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From ancient cave dwellers to modern firefighting, the history of the ladder is the history of humanity striving to reach rise to new heights, to reach beyond our limitations, and to come back from the journey safer and better than when we began. Huge thanks to Eric from Hand Tool rescue for helping out on this episode. You can find him at handtoolresuce.com, at hand Tool rescue on Youtube, and on his excellent podcast, the Fitzall Podcast.


Music for this episode provided by:

Lee Rosevere

Matt Oakley


FTGU is a (severely overworked) one-man operation. In order to devote more time to the podcast, I need the support of listeners like yourselves. Please consider going to patreon.com/keithdecent to donate to the show. Alternatively, sharing your favorite episodes or leaving a review goes a long way toward helping grow the podcast.

Thanks!


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Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build.

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Don’t call it a rummage sale. It’s not a tag sale or a swap meet, or a street faire. It’s a Flea Market, and we love them.

In case you were wondering, I don’t know exactly why it’s called a flea market, and there are a few different stories as to how the name came to be. The markets themselves have existed for millennia. Wherever you have large populations of people crammed into cities, you end up with congregations of vendors. Fishmongers, farmers, cooks, resellers, handmade enthusiasts, you name it. But the term “flea,” and the culture that comes with it, has its own story. Or three.

17th century France. The streets are a mess. Literally. Architecturally and infrastructurally, the world is leaving Paris behind. The streets are filthy, narrow, and crowded. You could try to get a wagon through from one end of the lane to the other, but before you could say “hey, what are the early symptoms of cholera?” you’d be stuck, thanks to all of the people, oh and the markets.

It seems that many entrepreneurial types were blocking entire roads in order to set up and sell their wares. The situation became such a common annoyance, that Voltaire even described them as “established in narrow streets, showing off their filthiness, spreading infection and causing continuing disorders.”

About 50 years later, the first democratically elected French President, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of the guy you’re thinking of, promised to fix the roads, build better housing and facilities, and basically do everything with the city that would have made Voltaire dance in his pretty pants back in 1793. A side note on LNB here, he had already tried to start a coup twice in France. Both attempts were humiliatingly ineffectual. No, really, look them up its really sad how badly they went. He was banished to England for the first attempt, and even printed up flyers for the second try. That time he barely made it to shore before he was thrown in jail and ridiculed in the British and French newspapers. Mocking his shortcomings being one of the only things the French and English have ever agreed upon.

After escaping from, ok this is for real, a life sentence of imprisonment in the Fortress of Ham, he went back to a pretty booming social life in England, where his friends would make fun of him behind his back. After hearing of the French Revolution, he decided that A. Getting elected was probably easier than overthrowing a monarchy with 60 dudes and a sloop, and B. that his friends would probably have to stop making fun of him if he was president. He, due largely to his name recognition and campaign promises, won over 74% of the vote.

Problem is, running a country for the first time is rough. Especially for a guy who got elected by being a watered down version of a guy who went from ruling most of the western world, to having his, uh, “royal scepter” kept in a jar under some guy’s bed in New Jersey. The new president was quickly on his way to becoming the old president, without having fulfilled much of his promised work. The country’s new constitution limited him to one term, as it’s citizens were still going through “Monarchy-Induced PTSD,” But, in keeping with a strong family tradition, he decided he would become the leader that no one had asked for, had himself another little coup, and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.

With his newfound ability to do whatever the hell he pleased, Napo the Third hired Georges Eugène Haussmann, an architect of sorts with the Typest of A personalities to fix the city. His main instruction from the Emperor was, “to give it air and open space, to connect and unify the different parts of the city into one whole, and to make it more beautiful.” Which is a very Napoleonic way of saying “Make some room, oh, and please do something about the smell.”

Within a few years, because he was working for an Emperor and not a president, Haussmann was able to complete a near entire renovation of the city. The end result was broader streets, cleaner air, more light, some really breathtaking infrastructure, and a lot of really annoyed, former street vendors who were now sitting around, watching horses poop in their former places of business.

The vendors ended up Fleeing the main part of the city. Setting up shop in the North of Paris, outside the Porte de Clignancourt. Which was a big gate, for us non french types. The Market was a bit seedy, but was becoming known as a great place to get deals on some really cool stuff. This should be starting to sound familiar to those of you who’ve been wondering where I’m going with all of this.

