110 Years of FPL: Laminated Wood Products

In celebration of 110 years of research at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), we are revisiting blog posts that detail some of our most interesting historic people, places, and projects. Enjoy!

FPL’s pioneering work on the engineering design of glued-laminated construction helped launch the laminating industry in the United States. Much of the research on laminated wood originated at the time of the first World War when the Bureau of Aircraft Production approached FPL with a need for lightweight airplane wings.

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Remembering Former FPL Director Robert Youngs

Robert L. Youngs, director of the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) from 1975-1985, passed away Saturday, April 25, 2020 in Blacksburg, Virginia at the age of 96.

Robert L. Youngs, FPL Director 1975-1985

Bob first heard of the Lab when he was studying wood technology as an undergrad at the College of Forestry at Syracuse. FPL’s famed Wood Handbook was one of his textbooks. Later, as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Bob’s advisor had previously worked at FPL, and Bob recalled he “was very effusive in his praise of the Laboratory as a place to work.”

Upon graduation, Bob wrote to FPL inquiring about work, but there were no positions available. One year later, he inquired again and his timing was right. FPL had just received some extra funding related to the Korean War, and Bob was hired on to work in wood drying. He continued in this line of research, even studying it as he earned his Ph.D. from Yale, and eventually helped developed the original Dry Kiln Operator’s Manual, one of the Lab’s most popular publications. 

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Throwback Thursday: FPL’s 1920 Bowling Team

For a blog on wood research, Lab Notes features a surprising amount of posts about sports.

Our researchers’ work has touched the world of basketball because of the floors, baseball because of the bats, and bowling because of the pins (and maybe also because we’re located in Wisconsin, home to more bowling alleys than any other state in the nation).

It’s bowling that gets a mention again today, after librarian Julie Blankenburg found a few gems in the historic records of the FPL library, photos of a team from 1920 and a bowling banquet.

FPL bowling team, 1920
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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.

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