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Two Sawmill Operations, One Roof: Upgrade to a Wood-Mizer WM3500 increases production by 55% for farm in Virginia

Recent purchase has enabled Eddie Wood of Little Creek Farm & Lumber to achieve consistent growth even through times of economic stress for the industry as a whole.

By Jack Petree
Date Posted: 10/1/2011

When Eddie Wood began milling part time on his father’s old sawmill some six years ago he had no idea he and his father Henry would soon have, between them, two independent sawmill businesses operating under a single roof, seven employees and more than two million board feet of production per year.

Regardless of what Eddie thought might happen when he began sawmilling, the reality for both him and his father has been consistent growth even through times of economic stress for the industry as a whole. Most recently, in 2010, Eddie’s business, Little Creek Farm & Lumber installed a new Wood-Mizer WM3500 production sawmill. The expansion, according to Eddie, allowed a production increase of 55% over the LT300 his company had been running and has made it possible for Little Creek to keep up with growing customer demand for quality products.

Explaining his reasons for reinvesting in a thin-kerf production sawmill, Eddie said recently, “The industry has lost alot of mills. Because of that, customers tell us that even with flat sales they can’t get enough lumber. That means prices remain high enough to provide an opportunity for a mill like ours. With the WM3500 we are big enough to deal with the big boys yet small and nimble enough that we can adjust our operation on a moment’s notice to fill niche markets.”

Before the upgrade, Eddie explained, both he and his father had struggled to keep up with demand from established customers. Production demand has recently increased from a new multi-year contract for 2x8’s. The production speed of the new mill has resolved that issue.

The Wood family has been processing forest products on Gold Hill Farm, a 750 acre family farm in Buckingham County, 60 miles west of Richmond, Virginia, in one form or another since the early 1960’s. When Eddie was young and still in school, his father and grandfather cut pulpwood or a few bundles of ties for the local tie yard as a side job when they weren’t too busy with the commercial cattle and broiler chicken operation the farm centered on.

In the early ‘90s, Eddie moved and took a job as a fireman in a large fire department some 70 miles from the farm, then, in 2003, he moved back to a home near the farm while keeping his job in the city.

Looking for something to do on his days off, Eddie borrowed his father’s old band sawmill, established Little Creek Farm & Lumber as an LLC and began milling lumber. In a recent interview Eddie recounted the new operation showed promise almost immediately with Eddie running the mill three days a week and supplementing his own labor with the aid of a part time assistant.

Eddie’s experience with his father’s mill and Henry’s own desire to spend more time sawmilling led Eddie to decide he needed a mill of his own. He found the mill he wanted at the East Coast Logging Show in nearby Richmond, Virginia. “I met Doug Keele of Wood-Mizer at the show and he demonstrated an LT 300 in operation,” Eddie remembered. “I wanted one badly when I saw what the machine could do.“

Doug referred me to a guy in West Virginia who had Wood-Mizer’s LT300,” Eddie continued. “Doug thought the guy would give me a good review. Unfortunate for Doug, but good for me, the guy was selling out for family reasons having nothing to do with the mill. He had a virtually brand new LT300, I think it was the 7th one ever off the assembly line, and he was looking to sell so I bought the mill from him.”

With the new mill in hand Eddie reserved about 4 acres of the family farm for storage and processing and built a new 36’ x 100’ structure to house both his own mill and his father’s aging mill. With Little Creek Lumber and Gold Hill Farm’s two mills running simultaneously, Eddie and his father were soon employing two helpers with Eddie measuring and sorting logs, loading the mill, and overseeing everything.

As sales grew and production continued to ramp up in response, Eddie decided he needed to hire a full-time sawyer. Two weeks after mentioning the need on an online forum, David “Woody” Woodring, a former logger and mill owner himself, moved his family from Pennsylvania to Virginia. Woody, Eddie says, was a welcome addition, allowing Eddie a little bit of a break from what had quickly turned into 96+ hour work weeks.

The new setup also meant Eddie’s father, Henry, was running his own mill more. The old Timber Harvester he’d been sawing with wasn’t up to the task so, impressed by Eddie’s experience with Wood-Mizer, Henry decided to upgrade to an LT70 electric powered Wood-Mizer and to hire a full-time sawyer, Nick Call, to run that mill.

Surviving a few bumps in the road, most notably Woody’s departure for a “dream job” in Alaska, the two sawmills, operated out of different areas of a single facility but as separate enterprises, grew rapidly as orders continued to come in. Soon Eddie and his father employed five people between them and then, to Eddie’s relief, Woody returned from Alaska and took on management of Little Creek Farm & Lumber. “My wife had begun to ask which was the part-time job,” Eddie recounted. “Having Woody back made us both very happy.”

