From Orangeburg to Papier Mache Pipe – the Wood Fibre Pipes

By Jon C. Schladweiler, P.E., R.L.S.; Historian, AZ Water

(This article was originally presented in the “Historian’s Report” in the AWPCA (now the Arizona Water Association - AZ Water) Newsletter in July 2005.)


As one looks back on the history of sewers, it becomes apparent that our forefathers’ first choice was to use materials readily available to them (whenever possible) to make sewer pipe.

One unique type of sewer pipe was coal tar (pitch) impregnated wood fibre pipe; more commonly (at least, in the USA) known as “Orangeburg Pipe.” As a sewer pipe, it was used mostly for house laterals, but also (to a more limited extent) for main lines. Helping to make it a popular pipe – aside from its light weight – was the fact that wood was readily available throughout the USA in the late 1800’s through the early- to mid-1900’s, thereby helping to keep its price competitive.

This pipe had its roots starting in the late 1880’s/1890’s as an oval-shaped conduit (not pipe); it was installed in the walls and floors of the then new “high-rise”(6- to 8-story) hotels and office buildings that were constructed on the eastern seaboard; it facilitated the installation of wiring and smaller piping in those buildings as they were readied for occupancy. (Note: The Empire State Building [late 1920’s] has over 1100 miles of wood fibre conduit in its walls and floors.) Many hundreds of miles of underground duct bank was installed for the distribution of electricity (and telephone wiring) in the early 1900’s … much of that duct bank was made of coal tar impregnated wood fibre conduit (both of oval and round cross-sectioned fibre conduit.

In the first quarter of the 1900’s, attempts were made to utilize this type of pipe under “pressurized” applications … for the transport of oil production byproducts; it failed because this type of pipe does not hold up well when pressurized. In another early experiment, one employee housing area (built by the New York Central Railroad) was sewered with this “conduit” (round version) in 1906; in 1942, the pipe was inspected and found to be in good (and still almost round) shape.

During WWII, the need arose for low-cost housing to house the troops and their families when they returned home. The Fibre Conduit Co. of Orangeburg, NY, said they would change their fibre conduit manufacturing process and produce a (round) wood fibre pipe for gravity sewer service on a large-scale commercial basis. They did … and then changed the company’s name to the “Orangeburg Pipe Company.” Several other companies also produced a similar pipe product, but Orangeburg was by far the largest producer. Their biggest competitor in the 1940-1960 era was asbestos cement pipe. Later on, the onslaught of “plastic” pipe drove wood fibre pipe out of the market.

One might think that this type of pipe was strictly an American product. Not so. It was also made in Canada and known there as “black pipe.”

The following 1956 article describes the “pitch fibre pipe” manufactured in England and describes its manufacture and uses in that country. The more one learns of this pipe, the larger the potential amount of it that may be present under the streets and yards of our communities … in the USA, Canada, England, and beyond!!

All in all, one might think its not done badly for (in essence) being a “coal tar impregnated toilet paper tube”!!

Enjoy the following 1956 article from the “The Engineer” (London: Volume 202, page 521) about the English “papier mache” sewer pipe and conduit.



(Scanned version of original article)

Pitch fibre pipes and cable conduits are now being made by Union Fibre Pipes (Great Britain), Ltd., Tolpits, Watford, Hertfordshire, a subsidiary company of the Universal Asbestos Manufacturing Company. These pipes arc made from a sort of papier mache, heavily impregnated with pitch. In their manufacture, old newspapers are churned in water and the resulting sludge is fed at a controlled rate to a forming machine. The sludge is kept in the right condition by passing it over baffle weirs and bubbling air through it. A vacuum roll turns with its lower part immersed in the sludge bath, and by virtue of the effect of the reduced pressure maintained inside the roll, it continuously picks up a thin film of solid material. A second, mating, roll rotates higher up, clear of the bath, with a slightly higher vacuum maintained across its surface, so that the film of material transfers to it. A "former" for the pipe—a light alloy tube which is small in diameter compared with the vacuum rolls—is held in position by guide rolls, at the top of this second vacuum roll. The material passes naturally from a rough to a smooth surface, so the film gradually builds up on the former as the machine rotates. Manufacture is in 8 ft lengths, with diameters of 2 in to 6 in.

Batches of formers, with the wet material newly-placed on them, are then put into the drying ovens, which they pass through (the ovens operate on a continuous flow principle) in about eighteen hours, temperatures not far below boiling point being maintained. Then the fibre pipes are stripped from the formers and placed in a vacuum chamber: hot pitch is introduced in vacuo, a treatment which impregnates the pipes to the extent that 75 per cent of the final weight is pitch. The last operation is to machine the ends of the pipes to a 2 deg. taper. The pipes comply with B.S.S. 2760,1956.

Jointing the pipes is simple: a machined collar (also with 2 deg. tapers) is fitted between them and they are knocked together with a hammer. Special collars allow junction with stoneware pipes: pipes can be cut, and the ends machined on site. The pitch fibre pipes have a significant structural strength and a jointed run of pipe has a degree of flexibility and strength which is unknown with stoneware; a length of three or four jointed pipes, each 8 ft long, can be lifted without breaking the joints. Thus, concrete haunching can be omitted, and it is recommended that the pipes should be laid on a 1 in bed of sand. We are informed that the cost of laying and jointing these pipes is very slightly in excess of the cost for laying and jointing comparable best quality stoneware pipes, but the omission of the concrete haunching allows a considerable economy to be made.”


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