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The San Francisco Fire Department’s Handmade Ladders

Jun 21, 2012

by Karen Brown

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

You would think that wood is the last thing anyone would bring to a fire. But the San Francisco Fire Department delivers wood to every fire it fights, in the form of handmade wooden ladders that the Department has built and maintained for nearly a century.

Only a few fire departments in the United States still use wooden ladders, but San Francisco is the only city that makes it own custom ladders by hand. In a workshop located in the Bayview district, city workers build and restore over 350 wooden ladders used by San Francisco firefighters. They make 13 different types of ladders to meet the requirements of this architecturally challenging city, with its dense housing, Victorian attics, and steep winding streets.

But why does the city use wooden ladders, instead of, say, metal or fiberglass?

 istockphoto/jimtaco

The reason is safety. The hilly streets of San Francisco are draped and crisscrossed with low-hanging power lines and trolley cables. Wooden ladders do not conduct electricity and are therefore much safer than metal. And the heavy ladders – some weighing over 300 pounds – remain stable in strong winds that sweep off the bay.

Materials used in ladder construction are the finest available. Hand selected old growth woods – fir, hickory, and ash – are stored in the workshop for 15 years before they are used so that they can acclimate to San Francisco’s humidity. Although this careful craftsmanship and regular maintenance might seem expensive, wooden ladders’ quality and longevity make them economical in the long run.

“The San Francisco Fire Department has got this unique history,” said Glenn P. Corbett, associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “And the ladder is a part of that.”

Indeed, San Francisco’s history is inseparable from fires that leveled the city and forged its ultimate design. The Earthquake and Great Fire of 1906 destroyed 28,000 buildings – about three-quarters of the city – and killed more than 3,000 people, making it the worst fire in U.S. history. But San Francisco endured other “great fires” before 1906 during its Gold Rush era. In fact, the city suffered five massive burns and rebuilds in just 18 months, starting on Christmas Eve 1849. Fire is such an integral part of San Francisco’s identity that its official seal, adopted in 1859, is topped with a burning phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes.

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History meets daily life in the ladder shop, where the department still uses its original linen-bound handwritten logbook – nearly a century old – to record when ladders are built, repaired, or retired. Retiring a ladder is not a frequent occurrence. These durable, well-maintained ladders provide long service. The oldest ladder still in daily service was originally built in 1918.

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Six San Francisco firefighters perform a public demonstration of the famous “auditorium lift,” raising and extending a 350 pound wooden ladder.

Like all traditions, the knowledge of ladder making must be passed on in order to survive. The shop’s master ladder makers, Jerry Lee and Qing Du, are nearing retirement. Ladder-making is “part science, it’s part art, it’s all craftsmanship and experience,” shop supervisor Michael Braun said. “To find replacements for gentlemen like this is not easy.” The entire ladder-making tradition rests with them and refinisher Peter Misthos. (More of their story can be seen in the Emmy-nominated video at the end of this post.)

Lee has built and maintained ladders for 27 years and considers the shop’s greatest achievement to be its safety record.

“No one’s been injured on one of our ladders,” he said. “It gives [firefighters] confidence when they go up the ladder. The last thing they think about is that it will fall apart on them.”


Video by Ask Media Productions, Inc.

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3 Featured Comments

  • BijouxOdalisque

    Bijoux d'Odalisque from BijouxOdalisque said 4 years ago Featured

    I had no idea. I am just in awe of the irony that the wood that burns and takes lives is the very wood so carefully crafted and used to save the very lives it can threaten to distinguish. The irony and history of San Francisco's fear of flames is also the same elemental force that has molded it a surviving, living, breathing place of, as William H. Burroughs might say, "heavy metal". There is nothing ephemeral about it - even its ladders have outlasted its architecture.

  • mudintheUSA

    mudintheUSA from mudintheUSA said 4 years ago Featured

    Intriguing story! Now when we think of the fire department, we can think of bravery -- and add to that: tradition, ingenuity, practicality, and craftsmanship!

  • lkmccray

    Linzee from lkmccray said 4 years ago Featured

    So amazing that a ladder first built in 1918 is going strong, especially considering the stresses and strain that accompany its use. And it's beautiful, to boot! An inspired example of what care and maintenance can mean in the life of an object. Fascinating story, Karen.

78 comments

  • ProfessorTiny

    Susan Sanford from ProfessorTiny said 4 years ago

    Wow, I am sending a link to my nephew who does some carpentry and who wanted to be a fireman at one point. A wonderful story, I like the in-depth coverage. Happy to be here!

