The History of Di-Noc – As Different From The Real Thing As Night And Day

We’re all familiar with the vast acreage of faux timbers that have embellished many of our station wagons and others over the decades thanks to Di-Noc, but the story of that iconic product involves a lot more than just automotive applications. Di-Noc and related products were applied to a wide range of applications, including furniture, retail, military, interior decor, and more. Here’s an overview of the Di-Noc Corporation’s history and its products, which was based in my Cleveland, OH hometown—with a Hollywood-worthy plot twist at the end.

The inventive, innovative brains behind Di-Noc belonged to chemist Thomas S. Reese (b. 1901), who amassed dozens of 1920s-1960s patents. I must, however, mention his father Clarence K. Reese (1867-1946), very prominent in Cleveland’s printing and advertising business—this being before radio, much less TV, when “local marketing” meant print advertising and direct mail. The prewar Cleveland newspapers tell us that father & son sought to market a lacquer decal with translucent properties, looking good both by daylight on a retail store’s window, and by night when backlit (not producing an opaque silhouette). In 1923 the Reeses formed the “Di-Noc” company, incorporated the year following.

Di-Noc’s earliest products were its decals and transfer-type product labels for other manufacturers. The U.S. auto business came calling, seeking wood-grained finishes for dashboards: insert panels at first, full-width dashboards later. like this 1937 Packard.

Di-Noc also provided wood-look synthetic veneers for the home radio trade. In 1934 they’d began supplying film-veneers to Celotex for a line of pre-finished interior panels:

The firm was modestly profitable during the Depression, with cash for product development never unlimited. Obtaining just-right film-substrate(s), lacquers and inks was essential; Di-Noc started developing its own. Photographic materials and printing plates were at first purchased from suppliers, later made increasingly in-house. Here’s the state of things in the mid-1930s:

In 1937 a financial syndicate came to Di-Noc’s aid, instituting a new stock structure and supplying useful working capital—the deal stipulating that the brains of (Thomas) Reese would stay on at least five more years. Di-Noc’s innovation for Detroit was that Synthex Veneer: applied to (flat) sheet metal before being stamped into dashboards or interior panels, it was un-damaged by the process. A period source noted that by 1940, fully 80% of American cars featured something from Di-Noc.

Product and process development continued. First marketed ca. 1941 was the corporation’s Di-Lon line of wall coverings for homes and business. The varied Di-Lon patterns and textures included woodgrains and this marble-look finish:

Covering big, flat spaces with photo-realistic marble, woodgrain, leather, or fabrics required photo equipment that could expose negatives at actual size. Reese drew up specifications for what was arguably the world’s largest camera, able to expose a negative five feet square. Here it is in a 1938 Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The photo was reworked as a wire-service drawing some months later:

The company’s marble patterns appeared mostly in commercial spaces, but Di-Noc promoted them for stately residences, as in this 1942 promotional photo.

When Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into WWII, the curtailed auto production took away Di-Noc’s profits from Detroit, among others; the company reported losing nearly 90% of its prewar business. The firm resourcefully expanded its consumer products, and—believe it or not—your (great-) grandmother probably heard of “Di-Noc” before you ever did! The “Di-Lon” wallcoverings aside, 1940s home furniture was increasingly available partly or fully “veneered” with Di-Noc’s products, this from 1943.

And this bedroom suite from 1945 (about $1100 today-dollars).

Di-Noc contributed plenty to wartime industry, including a substantial percentage of the insignia used on Allied airplanes, tanks, and boats. Building up that business had taken time, however—1942 and 1943 were money-losers overall for Di-Noc. Other wartime products were blackout-related: The “Saf-T-Glo Emergency Signs” and others mentioned below (retailed by General Tire but manufactured by Di-Noc). For today-dollars, multiply these late-1942 U.S. Government ceiling prices about 18x:

One innovative product bolstered their profits while expediting U.S. warplane production—this taken verbatim from a later Di-Noc press release:

“On a visit to West Coast aircraft plants, Edwin A. Sweet Sr., company president, observed the art of ‘lofting’ or drawing of parts, actual size, that go to make up any large objects made of sheet metal. In this case they were scribed on flat, then cut and used as a pattern for making duplicate parts. At this time all the lofting was done by hand, and the shortage of competent draftsmen was acute. T.S. Reese, vice president of Di-Noc, felt that a method of making duplicate lofts photographically could be worked out. The company’s researchers set to work. The basic idea was to apply photo-sensitive transfer to flat metal sheets, then use them as huge photographic metal plates to receive the image of the original loft. Di-Noc had the coating equipment but needed a suitable photographic emulsion. It enlisted the aid of the G. Cramer Dry Plate Company of St. Louis to supply the emulsion and the new product, ‘Dino-Loft,’ was launched. ‘Dino-Loft’ was, to all intents and purposes, the start of Di-Noc’s photographic products division.”

