SF Fire Dept. last to craft own wooden ladders

May 4, 2012 7:40:09 PM PDT
There are many traditions within the San Francisco Fire Department, but there's one in particular that makes the department unique.

The San Francisco Fire Department is the last in the nation to make and maintain its own wooden ladders.

"There aren't too many people that can say they make ladders for a living, especially wooden ladders," said craftsman Jerry Lee.

Lee trained Chang Du, and the two have been working together for more than two decades.

They're the latest generation in a long line of pattern makers to use Douglas fir for rails and hickory or ash for the steps.

They make everything from scratch. Some of the tools are close to a century old. The method for using them has been handed down through institutional memory.

"After doing it a lot you can kind of feel when everything is right, when everything's just tight enough or seated just right," Lee said.

Wooden ladders may be the oldest tradition in the department. One ladder has been in service since 1918.

It's more expensive to use wooden ladders. "It equals out to about on average to $100 a foot," said Michael Braun, shop manager for the San Francisco Fire Department.

But the ladders last.

"Fathers, sons and grandsons could have used the same ladder," said Braun.

Why wood? If you look around the city sometime, you'll notice the overhead wires. Now imagine fighting a fire in an environment where electricity and water come in close contact. Wooden ladders do not conduct.

Each ladder has its own history etched in the wood. The ladders have a kind of beauty, expressed in functionality and wear. Ladders are built, repaired, and repaired again.

But as Lee and Du near retirement, there's the question of who will carry on the tradition.

"Somebody else is going to have to learn from one of us," Lee said.

That someone is going to have quite a legacy to live up to. In more than a century, not one of the department's wooden ladders has failed in service due to workmanship.

"When we build a ladder, we think of it as something that is going to outlive both of us," Lee said.


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