  • BijouxOdalisque

    Bijoux d'Odalisque from BijouxOdalisque said 4 years ago Featured

    I had no idea. I am just in awe of the irony that the wood that burns and takes lives is the very wood so carefully crafted and used to save the very lives it can threaten to distinguish. The irony and history of San Francisco's fear of flames is also the same elemental force that has molded it a surviving, living, breathing place of, as William H. Burroughs might say, "heavy metal". There is nothing ephemeral about it - even its ladders have outlasted its architecture.

  • myheirloomcharms

    Jan from MyHeirloomCharms said 4 years ago

    A huge salute to firefighters everywhere! Thank you so much for this informative blog! I had no idea their ladders would be wood - and beautifully handcrafted!

  • ErikaPrice

    Erika from ErikaPrice said 4 years ago

    Amazed that firefighters use wooden ladders, but reading this fascinating article now fully understand why. What a wonderful service they and their handmade equipment provide to the community :)

  • WackyCookies

    Aymee VanDyke from WackyCookies said 4 years ago

    Oh this is just a wonderful article! Thank you for sharing and for including our little Firehouse party cookies :)

  • AustinModern

    Elle from ChaseAndScoutDesign said 4 years ago

    ....and another reason why we adore SF! It's one of my favorite cities in the US to visit - there's a very cool vibe of doing what works best for you rather than doing what everyone else is doing. I dig it! Neat article!

  • Musclesandcrafts

    Melanie from merVazi said 4 years ago

    Very good story. I never would have thought of wooden firefighting ladders!

  • volkerwandering

    Jess from volkerwandering said 4 years ago

    What a cool article! I had no idea people still made wooden ladders!~

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 4 years ago

    I just love everything about this article... San Francisco, firemen, wood working, history, did I mention firemen? Would it be too weird to admit that it's interesting & sexy at the same time? ;-)

  • Mareesgallerytogo

    Mareesgallerytogo from Mareesgallerytogo said 4 years ago

    great story. I had no idea a fire department would use wooden ladders. And they are beautifully handcrafted.

  • Gallivants

    ShyMaster from GallivantsVintage said 4 years ago

    SOOOO Cool!

  • partsbync

    Amy D from PartsbyNC said 4 years ago

    Wow, that's so cool. One of the best stories I've read here so far. Making my love firefighters that much more...

  • KnobCreekMetalArts

    KnobCreekMetalArts from KnobCreekMetalArts said 4 years ago

    Very interesting! I'm truly amazed ladders that old are still in service.

  • mudintheUSA

    mudintheUSA from mudintheUSA said 4 years ago Featured

    Intriguing story! Now when we think of the fire department, we can think of bravery -- and add to that: tradition, ingenuity, practicality, and craftsmanship!

  • paintmydog

    Justine Osborne from paintmydog said 4 years ago

    Fascinating! thanks for the post!

  • palemornings

    palemornings said 4 years ago

    I can't believe they store the wood for 15 years! This story is a good one to read -- we're so used to (well, Etsy readers are less used to) disposing of things and using things that are made so cheaply. I bet they are beautiful.

  • RivalryTime

    Phil Jackson from NuptialNotion said 4 years ago

    Great post. I want a ladder.

  • ccruze25

    Caroline Haynie from PoorLittleButterfly said 4 years ago

    Wonderful story. It reminds me of all the stories my mom tells me about my grandfather who was a firefighter in Norwood, OH back in the 60s and 70s. He went from fireman, to Lieutenant to Captain in 2 weeks time. He was an amazing man, as are all firefighters. Thanks for the interesting post!

  • beliz82

    Beliz from beliz82 said 4 years ago

    Great story Thank you for sharing !!

  • ME2Designs

    Meg from ME2Designs said 4 years ago

    Fascinating story of these beautiful ladders and the history of the ladders and the flames that SF repeatedly outlasted. Thank you for sharing this story with us! Thanks also for including my dalmation brooch!

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 4 years ago

    Wow! Great story! Thanks for sharing!!

  • StringBeardCraftery

    Stephanie from StringBeardCraftery said 4 years ago

    Beautiful!

  • Eyes4Vintage

    Jamin from Eyes4Vintage said 4 years ago

    Cool the last thing that you would think they would have is wooden ladders. Thanks!

  • SCAVENGENIUS

    Anathalia from SCAVENGENIUS said 4 years ago

    Fantastic post! Made me want to go to SF even more! Thank you for sharing!

  • lizhutnick

    Liz Hutnick from LizHutnick said 4 years ago

    Great story!

