The Wood Age

When Curtis LeMay suggested that the U.S. ought to “bomb them (the Vietnamese) back to the Stone Age,” he was using a reference to a common way of describing the pre-historical technological development of humankind. The sequence is: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age. What about the Wood Age?

Paul Epp

Paul Epp

The uses for stone was would often have involved wood: spears and arrows for instance, and hammer handles. It would have facilitated the use of wood, by transforming it into useful articles like shelters. Stone would likely have found one of its greatest values in allowing for a more abundant use of wood. This would have remained true in the Bronze Age. While the plasticity of bronze would have been a wonderful technological advantage, its ability to hold a sharp edge would have been one of its most useful features. This allowed for a much greater use of wood. And the wooden artefacts would have been the major benefit to people. Furniture, ships, wheels, weapons and buildings would have grown in complexity and capacity to serve humankind, both in utility and expression. Iron mostly advanced this to allow for an even greater use of wood, through better shaping capability and fastening options. I think we could subtitle all of these Ages as Ages of Wood.

During that age we refer to as Antiquity, steel was developed. While its use in the making of weapons may have been its most spectacular feature, its application to edge-cutting tools would have been of greater benefit. Woodworking tools (like saws) would have been transformed, and all of those artefacts: ships, houses, furniture etc., would have been easier to make and to be made with greater complexity and efficiency. Wood would remain the most used material. The Age of Wood is thereby enhanced and perpetuated.

The same would hold for the Middle Ages. Wood would have been the principal material for shelter, transportation, heat (warmth and cooking), tools and weapons (handles), musical instruments, statuary and so on. Of course, the so-on includes paper, which would be a component of one of the greatest technological changes, the (wooden) printing press.

Design Sep 15The Modern Age perpetuated and advanced the use of wood, without much obvious change, until the great material and engineering advances of the mid-twentieth century. Having been born just before the middle of the last century and especially being located on the fringes of civilization, my early world was very much a wooden world. Wood was burned for heat and cooking. The buildings I lived and worked in were almost wholly wooden: houses, barns, school, church, out-house. Horses were the predominant form of transportation, pulling wagons, buggies, sledges, cutters, all made of wood. The boat pulled up into the willows at the edge of the lake was wooden. Musical instruments were made of wood (they still are, mostly). Most tools had wooden handles. Furniture was made of wood. Butter-churns, cradles, carvings, toys, ladles, rocking horses, crucifixes, coffins, fences, baseball bats, skis, crokinole boards, hockey sticks, gun stocks, squirrel-skin drying boards, crutches, shingles, and many many other items and implements were also wooden. This was never remarkable. It was how things were and it would have been hard to imagine anything different.

Wood was ubiquitous in its use and uses. It has been taken for granted as the material out of which our material world has been made. Although it was common, it was also special. Woods are carefully selected in musical instruments, for instance, for their beauty as well as their acoustic properties. Certain woods, such as walnut and mahogany, have been prized for making furniture, both for their suitability for construction as well as the resultant visual appeal. Other woods, such as teak and cedar, have been the best choices for boats. Some woods burn better, for heating and cooking, like oak. We have a very lengthy legacy and wisdom of woods and their best uses.

For most of the history (including the pre-history) of humankind, wood has been a dominant and essentially indispensable material. It has allowed for human life to continue and flourish. They ought to name an Age after it.

 

Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University, and chair of its Industrial Design Department.

Photo by Don Schuetze

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