Getting the Penn State Xylarium Organized

In the last few months, I've been entering data on the Dennis Brett collection into the Penn State Xylarium database. We're now nearing 5,000 specimens, and I still have about that many to go.

But a couple of weeks ago, an opportunity to get a little more organized presented itself. It began simply enough...I received an email saying that someone in the building was looking to get rid of some old filing cabinets. Now, I've been stumbling around piles of old boxes of wood specimens for a couple of years now, when I moved all of Dennis' samples into stacks around my desk in the lab to make room for the visitors I was expecting during the World of Wood event we hosted back in summer of 2015. These piles of boxes were chest high and were rather daunting. The possibility of bringing in some file cabinets and putting them "away" while I organized the collection sounded like a good one.

But the file cabinets were very, very old, and all different sizes and colors. Looked bad. So I decided against bringing them into the Xylarium. But it got me thinking, and I paid a visit to the Penn State Surplus building a couple of blocks away.

Well, what do you know? Some dorms had been renovated this summer, and they had dozens of identical chest of drawers that had been removed in the process. Not bad, either...light oak plywood sides and fronts, poplar and maple rails, styles, and backs, and thermofused melamine tops. After taking a few measurements of the drawers, I decided they would work. So I bought fifteen of them for $15 apiece, and paid another $10 apiece to have them moved over to the lab. Not too bad, eh?

Each drawer holds 98 standard size samples, stacked in two rows on their sides. With five drawers in each chest, times fifteen chests, I have storage capacity for 7,350 specimens...for only $375!

But not so slight problem I had not anticipated. When the drawers are loaded as in the picture above, I found that the drawer bottoms began to bow and would certainly creep more over time. With enough creep, they would pop right out of their frames. Then I would have a mess.

But a little wood engineering knowledge provided a relatively cheap and simple solution. I went to the local Big Box and bought two sheets of 19/32 (4-ply) pine plywood that is commonly used for sheathing here in the States. It's strong, and stiff. I was able to get 78 strips about four inches wide and 29-1/2 inches long from the two sheet. I then screwed these braces to the underside of each drawer, and problem solved!

I also bought some 1x2 strips to use as dividers inside the drawers. I was going to screw them in place, but I decided to leave them unfastened, so that they could slide to accomodate other sizes of specimens, since we have so many non-standard specimens in the collection. I call them "sliders" and they work nicely.

This project also differed from your typical woodworking project in one unique respect. One by one, as I emptied the chests to clean them and check for any signs of bugs, I found more than a dozen articles of decidely feminine clothing, most of the underwear and sportswear variety. The chests must have come from the girls dorms. Fortunately, I have daughter who is just starting her freshman year at Penn State, and a few of the garments are her size. Only problem came when I was caught carrying the items out of the building by my least he acted like he believed my story.

No bugs, but quite a few shorts and shirts, etc., etc.
So another $100 for the modification to the drawers brought the total bill for the project to $475. Custom cabinetry for the same purpose would easily have cost ten times as much, even here in Pennsylvania where every other small business is a cabinet company.

So, storage is in place...problem solved, right? Well...a few of you can guess what my problem is now. How do I efficiently and correctly transfer the 7,000 or so specimens into the drawers? Because even though I moved the boxes (again, for the third time) they still need to go away.

The specimens in the boxes are in no particular order at all. So even though the temptation is to just unload the boxes into drawers and then sort them out over time, you see the problem if nearly all the drawers are filled with random samples. No where to put the ordered samples.

So, patience is once again called for. I have to first enter all the specimens into the database, and once that is done (by the end of the year, I hope) then I'll be able to sort the entries by Family Name, divide them into 98-entry blocks, assign them drawer locations, and then, finally, Finally!...put them away in their proper place.

Yes, after considering several different schemes over the last couple of years, I decided to order the collection by Family Name. The original collection is stored by Accession Number, which is really a bother because that is basically random storage. So if I want to compare several different species of oaks, for instance, I typically have to search them out in that many different drawers. Which is not covenient when I am trying to show something to a Xylarium visitor.

I was leaning toward storing them by geographic region, so that, for instance, I could keep all my Australian specimens together, or that all our Pennsylvania woods would be together in one or two drawers. But I finally decided that following the scheme used at the Forest Products Lab in Madison was the best way to go, especially since the Penn State Collection will be used mostly for research projects. So, hopefully, by 2018, we'll all know how many specimens of each family, genus, and species are in the Penn State collection....and where they are!

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