  • andiespecialtysweets

    Jason and Andie from andiespecialtysweets said 4 years ago

    A very interesting and inspiring post, Karen -thank you once again! It must be such satisfying work to be building and restoring those ladders in that great old factory with all those neat windows. What a very special and unique aspect of the city of San Fransisco. And how great to see something so valued and relied on that is also so dependent of human hands for it's survival.

  • minouette

    Ele from minouette said 4 years ago

    That's fascinating! I love that the hand-crafted wooden ladders are used because of the nature of the city (electric streetcars, extreme topography, and so forth).

  • jamiespinello

    jamiespinello from JamieSpinello said 4 years ago

    I miss SF! Never got to see the firefighters in action while in SF, but I sure liked watching the man in the bubble on the back of the double long fire truck where there was a conductor/driver at the back inside of the glass dome. Beautiful and strange.

  • lizlovell

    Nel and Ada from NelandAda said 4 years ago

    I love SF and great story of the ladders and items in treasury list. Thanks for including my SF Golden Gate picture. Nel and Ada Shop

  • warnellcreations

    warnellcreations from warnellcreations said 4 years ago

    Great story!

  • beadbooty

    Tricia from beadbooty said 4 years ago

    Interesting! These are the stories of handmade that I love to read.

  • dmlindenbaum

    Danielle Lindenbaum from DLindenbaumFineArt said 4 years ago

    I wish my fire department did this. So cool!

  • WoodDesigner

    Mike from WoodDesigner said 4 years ago

    WOw, Neat story good research.

  • threadlady58

    Robin McSwain from TangledThreadShoppe said 4 years ago

    Wonderful story. Thank you for the history lesson. :)

  • opendoorstudio

    Martha Layton Smith from opendoorstudio said 4 years ago

    Having been a bay area gal... This is a bit of SF trivia I never knew. I love that they are still using and restoring a bit of their past! Thank you for sharing!

  • misswoof

    Helga from bitsydoodle said 4 years ago

    Wow wow wow....beauty and function....amazing... did not think something that amazing still existed.The men that make them are true artists!

  • TresChicNmodern

    TresChicNmodern from TresChicNmodern said 4 years ago

    COOL FIRE HYDRANTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AWESOMEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE BLOG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11 WAY TO GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • lkmccray

    Linzee from lkmccray said 4 years ago Featured

    So amazing that a ladder first built in 1918 is going strong, especially considering the stresses and strain that accompany its use. And it's beautiful, to boot! An inspired example of what care and maintenance can mean in the life of an object. Fascinating story, Karen.

  • nadene

    Even Howard from nadene said 4 years ago

    Apropo post considering the 4 alarm fire we had downtown @ pier 29 yesterday... there are some amazing photos around of the firefighters in action.

  • KMalinka

    Natalia from KMalinkaVintage said 4 years ago

    Awesome story!

  • iloveludwig

    Astrid R. from AnAstridEndeavor said 4 years ago

    I was just telling a kid I work with about our wonderful San Francisco wood ladders. Now I can go back and REALLY give him some facts! Thank you so much for honoring our city and amazing fire department with this great article!

  • GoldenSpiralDesigns

    Lola Ocian from GoldenSpiralDesigns said 4 years ago

    Amazing! I never put any thought into the material used for ladders. Wood makes a lot of sense in a city as dense as SF. Thanks for opening my eyes to this!

  • alangood

    alangood said 4 years ago

    Charming and unexpected! Thank you, Karen .

  • 1000dragonflies

    1000dragonflies from 1000dragonflies said 4 years ago

    Awesome! Big love to all the men and women who serve in the public safety world!

  • LeatherheadOriginals

    LeatherheadOriginals from LeatherheadOriginals said 4 years ago

    That is SO Amazing! Love the trusswork in the ladder siderails! I live 2.5 hours drive from SF, don't get the chance to go there as often as I want:( This story reminds me of the awesome vintage "Crown" school buses still in service with many CA shcool districts. Built in L.A. from the 1950s to '90s, with retro styling and sturdy enough to go for millions of miles over 3- 4 decades! I would still love to get one and make it into a handmade custom motorhome someday LOL!

  • ImmortalPomegranate

    Melanie Cuno from ImmortalPomegranate said 4 years ago

    Fascinating!

  • manjleenacriss
  • lalitkhatri

    Lalit Khatri said 4 years ago

    All your details were praising. Hand made ladder was simply Gorgeous, i love it. Very sound article, thanks for sharing.