In early 2010, after running the original LT300 50 hours per week every week since 2004, Eddie began thinking about an upgrade to increase production efficiency.

As a first step, Eddie set up spreadsheets and analyzed production numbers. The existing mill was processing 1.1 million board feet per year by 2009 and his father’s production was slightly over a million with the LT70. Eddie said everyone makes fun of his spreadsheets but, despite that, the calculations demonstrated the new mill would pay for itself in four years if production increased by 20% over that provided by the older mill.

The decision was made to move ahead. The decision to stick with Wood-Mizer for a new mill was easy, Eddie recounted. “Why do we stick to Wood-Mizer? Well, two words: Customer and Service!”

I had bought the Wood-Mizer used and I did not buy it from Wood-Mizer but you’d never have known it from the service we got from them. As the mill got older and the hours on it grew they were always there to help us. It’s really nice when you call to ask about an electronic problem and you get to talk at length with the electrical engineer who helped design the machine! I’ve never experienced that with any other company.”

The WM3500 has been, Eddie said, everything he hoped it would be. “The faster hydraulics, faster computer, two log turners vs. one, multiple cant size options are just a few of the highlights. This mill is light years ahead of the LT300 but still operates the same, the learning curve from one machine to the other was about one day, and that was just to become accustomed with the faster hydraulics, they are lightening fast!

The 20% gain in production Eddie was hoping for was exceeded almost immediately. In the first two months of operation, he reported, “Output has increased by 55% over the older machine.”

Explaining how the operation works, Eddie said most Little Creek and Gold Hill Farm’s logs are purchased from independent loggers, most notably Eddie’s brother who owns a timber harvesting firm. His brother typically buys standing timber to harvest or will cut on percentage from time to time with his logging/excavating crew and three trucks.

A variety of species are milled with 60% being red or white oak, 30% poplar and the remainder being mixed hardwoods. Historically the mills produce, Eddie said, about 30% ties, 30% flooring, 30% poplar lumber, and 10% pallet or grade lumber.

Logs delivered to the sawmills are off loaded using a JCB 416 front end loader and either laid out to be hand measured or piled next to a Barko 160B knuckle boom to be cut up and measured.

Once in the log yard, stems are sorted by species and length. Based on product orders the logs are then selected out as to which mill will get them, are tallied for record keeping purposes and sent on to the destination mill. The logs are decked close to the mill each is destined for. On the Little Creek side of the facility a log deck, incline conveyor and transfer table are used to move logs and lumber into and through the mill. Gold Hill’s LT70 off-feeds to a set of dead rollers.

As explained by Eddie, “The mills are set up so that they feed, from diagonal corners of the building, to the center where lumber from the two mills is intermingled. The boards run through an…electric edger upgraded to have two movable fences, two fixed blades and an adjustable center blade. One fixed blade and the movable blades have lasers for accuracy. We consider that a must have for production.”

A single head…resaw is sometimes used to increase the main mill’s production by cutting 8/4 boards down to 4/4s. This practice increased our production by roughly 10% when we began using it.” Eddie continued. A chop saw with dead rollers is utilized for end trimming.

The only time lumber from the two mills is co-mingled is at the edger and resaw stations. According to Eddie, co-mingling the lumber does not present a problem because milling is scheduled to assure each mill is processing something distinct and easily separated.

Slabs, edger trimmings, and sawdust all are run into an 18” Webster vibrating conveyor feeding an 18” Montgomery blow-hog. Because logs are not debarked prior to chipping, slabs are processed and then sold to a local paper mill for use as boiler fuel ensuring there is no waste.

Lumber is shipped on trucks owned by Eddie’s brother. “We used to run our own trucks but found it is more efficient to contract shipping,” Eddie commented.

Asked what others might learn from his experience Eddie points to his edger and to his new mill as examples of the importance flexibility and top notch quality plays in addressing the needs of the marketplace. “A quality edger with lasers is a must for small and medium sized mills serious about production,” he put forward. “And you should always be looking at what new technology can do for your mill. You may have a perfectly sound mill that’s paid for but that doesn’t mean you are getting the most out of your plant. We calculated a 20% increase in production would pay for our new mill in four years. We’ve actually seen a greater than 55% increase. That means the mill will pay for itself faster than we thought, and it means we are able to do a better job of serving our customers.”

Editor’s note: The preceding was a paid advertorial by Wood-Mizer.


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