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Limington Lumber Positioned for the Future

Maine Company Manufacturing Eastern White Pine Relies on USNR for Kiln-Drying

By Diane M. Calabrese
Date Posted: 7/1/2007


EAST BALDWIN, Maine — Limington Lumber Company works with only one species: Eastern white pine. The pine logs are debarked, sawn, and the lumber kiln-dried, planed and shipped out, most often as 4/4 boards.

            The company’s 40 employees produced 16 million board feet of Eastern white pine in 2006, a record. All lumber is sent out finished to S4S or patterned.

            Limington president Win Smith Jr. is the son of the man who founded the business in 1961, anchoring it in Limington, Maine during its first eight years.

            After earning a degree at the University of New Hampshire, Win worked outside his father’s business in retail and wholesale operations for several years. He returned to the family business in 1993.

            Win soon was involved in making some significant changes in equipment and procedures. “These upgrades were all made for several reasons,” he said, but primarily “to remain competitive.”

            For example, in the mid-1990s, Limington Lumber was supplying its Eastern white pine lumber to many furniture manufacturers that wanted custom drying. The lumber usually was kiln-dried to 12% moisture content, but some furniture makers wanted moisture content as low as 8% and minimal degrade.

            Win researched dry kilns and decided the best choice to meet the special drying requirements of these customers would be USNR Irvington-Moore kilns with swing-out center coils. “We started in 1995 with the construction of three Irvington-Moore package kilns with 120,000 board feet capacity,” he said. All three have the swing-out center coils.

            The coils allow easy access to the back half of the kiln because they swing out or forward. After the kiln is loaded, the coils swing back into place, similar to a barn door. Because they move to the middle of the kiln, the coils improve heat distribution. The coils also allow heat zones to be established, which in turn speed drying times. Essentially, half the kiln is loaded, then the coils are folded in and the other half is loaded.

            USNR introduced dry kilns for softwood lumber drying in 1910. It supplies package kilns, track kilns and high temperature kilns. The all-aluminum frame package kilns feature durable cast iron motors.

            The three swing-out center coil USNR kilns started a transition to all kiln-dried lumber at Limington. Two more USNR Irvington-Moore kilns with 60,000 board feet capacity were added in 1997. (Irvington-Moore has long been owned by USNR and began doing business as USNR a few years ago.) The two latest kilns were purchased with the newest USN Kiln Boss computer control system, and the existing kilns were retrofitted with it.

            The USNR Kiln Boss control system manages the kiln schedule and functions, eliminating the need for human intervention. It also provides diagnostic information that can be used to fine-tune kiln operations.

            With the subsequent purchases of USNR kilns — two in 2000 and two more in 2004, Limington Lumber now owns nine, all with the Kiln Boss control system. (In 2004, all the older kilns were upgraded to the newest Kiln Boss technology.) The kilns have a combined capacity of 360,000 board feet. Only the original three are equipped with the swing-out center coils because they provide sufficient capacity to handle demand for custom drying. All the kilns have carrier-style insulated doors.

            Win had a lot of confidence in USNR and the performance of the kilns. However, he never took it for granted. He considered other suppliers each time the company was ready to add kilns. “We looked each time to make sure USNR was still the best choice,” he said. “It was a very competitive process.”

            Other factors entered into the decision to choose USNR. Win was “very pleased” with the buying process and the installation.

            Bob Pope, a USNR drying systems specialist, worked closely with Limington Lumber on its early purchases and has continued to work with the company. The swing-out center coils on the three USNR Irvington-Moore kilns were a recent innovation when Win adopted them, Bob noted. “He was not the first, but he was one of the first,” said Bob. “It’s a great compliment to his company.”

            Bob, who earned a bachelor’s degree in wood science and technology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and master’s degree from the University of North Florida, has 30 years of experience in lumber drying. “One of the biggest changes that has happened in Eastern white pine is the increase in kiln use,” he said. Companies increasingly are turning to kilns over air-drying because the increased lumber quality makes it possible to reduce inventory (every board is near perfect) and costs.

            Kiln-drying is more accurate and consistent and reduces degrade; it is more cost-effective because a company like Limington gets the maximum return on investment from each log that it buys.

            Bob’s expertise takes him into a teaching role several times each year. In the last six months he has participated in kiln-drying workshops at Pennsylvania State University, Syracuse, N.Y., and the University of Maine-Orono.

            Even so, he demurs when asked about his input in the development of kiln technology at USNR. He said major credit there goes to Wade Beery, the chief engineer for kilns at the company. Wade earned a bachelor’s degree in wood technology from the University of Florida and a master’s degree in wood science from Virginia Tech, and he has worked for USNR for 28 years.

            The science of kiln drying keeps improving, and Bob recommended that lumber manufacturers devote time to keeping abreast of the latest technology and techniques and networking with others. He suggested taking drying courses through local cooperative extension offices and joining trade associations.

            “One of the things that helps people dry good lumber are kiln drying associations,” said Bob. He singled out the New England Kiln Drying Association, of which he is a past president and currently serves as treasurer, and the Keystone Kiln Drying Association. The cost of association membership is low, and people can learn a lot as they share information with other lumber drying businesses.

