City Secret: See the SF Fire Department’s Beautifully Crafted, Century-Old Wooden Ladders


You wouldn’t think that wooden ladders would be ideal for fighting fires, yet a few fire departments in America still swear by them for their strength, safety and durability. San Francisco is the last city in the nation to make their custom ladders by hand, building and maintaining over 350 wooden ladders for over a century.

In a workshop located in the Bayview neighborhood, master ladder makers, Jerry Lee and Qing Du, build and restore ladders used by SF firefighters. They make 13 different types of ladders to meet the requirements of this architecturally challenging city with its steep winding streets and dense housing. Lee and Du make everything from scratch. Some of the tools used are close to a century old and the method for using them has been handed down through institutional memory. 

The department’s ladders are made of old-growth Douglas fir, harvested from eastern slopes in the Pacific Northwest, where limited light makes the wood grow dense and strong. The wood is then stored in the workshop for 15 years before it is used so that it can acclimate to San Francisco’s humidity.

Still, why use ladders made out of wood instead of, say, metal or fiberglass? In a city like San Francisco with low-hanging power lines and trolley cables, imagine fighting a fire where electricity and water come in close contact. 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.

Most fire departments switched to aluminum ladders half a century or so ago because they require less maintenance and are generally lighter and easier to handle. Although the careful craftsmanship involved in San Francisco might seem expensive, wooden ladders’ quality and longevity make them economical in the long run. Retiring a ladder is not a frequent occurrence – the department’s oldest ladder that is still being used today was originally built in 1918.

Each ladder has its own history etched in the wood. The ladders have a kind of beauty, expressed in functionality and wear. In over a century, not one of the department’s wooden ladders has failed in service due to workmanship. 

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