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The Evolution of Engineered Wood Products

The Evolution of Engineered Wood Products

From Humble Beginnings to Structural Marvels

It’s incredible to think that the wood products we rely on today for building, construction, and countless other applications have such a rich and storied history. When I first learned about the evolution of engineered wood, I was utterly fascinated. What started as simple laminated panels has transformed into an entire industry of innovative, high-performance materials that are revolutionizing the way we design and construct.

Let’s rewind the clock and trace the humble origins of engineered wood back to its roots. According to the APA – The Engineered Wood Association, the very first patent for a form of plywood was issued in 1865 to John K. Mayo of New York City. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the softwood plywood industry really took off.

The Rise of Softwood Plywood

In 1905, a small wooden box factory in Portland, Oregon called the Portland Manufacturing Company decided to get creative for an upcoming World’s Fair. The company’s plant manager, Gustav Carlson, had the brilliant idea to laminate wood panels from a variety of Pacific Northwest softwoods. Using simple tools like paintbrushes and house jacks, the team produced several panels that caught the attention of fairgoers, including some major players in the door, cabinet, and trunk industries.

By 1907, the Portland Manufacturing Company had ramped up production with an automatic glue spreader and sectional hand press, cranking out an impressive 420 panels per day. And just like that, an industry was born.

Over the next 15 years, softwood plywood found its primary market in door panels. But in 1920, a savvy salesman named Gus Bartells from Elliott Bay Plywood in Seattle started generating interest from the automobile industry. Bartells had previously established the first plywood dealerships around the country, and he was equally successful in convincing car manufacturers to use plywood for running boards.

This new market took off, and the plywood industry enjoyed steady growth throughout the Roaring Twenties. By 1929, there were 17 plywood mills in the Pacific Northwest, and production reached a record 358 million square feet.

The Quest for Waterproof Adhesive

However, the industry soon faced a roadblock. Lack of a waterproof adhesive meant that plywood wasn’t suitable for exterior exposure, and auto manufacturers eventually switched to more durable metal running boards. But in 1934, a breakthrough occurred when Dr. James Nevin, a chemist at Harbor Plywood Corporation in Aberdeen, Washington, finally developed a fully waterproof adhesive.

This game-changing technology had the potential to open up significant new markets for plywood. But the industry remained fragmented, with varying product quality and grading systems from mill to mill. Individual companies simply didn’t have the resources to effectively research, develop, and promote new uses for plywood.

Enter the Douglas Fir Plywood Association

The industry looked to its newly formed trade association, the Douglas Fir Plywood Association, for help. After several failed attempts to establish an industry organization, the association finally held its first regular meeting in Tacoma, Washington, on June 13, 1933.

The association struggled at first, but in 1938, it hired a legendary business development guru named W.E. “Diff” Difford. This proved to be a game-changer. The Douglas Fir Plywood Association was among the first to take advantage of a 1938 law that permitted registration of industry-wide trademarks. This allowed plywood to be promoted as a standardized commodity rather than individual brand names.

That same year, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) accepted exterior plywood based in part on a new Commercial Standard that included performance tests for both interior and exterior plywood. These developments helped clear the way for more successful promotion of plywood’s benefits to the construction industry.

Plywood in Wartime

Plywood’s growing reputation as a strong and durable construction material was soon put to the ultimate test: World War II. The product was declared an essential war material, and production and distribution came under strict controls. By this time, the industry had grown to around 30 mills, producing between 12 and 18 billion square feet annually.

Plywood played a critical role in the war effort, from barracks and PT boats to gliders and assault boats. There were thousands of war accessories made of plywood, from crating for machinery parts to huts for the famed Seabees in the South Pacific to lifeboats on hundreds of ships that kept supply lines open.

Explosive Growth in the Post-War Era

With the war over, the industry geared up to meet the growing demand in the booming post-war economy. In 1944, the industry’s 30 mills produced 14 billion square feet of plywood. By 1954, the industry had grown to 101 mills, and production approached 4 billion square feet.

The Stanford Research Institute predicted in 1954 that demand for plywood would rise to 7 billion feet by 1975 – 21 years into the future. But the industry exceeded that forecast in just five years, with production rocketing to 7.8 billion feet. And by 1975, U.S. production alone exceeded 16 billion square feet, more than double the initial prediction.

The Canadian Connection

As the plywood industry flourished in the Pacific Northwest, it was only natural that Canada should join the party. The first Canadian plywood was produced in 1913 at Fraser Mills in New Westminster, British Columbia, but it wasn’t until 1935 that a second mill was opened by the HR MacMillan Company. In 1950, five Canadian companies founded the Plywood Manufacturers Association of British Columbia (PMBC), which eventually evolved into the Canadian Plywood Association (CANPLY).

The Canadian Standards Association published the first Canadian Plywood Standard in 1953, based on specifications developed by PMBC. This helped solidify the industry’s growth on both sides of the border.

The Shift to Southern Pine

For more than half a century, the softwood plywood industry was located exclusively in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, utilizing the region’s vast supply of Douglas fir. But that all changed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as research and development efforts unlocked the secret to effectively gluing together veneer from softwood species grown in other regions.

In 1964, Georgia-Pacific Corporation opened the first southern pine plywood mill in Fordyce, Arkansas. That same year, the Douglas Fir Plywood Association changed its name to the American Plywood Association (APA) to reflect the industry’s national scope. Today, some two-thirds of all U.S. plywood is produced in the South.

The Birth of Engineered Wood Products

Plywood is often called the “original engineered wood product” because it was one of the first to be made by bonding together cut or refashioned pieces of wood to form a larger and integral composite unit that was stronger and stiffer than the sum of its parts. The idea of reconstituting wood fiber to produce better-than-wood building materials has led to a technological revolution and the rise of a whole new engineered wood products industry.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the plywood principle gave rise to what today is a worldwide oriented strand board (OSB) industry. Instead of solid sheets of veneer, OSB is made of small wood strands that are glued together in cross-laminated layers.

Other engineered wood products that have since emerged include wood I-joists, glued laminated timber (glulam), laminated veneer lumber (LVL), and oriented strand lumber (OSL). These products not only yield superior performance properties but also make better use of precious forest resources.

The Evolution Continues

As I’ve learned more about the history of engineered wood, I’ve been amazed by the industry’s relentless drive to innovate and improve upon the inherent structural advantages of wood. From the humble beginnings of softwood plywood to the rise of a diverse array of high-performance engineered wood products, the story is one of remarkable progress and evolution.

And the journey is far from over. The team at Timber Building continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible with engineered wood, exploring new applications and design possibilities that will shape the future of construction and beyond. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter holds!

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