Timber bridges have a long history as vital components of the roadway, railway and logging road networks within Canada. Dependent on the availability of materials, technology, and labour, the design and construction of wood bridges has evolved significantly over the last 200 hundred years throughout North America. Wood bridges take on many forms and use alternative support systems; including simple span log bridges, different types of trussed bridges, and stress-laminated or composite bridge decks and components. Timber bridges remain an important part of our transportation network in Canada.
The benefits of building modern timber bridges include:
- reduced initial cost, particularly for remote areas;
- speed of construction, through the use of prefabrication;
- sustainability advantages;
- lighter foundations;
- lower earthquake loads, coupled with less complex connections to substructures;
- smaller temporary structures and cranes; and
- lower transportation costs associated with lower weight materials.
The different types of materials used to construct wood bridges include: sawn lumber, round logs, straight and curved glued-laminated timber (glulam), laminated veneer lumber (LVL), parallel strand lumber (PSL), cross-laminated timber (CLT), nail-laminated timber (NLT), and composite systems such as stress-laminated decks, wood-concrete laminated decks, and fibre-reinforced polymers.
Two main wood species used for wood bridge construction in Canada are Douglas fir and the Spruce-Pine-Fir species combination. Other species within the Hem-Fir and Northern species combinations are also recognized under CSA O86, however, they are less commonly used in bridge construction.
All metal fasteners used for bridges must be protected against corrosion. The most common method for providing protection is hot dip galvanizing, a process whereby a sacrificial metal is added to exterior of the fastener. Different fastener types that are used in wood bridge construction include, but are not limited to, bolts, lag screws, split rings, shear plates, and nails (for deck laminations only).
All highway bridges in Canada must be designed to meet the requirements outlined in CSA S6 and CSA O86. The CSA S6 standard requires that the main structural components of any bridge in Canada, regardless of construction type, be able to withstand a minimum of 75 years of loading during its service life.
The style and span of bridges varies greatly depending on the application. In hard to reach locations with deep valleys, timber trestle bridges were common at the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century. Historically, trestle bridges relied heavily on ample timber resources and in some cases, were considered to be temporary. Initial construction of North America’s transcontinental railways would not have been possible without the use of timbers to construct bridges and trestles.
Many examples of trussed timber bridges for have been built for well over a century. Trussed bridges allow for longer spans compared to simple girder bridges and historically had spans in the range of 30 to 60 m (100 to 200 ft). Bridges that are designed with trusses located above the deck provide a great opportunity to build a roof over the roadway. Installing a roof overhead is an excellent way to shed water away from the main bridge structure and protect it from the sun. The presence of these covered roofs is the main reason these century-old covered bridges remain in service today. The fact that they remain part of our landscape is as much a testament to their hardiness as to their attractiveness.
Although originally devised as a rehabilitation measure for aging bridge decks, the stress-laminating technique has been extended to new bridges through the application of stressing at the time of original construction. Stress-laminated decks provide improved structural behaviour, through their excellent resistance to the effects of repeated loading.
Three main considerations related to durability of wood bridges include protection by design, preservative treatment of wood, and replaceable elements. A bridge can be designed such that it is inherently self-protecting by deflecting water away from the structural elements. Preservative treated wood has the ability to resist the effects of de-icing chemicals and attack by biotic agents. Lastly, the bridge should be designed such that, at some point in its future, a single element can be replaced relatively easily, without significant disruption or cost.
For further information, refer to the following resources:
Wood Highway Bridges (Canadian Wood Council)
Ontario Wood Bridge Reference Guide (Canadian Wood Council)
CSA S6 Canadian Highway Bridge Design Code
CSA O86 Engineering design in wood