This 1948 ad has Dino-Loft among many photo-chemical products for industry:

Upon the war’s end, Di-Noc’s customer base shifted again. A March 1946 Popular Photography article took readers inside the firm’s Cleveland factory:

“Di-Noc has an immense color camera; it takes a color photograph five feet square. The pictures it takes are impregnated into a plastic film two or three thousandths of an inch thick. This film is then laminated on metal, plywood, or any other hard-surfaced material, with the help of an oil-lacquer film process….Although Di-Noc formulas are company secrets, [a Di-Noc official] did elaborate on some of the photographic processes used. ‘Di-Noc is created by photographing the subject in colors, then etching each color on a plate, and printing each plate in register on a patented Di-Noc film…of nitro-cellulose origin selected for luster and permanence. It is coated to a correct thickness on paper and then is printed with the necessary color impressions. In transferring the film, a special prepared lacquer is used. The type of lacquer varies with the base film. The plastic film is laminated to the base coat by means of a solvent’.”

The war’s end also revived business from Detroit. The Di-Noc used on Chrysler’s 1949 Town & Country  replaced the mahogany plywood, but the planking surrounding it was still genuine wood. It’s unclear to me whether this was Di-Noc’s very first product for the exteriors of automobiles. Others CC contributors have written plenty about Detroit’s station wagons replacing mahogany veneers and ash framing with Di-Noc bordered in fiberglass—no need for details here.

Here’s a 1956 Cross Country from Rambler: a few dealers even mentioned Di-Noc in their advertising.

Di-Noc was one maker of the add-on whitewalls in vogue in 1955, when the corporation became “Di-Noc Chemical Arts.” In 1960 celebrated its best year yet while offering its latest veneer-covering for consumers, Dino-Lite:

Detroit also used Di-Noc film products in its styling studios to cover design clays, convincingly simulating windows and painted surfaces (this from Ford’s “The Secret Door” styling movie, 1961):

In 1960 Di-Noc broke ground on a new photo-products plant south of Rochester, NY. Soon after that factory’s 1961 opening, talks of a merger with 3M began, which transpired in 1962: five Di-Noc shares brought its stockholders four of 3M’s. Though the Cleveland corporation was dissolved, its name lives on, and 3M still uses the “DI-NOC” trade name (all-uppercase, I’m told). You might Google “3M Architectural film” to bring the Di-Lon wall covering story up to date.

I’ve saved the tale of Di-Noc’s century-old name for last (here’s its original trademark design):

Remember those 1920s translucent-lacquer store-window decals crafted to look good in daylight and then when backlit in darkness? Now you know.


Non-Automotive Postscript (truth being stranger than fiction): Thomas S. Reese’s daughter Marilyn (b. 1923) was thirteen when she met the schoolmate she’d marry a dozen years later: Sam Sheppard. Sam would follow his father into Osteopathic medicine, and by the late 1940s both men were practicing in Bay Village, Ohio—about as far west of Cleveland’s downtown as Di-Noc’s main plant was to the northeast. The Sheppards’ son was born in 1947.

Reese’s plans for the Fourth of July holiday in 1954 were to take his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson on a Lake Erie boating excursion, but in the early morning hours Marilyn Reese Sheppard was murdered in her Bay Village home on Lake Erie’s shore. Her husband “Dr. Sam” had been present the night of the killing but testified that a “bushy-haired” intruder had committed the crime; Sam was tried and convicted of the killing amidst lurid local and national press coverage:

In 1963, with Thomas S. Reese’s son-in-law still imprisoned for Marilyn’s death, TV’s “The Fugitive” debuted. Millions among the viewing public (including young me) were certain it was based on the Sheppard case (doctor’s wife, mysterious intruder-killer), though its creators insisted otherwise. In 1993, the Harrison Ford “Fugitive” film appeared, reviving interest in the 1960s TV series and, inescapably, Marilyn Reese Sheppard’s 1954 murder.

What became of the inventive chemist-whiz Thomas S. Reese, the Father of Di-Noc? By February 1963 he was living comfortably after Di-Noc’s facilities and patents had become 3M’s, but young attorney F. Lee Bailey was leaping to national prominence by noisily appealing Sam Sheppard’s conviction. A weary, bereaved Mr. Reese chose to end his life.


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