Briefing - Wood for Cannon
First introduced in the late Middle Ages, cannon evolved into an important and ultimately indispensable tool of war. The making of cannon gradually developed into a highly technical science, involving craftsmen skilled in many different arts. In general, however, the study of cannon making focuses almost exclusively on the metal. After all, the heavy metal tube, of iron, steel, or bronze, is the cannon.
Nevertheless, wood was as important as metal in the fabrication of artillery pieces well into the early twentieth century, many different types of wood.
Each type of wood used in cannon construction was selected because it had certain particular properties that made it ideally suited for a specific purpose. Skilled carpenters with a detailed knowledge of the properties of each of the various woods exploited these properties as they worked alongside the metal founders to produce effective artillery pieces. While different countries sometimes had different ideas about the particular types of wood best suited for certain functions, U.S. practice in the mid-nineteenth century may be taken as fairly typical, as outlined in John Gibbon’s famous 1860 work, The Artillerist’s Manual.
|Woods used in Cannon Manufacturing|
|Basswood|| Projectile sabots, cartridge blocks.|
|Beech|| Fuze casings, mallets, plane-stocks, other tools.|
|Black Walnut *|| Some wheel parts, ammo boxes.|
|Cypress|| Coast defense artillery carriages.|
|Dogwood|| Mallets, drifts.|
|Elm|| Wheels; follies and small naves.|
|Hickory|| Handspikes, tool handles, axel-trees.|
|White Ash|| Sponge & rammer staves, projectile sabots, tool handles, light carriage shafts; second best for handspikes.|
|White Oak|| All kinds of field artillery carriages.|
|White Pine|| Packing boxes; arms chests.|
|White Poplar|| Projectile sabots, cartridge blocks, ammo box linings; good for charcoal for gunpowder.|
|Willow|| Best for making charcoal for gunpowder.|
|* Black walnut was also the absolutely best wood for small arms’ stocks.|
The harder woods – oak, ash, beech, bass, hickory, walnut, elm – were used for those parts of the equipage which took the most abuse or needed the most protection. Less hard woods – pine, poplar – were used where light weight was important. Similarly, the more elastic or pliable woods – ash, hickory – were particularly favored for long tools, while the very stiffest –dogwood, beech – were useful for pounding and heaving tools. At times, significant trade-offs had to be made. So while cypress is superior to oak in resistance to moisture and heat, and thus ideal for coast artillery emplacements, its lighter weight required more massive construction than would have been the case with oak.
Merely prescribing the uses for the various types of wood was not sufficient to insure optimal benefit from available timber. The wood had to be harvested very carefully. At the time of the Civil War it was considered that the best wood came from trees grown in the northeast or the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan), save in the case of cypress, which was best from the southeast and deep south. Trees selected to supply wood for artillery purposes had to be mature, healthy specimens, grown in moderately moist, dark soil mixed with stones and gravel, again except for cypress, which does best in wet soil, as do willow and poplar if needed for charcoal. The most valuable wood was that which came from trees that were sheltered from the wind. Trees were best cut live, as near to the ground as possible, preferably in July, when they were at their "liveliest," or between December and mid-March, when they were dormant. As soon as they were felled, the logs had to be stripped, cut to size, and dried. Drying reduced the weight considerably – in oak initially by at least a fifth and with time by as much as a third – but hardened it and made it resistant to weathering, insects, and decay.
While concern for the supply of wood for artillery equipments was never so important as that over the supply of timber for shipbuilding – at times during the eighteenth century British foreign policy was at least partially dictated by the fact that Russia and Scandinavia supplied much of the timber for the Royal Navy – knowledge of wood was an important element in the education of a artillery officer.