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Washington Firewood Business a Family Affair

Washington Firewood Business Relies on Rainier Hydraulics, Twister Industries

By Donna Gordon Blankinship
Date Posted: 1/1/2006


WINTHROP, Washington — When Ellis Fink started his firewood business, he had a chain saw, a couple of workhorses named Salt and Pepper, and not much more.

        In 2000, the U.S. Forest Service employee who lives in Winthrop, Wash., was looking for a way to make a little extra cash, stay active in the outdoors and teach his three boys the value of hard work. His weekend and evening business, called The Workhorse Company, has steadily grown since then, mostly thanks to the equipment he has purchased over the years.

        Like many small business owners, Ellis, 47, said he would make one major change if given a chance to start all over again.

        “The best advice would be to just bite the bullet and start off automated,” said Ellis, who lives in rural Washington state in an area that attracts tourists in the summer but is barely accessible during the snowy winter. “For me it was very frustrating, trying to do all that work by hand before picking up the firewood processor and conveyor, and trying to bundle wood without a machine.”

        Ellis was born and raised in Winthrop, which is considered the gateway to the North Cascades. It is located in a very scenic region that used to be home to a large number of logging companies but whose numbers have dwindled significantly.

        He started out cutting firewood as more of a hobby than as business. In fact, he gave firewood away to elderly neighbors who could no longer cut and split their own wood. He didn’t sell very much until the market started to grow, and he realized he could build his business part-time for now and possibly reach a point later where he could do it full-time.

        Before automating his operations, Ellis was producing about 40 cords of wood each fall. With a Rainier Hydraulics firewood processor and conveyor and a Twister Industries bundling machine, he easily tripled his production while continuing to work the same number of hours. And he still has only three ‘employees’ — his three sons ages 7, 9 and 14.

        When he decided to automate his business, Ellis invested in a Bobcat 231 excavator and a Yamaha ATV. Next came the Rainier Hydraulics Chomper 14S firewood processor.

        “It’s been a great machine,” Ellis said of the Chomper, which he found while doing research on the Internet. (Rainier has a Web site at www.chomper.net.)

        Ellis was looking for some very specific features when he chose the Rainier Hydraulics Chomper. He wanted a machine that would work at ground level so he could avoid the cost of buying equipment to lift and load logs onto a live deck. “I wanted something pretty simple that could process wood down at ground level,” he said. He liked the idea of a machine that used a shear blade instead of a circular saw or bar saw. Ellis needed a machine that could cut the wood and split and also produce firewood small enough to be packaged and sold in bundles and not sold as cord wood. And he liked what he learned when he called the company directly and explained what he was looking for.

        After examining the specs of the processor on the Rainier Hydraulics Web site and a few phone calls to the company, “it seemed like the way to go,” Ellis recalled. “So far, I’ve been very, very happy.”

        The Rainier Hydraulics Chomper pulls the log into the machine, sheers it to firewood length, and then splits it. The company says it is as easy as pouring a cup of coffee. Rainier Hydraulics says its mission is to manufacture the simplest, least expensive, self-contained firewood processor available. Ellis says they have succeeded in that goal.

        The manually operated firewood processor — Rainier also manufactures models with a fully automated option — yields about two to four cords of firewood per hour. Among its safety features is the fact that the operator can stand clear of the machine when using the automatic production cycle. Only one person is required to run the Chomper. The shear blade never needs sharpening, and the cutting process generates no sawdust.

        The Chomper is portable although Ellis operates his as a stationary machine. The splitter can be adjusted to split one log into eight pieces, depending on the splitting head. The processor comes standard with a hydraulic winch that feeds the log into the machine. The company says that everything has been configured to ensure very little downtime in operating the machine. The Chomper is available with various sized engines — from 18 hp to 125 hp.

        The next step in Ellis’ automation plan was investing in equipment to wrap the firewood into packages. One reason why he was interested in selling bundled or packaged firewood was that his boys could help with the bundling task.

        He shopped around and tried different machines until he found Twister Industries, based in Mora, Minn., while surfing the Web. (Twister’s Web site is www.twisterind.biz). After a couple of phone calls, Ellis decided to buy the Twister Firewood Wrapping System. Ellis also purchased a Twister Industries’ 24-foot, rough top belt conveyor.

        The Twister system is relatively simple. You put a small pile of wood in a hopper, and the Twister packages the bundle with plastic wrap.

        Twister Industries offers a variety of different models that produce bundles of firewood in various sizes. The company has models for 10-inch firewood to 16 inches, which wraps up to 2.3 cubic feet of wood. The equipment is calibrated at 1-inch intervals. All models can wrap firewood from 12 to 18 inches long using 10-inch or 12-inch rolls of plastic wrap.

        The largest Twister can produce more than 200 bundles per hour with a small crew of workers.

        In to addition to equipment for bundling firewood, Twister also offers machines for square bundling lathes, grade stakes and other specialty wood products in bundles of ¾, 1 and 1-1/2 cubic feet.

        “The size of the bundles I needed to make was quite a bit larger than average,” Ellis said, adding that the people at Twister Industries knew just how to accomplish that goal. The bundler he purchased is
flexible, so it can make a variety of bundle sizes and it applies the 12-inch wide, 80-gauge stretch wrap that he buys from Uline.

        The machine is well made, he said, and very safe, which is especially important because his boys perform the task of bundling the wood into packages. Each summer the boys package a couple of thousand bundles of firewood. They do most of the bundling in the spring and summer because of the weather and because Ellis does not have a covered area where the boys can work.

        Ellis performs small-scale thinning jobs on private land, removing small trees. Most of the trees are less than 3 inches in diameter, so it was important to find a firewood processor that could cut several logs at once and not get stuck on the small pieces. The Chomper model that Ellis owns can handle logs up to 14 inches in diameter.

        Ellis hauls the logs to his wood yard on a corner of his brother’s property. He uses an International truck with a dump bed and occasionally gets some help from a friend with a logging truck. He also has a John Deere 990 tractor with a Farmi 351 power winch.

         Winthrop’s rural location makes it a good place to raise a family but not a great place to grow a business. That’s fine with Ellis for right now. He doesn’t really want to grow beyond the few customers that currently sell his bundled firewood: a few campgrounds, gas stations and stores.

        “I’m going to try to leave it as it is right now,” Ellis said. “If we had an urban area that was closer, I would be inclined to grow faster.”

        His dreams for the future include retiring and taking his firewood business to the next level. “I have a few more years left with the Forest Service before I retire,” he said. He is growing the business now, working nights and weekends, in order to develop a customer base before he retires from the Forest Service.

        The next change will come when his ‘employees’ grow up and leave home for college. Ellis admits that part of the fun of the business is spending time with his boys, but he knows he may have to hire some other people to help him when his sons move on to other pursuits.

        The machines he has purchased, however, could make it possible for him to keep on the business almost entirely on his own, Ellis added.

                His only big expenses so far have been the machinery, which should be completely paid for soon. He estimated that it would have taken about two years to pay for the machinery if he had been working full-time in the business. Part-time, it has taken about four years. He spends nothing on marketing or sales because all his business so far has been by word of mouth.


 






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