Timber bridges are an excellent way to showcase the strength and durability of wood structures, even under harsh conditions, when material selection, design, construction and maintenance are done well. They could also be critical infrastructure elements that span fast rivers or deep gorges. Consequences of failure of these structures can be severe in loss of life and loss of access to communities. Durability is as critical as engineering to ensure safe use of timber bridges for the design life, typically 75 years in North America.
There are numerous examples of old wood bridges still in service in North America (Figure 1). The oldest are traditional covered bridges (Figure 2), three of which are around 190 years old. In Southeast China, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces have numerous covered bridges that are almost 1000 years old (Figure 3). The fact that these bridges are still standing is a testament to the craftsmen that selected the materials, designed the structures, built them, monitored their condition and kept them maintained and repaired. They would have selected the most durable wood species available, likely Chestnut or cedars in North America, china fir (china cedar) in southeast China. They would have adzed off the thin perishable sapwood exposing only the naturally durable heartwood. The fact the covered bridges around today all look similar is because those were the tried and tested designs that worked. They clearly designed those bridges to shed water with a wood shingle roof, vertical siding projecting below the deck and structural elements sheltered from all but the worst wind-driven rain. Any rain that did not drip off the bottom of the vertical siding and wicked up the end grain would also dry out reasonably rapidly. Slow decay that did occur at the bottom of these boards was inconsequential because it was remote from connections to structural elements. Construction must have been meticulously performed by experienced craftsmen. Those craftsmen may well have been locals that would continue to monitor the bridge over its life and make any repairs necessary. Of course, not every component in those ancient bridges is original, particularly shingle roofs that typically last 20-30 years depending on climate. These bridges have all been repaired due to decay and in some cases dismantled and re-built over the years for various reasons (e.g., due to changes in traffic loads, arson, flooding, fire, hurricanes, etc.). The Wan’an Bridge in Fujian is known to have been built in 1090, refaced in 1708 and rebuilt in 1845, 1932 and 1953. The apparently increasing frequency of rebuilding may suggest a loss of knowledge and skills, but all repairs and reconstruction prior to 1845 may not have been recorded.