As time went on, the market gained legitimacy in the eyes of the French people, and eventually the government. The space was cleaned up and made safer, roads and paths were constructed to and around the area, and the market to which the former street vendors had fled, became known as the marche aux puces, aka, the Market of the Fleas. The Market outlasted Haussmann, who was ousted from his position in 1870, and even good ol’ Napoleon the Third, who despite having a longer reign than the original Napoleon, still ranks Second on the list of world’s best Napoleons. Fourth place goes to Napoleon’s son, Napoleon II: Electric Waterloo. Third place is actor Terry Camilleri, who played Napoleon in 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

So the vendors had to “flee” to their new market. That’s the story, right? Well not entirely. The second theory as to the origin is a pretty literal one. Any place that sells second hand furniture in the 1800s is gonna have, well, parasites. Since the Marche Aux Puce had officially become A Thing, capital A capital T, in 1855, actual fleas were often thrown in free with a purchase of anything upholstered, cloth, or fur-based. So it’s entirely possible, and likely, that the name is a somewhat derogatory wink at the lousy merchandise sold at the market.

The third and honestly equally viable story of why we call flea markets flea markets comes from, like so many excellent things, Manhattan. Strolling around New York City, even today, two things become clear. One, lots of people there are trying to sell you stuff. Two, there are a buttload of things whose names have Dutch origins. Gansevoort, Dycker, Harlem, Bronx, Brooklyn, Dutch Kills, English Kills, anything Kills, Staten, Stuyvesant, Wyckoff, Bushwick, and everyone’s favorite, Spuyten Duyvil. Yeah, good luck googling THAT one.

So when someone tells you that there used to be an open air market in lower Manhattan, back in the 18th century, when it was all valleys and swamps, then you shouldn’t be too surprised to learn it was named the “vlie” market, spelled “V L I E” or “V L Y” which was Dutch for “Valley,” or “swamp.” As time ran on and Dutch words for things became Anglicized, it was called the “Fly Market,” spelled “F-L-Y,” and eventually became what we know as a “Flea” Market. Supposedly.

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Just punchin in here to tell you guys a bit about this show. From the Ground Up is an ongoing experiment, it is now and will always be available free of charge. If you’d like to support the show, you can do so at Patreon.com/keithdecent, by leaving a review on itunes, or just by sharing your favorite episode. All patreon supporters have access to behind the scenes and bonus content, as well as a new series of bonus episodes, called, FTGU2. I’d like to take a moment to thank the patrons who go the extra mile to make this show possible.

Matt Kummel

Make Build Modify

Josh Price

Phil Plante

Alex Krause of Make My Day TV

Lila Nawrocki

Maker Geek

Infinite Craftsman

Vincent Ferrari

Ryan Ridgley of Barn Rat Studio

Caleb Harris of You Can Make This Too

Jeff Shaw of Ideal grain

Jonny Builds

As well as new Patrons:

Ezra Rendell

Marsh Wildman

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In New York City, Paris, and all over the world, Flea Markets exist and thrive to this day. You can still find great deals on previously-owned goods, food, surplus stock from manufacturers, handmade items, and just about everything in between. Shopping at a flea is part of a culture where thriftiness, utilitarianism, and tight budgets meets local-mindedness, fringe design, and forward thinking consumerism. What might be considered high and low culture, for lack of better terms, mix into a very unique social ecosystem. Selling at flea markets, especially habitually or as a career, can provide a very unique look into the types of people who exist outside of mainstream consumer culture, whether they think they belong there or not.

I’ve worked in this world. I’ve shopped, sold, and supplied flea markets over the years. Going from assisting at estate sales, to selling the leftover or high-end goods from those sales at the flea markets, to building my own designs from the unsold rubbish from the sales and, you guessed it, selling them in a booth at the flea. The culture and experience of my time among the “Flea People,” as I’ve come to affectionately call them, has led me to where I am today, talking to you.

When I say, “flea people,” I mean the sellers, the “garage sale dump-outs” who are just trying to make some space, but live on a lonely street where no one sees their signs, the guy who you’re pretty sure lives in his van, among the piles of rusty tools and bits of steel, eating a bowl of soup in August, cooked on a camper stove he definitely found the day before. The entrepreneurs, with their printed banners and big smiles, honing their product pitches and learning what it truly means to believe in yourself when no one else does. The down-on-their-luck collectors, having to turn a lifetime of passionate curation into a few lucky sales just to climb a little bit further out of debt. The tweakers, peering out from behind the sliding door of the minivan, selling someone’s old something, just to get back to escaping life for a while. The Horde Hunters, who spent hundreds of hours combing through piles of other people’s stuff just so their booth could have the best junk. College students, selling candles made in beer bottles that smell like a party, Tool-polishers, Social media marketers with the most instagrammable booths, underwear hagglers, the intensely neurotic vinyl dealer, the lifers, the “we cant do anything else’ers,” the first timers. All together, all selling, all sweating it out, praying it cools down, but not enough to rain or snow, as the shoppers circle.

