At Newport News Shipbuilding, Virginia, you might expect to find state of the art aluminium ladders being used to fabricate state of the art warships and aircraft carriers.  After all, the feats of engineering that go into constructing a piece of naval equipment as sophisticated as an aircraft carrier must surely require the use of high tech metal ladders.  You would be surprised, then, to visit this boatyard and find wooden ladders still in use for every job that involves working at height.

Newport News use wooden ladders for several very good reasons. Firstly, wood has no conductive properties, so when people are working on the ship outdoors in the rain, and there is electricity involved to run power tools and other things, there is no danger of being electrocuted up a ladder.  They are also made from fire retardant wood, so do not run the risk of setting alight like fibreglass ladders might.  The wood used to make these ladders is not only fire retardant, it is also pressure treated for strength and to have a low flex point, unlike aluminium. This means the ladders are very strong and do not move and bend under pressure, even when a ladder is several feet long.

The most remarkable think about these wooden ladders being used to build some of the most advanced maritime equipment in the world, is the fact that they are built right there at the shipyard. Because they are built for purpose, they are ideally suited to the job they are made for, unlike any other type of ladder. These ladders at the boatyard can be made with uneven legs to fit into strange places, and the shipbuilders can modify them very easily, for as well as building the ships, they also build their own ladders.  If the ladder is too long, then the top section can be sawn off to cut the ladder down to the right height.  If the ladder needs extra strength then extra rungs and braces can be added as needed.

The one thing that really sets these ladders apart though, is the fact that they look like old fashioned, rickety wooden ladders you might expect to find in a dilapidated barn.  In some senses, this is not far from the truth, as the aesthetics of wooden ladders does conjure up this type of image.  However, these ladders are not on their last legs, they are purpose built for specific tasks involved in building a magnificent boat.

There are other ladders that have been designed with specific tasks in mind, but none as situation-dependent as the ladders at Newport News.  Take orchard ladders for instance; tripod ladders made from wood, which do not take well to sitting straight on flat ground.  There is no other application for these ladders than that for which they are designed.  However, each tree is different, and each soil type is different, so although an orchard ladder is an umbrella term for ladders of a certain type designed for picking fruit and pruning fruit trees, it may be that some orchard ladders are actually unsuitable for certain types of orchard.  In these cases wouldn't it be handy to be able to build your own ladder, designed specifically for the circumstances in which you are working?

Ladders built into trees are a good example of truly bespoke ladders. As these ladders are designed for ascending and descending a particular tree, and are built into the tree itself, it is safe to say that any tree ladder would not work as well on a different tree. Branch height and spread, trunk thickness and many other factors affect the construction of an in-tree ladder, so you can say that these are truly bespoke.

In Thailand, and in the UK as part of the burlesque cabaret act Circus Of Horrors, people walk up ladders where the rungs are made from swords or sharp blades as a shocking stunt.  They do this in their bare feet, and do not seem to bleed at all. Perhaps they have very tough skin on their feet that withstands the pressure of the blade, as it is common for the other performers to slice something (in the case of Circus Of Horrors, they use a cucumber to demonstrate how sharp objects are in the stage show) on the blade, thus convincing the audience that the blades of the ladder are extremely sharp. Of course, a cucumber is very soft and would probably slice in half on a blunt blade, so it could also be that the blades aren't sharp enough to actually cut the foot.  Either way, it cannot be very comfortable and it looks very impressive. This stunt is reminiscent of the strange fact about snails being able to slide along the edge of a razor blade, as their 'slime' is actually a yield stress fluid, which creates a sturdier barrier between the snail's foot and the blade when pressure is applied.  Perhaps the people who walk up bladed ladders use snail slime to protect their feet?!

Examples of bespoke ladders in everyday life, meaning the kind with normal rungs rather than swords, can be found in personal libraries, in swimming pools and on boats.  Access and rescue ladders for boats are often built as custom for the specific vessel and height in the water.  Another reason they are built as custom is that serious boat owners are the type of people who like to build their own parts where possible, fostering a sense of competition and pride in terms of their abilities to build custom parts for their boats.

Large personal libraries, of the sort you may find in stately homes and the homes of serious academics, might require a bespoke ladder system to access the higher shelves, especially where the library has been purpose built with reading areas and mezzanine platforms. The sliding ladders you find in libraries are often used in other situations, such as in shops where stock is kept on high shelves on the walls, but they are most often associated with libraries.

Custom built swimming pools also require custom built ladders. Pools that have different levels, or which are not completely sunken into the ground, need ladders that cater for the non-standard heights. There are a few companies in the UK that specialise in the construction of bespoke ladders for purposes such as this, as well as roof access for unusual buildings, where an off-the-shelf ladder solution would not fit the job.

Loft access is another, less common situation where a custom solution might be the only option. In houses with high ceilings it may well be that a standard loft ladder is not long enough to reach the floor. In homes with low ceilings, you might find that all the loft ladders on the market are too long, or need too large a hatch to be fitted through.  In listed properties this could be a major problem, as structural modifications would not be permitted, so a bespoke loft ladder would be the only option.

Of course, sometimes there is another way around the problem of needing a bespoke ladder system.  Some existing ladders can be used with accessories such as leg extenders and levellers, as well as stand offs, to adapt to the requirements you have. In addition, adjustable ladder systems such as that offered by Little Giant Ladders, offer the choice of several different configurations that work for almost any purpose.