EAST GREENBUSH, New York ó Jim Webb knew exactly what features he wanted in a firewood processing machine. All he had to do was find the entire suite in a single machine. When he found the one that had everything he wanted, he would buy, but not until then. After all, he was determined to buy one that would be the best fit for his business, or else he was going to keep using the chain saw and log splitter that had served him well. The strategy was that clear.
Sometimes it is difficult to find exactly what you want, but Jim embraced the challenge. Jim, whose firewood supply business in the greater Albany area is named 426 Wood, went to forest products industry trade shows to look at machines and studied the possibilities. He investigated systematically. In the end, his efforts produced good results in a happy meeting of virtual world and real world.
"I found Cord Master on the Web," said Jim. "I noticed the circular saw and wedge" on the companyís Cord King compact firewood processor. "The thing sold itself. Before I turned the computer off, I was on the phone," calling Cord Master.
A few days after his conversation with Cord Master International, Jim was at the companyís headquarters in Smith Falls, Ontario. He tried out the Cord King Model 60 compact firewood processor that had caught his attention on the Cord Master Web site. The first-hand experience of running the machine confirmed his expectations, and he decided to buy one. The Cord King has been in service at 426 Wood for just over two years.
Jim cut and split firewood with a chain saw and log splitter for almost 20 years before investing in a firewood processing machine. Automation has altered many dimensions of his work. He welcomed the increase in volume and the uniform firewood the machine produces although he was a bit wistful about the equipment that the Cord Master replaced.
"Iíd built a very nice log splitter," he said. "I took parts off of other log splitters and used them. It collects dust now. Looking at his old home-made splitter one day, "I thought I should start it up or something," he said.
The Cord Master firewood processing machine also put Jimís Husqvarna chain saw in semi-retirement. He still uses it occasionally, such as for cutting off limbs. He reminisced about all the firewood he cut over the years with chain saws; Husqvarna equipment had proved to be a good choice.
East Greenbush is on the Hudson River just south and east of Albany, the state capital. The pastoral river valley long has been renowned ó by painters and poets alike ó for its mixed hardwoods, which also include beech and hickory. Other hardwood species include basswood, tulip poplar and dogwood. The region also produced American elm and chestnut until they were devastated by blight.
Jim jointly owns a 600-acre farm with several siblings, and about 25% of the logs he processes into firewood come from the family farm. The bigger percentage of raw material, however, Jim buys from developers.
There are five fireplaces in the main farmhouse that is occupied by some of the extended Webb family, a group that includes six brothers and sisters and 22 nieces and nephews. The 200-year-old house has a back-up furnace, but the nieces and nephews who live in the house keep fires stoked.
Jimís father started the truck farm in 1943 and sold vegetables at a local market. Sweet corn is the top crop. Hannaford Brothers Co., a regional grocery chain that operates under the Shop ní Save umbrella in the Albany area, is a big buyer. Jim is exploring with Hannaford Bros. the possibility of selling bundles of firewood through its grocery stores.
Although he was "born into farming" and enjoys it, Jim is "happy to be done with vegetables [each year] and get to firewood."
"I like the look of wood," he explained, "the sound of the saw, the saw dust."
Before he joined the farm enterprise full-time, Jim studied business management while working for a railroad. The experience was "helpful," he said, with things such as "handling employees, people skills, computer" expertise.
"I always try to give 100 percent," said Jim, although it is sometimes a difficult thing to do when commitments are many and diverse. Nevertheless, the extent to which he manages to strike a balance between work and other activities is indicated by his relatively recent yet very successful entry into competitive archery. "I stumbled into professional archery a few years ago," explained Jim. "I shot well. I started out [with archery] for hunting season." He found he had a natural affinity with a bow, and he "took a couple of months" to build his skills. Jim has won New York State free-style and other championships in recent years. Lemmeís Archery Sports in Albany has sponsored his participation.
Itís fitting that archery, farming and firewood all are part of Jimís life because his birthplace is steeped in traditions that carved out the original 13 colonies. East Greenbush was one of the earliest places that Europeans settled in the U.S. Dutch immigrants traveled north along the Hudson River and established a colony at the site of East Greenbush ó perhaps as early as 1628 but no later than 1631.
The name of the Rennselaer County town derives from the Dutch words for pine and woods. The county gets its name from Killiaen Rennselaer, the leader of the first colonists to stay. Today, East Greenbush has about 16,000 residents. Grain and fruit have been the agricultural and economic staples of the area for almost 400 years.
New York is keen to preserve its environmental heritage. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation promotes forest protection and farm preservation in a number of ways. A co-operative strategy with landowners is one initiative. And 160 acres of the truck farm that Jim and his siblings own has been donated to the state as a preserve.