And the shoppers, of course, the other half. The day-trippers, looking for something to do while they digest their lunch. The early-risers, who ask about every item you unpack as you unpack them. The tough negotiators, who only have $5 to spend, but that $5 is wrapped in a wad of twenties. The real-deal seekers, veterans of a war of words and numbers where the prize is less about the item and more about what it takes to obtain it. The know it alls, who have archived more information about what you’re selling than you ever cared about, and need to make sure you realize it too. The cherry pickers, the complainers, the entitled locals who think weather, bad smells, terrible location, and lack of bathrooms affect prices, and the newbies, who don’t realize that weather, bad smells, terrible location, and lack of bathrooms affect prices. The old school hagglers, the traders, the whales, the sticky fingered toddlers and their always-coughing parents, the dog walkers, the walked-by-doggers, the shakers, the breakers, and the thieves, the polite old timers, the interested teens, the wonderful neighbors, and sometimes, even the mayor.

Every market has a story. The life and culture surrounding these fleas is distinct from any other I’ve experienced, and I believe it’s because of the unique brand of people who participate, and how heavily the entire structure of the market itself depends on them. A loose arrangement of social agreements, mostly unspoken, by the types of people you won’t find anywhere else, except probably at another flea market.

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Thanks for listening! Just a reminder that if you’d like to support the show, you can do so at patreon.com/keithdecent and you’ll get access to FTGU2, the patreon exclusive companion show to this podcast, and other cool stuff. I have goals set to be able to produce more shows per year, so if you want more episodes, then that’s the best way to get it done. If you’re strapped for cash or just don’t trust them dern internets with yer buckaroos, then please know that sharing the show with others or just leaving a review on itunes or your chosen podcast aggregator does a lot to help as well.

Until next time, this is Keith Decent saying, later makers.

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Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build.

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You may have heard stories recently, or come across an article in your feed; mysterious groups of scientists doing new things with wood, vaguely written or told like stories of a secret government organization trying to create superhumans in an underground lab somewhere. Invisibility, check. Fire resistance, check. Enhanced strength and durability, check.

Whatever the motives for these new formulations of one of mankind’s greatest constructive resources, it seems we’ve really been pushing the concept of “engineered wood,” to the logical limits these days.

And why not? We’ve already given it the power of flight.

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November 2, 1947. Long Beach Harbor, California. Howard Hughes, no stranger to controversy, has taxi’d his most contentious project yet, the H-4 Hercules, around for its third and final test run across the surface of the water. Of the 7 reporters on board, among 29 other guests and crew, 4 had already left for the day. The three that remained would bear witness to the fruits of a 23 million dollar price tag (almost 270 million in today’s dollars) and 5 years worth of development.

As always, Hughes was piloting his own test flights. He brings the gigantic flying boat around, pointing the massive wooden body down the channel facing Cabrillo Beach. The wings, longer than a football field, align with the test path and the engines roar.

Back in 42, the military had a huge issue. They needed to resupply the troops fighting the Axis powers in Europe, but there were sharks in the water. Invisible sharks. Invisible sharks with guns. German U-Boat submarines were decimating US convoys out on the open seas. They needed a solution, they needed a flying ship.

The job eventually fell to Hughes. To him, what he had designed, what he was building, was one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. To much of the press it was a joke. To his enemies in Washington D.C., it was a sham.

“The Spruce Goose,” they called it. The nickname seemed to really get under Hughes’ skin. Perhaps that’s why it had stuck, despite the plane being made almost entirely using Birch.

Not just birch, though. They had used a new process, called “Duramold” to form the body of the plane. It needed to be lightweight, but still strong and Duramold was as light and strong as aluminum, the preferred material for the aviation industry made scarce by the war effort.

As an explanation of the Duramold process, let me read a 1945 advertisement for Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation in Aviation Magazine:

“THIS IS NO ALCHEMISTS DREAM.

Alchemists of old, in long, labored attempts, tried vainly to change common ores into precious metals.

While Duramold hasn’t changed lead to gold, in essence, Duramold’s engineers have achieved the alchemists goal. They impart new character to common materials.

In light, pliant materials - cloth, paper, glass fiber, wood veneers, cellular rubber, and many others - the Duramold process creates a backbone of strength. Laminations of these materials are bonded with thermosetting resins under heat and pressure, frequently using synthetic, lightweight core materials between laminations.

