services,” “Biometrics Section,” “Statistics and Numerical Analysis,” “Statistical Research,” and “Statistics and Automated Data Processing.” The statistics and computing functions diverged into separate groups in 1980.

The computer group known as “Systems and Automated Data Processing” and later as “Management Systems,” took on the responsibility of implementing and supporting the national computer program, focusing on administrative processes with the Data General computer system and later IBM servers.

VHDS

Diana Smith with Fisk University Sophomore Ethel Hunter using a 1960s IBM computer.

That group’s work at the lab ended in 2005 when computer support was consolidated at the Forest Service’s Washington Office.

The “Statistics Group” began in 1980 with one statistician. By 2001, the Statistics group consisted of three mathematical statisticians and two statisticians. It was turned into a research work unit (RWU), the “Statistical Methods in Wood and Fiber Research,” to better reflect the importance of statistics to FPL research.

In 2007, the Statistics and Economics RWUs were merged into the combined RWU that exists today.