Forest Products Laboratory’s wood expert answers the call

After Capitol insurrectionists destroyed historical wooden artifacts and objects, the U.S. Army tapped Madison research engineer Robert Ross for help.
A flatbed truck loaded with wood is parked outside the Forest Products Laboratory building in Madison, Wisconsin
Credit Lon Yeary.
Rare mahogany wood being loaded onto a flatbed outside Madison's Forest Products Laboratory, bound for Washington D.C.

The phone rang just a day or two after the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol.

Robert Ross, who has spent more than three decades as a wood scientist at Forest Products Laboratory, or FPL, answered the call.

On the other end was Nathan Kamprath of the U.S. Army, tasked with restoring the ravaged Capitol.

Headquartered in Madison, FPL is the national research lab of the USDA’s United States Forest Service. The lab has often worked in association with the Department of Defense.

A few years ago, Ross gave Kamprath a tour of FPL, at one juncture pointing out a storage stall in the basement — “Probably the most remote place in the lab,” Ross says — that held century-old mahogany, the kind of high-quality wood originally used for doors, desks and more in Washington’s Capitol building. The wood is no longer readily available due to conservation restrictions.

Rare mahogany inside FPL by Amy Androff

Rare legacy mahogany wood is stored at Forest Products Laboratory in Madison. Credit Amy Androff.

Rare legacy mahogany wood is stored at Forest Products Laboratory in Madison.

On the phone in January, Kamprath explained that the destruction included extensive damage to irreplaceable historical wooden artifacts and objects. He recalled his basement tour and asked if the legacy mahogany at FPL might be utilized at the Capitol. If so, he’d put Ross in touch with Mary Oehrlein, the historic preservation officer for the Architect of the Capitol.

“We’d be proud to help,” Ross said.

Ross’s current title at FPL is project leader and acting assistant director. He’s originally from Michigan, and after attending Michigan Technological University, he went west — to Washington State University in eastern Washington — for graduate school.

“I always wanted to work for the Forest Service and FPL,” Ross says. “During my graduate work I did a lot of reading and studying and looking at reports from FPL. I was convinced it was the place I wanted to be. Luckily enough, a job became available.”

That was 1988.

Portrait in orange shirt with glasses and silver hair, Robert Ross of Forest Products Laboratory.

Research engineer Robert Ross has worked at Forest Products Library for more than 30 years.

I first saw his name at this time of year — March Madness — in 2005. Ross was featured in a Wall Street Journal article about the state-of-the-art basketball floors being used at the NCAA Final Four.

Ross worked on the basketball project and told the Journal, “The common person on the street just thinks that’s a floor laying there. The real interesting thing is just how sophisticated that design is. It’s truly an engineered floor.”

Last week, Ross laughed, saying, “You can tell I kind of get geeked out about wood.”

If FPL is known to the world outside of wood geeks, it is likely due to the lab’s involvement in one of the world’s most famous criminal cases: The 1932 kidnapping and death of the infant son of celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Former New 3 Now journalist Adam Schrager wrote a terrific book about the case titled “The Sixteenth Rail.”

In it, Schrager spotlighted FPL scientist Arthur Koehler, who, as the prosecution’s star witness, was able to match the wood from the ladder found outside the Lindbergh home to wood in the floor of the attic of Bruno Richard Hauptman, who was convicted of the crime.

“A tree never lies,” Koehler said.

In the 1990s, Ross traveled to Boston several times to help with the restoration of the USS Constitution, the famed fighting ship known as “Old Ironsides” that was being refurbished in honor of the 200th anniversary of its launch.

And now, the U.S. Capitol.

In late February, FPL workers loaded stacks of mahogany weighing some 3,000 pounds on a flatbed bound for Washington, D.C. The Architect of the Capitol’s carpentry shop is scheduled to begin work with the wood in June and FPL will stay involved by providing technical consultation.

Ross, like so many Americans, watched the Jan. 6 pillaging of the Capitol live on television. “I felt I had to,” he says. “It’s history, though not good history.” He will travel to the Capitol this summer and feels the project is the most significant of his career.

“I get pretty emotional about it,” Ross says. “I’ve worked on some pretty historic things. Old Ironsides. I was called to help by the city of New Orleans after Katrina hit. But this one really touched me. The Capitol is the heart and soul of American democracy. To get a chance to work on something like that is kind of unbelievable, really.”

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