Duramolding gives them new qualities. Their pliancy is gone. They assume rigid strength, molded to precise specifications in intricate and complexly curved patterns.

Here, then, in an industry now devoted entirely to production for the Air Forces, lies the promise - and the reality - of new materials for builders of peacetime products. Here, as in all Fairchild research and engineering, lies “the touch of tomorrow.”

The ad not only explains the Duramold process, but speaks to the methodology and mission behind all engineered wood products. We take what we have, and through modification, transform it into what we need. We experiment, design, and innovate to further our current goals and to provide for the challenges that lie ahead.

Back in the harbor, the Hercules, the great floating beast, was picking up speed. It’s 8 engines roaring loudly as it skipped and shook across the choppy surface. The guests and reporters began to shift uncomfortably in their seats. This wasn’t like the other two runs. Either something was going wrong, or Hughes was up to something, or both. His plane had been at the forefront of a series of hearings held by congress. They called it a waste of time and money, they called Hughes a war profiteer, an accusation he believed to be a cover for their true motives, trying to put him out of business by request of his competitors.

It must have occurred to more than a few of the guests that Hughes was just the sort to push a test beyond its parameters in order to prove a point.

Suddenly the shaking had stopped. The engines still screamed their gruff tune, and, for 26 seconds, Hughes had shown his detractors exactly what to make of the so-called “Spruce Goose.” It flew. At a height of 70 feet above the surface of the harbor for one mile, the largest airplane ever built flew. A new kind of ship, made from a new kind of wood.

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Just punchin in here to tell you guys a bit about this show. From the Ground Up is an ongoing experiment, it is now and will always be available free of charge. If you’d like to support the show, you can do so at Patreon.com/keithdecent, by leaving a review on itunes, or just by sharing your favorite episode. All patreon supporters have access to behind the scenes and bonus content, as well as a new series of bonus episodes.

----------------------------------------------

Wood and Earth. That’s the way we used to build things. We carved stone from the ground, and we felled and harvested the trees. As we grew to understand these materials more, and where they came from, we learned to tell what kinds of earth can be made into brick, and eventually cement, and what types can be melted into glass. We learned what types of stone can be smelted into metals and what type of metals can be combined into alloys. We perfected our glass and our steel and our concrete and we used them to build fantastic monuments to the modern age. We used them to build skyscrapers. One of them, even half a mile high. Grand palaces among the clouds.

In our lofty aspirations, we had nearly forgotten about wood. It didn’t seem, in our beautiful visions of the future, that the humble trees could offer us much beyond a modest home, a few stories above the ground.

Some, like Howard Hughes, have described a vision of the future, the near future, in which the trees can lift us up into the safety and sanctuary of the sky. We’ve talked extensively on this show about plywood, but we haven’t given much time to its cousins, and while MDF, OSB, LVL, glulam, rimboard and other engineered products have been around for quite some time, they have been relegated mostly to small scale construction, like stick-built and prefab houses.

In Germany and Austria, in the 1990s, a new form of engineered wood product was being designed. Called “CLT” or Cross Laminated Timber, each section consists of layers of kiln-dried boards, stacked in alternating directions, just like plywood. However instead of using veneers, CLT uses entire boards. The result is a rigid, lightweight panel with good insulating properties that can be cut to nearly any dimension of thickness. The panels can even be prefabricated before they reach a build site, making construction less costly, less messy, quicker and quieter.

The panels are strong enough to be used as flooring, walls, or roof material within a structure, and in the 2000s, after being thoroughly researched and tested, it began to spring up in the European markets as an alternative to traditional building materials.

The new material has lit up the sustainable architecture world, it seems. If you google “world’s tallest wooden building” right now, you’ll find a number of articles from 2016 until present that seem to name a new bearer of this title every year, and several more that warn of upcoming challengers.

As of this episode, the tallest is a mixed use building is in Norway containing shopping, apartments, office space, a pool, a restaurant, and the aptly named, Wood Hotel. I am not even going to attempt to pronounce the name of this building. One I can pronounce was the former tallest wooden building in the world, the Commons Tallwood House in Vancouver, though it is made with concrete as well. Treet, another Norwegian project, it means “Tree” in english, was the tallest all wood, residential building until this year, standing at 49 meters, or 160 feet. This new one is nearly double that, at 85.4 meters, or 280 feet.

And if that isn’t crazy enough, the list of proposed wooden “plyscrapers,” as they’ve become known, is intense. London has plans to build the 1000 foot tall, Oakwood Tower which would become the second tallest building in the city. In Tokyo, plans are underway for a 1200 foot tall timber tower, named the W350, to be completed by 2041.

