Handmade Ladders Anyone?

Handmade Ladders Anyone?

17th July 2014

It’s probably been quite a long time since ladders were made by hand.  We now live in a modern age when just about everything is fabricated by machinery and there are strict regulations on quality control to make sure that just about everything we buy is fit for purpose.  Gone are the days when household items were made at home and it seems that we have lost many of the traditional skills required to make stuff of any kind. 

There used to be a time when many DIY enthusiasts here in the UK tinkered in their workshops and garages for days (or even weeks) on end, making and creating all types of products from furniture to tools to machines.  Many of us would have been adept at home crafts too – sewing our own clothes and household linens, but who has the time for this these days.  We lead such busy lives in the 21st Century that we hardly have time to visit the supermarkets for our weekly grocery shop, let alone time to sit around sewing or knitting or even baking.

However, popular tech news website Gizmodo recently revealed that San Francisco’s Fire Department make their own wooden ladders.  SF Fire Department is one of the few left in the United States that still uses wooden ladders – it seems as if wood is not the safest option when it comes to fire fighting – after all, it’s flammable!  Nonetheless, the SF Fire Department has its own in-house ladder studio and repair facility and some of these wooden ladders have been in rotation for nearly a century, so they cannot be made from run of the mill wood which would ignite and burn during a call out.
Aluminium is the standard material for fire department ladders but it seems it cannot compare with wood as it’s not considered as durable, despite the fact that it’s not flammable.  Aluminium ladders, it seems, have a seven year lifespan when using in the fire fighting industry.  Mike Braun of the SF Fire Department is a twenty year veteran and reveals that wooden ladders can last indefinitely as it’s possible to stress wood up to its failure point over and over again and, as long as the failure point is not overreached, the wood should come right back to where it was in terms of strength and durability.

Apparently these ladders may be involved in a fire for a long time and then they just need to have the top coat of material sanded off for inspection.  Once the wood has been checked for damage, it’s re-oiled, re-varnished and then put back into service.  However, don’t be tempted to do the same with your own ladders, even if they haven’t been anywhere near a flame.  The SF Fire Department ladders are fabricated from exceptionally high grade lumber – West Coast Douglas Fir harvested from the eastern slope of a mountain where they get less sunshine.  This means that the trees grow less quickly with the result that the rings are closer together producing a more resilient wood.  There needs to be a minimum of nine rings per inch and the grain pattern cannot vary more than 15˚ with no knots or inclusions.  The wood is then acclimatised to the local climate and undergoes stringent testing before being used in ladder construction.