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Wood Business Keeps Evolving: Hanneman Forest Products Looks to Multitek to Boost Firewood Production

John Hanneman has changed course with his wood products company a number of times over the years. His latest evolution has been a Multitek 2040XP2 firewood processor for high-volume firewood production.

By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 1/9/2012


MECHANICSVILLE, Va. – John Hanneman has seen his wood business evolve over the years.  He has changed course a number of times according to changing markets and other factors.

            The latest evolution includes a Multitek firewood processor for high-volume production of firewood especially for markets that buy bundled, packaged firewood for sale to consumers. In addition, he is expanding a retail aspect of his business.

            John has been in the firewood business since 1995 and has been employed full-time in his business since 2000, but his company – Hanneman Forest Products — produces more than firewood and is involved in a number of other markets for wood products.

            John, 55, is originally from Virginia Beach but moved to the Richmond area by way of Buckingham County, about 60 miles west of Richmond, where he farmed. He married in 1991, gave up farming, and he and his wife, Donna, settled in the Richmond area. John began taking classes toward an environmental science degree at the University of Virginia about 60 miles west in Charlottesville.

            A graduate of the University of Virginia working in the forest products industry probably is a rarity, he noted. The university does not offer a degree related to the industry although rival Virginia Tech is well known for its department of wood science and forest products.

            “I always worked myself, basically,” said John, who raised cattle and grew grain on about 1,500 acres in his farming days.

            As a U.Va. student, he also began working on a contract basis for Dominion Power, an electric utility, in the Richmond area.

            That wasn’t enough to keep him busy, apparently. “I needed something to get my energy up,” he recalled, and began selling firewood.

            The reason was partly financial, too. John’s wife is a teacher, and his part-time work for Dominion Power supplemented her income. “We were doing anything we could,” he recalled.

            In order to get wood he needed to process into firewood, he started approaching home builders and developers and offering to remove dead trees on their building lots. He offered to cut them down and remove them, and his compensation was the wood.

            He used a chainsaw to fell the trees and bucked them to firewood-length pieces on the lot. He loaded them into a pickup truck and hauled them to his suburban home, where he had a horizontal hydraulic splitter. He placed an advertisement in the Richmond newspaper and began selling firewood by the cord and half-cord.

            “I still have some of my original customers,” said John.

            After he got his degree, he began working full-time as a biologist for Virginia Power, but he continued working at his firewood business, operating it the same way.

            Eventually, John’s business made a turning point. Instead of asking people if he could remove dead trees for the wood, people began asking him to cut down unwanted trees, and he got paid for doing it. The business was still small in scale, however, with John working at it mainly on weekends.

            It was an important turning point, though. “We built that into a tree business,” said John.

            John gradually made incremental investments in his business. He opened a three-acre wood lot. He bought a small dump trailer to haul with his pickup truck and later purchased a 1-ton truck with a dump body. He still continued to build the firewood part of his business, basically relying on a chainsaw and a splitter.

            The tree service business prospered. John was able to earn a living from it, and he used the money he earned from firewood to pay for additional equipment.

            His business evolved in another way in 2004: he exited the tree service part of the business while expanding into mulch. John explained the transformation. Hurricane Isabelle hit in September 2003, he noted, and caused widespread tree damage. It was good for his company, obviously, but there was such a large volume of work that other businesses came into Virginia and began competing for it. John ultimately decided to sell his equipment – keeping a few trucks and loaders - and get out of the tree service business. He continued doing firewood and expanded into the mulch arena.

            When he began his foray into the mulch arena, he purchased mulch wholesale from producers and re-sold it. In late 2008, though, he entered the market as a producer by purchasing a used Morbark 950 tub grinder.

            He now operates a wood yard he leases in an industrial area – he has been at the larger location since 2003 - just inside the I-295 beltway that makes a partial circumference around Richmond. He opened a retail mulch and stone yard nearby and plans to add a second retail mulch and stone yard at a location further west of Richmond.

            John’s business employs a handful of full-time and part-time workers, including family members. Last year revenues were split fairly evenly between firewood sales and mulch sales, but he expects when he closes the books on 2011 that mulch sales will overtake firewood revenues, and he expects the trend to continue in 2012.