They are part of what’s called the “Mass Timber” movement. Why move away from concrete and steel? Well, right now it’s more expensive to build plyscrapers instead of doing things the old fashioned way. However those costs are expected to drop rapidly if the market grows and the processes are streamlined. The wood is also lighter to transport, carry, and build with than concrete or steel. Less heavy machinery and fewer giant trucks not only save money in the long run, but it also makes for a quieter, less polluted construction site. The possibility of prefabricating the timber panels also makes construction much quicker.

The burning question that gets asked the most when talking about timber construction is fire safety. And the answer lies in the material. Small wooden objects, like you’d find in a traditionally stick-built house, burn much faster and act like kindling for a fire. The thick, laminated panels of CLT and other engineered woods are much harder to burn due to their mass and composition. They might even outperform many traditional concrete and steel structures. The rest is taken care of by modern technology. Better, redundant alarm and suppression systems, for example.

One of the largest upsides is that instead of expelling tons of carbon into the atmosphere, as the processes for creating steel and concrete famously do, the timber actually sequesters carbon. The trees themselves gather and store carbon dioxide for their entire lives, and when harvested, that carbon is locked away in the material for as long as it lasts.

The tower in Vancouver, for example, saved 2,432 tons of carbon dioxide compared to other construction materials. That’s like taking 500 cars off the road for a year.

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Wood, in its natural state is composed of 3 main compounds. There’s cellulose, the fibrous cell-wall material that gives the wood it’s hardness, and there’s lignin, the complex organic polymer that binds it all together. The third element is Hemicellulose, which interacts with both to lend even more strength to the wood.

Industries have long been using chemical baths to dissolve the lignin out of wood and use the remaining cellulose to make paper. Much more recently, however, the process had been used to alter the physical properties of the wood. Scientists have been able to create superwoods without needing to use old school lamination techniques.

A team from the University of Maryland, led by Lianbing Hu, have managed to create a wood product that is stronger than many titanium alloys. They say it’s about 12 times stronger than the wood alone, and about 10 times tougher. They’ve even managed to get it to stop a bullet in ballistics tests.

The bulletproof wood is created by removing the lignin and hemicellulose in a boiling bath of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfite. Afterwards, the remaining cellulose is mechanically pressed at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees celsius). This squashes it down to 20% of its original thickness, but now the cellulose is compressed into a thin, highly dense arrangement, held together by strong hydrogen bonds. This new material is stronger than steel and a fraction of the weight.

But why be bulletproof when you can just be invisible? The U of Maryland team has also managed to produce a transparent material using delignified wood. The first part of the process is the same, but instead of compressing the cellulose, they replace the removed natural polymers with an epoxy. The process takes about an hour, and produces a transparent, yet still a bit hazy, chunk of what looks like clear plastic. The cellulose infrastructure, however also makes it incredibly strong. Like the bulletproof version, they claim it is as strong as steel.

Both of these new superwoods possess very good insulative properties compared to metal and glass, and could be used as a much more thermally efficient building material than each, while retaining the desired structural properties.

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From our humble beginnings, gathering sticks and arranging them make shelter, to our current phase of engineering marvels, wood has always been an incredible resource for humanity. Through the evolution of our understanding, we have rediscovered, time and again, how we can further manipulate this natural, renewable material in order to suit our needs. The needs of an ever changing society, the needs of a growing population, and the needs of our home, the planet. The earth gave us the material, we studied it and used it to get smarter, and now we use that knowledge to help ourselves, and the world in which we, and the trees, live.

Thanks for listening! Just a reminder that if you’d like to support the show, you can do so at patreon.com/keithdecent and you’ll get access to FTGU2, the patreon exclusive companion show to this podcast, and other cool stuff. I have goals set to be able to produce more shows per year, so if you want more episodes, then that’s the best way to get it done. If you’re strapped for cash or just don’t trust them dern internets with yer buckaroos, then please know that sharing the show with others or just leaving a review on itunes or your chosen podcast aggregator does a lot to help as well.

I’d like to take a moment to thank the patrons who go the extra mile to make this show possible.

Matt Kummel

Make Build Modify

Josh Price

Phil Plante

Alex Krause of Make My Day TV

Lila Nawrocki

Maker Geek

Infinite Craftsman

Vincent Ferrari

Ryan Ridgley of Barn Rat Studio

Caleb Harris of You Can Make This Too

Jeff Shaw

Jonny Builds

Thank you all, and I’m looking forward to another great year!

Until next time, this is Keith Decent saying, later makers.