            Win has several drying schedules for Eastern white pine; they vary based on the seasons and the lumber grade. In general, he said, in the summer it takes seven days to dry Eastern white pine to 12 percent moisture, and in the winter it takes eight and one-half days.

            Confidence in USNR equipment and personnel makes Win’s busy day a little easier. “As far as USNR support, technical support, it’s great,” said Win. “The latest generation of the Kiln Boss provides great service.”

            Bob understands that his first responsibility is to listen and assess. “Before we even put a piece of technology in, the first thing we do is to listen to what the problems are,” he said. The goal is to solve the customers’ problems.

            “One of the most enjoyable things for me is to stay in touch with customers for ongoing training, to help them get the most out of the kiln,” said Bob.

            The decision to move into kiln drying was just part of the big push Win initiated in 1995 to improve the company’s operations. Limington added a new Cleereman carriage in the sawmill the same year.

            In 1999 Limington put in a PHL Industries grader line with Lucidyne grade marker controls, a PHL optimized edger with Autolog controls and a PHL 36-bin sorter. The PHL optimized edger improved yield and enabled the company to reduce one position that was particularly physically demanding.

            Limington has a fully equipped maintenance shop whose staff keeps the company’s equipment running well. The maintenance staff has the expertise to refurbish machinery.

            “We purchase pine logs from well-established loggers within a 100-mile radius,” said Win. Sometimes, Limington Lumber buys standing timber and contracts for logging. All trucking is contracted except for hauling chips to paper mills.

            Logs are debarked with an HMC rosserhead debarker with a Rens metal detector in tandem. A Forano (now USNR) double-cut band mill was constructed on site in East Baldwin in 1967, shortly after Limington purchased an existing mill in that town (relocating there, fully, two years later). “In 1981, we installed an Estrer sash gang and made the band saw our primary breakdown station,” explained Win.

            In 2004 the head rig was paired with a Lewis 3-D scanner and optimized controls. And the planer mill got a major upgrade with the purchase of a Waco Maxi from the Weinig Group. The Waco can plane or mould at high speed. Just as important, it can form various profiles in all widths for the siding market.

            A four-station bagging system from Verville was added in 2004 and is used to package shavings. Bark is sold to wholesalers for the landscaping market.

            “We have a filing room here, and a skilled filer files the band and sash blades,” said Win. “The trimmer and edger blades are sent out to U.S. Blade.”

            With oil prices climbing, Win added a Hurst 250 hp boiler system in April 2006. It uses dry grindings and sawdust for fuel, providing steam for the dry kilns and to heat the plant during winter. The company also is equipped with a 75 hp, wood-fired boiler. With the addition of the new Hurst boiler, two oil-fired boilers were retired.

            Win is committed to the community and the local economy. For example, he keeps enough sawdust to meet the needs of area farmers who use it for animal bedding. The informal partnership highlights his belief that medium-sized enterprises — whether farmers or manufacturers — are crucial players in the economy.

            The USNR package-style dry kiln with swing-out center heating coils does all that Win expects of it. Loading with a forklift suits the type of operation that Limington Lumber has.

            “We like the concept of the track kilns, but we didn’t have the real estate,” he explained. And since needs for custom drying are met by three of the swing-out models, he did not try to obtain more land.

            East Baldwin, home of Limington Lumber Co., is in southwest Maine. The town has 1,300 residents. Situated along the Saco River valley, East Baldwin is in a region known for the quality of its white pine species for more than three centuries. East Baldwin is five miles northwest of Limington, the original location of the business.

            Limington Lumber Co. belongs to several wood products organizations, including the Northeastern Lumber Manufacturers Assn., the North American Wholesale Lumber Assn., the Maine Forest Product Council, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire and the Small Woodlot Owners of Maine.

            Win’s father served in the Army after college and then went to work for a retail lumber company. Throughout, said Win, his father, who retired in 2004 at age 70, had one dream.

            “He was looking to go out and start his own business,” explained Win. “He had an entrepreneurial spirit.” Today, the elder Smith is “still a wealth of expertise” although he is retired.

            Win exhibits the same business-minded focus his father does. All parts of the log are converted to merchandise. “Today it is critical that all of the raw materials are utilized with the constant focus on improving yield and quality of the finished product,” he said. “The by-products, such as bark, sawdust, chips and shavings, continue to be an important profit center.”

            Employee retention is strong at Limington Lumber. “We’ve got a highly skilled workforce,” said Win. In 2006, the company attained the SHARP designation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).”We were one of the first mills in New England” to achieve the designation, said Win.

            The OSHA Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) for small employers encourages a proactive approach to safety. SHARP eligibility begins with an OSHA consultation that includes employees and involves a complete hazard identification survey. If a SHARP designation is earned, the certification exempts a workplace from OSHA-scheduled inspections for one year the first year. After that, the employer may be eligible for a two-year interval between inspections.

            The decision to become part of the wood products industry was a good one, said Win. “What I enjoy the most is making a product, the interaction with vendors and clients, and a lot of great friendships.”

            When he has time away from work, Win enjoys spending it with his family, such as skiing and childrens’ sports.




 






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