  • iammieCLAYshop

    iammieCLAYshop from iammieCLAYshop said 4 years ago

    Interesting story!

  • TheBeautyofBoredom

    Gracie from TheBeautyofBoredom said 4 years ago

    Very cool!

  • Schoolhouseantiques

    Luke Sacher from Schoolhouseantiques said 4 years ago

    Absolutely brilliant! I was born at Mount Zion Hospital on Geary and Divisadero- but my parents relocated to NYC by way of Santa Monica by the time I was three... why did they leave Mill Valley? :)

  • ArcadeArt

    ArcadeArt from ArcadeArt said 4 years ago

    interesting :)

  • Zalavintage

    Zane Saracene from Zalavintage said 4 years ago

    after being stuck in an elevator and rescued by NYC firemen, this story makes me appreciate them even more. gotta love those firemen!!!

  • CTCosta

    Chris Costa from CTCostaPhotography said 4 years ago

    Great story!

  • SelectaSpecialDesign
  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 4 years ago

    Fascinating

  • Macramaking

    Ellen from Macramaking said 4 years ago

    very cool story!

  • Holytape

    Holytape from Holytape said 4 years ago

    Steel and/or aluminum ladders are lighter and stronger. Therefor you can build a ladder that is longer or can support more, at the same amount of weight. There is a time and place to sticking to tradition, but public safety isn't one of them.

  • PattiTrostle

    Patti Trostle from PattiTrostle said 4 years ago

    That suprises me!

  • 2633creations

    Lynda Wallace from TwentySix33Studio said 4 years ago

    Great story. This was on an episode of Dirty Jobs and I was amazed. The craftsmanship and care that goes into making these ladders is amazing!! They take such pride when they build these ladders. Each one is really a piece of art.

  • michaelhutton2

    Michael Hutton from LettersofWood said 4 years ago

    A very interesting and informative article. I really enjoyed reading it.

  • Talking1

    Richard - TalkToMeGuy said 4 years ago

    "Wood to a fire", LoL... Yes who would have thought? So wonderful to hear about the craftsmanship that they put into these life-saving tools. To have a ladder that is still in use today that was hand crafted in 1918, how cool is that ! Really a fun article. Thank you Karen!

  • ejhern

    ejhern from ejhern said 4 years ago

    Great article!

  • jewelryrage

    Aaron Kish from JewelryRage said 4 years ago

    Great story "The oldest ladder still in daily service was originally built in 1918." now that's good craftsmanship.

  • bojacobson

    Bo Jacobson said 4 years ago

    I saw a few of these earlier in the week as they were putting out the fire at Pier 29. It's great that the elegant solution is also the best solution for getting the job done and keeping people safe.

  • ValliCraftEmporium

    ValliCraftEmporium from ValliCraftEmporium said 4 years ago

    Wonderful story! All the more reason to keep local economies. local.

  • MullaneInk

    Molly Shannon from MullaneInk said 4 years ago

    I used to live in SF... next door to a fire station! I love this acticle it is so interesting!

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 4 years ago

    I appreciate so much the respect and love that people have for the fire department.

  • timelapse

    timelapse from timelapse said 4 years ago

    As Mr Spock would say...."FASCINATING"!

  • martinclaybold

    Martin Claybold said 4 years ago

    Wooden ladders are poor conductors of heat and electricity, hence they are safer to use. They do not get heated up, and there's no risk of an electric shock. Long Term Food Storage

  • xZOUix

    Zoui from XZOUIX said 4 years ago

    lovely article! :) i love san fran <3

  • AMSkrafts

    AMSkrafts from AMSkrafts said 4 years ago

    Wow, that is so amazing! My love for SF continues to grow as I learn more and more about the history and uniqueness of San Francisco.

  • MoodyMe

    Melissa Moody from MoodyMe said 4 years ago

    Fabulous history out there, thanks for finding it!!

  • windycitynovelties

    Windy City Novelties said 4 years ago

    I wish they would have wooden ladders in the Windy City.

  • TickleandSmash

    Lisa Spinella from TickleAndSmash said 4 years ago

    HERO MOMENT

  • GardenofYve

    Danielle Yve from GardenofYve said 4 years ago

    That is so interesting! So many things I love about this story!

  • MelinSun

    Melin Stockmann said 4 years ago

    What an outstanding story of local practicality- based craftsmanship! How did you find out about this?! Love the logbook!

  • TheGarp

    James Lindsey from Letsmakesawdust said 3 years ago

    I love stories about people that actually /make/ things.

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