The arrangement is meant to be a win-win all around. The land, along the Hudson River, may still be farmed by the Webb family. However, it will not be sold and thus is off-limits for development. Farmland is considered better for watershed than a housing tract, so environmentalists also endorse the arrangement. So does Jim, who relishes perfect matches.
Jimís firewood business occupies him between September and March, when the farm requires less of his time. In that seven months, he may run the firewood processor as many as 1,500 hours, he estimated. In addition, 426 Wood takes on some contract jobs during the spring and summer as time permits.
The model number 60 of Jimís Cord King refers to the machineís 60-inch carbide circular slasher blade. The firewood processor can handle logs up to 26 inches in diameter at the butt although Jim considers a 24-inch log is the best size. In an ideal world, all the logs would be 24 inches. Reality is much different, of course. Trees culled from the farm acreage are of various size, as are the trees removed by contractors when they clear land for a new building.
Under ideal conditions, Jim produces about four to five cords of firewood per hour. Small diameter logs may slow down production a little, although the Cord Master machine can cut and split more than one log simultaneously. Cycle time is five seconds or less, regardless of log diameter.
Trees that come from the farm have been blown down or selectively cut. Jim does not process logs right away. He sorts them by species and stores them in piles, rotating them periodically so that they will dry evenly. Most of the logs dry for three years before they are processed into firewood. Since the wood is seasoned before processing, it can be delivered to customers immediately after being cut and split. Jim has found this approach saves time handling and loading. The Cord King conveyor moves the firewood directly to the truck for a delivery. Most customers are within a 45-mile radius of Albany.
Some customers have certain preferences. "A lot of people like oak and maple," Jim said. "Maple seasons faster." Hardwoods, such as ash, maple, and oak, predominate in this part of the Empire State.
Cord Master has a reputation for firewood processing machines that reaches well beyond the Western Hemisphere. The company also sells to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania in the Pacific Rim and to Europe.
Cord Master will supply a firewood processing machine tailor-made to a customerís requirements. For example, customers can choose from a range of saw blades, from 44 inches to 60 inches, and splitters can be customized.
Jim has a New Holland 4-wheel drive 2120 tractor with "a very large loader" and a special grapple rake attachment that he uses for moving and handling logs, including picking them up and loading them onto the deck of the Cord King.
Jim bought a Cord King with both an in-feed conveyor and an off-loading conveyor. The conveyors automate the steps of feeding wood into the machine and moving and handling the finished firewood. Jim loads the deck with logs and then climbs up into the cab of the machine and runs the controls. Once the deck is loaded, all he has to do is "sit in the cab, pull a lever, the wood drops down," and in seconds there are 12 pieces of firewood.
The carbide blade is "very tough," said Jim. "A lot of loggers use it. I did a lot of homework [before buying]. The teeth are replaceable, and you can sharpen the teeth on the machine. It takes about 20 minutes." The machine can process 1,200 to 1,500 cords of firewood between sharpenings of the saw blade.
Jim did not order a cab for the operatorís station of his Cord King initially but he had one installed in 2000. It is heated, and he may add air conditioning next summer.
He described the Cord King as "bullet-proof" and said, "Itís solid, made to last. [There are] not very many moving parts." He particularly likes the air cooling system for the hydraulics.
The Cord King can be towed by a
3/4-ton pick-up truck. Jim ordinarily uses a 1-ton pick-up. The Cord King travels well over snow, he said, and the machineís compact design and construction make it easy to transport, he added.
Jim used to produce about 200 cords of firewood per season. The first year with the Cord King, he produced four times that amount, he estimated. "If we had decent wood, we could do 25 or 30 cords per day."
Increasing production is a goal. Jim sees a strong market for firewood in northeast New York. "Last year it was Y2K," he said. "This year itís oil prices." People are angry about rising oil prices, he said, and are adding wood burning stoves as another source of heat. "Right now, I wish I had more trucks to load and deliver."
Jim got into the firewood business two decades ago because "farming was not as lucrative as it once was, when I started." Firewood gave him another source of revenue. It also allowed him to offer his son, Nicholas, more work. Jim and Nicholas sometimes work as a two-man team, one loading logs onto the Cord King deck and the other running the controls of the firewood processing machine.
Even when running the machine solo, the labor savings are extraordinary, Jim noted. "It is at least 20 times easier to produce a cord of wood with the processor" than with a chain saw and log splitter.
Customers noticed a change, too. "All 12 pieces [from a cycle] are the same size," said Jim. The uniformity of the wood makes it easy to handle, transport and store ó both for Jim and his customers.