Taking a Look at Wooden Pipes

When digging up old wooden pipes, imagine how they were made and put together

If you work in an old city with centuries-old infrastructure, you may have dug up, or at least seen, a piece of old wooden pipe. Little is known today about how it was put together, what tools were used and what installation methods were practiced.

That is until now.


The colonists were aware of the use of wooden pipes. Logs had been drilled out previously in London in the early 1600s. The logs here were usually 6 inches in diameter and cut to lengths of 12 feet — bored through the center. Even though the practice of installing wooden piping was present, it didn’t become widely used until the late 1800s in the form of a “wooden stave pipe.”

Wooden stave pipe was made with “staves” (today we would view them as curved and tapered two-by-fours) and kept together with bands of flat iron. Initially, they were made like a wooden barrel, with the staves being similar in length, laid uniformly side-by-side and having couplings similar to hub and spigot joints.

One end was whittled down so that it would slide into the hub end of the next joint. These joints routinely blew apart. Plumbers tried butting the two pipes together by thin steel clips that fit into saw kerfs across the end of the staves. This also leaked but not as much, and therefore it was an adopted practice until the innovation of the “continuous stave pipe.”

Continuous stave pipe was similar to a running bond pattern of pavers you might use on your patio. Just imagine that you were only allowed to use full uncut pavers: The pattern would never end — it would continue to have “teeth” forever until someone finally cut a paver in half to complete the pattern. Now imagine that in a round pipe using two-by-fours. It was continuous and could be run forever; and once the banded iron was correctly installed around the pipe, it stayed together and was tightly sealed.

Sizing of the wooden mains at that time was through the use of “Kutter’s formula,” which used equations that took into account friction loss and head pressures at four different elevations and told the installers what thickness and material the lumber should be.

The flat bands that surrounded the pipe, holding it together, were painted with linseed oil and asphaltum, applied hot to prevent rust. When they had to make a connection to something at the plant, they would butt the end of the wooden pipe on whatever they would connect to and then use concrete to make the transitioning connection. Sometimes they would put a large-diameter piece of cast iron over the entire transition and pour concrete around the whole thing.

Cribbing shaped in a half circle with stabilizers supported the pipe. That was crucial for not only stabilizing the pipe, but also lining it up to the proper elevation when piping toward an object such as a valve or a plant connection. They would also have settling chambers and sand gates in line to filter out sand and debris from the plant. 

At the summit of every section of the line, they would install a chimney that acted as an air valve to allow air to enter the system to prevent a vacuum. This chimney prevented a total collapse. These were cut into the pipe using cast iron saddles. At the low points, however, they installed blowoffs so that each section of the pipeline could be occasionally drained of silt and debris.

In some circumstances, it would be necessary to install a large-diameter cast iron pipe if they were trying to navigate under a railroad passing. In this case, they would lay a piece of cast iron pipe and gradually make the wooden pipe bigger in diameter as they approached the cast iron, now banding the wooden pipe around a section of the cast iron for a tight fit.

If they had to turn up, down or around an object, they used steel pipe-fittings such as quarter bends, connecting the fittings the same way. If they had to go across a stream, they would run the pipe over the stream instead of below, due to fear of contaminated water entering the pipe.

A pipe-laying gang for wooden mains would consist of 16 men. The trench would be dug a few feet wider than the pipe. The half bands were set in the ditch, and then the pipe set on top of the bands. Then the top half-circle bands were placed on top, overlapping the bottom bands. The spacing of the bands was to remain uniform, and the staves were driven up to make the joints tight. Each plumber made wrenches to his own desired length. Wooden hammers were used to driving home the staves, and on the bottom joints, woodblocks were used in tandem with sledgehammers. This final process was called “coopering” the joints.

Eventually, a pipe was made in a factory that was smaller in diameter and machine prebanded. The wooden pipe was also adopted in the steam-heating districts. The pipe was made from logs that were machine-bored and wound up with the standard flat steel bands. With this new machine-made pipe, couplings were made from a hub and spigot or a different type of collar made of riveted steel, which then turned into fittings such as bends, crosses, reducers and tees.


To put a new two-by-four in its place, they would set it in place and bang it into its resting place with the use of a sledgehammer striking a driving bar. The driving bar was hit instead of the wood to prevent damaging the wood. The driving bar was made of solid oak, approximately 4 feet long and with a steel-reinforced band around one end. If there was an imperfect two-by-four and it didn’t want to bash into its resting place, workers would use a building chisel to beat or notch enough space for the wood to fit, taking care not to get too crazy in fear of a leak.

When a 3-foot section of the pipe was completed, a few bands were placed around the pipe. The “shoes” — or where the bands need to be tightened down by use of shoe, nut and bolt — would need to be positioned on alternative ends of the pipe to get a uniform tightness. This process was referred to as “balancing the bands.” Ever use those new expansion tank wall-mount brackets with the Fernco-style worm clamps? It’s very similar to how those work.

After the bands were in place around the pipe, the bands had to line up with the shoes, which required a wrench called a crowfoot. It had a handle with a slotted shank and a shoe grasper that would grab the shoe and the nuts and bolt. Installers were able to pry the nut and bolt over the shoe, locking it into its resting place. At this point, they would use a ratchet to tighten the bolt for a snug fit. The installer would then take a blacksmith hammer (because it wasn’t too heavy and powerful) and lightly tap on the shoe. If the shoe didn’t move, it was a good joint.

The pipe gang then ran on to the next section and repeated the process.  


Anthony Pacilla has been in the trades since he was 9 years old (family business). He started cleaning toilets, mopping floors and putting fittings away in the warehouse. As he picked up skills, he would add becoming a ground man and laborer. When he was ready, Pacilla became an apprentice and then a journeyman plumber. He graduated college with a business and economics degree and immediately wanted to come back to work in the family business. A few years ago, Pacilla become a licensed master plumber. To contact Pacilla, email editor@plumbermag.com.


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