Who Makes the Saltboxes?

The short answer is easy. His name is Pete, and he and the team he leads at the Baltimore Department of Transportation (DOT) Maintenance facility on the 6100 block of E. Lombard St. in Bayview turn lumber into saltboxes like a well-oiled machine. When asked how many saltboxes he’s made during his close-to-thirty years with the DOT, he laughs. The number is in the thousands. 

The saltbox is deceptively complex in its construction: 19 individual pieces of wood of 12 different sizes and 3 different board types held together with nails, screws, and hinges. Pete knows the measurements of each piece by heart, and for good reason: the current iteration of the saltbox is based on his tweak of the original design. Before Pete came along, the size of a Baltimore saltbox was 26 inches wide. The standard piece of plywood is 96 inches long by 48 inches wide. Pete was seeing a lot of scrap pieces pile up due to the 26-inch design and figured out that an adjustment of two inches would maximize the amount of wood used per sheet of ¾” plywood. Less scrap and less plywood used overall for the loss of two inches of saltbox seemed like a good tradeoff. Many years and many saltboxes later, this translates to thousands of dollars in savings for the city. Thanks, Pete!

The braces are mostly 2 ½” by 1 ½” boards pulled from a collection of scrap pieces from other projects. Saltbox feet are 1 ½” by 3 ½” boards, which is the same size as wooden barricades for street closures, so you’ll sometimes see reflective tape peeking out from under a box.

Pete and his crew often make hundreds of boxes per year. It’s a two-step approach:

  1. Measure and cut all of the tops, sides (these are tricky because of the angle, but Pete has a template for this), bottoms, braces, and lids for a run of saltboxes to create an inventory of the parts you need. 
  2. Build the boxes out assembly-line style. 

The size of the crew working on a saltbox build-out depends on what other work is in the queue. As the saying goes, many hands make fast work. Given the number of parts to assemble, Pete estimates that one person could build about five boxes in a single day, two or more people can knock out many more. 

The DOT Maintenance facility is a very well-stocked workshop with one major exception: no nail gun, at least not anymore. The nails, which come in strips or rolls like bandoliers, were too expensive, Pete explains, so we do it by hand. With each saltbox using at least 40 nails, Pete and his team get quite the workout, but at least there are power drills to help out with the screws. 

Another cost-savings measure comes with the choice of wood: saltboxes are made from non-treated wood versus treated wood. The price of building materials ebbs and flows with the tides of the free market, but treated limber is always more expensive, and for a good, obvious reason, it holds up significantly better to the elements. So why not use treated lumber instead? Would using a better, more resilient material be more cost-effective in the long run? The thick coat of OSHA yellow surely adds a level of protection, but the real rot is coming from the inside.

In theory, this idea makes some sense, but there are some other factors to consider. Would the hypothetical extra longevity of a saltbox made with treated wood be enough to offset the additional cost? Salt is ridiculously corrosive. Even the salt and sand mix like that used by Baltimore DOT is going to do a number on normal treated lumber. An even more expensive variation of treated lumber is made for marine use to combat heavy exposure to salt. 

What about a different material altogether? Other counties provide the grit boxes or sand boxes – I’ve seen them in Canada, Norway, and the UK – made of plastic. According to a member of Pete’s crew, Baltimore tried out plastic saltboxes at some point. This kind of box is available at your local home improvement store and runs a little over $200 apiece. Apparently, the issue with the plastic salt bins was theft. That some nice, handy plastic bins sitting on a street corner should take a walk shouldn’t be completely surprising. 

Providing infrastructure and effort to more closely manage the saltboxes is something that DOT is exploring. A public-facing saltbox map using GIS software that DOT already uses for construction projects is in the works. As a public service, online grit bin maps are commonly available via UK city council websites. What would it take to do this in Baltimore?

Currently, Baltimore saltboxes contain no unique identifier numbers that would allow for traceability and tracking of location, lifecycle, and usage. There’s no publicly accessible map to know where the saltboxes are, although there seem to be tracking spreadsheets with the DOT. When asked how many saltboxes are out there, the numbers the DOT provides vary from 900 to 1600. The truth is that nobody really knows. 

As assets owned by Baltimore City, the saltboxes seem to be treated as disposable. Pete and the team can keep making them for a reasonably low cost, they last maybe a few years, then new ones take their place. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Pete and his crew build the saltboxes, but they don’t paint them. The naked saltboxes get their yellow OSHA and stenciled letters back at the Pulaski Highway facility. Why the lettering style of those stencils seems to have changed over the years is a mystery for a different time. 

Where Do The Saltboxes Go?

Starting around April 15th of each year – Tax Day – the iconic yellow Baltimore saltboxes slowly start disappearing from street corners and sidewalks, leaving only a patch of dead grass or discolored square on the concrete. Mind you, not all of them leave us, but chances are, you’ll start noticing a little less OSHA yellow in your life as winter gives way to spring. That is unless you happen to find yourself on the 6400 block of Pulaski Highway at the Baltimore Department of Transportation Maintenance Division – the summer home of the Baltimore Saltbox.

The process goes like this: Maintenance crew supervisors oversee one or several of the four DOT districts. When saltboxes need to be removed, the supervisor provides a crew with a list of box addresses by intersection or cross-street in a district to be removed. This may be part of the seasonal cycle of pulling the boxes or it may be due to a buildup of requests through 311 or complaints to a city councilperson. Saltboxes suffer any number of abuses and misuses – car accidents, vandalism, and above all else, being used as a trashcan or storage. Time and the elements also take their toll. 

2020 was particularly bad for the saltboxes as COVID-19 restrictions and staffing shortages.The same workers that mow the parks and do landscaping pick up the boxes, so the saltboxes stayed baking in the sun while the skeleton crews did their best to keep Baltimore public spaces looking good. The mixture of salt and sand solidified in many boxes, leaving small boulders lodged inside that need to be removed. 

Finding the saltboxes on a list for pickup isn’t always easy. Like any other piece of moveable public property, the boxes disappear or migrate to other locations. One supervisor told me about a woman who claimed one as her own, chaining it to her fence and installing a padlock. Once a saltbox is found, it’s emptied. Trash removed and bagged up. Leftover salt is dumped out and shoveled into the truck to make the box lift lighter, if possible. It’s a two-person job, the classic lift-with-your-legs activity. 

The collected boxes are returned to 6400 Pulaski Highway and fall into three categories that roughly translate to:

  • Total loss: this is no longer a functioning box and will be crossing the Rainbow Bridge
  • Needs repair: this box has good bones, but need some maintenance team attention
  • Ready for storage: this box lives to serve another season and can go into storage

Saltbox storage is a little like the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, if the government warehouse space was divided among a mid-sized, rectangle building and several shipping containers and trailers. Maximizing use to the space is key here, and since nobody needs to access a particular box, they’re all placed on their sides and stacked in rows to the ceiling, feet facing out. The math works like this in the storage building: Length: 15 boxes. Height: 4 boxes, Width: 10 boxes. Equals: 600 saltboxes in the main storage building and rest in shipping containers, which includes the retrieved boxes, newly built boxes to replace the ones lost throughout the year. 

Around November 15th, the boxes end their slumber and return to the streets of Baltimore to serve another year.