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Cardboard contains many possibilities

First, it was a hatband. Now it's used to ship 90 percent of all goods. But there's more....

By Ross Atkin / March 27, 2001

If you want to build a boat to ride in, an easy chair to sit in, or even a scale-model skyscraper that reaches to the ceiling, think "cardboard." It's hard to find a more adaptable, less expensive, or more available building material.

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More than 90 percent of all products in the United States are shipped in corrugated-paper boxes. Mattresses come in them. So do refrigerators, dishwashers, bicycles, and televisions.

You've played with corrugated-cardboard boxes before. Perhaps you've studied them and discovered the secret of their sturdiness.

Corrugated boxes have at least three layers: two flat sheets (the "liners") with a wavy layer ("fluting") glued in between. It took a while for people to figure out what corrugated paper was good for. The first corrugated material was used as a sweatband lining for tall men's hats in Victorian England. That was in 1856. In 1871, corrugated paper was being used to protect kerosene- lamp chimneys and glass. By the end of the 1800s, liners had been added and the material was being used to make boxes. Corrugated boxes began replacing heavy, expensive wooden crates.

According to one prominent economist, the corrugated box is one of recent history's greatest, most overlooked inventions. "It's really an incredible product that we never think about," Russell Roberts of Washington University told National Public Radio in 1999.

It's a great, overlooked building material, too. Most corrugated is easy to cut, requiring only determination and a strong pair of scissors. A box knife or small handsaw makes easy work of thicker corrugated. (But you'll need to ask a grown-up to help you.)

Corrugated projects to try

* Throughout the spring and summer, kids and grown-ups build kayaks, long barges, model paddle-wheelers, and other fanciful boats. They enter them in The Great Cardboard Boat Regatta, a series of events held in cities across the United States.

* Schoolteacher Michael Lipinski helps his fifth- and sixth-graders build a model city of skyscrapers at the Erving (Mass.) Elementary School. They use empty appliance boxes provided by a local store.

* You may have seen the episode of "Zoom," the PBS-TV show, in which New York teenager Nick Young designed and built a lounge chair from sheets of corrugated.

Richard Archer, now retired, was a professor of art and design at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He organized the first cardboard boat regatta in 1974 as a student problem-solving exercise. "I was looking for a project that seemed impossible," he says.

About 10 cardboard-boat regattas are held each year. Entrants create an impressive array of watercraft. Some are comical, made to look like everything from cars to cows to tanks. Boats in a team competition may be more than 100 feet long. Many are built by parents and children working together.

Not all of the boats are seaworthy. Those that don't float very well are eligible for the "Titanic Award." But the fact that most of them can be raced over a short course is a testament, once again, to corrugated's versatility. (Hint: Five or six coats of enamel floor paint or polyurethane deck finish vastly improves the boats' water-resistance.)

"I know that for every boat that makes it to a race," Mr. Archer says, "the people working on it have solved a host of problems. What length should the boat be? What width? How high should the side walls be?" This kind of problem-solving builds teamwork as well as design skills.