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Start-Up Focuses on Supplying Lumber to Amish Furniture Makers: New Indiana Company Relies on Vacutherm for Kiln-Drying Hardwoods
Amish woodworking businesses already were buying kiln-dried lumber from other businesses that relied on conventional dry kilns. So what did a newcomer offer them? Better quality.
By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 7/1/2017
SHIPSHEWANA, Indiana — Dennis Fry perceived there was a business opportunity supplying kiln-dried hardwood lumber to Amish furniture-making businesses in the northeast Indiana region, and he took the initiative and decided to enter the lumber drying business.
A complete newcomer to the lumber industry, Dennis has relied heavily on the expertise and support of the company he chose to supply his dry kilns: Vacutherm, which specializes in vacuum dry kilns.
Dry Forest Products, based in Shipshewana, Indiana, buys green, rough-sawn lumber, kiln-dries the lumber and re-sells it. The fledgling company began operations in December. Shipshewana is located in northeast Indiana, about 40 miles east of South Bend, home of Notre Dame University and about 50 miles due south of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Dennis, 43, worked in the construction industry for 14 years, doing masonry and concrete work. Then, with other investors, he launched the Michiana Event Center in nearby Howe and has been running it as CEO for six years.
“I was kind of looking for something else,” he said, a business opportunity he could start up with his sons in mind.
Dennis was introduced to the lumber drying industry through a friend, Firman Mast of Dundee, Ohio. Another interest Dennis has pursued in about the past 15 years is putting on horse sales. He holds a few each year at the event center and also has done a couple each year in Ohio, where he met Firman.
Firman has been operating a successful lumber drying business in Ohio, Superior Lumber, that relies on Vacutherm lumber dry kilns. Earlier this year Vacutherm named Firman as the company’s dealer for the Midwest.
While Dennis was on a trip to Ohio, Firman gave him an introduction to lumber drying and the Vacutherm technology.
“It kind of intrigued me then,” recalled Dennis. He became more intrigued when he saw the finished lumber product from Firman’s Vacutherm kilns and learned a little more about lumber drying and the advantages of the Vacutherm technology — kiln-drying lumber with the aid of a vacuum.
Dennis actually had a brief prior acquaintance with the lumber drying industry. When he worked in the construction industry, he helped build a few units for thermal treatment of wood, which is a different process than kiln-drying.
Dennis began to do research and talk to others in the lumber industry. He also began talking to owners of Amish woodworking businesses in the region, which is something of a hotbed for Amish companies that manufacture furniture or furniture components. As he began talking to them, they showed an interest in the kind of kiln-dried lumber products he could supply with the aid of Vacutherm kilns. “One thing led to another,” said Dennis.
The Amish woodworkers have an annual wholesale show at the Michiana Event Center. They fill the 100,000-square-foot venue with hand-crafted bedroom suites, tables, chairs, and other furniture.
Amish woodworking businesses already were buying kiln-dried lumber from other businesses that relied on conventional dry kilns. So what did a newcomer like Dennis offer them? “Better quality,” he said.
He invested in two Vacutherm VacuPress 12000 kilns, the largest models offered by Vacutherm, each with a capacity of 12,000 board feet. The first kiln began operating in December, and the second in January.
Dennis buys random width and random length hardwoods, mostly 4/4, which is what most of his customers require. He also buys some 5/4 and some 8/4. He buys walnut, hard maple, soft maple, cherry, hickory, and a “lot of poplar,” he said. He buys truckload quantities and tries to sell his kiln-dried lumber in truckload quantities. Indiana being known for its hardwoods, he buys material from sawmills in his state, but he also reaches out to mills in Michigan and Ohio. Most of his furniture-making customers are within 50 miles, others within 100. He already has done some exporting, too.
