Private gift makes Penn State's wood collection one of world's largest

UNIVERSITY, PARK, Pa. -- When Dennis Brett decided to keep his first block of wood, World War II had just ended and Harry Truman was president. By comparison, Penn State's modest wood collection, which has been enhanced as a result of Brett's generosity, was already about 40 years old by that time.

Brett, now nearly 81, was a schoolboy in the Bronx, and his growing passion for wood collecting often would take him to visit the head botanist at the New York Botanical Garden, who inspired him and taught him how to use botanical names to organize his specimens. "Back then, it cost only a nickel to go into the city, so I went about every week," Brett said.

His love for wood was nurtured in a junior high school wood shop class and high school vocational education classes. He then went on to the Pratt Institute, where he studied interior design, architecture and furniture design. "I just had this love of woodworking -- I was always in the shop making things out of wood," Brett said.

Friends and family speculated that Brett had sawdust running through his veins, he recalls. First he worked for several furniture companies -- "until the furniture industry pulled out of New York and moved south" -- and then he developed his own cabinet-making businesses, often installing what he built. Over his decades in the trade, he cut and saved pieces of wood for his collection.

"Different species, different colors, different textures -- I was fascinated by all of it," he said. "When I traveled, I would go out of my way to acquire a specimen if I saw a wood that I didn't have, and I even imported specimens from places like Africa. I got hungry for it and decided to go after having one of the biggest private collections that anybody could possibly accumulate."

In recent years, Brett, who now lives in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, has been looking for a good home for his approximately 6,000-piece wood collection, and he found it at Penn State. Assessed at $202,500, it will be merged with the University's 6,000-plus-piece collection, housed in the Forest Resources Building in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Brett has been a member of the International Wood Collectors Society for more than 60 years and met Chuck Ray, Penn State associate professor of wood products operations, at a meeting a few years ago. He liked what he heard from Ray, who oversees the Penn State wood collection.

wood collection

To accommodate the collection, back in the 1950s, the then-School of Forest Resources acquired a large cabinet with hundreds of drawers for specimens. Associate Professor Chuck Ray shows that they are different sizes and shapes.

Image: Mike Houtz

"I looked into what Penn State has to offer, and I really liked the University's focus and passion for growing things, such as trees and forests. I said to myself, here is a guy who has the same love and interest for wood, and he's a professor at a school that I don't think will run out of funds. So why not give my collection to them?"

 Turns out, Ray has a big job in front of him, and it's not just because of Brett's gift. The Penn State wood collection, even after all these years, remains a work in progress.

The University collection was started in May, 1909 by H. J. Heltman, a forestry student at the Pennsylvania Forestry Academy, now Penn State Mont Alto, who collected specimens from 48 tree species around the campus. When he graduated in 1910, he left it to the school. In the ensuing decades, the forest faculty at Mont Alto and later the wood faculty at the University Park campus added to it.

In 1956, wood importer Joseph Stearns, one of the original members of the Wood Collectors Society who lived for a time in Pennsylvania, made a major donation of wood specimens –reportedly between 2,400 and 2,500 – to Penn State. To accommodate the larger collection, the then-School of Forest Resources acquired a large cabinet with hundreds of drawers for specimens. They are different shapes and sizes, but most are about the size of today's larger cell phones, but thicker.

"There was a wood technology professor named Newell Norton who went to work documenting the entire Penn State collection of 32 different collections that had been donated or collected by alumni, students and faculty. He was about half finished organizing, validating and renumbering specimens when he passed away in 1968," Ray explained.

box in wood collection

Penn State's wood collection was set aside and stored in a closet for about 44 years, seemingly forgotten.

Image: Mike Houtz

The collection was set aside and was stored in a closet for about 44 years, seemingly forgotten. During that time, Ray noted, universities around the country "more or less divested themselves of wood collections because they were not using them anymore." Many universities boxed up their specimens and sent them to the USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, and that facility accumulated a huge collection that now has more than 100,000 specimens.

It wasn't until retired wood technology professor Bob Baldwin read a blog post that Ray wrote about wood collecting a few years ago that things changed. "He showed up at my office one day and said, 'If you like that kind of stuff, I have something to show you.' He took me down the hall and opened what I thought was just a janitorial closet, and the wood collection was in there, basically untouched since 1968," he said.

"I was overwhelmed by what I was seeing, and excited by the challenge to bring the collection back to life. We moved the collection to my lab, and have begun to finish the work that Dr. Norton was doing back in the 1960s of trying to reorganize the collection. What we can do now that they couldn't do back then is computerize the whole thing and make it available to collectors, woodworkers and scientists all over the world. So I am putting it all into a database."

Aided by his lab staff, Ray intends to take high-resolution, magnified photos of the 12,000 or so specimens and make them available online, as well as make the collection easily accessible to researchers at Penn State and other universities who are studying the genetics and molecular properties of wood.

"Thanks to Dennis Brett's generous donation, Penn State's wood collection is now one of the most extensive in the world and we want to share it widely," he said.

If you are interested in supporting the effort to make the Penn State wood collection available for study and research for future generations, donations can be made by a check payable to The Pennsylvania State University, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, or online. Please note “wood collection” in the memo line.

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Last Updated August 11, 2016