The tree and its wood have played a prominent role inhuman life throughout history. Wood has been one of our most important building materials from early Paleolithic times, both for building and for the manufacture of tools, weapons, and furniture. From the earliest times, the use of wood involved consideration of quality, cost and availability, as well as the intended use of the product. Scarcity of valuable timber led to careful and economic use. Boards were carefully matched and fitted; blemishes were removed and filled. Practices begun many centuries ago are still carried over, with refinement, to the current use of wood for high quality applications. Early humans used wood because it was available and no elaborate tools were needed to work it.
In the early days, however, the quality of the products depended more on the quality of the wood and the skill of the workman than on the tools available for woodworking. The development of copper tools by about5000 BC opened new opportunities for craftsmanship –opportunities that have been carried forward to this day. From the tenth to the eighteenth centuries in Europe, wood was the material primarily used for buildings, tools, machines, mills, carts, buckets, shoes, furniture and barrels, to name just a few of the thousands of kinds of wood products of the time. The first printing press was made of wood and such presses continued to be made of wood for a hundred years.
Most of the machines and inventions to make possible the machine age were formed of wood during that period. In Europe, wood use reached a peak during the sixteenth century, then began to diminish, not due to the limitations of wood, but due to limits on its accessibility as a result of increasing demands for fuel and materials and the expansion of agriculture into formerly forested lands. Wood use in North America continued to expand long after the decline of use in Europe and continues to increase today as part of the general world trend toward increasing wood use. Many of the uses now take different forms, reflecting new product demands and new technology. Wood has historically playeda key role in the transportation of people and their possessions, both as a fuel and as a raw material.
Sledges made of wood were used in northern Europe as early as 7000 BC. As wheels were invented in 3-4000 BC, this led to the development of carts. In the nineteenth century in North America, railroads used wood for fuel, as well as for sleepers, bridges, trestles, and vehicles. Fuel use on railroads contributed to wood being the primary energy source in North America at the middle of the nineteenth century.
Wood for water transport evolved from the early barges and hollowed out logs of 4500 BC to the sleek sail-powered clipper ships of the mid nineteenth century. Steam for power and steel for ship construction made that uneconomical by the end of the century, however. Wood has been a most versatile and useful construction material for thousands of years and is still used more than any other construction material. The style and durability of structures built at various times and places have depended on the type and quality of timber available and the conditions of use, as well as the culture and way of life of the people concerned.
In forested zones, where timber was plentiful, solid walls were built of tree trunks or heavy timbers. Timber houses in Neolithic Europe were frequently made by splitting logs and setting them vertically in the ground or on a sill plate on the ground. Also thousands of years old is the concept of construction with logs placed horizontally, as in a log cabin. It has been used most frequently in the northern, central, and mountainous area of Europe and North America where there have been plentiful supplies of large, straight trees.
As construction with stone and concrete became common, wood was used for concrete forms and supplementary structural components such as trusses and roof supports. Wood construction has had an interesting evolution in North America because of the relatively abundant timber resource and the scattered development of much of the country. Native Americans built homes of poles or planks. The architecture of the early colonists fromEurope used wood intensively, adapting the concepts used in their homelands to the cultural conditions of the times and the availability of materials. Wood remained the principal construction material in North America well into the nineteenth century and remains so for housing today, as it does in some other parts of the world where timber supplies are plentiful and the tradition of wood construction remains strong.
Wood has been the dominant material for furniture construction since early times. Decoration and style of furniture have evolved as part of the artistic, cultural and technical development of society. Design and complexity were greatly enhanced by the development of copper tools. Efficiency and economy of wood use were spurred by the gradual depletion of fine furniture woods and increasing international trade in both furniture and the woods from which it was made. Plywood and veneer, like most other basic forms of wood product, can be traced back to at least 3000 BC.
The purpose until relatively recent times was to extend as far as possible the use of valuable decorative woods. Such woods were high value items of international trade and supplies were expensive and uncertain. Egypt, Greece, and Rome all had highly developed arts in veneered wood products. As compared with the ancient arts of decorative plywood, made primarily from hardwoods, softwood plywood is of relatively recent origin. Manufacture of softwood plywood began in the early 1900s in the USA and the industry is still active there, but has spread to many other parts of the world. It was developed as an alternative tolumber by gluing together thin layers of knife-cut wood (cut usually on a rotary lathe)with the grain of alternate layers at right angles to each other.
The industry began growing rapidly following World War I and was further spurred by the demands of World War II and the development of weather resistant adhesives. Production of plywood panels has increased substantially in most parts of the world during the past few decades. The development of wood-based composite materials, mostly withinthe 20th century, has had a significant effect on wood use and opened new opportunities for creative and versatile products from a changing wood resource. The capability to make engineered structural panels in a variety of forms and combinations with resins and other materials and the opportunity to economically use residues from other types of wood production `provides incentives for further development and application of the concept, of wood composites. Wet process fiberboard was developed late in the 19th century and was commonly used for sheathing, interior paneling, and roof insulation early in the 20th. Particleboard evolved early in the 20th century from efforts to use shavings, sawdust, or small wood particles for panel materials, and production greatly expanded following World War II. Modern composites using flakes or strands of wood are replacing plywood for many structural applications.
The composites field is expanding rapidly in volume and variety of production. Medium density fiberboard for core stock in furniture, mineral bonded products using wood wool and cement to make structural panels, products molded from wood particles, and composites of wood and other materials are greatly extending the wood resource and improving its utility while providing practical and economical materials for many kinds of construction.