Not Enough Timber

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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From the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth century, America’shorse drawn vehicle makers competed heavily for certain wood stocks as theywere in heavy demand from a multitude of industries.  With so much pressure on the nation’sforests, the challenges to acquiring the right raw materials in a timely mannerwere sometimes overwhelming.

To that point, the article below is from a 1906 issue of “The CarriageMonthly.”  It outlines the struggles ofsupply and demand along with concerns related to vehicle quality, performance,and customer satisfaction.  In part, italso helps explain why some types of wood were in use during a particulartime.  Combined with a blog I wrote back in February of thisyear, it’s an interesting piece giving added insight into America’s firsttransportation industry.

 “The growing scarcity of timber forcesmanufacturers to make the very best of the kind of timber they find on themarket.  In the opinion of some verycareful observers, the time will come when substitutes will have to be had foroak and hickory, none of which will be as good as the oak and hickory stockwhich contains small defects, but which do not interfere with the strength ofthe material.  Heretofore, it has beenthe custom to throw out anything with a defect, even if it did not impair thestrength of the material, but the present condition of things limits themanufacturer in this respect.

Take white ash.  A few years ago it was comparativelyplentiful.  Now it is practicallyexhausted.  No wood can easily take theplace of second growth northern white ash for certain parts of a vehicle.  There is no white ash to-day that is suitablefor the same purposes of the old second growth white ash of a few yearsago.  It is not so long ago since thatall wagon manufacturers used ash for wagon tongues and they would not hear tothe use of anything else.  To-day oak isused for wagon tongues almost entirely, and it is a rare thing to find an ashtongue.  Those that are in use areinferior to ordinary oak stock.  It istrue that there is considerable ash in the South, but experience has taughtmanufacturers that when it is thoroughly dry, it is “brash” and hardly suitablefor vehicle construction. 

The inferiority ofash and its scarcity has, in a certain sense, driven vehicle builders to useoak 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 ofash.  When a builder comes across a lotof genuine second growth white ash, he feels himself particularly lucky.  Southern ash has the appearance of beingtough when it is green; but when it comes to a matter of testing in use, it isdemonstrated that oak is superior to ash as it is found to-day.

These are only a fewof the instances which could be greatly multiplied, and which are suggested inthe timber situation as it faces the carriage and wagon builder to-day.  Cottonwood has been brought out as asubstitute for high-priced poplar, but it met with a great deal of oppositionfor awhile.  Today, wagon builders knowto what extent wagon boxes are made from cottonwood, and even this number isapproaching the scarcity of poplar.  Thequestion now is, what will next be employed?

Attention is beingturned to gum, and it is probable that gum will be largely utilized in theconstruction of wagon box boards.  Comingdown to hickory, we are up against the most serious part of the proposition.  We can find substitutes for oak, poplar, ashand 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 futurediscussions, for it is a problem which must be met and solved.”

Just as manufacturers today are dependent upon the availability ofquality raw materials, vehicle makers in the nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies also wrestled with maintaining sufficient stocks of building supplies.  This century-plus-old article is just onemore reminder that the ‘good old days’ were not necessarily as simplistic assometimes portrayed.  Builders workedwith purpose but often found themselves experimenting with new materials and awhole 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.
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