            Although retail sales are growing, the majority of the mulch business is wholesale. John sells mulch wholesale primarily to landscape contractors.

            Contractors and tree service businesses pay a small tipping fee to unload material – logs, chips, limbs, stumps, and other wood debris - at John’s yard. He sorts through the material and sells what he can to other markets, and the other material is used for firewood or mulch production. Pine logs, for example, are supplied to sawmills or a paper mill. All hardwood material is kept for the firewood business except poplar which is sold as pulp wood.

            For mulch production, John taps the services of a contractor to do a primary grind first. The contractor, Virginia Wood Processing, brings a Morbark 1300 tub grinder to John’s wood yard to do the initial processing of the wood debris.

            The firewood portion of his business has continued to grow, too, and has undergone significant change. John picked up business for the Kroger grocery store chain in 2003, supplying half the company’s stores in Virginia with packaged bundles of firewood. That move led him to invest in his first firewood processor and firewood packaging equipment.

            In 2010 he added the rest of the Kroger stores in Virginia and needed to increase production; he also supplies a Richmond-based hardwood store business and a grocery business with packaged firewood. The firewood processor he owned was limited by an 8-way wedge. John decided to invest in a Multitek firewood processor with a splitting head designed for the production of packaged firewood. The new machine reduced labor, eliminating the need for two men re-splitting wood.

            “We kept building up to it,” said John. “I kept looking at all the machines,” and talking to people who owned firewood processors. He looked at machines exhibited at trade shows, obtained demonstration videos from manufacturers, checked out supplier web sites. “We did everything,” he recalled.

            “It took me five years to make up my mind,” he joked.

            “I finally made up my mind. It was Multitek or nothing.”     

            Actually, it was not his first experience with Wisconsin-based Multitek. In 2007 John had purchased a Multitek Super Axe, a splitter designed for short, over-size blocks. The Super Axe is attached to a skid-steer and runs off its hydraulics. John had his modified to use with a loader.

            “When I saw the construction, just the way they build things, that’s what really impressed me on Multitek,” he said.

            The Multitek model 2040XP2 firewood processor purchased by John is designed for logs up to 40 feet long and 24 inches in diameter. John picked a number of various options and features for the machine, and Multitek built it to his specifications. Multitek exhibited the machine at the Richmond Expo in May 2010; John took possession of the machine at the close of the trade show and towed it to his business.

            “Now that I’ve bought it, I wouldn’t have anything else,” said John.

            John ordered his firewood processor from Multitek with a circular saw slasher blade, the package splitting head, and an extra strand in the live deck for short bolts of wood he sometimes gets from tree companies. It is powered by a John Deere 80 hp diesel engine.

            The package head is a 16-way splitter with a hydraulic gate. Besides eliminating the need to re-split wood that is sold in packages, the package head splits the wood into square-edged pieces that are easier to bundle, said John. “It makes your packages so much better,” he said, and the work of packaging the wood is easier.

            The slasher blade on the Multitek is a 60-inch circular blade; John uses Simons TimberFox blades. John, whose previous firewood processor also was equipped with a circular saw slasher, sees several advantages of a circular saw over a bar saw for bucking the logs.

            “You don’t have to worry about dirt on your logs as much,” said John. With the carbide teeth on a circular saw blade, “they just keep cutting.” (According to Multitek, the carbide-tipped circular slasher saw can cut 1,000 cords of firewood before the teeth need changing.) In addition, they are much faster than a bar saw, he noted.

            “The biggest thing now is that bar oil is up to $8 or $9 a gallon,” added John. He once knew someone who operated a firewood processor in Minnesota; the man used four gallons of bar oil a day back when the price was cheaper, about $6-7 a gallon.

            “I’m not going to spend $20 a day in bar oil,” said John. “Plus, the slasher blade is so much quicker, it increases production.”

            The Multitek takes one man to operate. Running tree-length wood, John’s production is about three cords per hour.

            Another feature of the Multitek that John appreciates is the overhead grapple system that holds the log securely and feeds it through the machine. “That is the best system on the market,” said John.