Dry Forest Products operates with two employees, including his 18-year-old son, Kevin, and Dennis is looking to add a third employee to help with sales and marketing. The company is located on 6.5 acres. Dennis bought the vacant land and built everything new. The company has a 90x130 building with its two Vacutherm kilns set up inside. Dennis bought all Vacutherm controls and kiln software, too. There is also a retention pond on the property to draw water used to cool the vacuum pumps. Dennis also invested in a lumber stacking system manufactured by Joulin, a French company; the system can simultaneously unload and load a kiln.
Dennis spent some time research other dry kiln technology and suppliers, but he was quickly convinced he was on the right track with Vacutherm. “When I saw the product they were putting out, that’s all I needed to see,” he said.
Of course, the process of getting educated on the lumber industry and drying lumber “was huge,” said Dennis. “It’s been a huge learning curve for us.” However, he was quick to add, “It’s been fun. It’s been exciting.”
Dennis had praise for Vacutherm and its owner, Jim Parker, who made himself available to Dennis during the period when he was researching the business opportunity. The two men shared “lots of phone calls,” said Dennis, and Jim also visited with Dennis a few times.
Vacutherm, founded in 1980 and located in Vermont, is a family-owned and operated business with partners on almost every continent. It is led by Jim, its owner and president.
Vacutherm’s specialty is vacuum kilns. In a vacuum, water evaporates at a lower temperature, so drying lumber in a vacuum kiln requires less heat to dry quickly, which keeps lumber strong and improves lumber quality.
Besides reducing energy costs, vacuum drying technology offers other benefits, according to Vacutherm. One is superior lumber quality. The process produces less stress on the wood, resulting in less cracks, splits, and cupping. In addition, the wood is exposed to less pressure and oxygen, so ‘white’ woods like hard maple have better color.
Another benefit is faster drying cycles. Drying lumber in a vacuum kiln is up to 15 times quicker than traditional drying methods. Faster drying cycles mean more throughput: A conventional kiln can dry about 20 loads of lumber per year, whereas a Vacupress kiln makes as many as 170 turns per year.
The lumber is heated with aluminum hot water plates. The plates can be heated with a wood-fired, natural gas, propane, oil, or electric boiler. A rubber membrane placed on top of the lumber pile applies as much as 1,200 pounds of pressure per square foot, which helps to produce flat, straight finished lumber.
The company’s line of VacuPress kilns utilize a continuous vacuum to dry lumber. Vacutherm offers five models ranging from 500 board feet capacity to 12,000.
Vacutherm also offers a line of kilns that utilize a discontinuous vacuum. The AirVac line of kilns periodically alternates between a vacuum and normal atmospheric pressure. This method dries lumber as much as three to five times faster than conventional drying methods and requires the lumber to be stickered and loaded similar to a conventional kiln. It also incorporates a conditioning cycle for wood species that are especially difficult to dry. Six models are available, ranging in capacity from 2,500 board feet to 40,000 board feet.
For customers requiring maximum throughput of kiln dried material, Vacutherm offers the integrated VacuPress Drying Center. Just four to six employees can operate a VacuPress Drying Center and produce 10 million board feet per year.
Vacutherm also offers the TOUCHDRY® kiln control system, which can reduce kiln energy consumption by up to 40 percent. The TOUCHDRY kiln control system is compatible with both conventional and vacuum kilns and can be purchased as a stand-alone unit. It utilizes Kiln Scout moisture meters, Lignomat wireless moisture meters, EMC (Equilibrium Moisture Content) sensors, and an 8.4-inch color touch screen. This system is easy to use and requires very little training.
Vacutherm began equipping kilns with its new EZDry software last year. The software enables users to process more difficult-to-dry species and optimize the lumber drying process in terms of time, quality, and energy consumption.
Vacutherm supplies custom lumber drying products and provides various services, such as kiln certification, application development, and remote kiln operation and optimization. The company shares expertise about lumber drying through its kiln drying network and is active in a number of regional and national trade organizations: the Wood Products Manufacturers Association, New England Kiln Drying Association, Great Lakes Kiln Drying Association, West Coast Dry Kiln Association, and Ohio Valley Lumber Drying Association.
