The American woodworking industry was one of the most successful large-scale production industries in the world, maximizing the use of a natural resource and driving improvements in machinery and manufacturing technology that led to interchangeable parts and mass production. The industry was successful because of its ability to meet consumer demand, to redirect itself during wartime, and to adapt to changing needs.
From America’s establishment, the country’s vast forested acreage provided valuable wood products.
The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century significantly affected the woodworking industry, resulting in a profusion of patents for machines to make woodworking production more efficient, less costly, and more profitable. The industry benefited from improved designs for such machinery as band saws and conveyor belts, the advent of electric-powered machines in 1873, rearrangements of factory floor machinery, and resequencing of processes to render them more efficient. These early innovations contributed to the mass production of wood products.
During World War I, many woodworking machines were adapted to fashion metal parts, and woodworking factories were repurposed to produce artillery components, especially replacement parts for small firearms. War efforts produced innovations, such as metal ball bearings and self-feed ripsaws, that contributed to faster and more easily adjustable woodworking machines. Both the redirecting of existing technologies and the adaptation of new technologies contributed to industry’s prosperity during the war and enabled it to recover quickly afterward. Ships were eclipsed by other woodworking products, including solid and veneer furniture, wooden automobile interiors, railroad cars, and domestic construction materials.
Following U.S. entry into World War II, the government took control of the woodworking industry. Indigenous lumber was transported worldwide to build American strongholds in foreign countries. Woodworking machines were redesigned to produce war products, and factories were once again reconfigured for more efficient production. Woodworking factories appropriated for wartime production also benefited from government-sponsored machine upgrades and increased volume capabilities, boosting the postwar industries in home construction, furniture making, and wood by-products such as rayon and plastics.
During the Korean War, government takeover of the woodworking machinery resulted in the development of high-precision machine tools that again aided the postwar woodworking industry. Hardened steel gears became the standard, machined jigs produced interchangeable parts, and gang ripsaws and wide-belt sanders spurred the particleboard industry. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the lumber industry faced new challenges brought on by the environmental movement and a call to fell timber, as nearly as possible, in a sustainable fashion.
Kinney, Thomas A. The Carriage Trade: Making Horse-Drawn Vehicles in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. McGaw, Judith, ed. Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.