Imagine for a moment that you're embarking on a decade-long project. You know the rough order in which you're going to take your steps, but not how much time each step will take, beyond very rough "Maybe two years?" type estimates.
That was me last June. I made my first wing rib, and started on the long and repetitive task of making a big stack of ribs. I knew from others' experience that the wing spars would take a long time to actually ship. Most people seemed to place an order, and see the shipment about 6 months later. So, I figured, I would order my spars early, and maybe they'd arrive about when I'd be finishing ribs, in the December-ish time-frame.
December has come and gone, and I'm still slowly grinding out ribs, so that timing was inaccurate. Un/fortunately the timing of finishing ribs was the least of my worries.
I placed the spar order with Wicks Aircraft Supply in June. The price was a bit steep, at almost $800 for eight 11- and 12-foot spars. Still, I'd understood that Wicks was the best place to buy aircraft grade Spruce, and I didn't get into building an airplane thinking I'd do it for free.
They didn't provide a shipping or order completion estimate when I ordered, but I knew it would take months, so I put it out of my mind, and worked on ribs.
I got a phone call around September or October with an update on my order: they were still trying to locate sufficient wood of a high enough quality. They knew I was waiting, and asked me to be patient. I said I was, and thanks for the update. I figured we were more or less on track.
Then I got another call on December 1st: we're unable to find enough wood to fill your order. In fact... we're getting out of the Spruce business. Sorry. Good luck.
Wicks explained that they'd had multiple large shipments of Spruce come in, and they simply couldn't find enough high-quality wood to fill the orders they were getting. They were taking a bath on wood orders, so they decided to cut their losses. They implied heavily that the supply of Spruce was simply inadequate to the demand, and that I was probably out of luck getting spars anywhere.
I was, to put it mildly, discouraged.
The next thing I did, though, was go check out the Aircraft Spruce wood selection (I found it ironic too, that Wicks was supposed to be a higher quality supplier of aircraft Spruce than Aircraft Spruce the business was). They listed everything I wanted as "in stock," which seemed like a potentially good sign. Previous experience with them had shown that they were generally on the ball, and if they listed something as in stock, that's because it was.
I also checked a few other options. I called up Steen Aero Lab to see how much they'd want to for a set of laminated spars. A week later, I got the answer: $2300 or so. That seemed like a choice of last resort to me. I contacted an aluminum extrusion company to see if they'd be willing to make a custom extrusion, and how much it would cost, but never heard back.
It seemed like Aircraft Spruce was the best choice, so I called them up and asked them what their expected leadtime was on a set of spars. They went into consultation with their wood department and mailed back a few days later: two to three weeks. Awesome, thought I, and placed the order with them on December 6th.
I'm sure you can imagine my surprise when, 3 weeks later, I had not heard from them. Around the 30th, I called and asked for an update. They eventually got back to me: my shipment would most definitely go out on Janury 30th. Ok, sure. I would have been perfectly happy if they'd told me it would take 3-6 months to ship the order, but they said 2-3 weeks, so now I was unhappy. This is pretty basic business logic: don't make up numbers you can't meet.
It was with a sense of resignation that I watched the 30th come and go without contact from ACS. A week or two into February, I put in a "customer contact" form asking for more information and expressing my displeasure at being misled on multiple occasions. Don't lie to me, I explained, just tell me you don't know, if you don't know.
Several days later, I got a terse response saying that my order would be shipping the next day. Of course, that would put the shipment arriving at my house in the middle of a week I'd be away in Hawaii for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, so I had the weird role reversal of calling ACS and asking them to delay my order by a week. With visions of one of the spar horror stories in my head, there was no way I was going to allow delivery without me being there to personally inspect the package before signing: one of the Biplane Forum members had his spars delivered in similar circumstances, and discovered that a forklift operator had put the forks clean through the shipping container, destroying the spars inside. He turned the shipment back and had to wait another 6 months for replacements. I don't expect that to happen to me, but for a shipment of this price and fragility, I want to minimize all the risks I can.
And that puts me at now. The spars are supposed to arrive today, in the afternoon. Look for an update below on the actual condition they arrive in. Hopefully they'll be in perfect condition and give me a kick in the pants to get on with my slow-paced rib building so I can move on to building some wings already.
And the expected update:
The spars did, in fact, arrive with damage to the box. The UPS delivery driver and I cut away the outer box and determined that the abrasion damage was only to the outer layers, and didn't go past the second layer of three of sturdy cardboard around the wood. Without realizing I had an choice other than "Send them back" and "Accept the shipment without reservation," I signed on the form, since it looked like the damage was light, and the wood had been spared.
I turns out (news to me), you do in fact have another option. If you suspect that a shipment has been damaged, but it's not so bad you want to send it back, you can note your concerns on the form, something like "Possible hidden damage." Then you sign with that on the form, and UPS is still on the hook even though you've accepted the package. Future damage claims will be substantially easier. Of course, I learned this after I signed for the damaged package.
In any case, a day later, I was able to take the package apart and inspect the contents. The damage did not indeed go further than the cardboard, and the wood appeared to be intact and without problems. I am now the slightly nervous owner of eight lengths of nearly perfect vertical grain Sitka Spruce, which will be carefully stored against the day that I actually finish making ribs, and can move on to the next phase of building a wing.