Wood Wisdom Wednesday: Hardwoods Propel Aeronautics

On December 17th, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful flight of a self-propelled heavier-than-air aircraft. Orville Wright flew the Flyer, a propeller-driven biplane, for twelve seconds for a total of 120 feet, which was an astonishing success at the turn of the 20th century. This flight’s success lends itself to the Wright brothers’ innovative wing-shaped propeller design. Other aeronautics innovators in the early 1900s used a screw-shaped propeller design. However, this design never proved to be as successful as the wing-shaped propeller.

Since this tremendous feat, aeronautics has expanded and improved dramatically, but definitely not without the help of the hardwood industry. Not long after the Wright brothers’ success in 1903, the United States started preparing to enter the first World War. In preparation, the U.S. government sought assistance from the National Hardwood Lumber Association in the procurement of large amounts of hardwood lumber. Hardwood manufacturers throughout North America started crafting propellers, and inspection services were in high demand from NHLA. Hardwood was often the preferred material for propellers during the first half of the 20th century because it was lightweight, not very expensive, easy to repair, and the manufacturing process was quicker than most alternatives of the time.

How Hardwood Propellers Were Made

Wooden propellers have been crafted out of virtually every hardwood available. However, walnut, mahogany, and oak were often considered to make the best propellers due to their strength and grain patterns. Creating high-quality wooden propellers, like many wood products, begins with choosing optimal boards that will yield the most strength and balance. Hardwood propellers required lumber with little to no defects, which is one of the many reasons that NHLA National Inspectors were in such high demand during World War I. Once the optimal boards were chosen, the wood grains and board weights were matched as best as possible, and the propeller design was outlined and cut out for gluing. After the boards were glued, they were then clamped and set for several days. After this, the shaping process began. Wooden propellers of the early to mid-1900s were often shaped using only hand tools, which required very skilled craftsmen. Holes were then drilled into the propeller, and the surface was smoothed, sanded, and varnished.