(For more information on Vacutherm, visit the company’s website at www.vacutherm.com or call the company at (802) 496-4241. For companies in the Midwest, call Firman Mast at (330) 988-2379 or e-mail email@example.com.)
As part of his research, Dennis toured the plant of another Vacutherm customer, the Armstrong World Industries flooring factory in Beverly, West Virginia. Armstrong, the largest producer of pre-finished hardwood flooring in North America, invested in seven VacuPress kilns in order to dry 4/4 maple and hickory. “We toured there for a day,” said Dennis, and talked to Armstrong plant officials about their drying operations and experience with Vacutherm kilins.
Of course, Vacutherm provided on-site training for Dennis as he started up and has continued to provide technical assistance. “They’ve been good to work with,” said Dennis, “helping with any questions I’ve had.”
The young company has made its share of mistakes, but they’ve gotten through them with the help of Jim and his company, said Dennis. “They can log in and monitor our kilns at any time just to make sure we’re not making mistakes when we’re starting,” he said.
“We’ve had our challenges,” said Dennis. “We didn’t expect it to be easy...it’s a brand new thing for us. We’ve never had anything to do with wood drying.” There were a few unforeseen challenges to the building and layout, and Dennis had to “tweak a few things.”
He added, “We’re doing very good with the quality of the product we’re putting out. It’s been exciting.”
The learning curve of learning the ins and outs of drying lumber has been his biggest challenge. “Just actually learning how things work, how the kilns work,” observed Dennis. “We’re new to the business.”
The sales aspect of the business has been challenging, too, because “we are the new kid on the block.”
“They’re liking our product,” he added. “It’s coming along pretty good.”
Dennis has no other hobbies, he said, other than putting on the horse sales. He still serves as CEO of the event center, which now is undertaking a $19 million capital project to construct a new building in Shipshewana. For years it operated in a facility that previously was used to manufacture recreational vehicles.
When Dennis was interviewed for this article, the company was loading a kiln with live edge slabs — a slice removed from a log that still has bark on the two edges — that eventually will be used for table tops. They would be dried in 14 days.
Average monthly production varies depending on the species of wood and type of lumber. It takes a week to dry a charge of 4/4 walnut, Dennis noted. In the same week, he can three loads of poplar. Dry Forest Products currently is drying an average of 100,000 board feet per month, he estimated.
Most kiln-dried lumber is sold rough-sawn. For customers that need their lumber surfaced, Dennis contracts with another company with a planer mill for that value-added service.
Dennis was attracted to the business opportunity because he realized he could “supply a superior quality product and do it in a very efficient, just-in-time way,” said Jim. “Those are the reasons he could see it becoming a stand-alone business.”
Dennis realized he would have a leg up on the competition and would have a good cash flow,” added Jim. The opportunity did not require a huge investment in plant and people and waiting months before a return on investment. “Within days he would see some cash flow.”
In fact, for nearly four decades of working in the forest products industry, about 80 percent of the time Jim has dealt with customers who start out with no prior experience in lumber drying. “We’ve just found ourselves in a market where people who don’t have lumber drying experience look to us.”
Why? “Because I think we’re the only kiln manufacturer who offers a kiln for drying lumber that can actually be profitable just by itself.” Most people in the forest products industry who sell dry lumber consider their drying operations as a cost center, noted Jim. “They don’t see it as a profit center. Our product is different in that it can stand by itself and be profitable.”
Vacuum kiln lumber drying technology gives his customers “an edge on the market,” said Jim. Firman’s successful lumber drying business is a “huge testament” to the performance and profitability of Vacutherm’s technology, he added.
“We offer a product that can get their business off the ground quickly, and it can become profitable quickly,” said Jim.
“Our equipment offers a good business opportunity. I think that’s what Dennis saw.”
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