            His other firewood processor used a hold-down clamp that did not always do the trick, he said. “Sometimes you would think you had it…but when it hit the saw, it would throw it.” A block of wood could be tossed 30-40 feet behind the machine, he said.

            “With the overhead grapple, you have such good control, and the wood is not going anywhere.”

            The new machine had a few ‘bugs’ in it, which is not unusual in the start-up of a new machine, but they were quickly resolved by Multitek’s staff, according to John. “That’s one thing, if anybody asks me…the guys at Multitek, it’s incredible the way they stand behind their machine. You make a phone call, they’ll either talk you through it, or (someone) will be there… and help you with your problems. They’re old school. They stand behind their machines.”

            The Multitek firewood processor not only met his expectations. “It exceeds my expectations,” said John, “and I’ve got high expectations.”

            Multitek offers about nine models of firewood processors that the manufacturer says can produce from 1-6 cords of firewood per hour, depending on the model. The company offers various options for each model. (For more information on Multitek and its firewood processors, see www.multitekinc.com.)

            John’s Multitek model 2040XP2 firewood processor also features high volume hydraulic reservoir capacity with oil cooling, joystick controls, v-style long infeed trough, and tandem trailer axles with single tires. It is designed to cut and split tough low-grade hardwood logs or tops with a powerful hydraulic splitter using a floating, vertically adjustable interchangeable 4-,

6-, or 8-way splitting head. The 16 way splitter assembly is a patented assembly that utilizes a series of hydraulic cylinders to split firewood to the proper size for packaging in bundles while eliminating wood jam-ups.

            Other options include heated or air-conditioned operator cab, live deck extension, wood debris clean-out conveyor, and rear discharge conveyor with hydraulic lift.

            In addition to using the hardwood material he gets dumped in his wood yard for firewood production, John also buys tree-length hardwood from a logging contractor in Louisa County, which is north and west of Richmond.

            John began packaging firewood in 2003 with a system made by Mountain Valley Manufacturing, then switched to a B&B Manufacturing Wood-Paker system, which he still has. Two years ago, however, he began using Twister machines to produce bundles of firewood.

            “The thing we like about it (Twister) is the simplicity,” said John. The Twister has a rack to hold the firewood, and when it is filled, the worker activates the machine via a foot pedal, and the bundle is wrapped automatically.

            The Twister uses stretch wrap plastic film, which is a plus, according to John. It leaves the ends open, and you can see the wood.

            “We don’t bundle everything that we split,” said John. We only pick out the very top wood.” Using the best wood and then bundling it with stretch-wrap, with the wood visible, makes for attractive bundles of firewood, noted John.

            John has three Twister machines and is getting ready to buy a fourth. Because each machine is operated by only one person, it gives him more flexibility with regard to his labor. If three workers are available, each one can wrap firewood; if one employee is out, the other two can still wrap firewood.

            John also relies on Twister to supply him with polypropylene handles that are attached to the bundles with a commercial-grade stapling tool.

            The firewood packaging operations are conducted on property near John’s home, which is about 20 minutes northwest of his wood yard. He keeps his firewood bundling equipment there and hauls firewood that will be packaged to the location; the firewood is packaged there, loaded on pallets, and stored in a shed.

            Firewood that is not packaged is sold retail to John’s other customers by the cord or half-cord and delivered via small dump truck. His company will stack the wood at a customer’s home for an additional charge. He also sells firewood from the wood yard to customers who come by and load their own truck.

            John added another twist in the spring of 2009: colored mulch. He purchased a coloring system from T.H. Glennon Co. Inc. – the company’s Mulch Color Jet - that was installed on the grinder, and he uses a liquid colorant supplied by the same company. He makes two colored mulch products, brown and black.

            In addition to John, the business employs his oldest son, John-Scott, who graduated from high school in 2011, and his youngest son, Evan, who works in the business through a school co-op program. Donna still teaches but helps keep the books and makes phone calls when she is available.

            He has an assortment of Komatsu loaders and trucks for the business and still has a Power Split firewood splitter, a self-propelled machine with two splitting heads and a built-in conveyor.




 






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