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Ultra thin-kerf mills improve yields and profit in US timber processing

Ultra thin-kerf mills improve yields and profit in US timber processing After 50 years in the sawmill industry, Sam Dunaway knows something about where it’s been. More interesting to Sam, however, is where the industry might be 50 years from today. According to Sam, the thin-kerf, narrow band headrig he installed late this year may represent a watershed for sawmill operators, as well as for the industry as a whole. The mill, an ultrathin-kerf, Wood-Mizer LT300 Industrial, operated in tandem with Brewco resaw and a Meadows edger, has improved overall yield on the average log delivered to a Dunaway facility by as much as 15 percent over that delivered by the more traditional mills Dunaway operates in a number of Kentucky towns. Even better than the improvements in gross yield, Sam points out, is the increased grade lumber he gets out of a log. When all is said and done, according to Sam’s calculations, his new mill, built for what he estimates to be well under 60 percent the cost of a more traditional mill, is producing nearly 50 percent more profit per board foot of lumber sold than his conventional mills are able to provide. At 3,000,000 board feet plus per year, operating one shift per day, the new plant offers, Sam says, significant opportunity for small sawmilling firms looking to compete in a world increasingly dominated by industry giants. Mills like his, Sam continues, can also enhance opportunity for timber harvesters and land holders.

Sam Dunaway is no wide-eyed newcomer to the industry bemused by some new process. He’s operated Dunaway Timber Company, Inc. for more than 50 years, since the day his dad did a favor for a bank, took over the repossessed sawmill, then asked Sam to help operate the place. Within a year of doing to work, Sam purchased the plant and began a lifelong and heartfelt attachment to the industry. Today, Dunaway Timber Company, Inc., headquartered in the north-centered town of Fordsville, KY., had 13 distinct profit centers, seven of them milling plants, operating under the parents company’s umbrella. The firm’s production includes grade lumber for furniture plants, barrel staves, flooring lumber, chips, sawdust and a broad range of other products. "We try to make what the market needs," Sam declares.

At 75 years of age, with more than a half century in the business, Sam had all but decided to retire a couple of years ago when his interest was piqued by a new kind of sawmill, The LT300 Industrial, manufactured by Wood-Mizer Products of Indiana. "I saw a story and a picture of the mill in a magazine and thought this might be something that could bring big improvements to our industry," he comments, "I decided to put off retirement and look at the thing."

Sam’s inquiries led him to visit Wood-Mizer’s Research and Development facility in Madisonville, KY., and then to the purchase of an LT300, complete with a material handling system also built by Wood-Mizer. Today, coupled with a Brewco E 1200 resaw system and a Meadows industrial edger, the Wood-Mizer is operating at a three million plus board foot per year rate, sawing mostly red oak and hard maple along with walnut, hickory and a variety of hardwoods processed as secondary species.

Building a better future
A 75-year-old who’s already highly respected in his own industry and is well along in the process of passing his life’s work on to the next generation doesn’t really have to consider the future, unless he’s someone like Sam Dunaway, and is dedicated to the improvement of his industry to the benefit of his community. According to Sam, what drew him to the LT300 was the potential he saw for a whole new kind of approach to providing wood products in areas where the traditional industry has seen significant challenge.

Wood-Mizer’s industrial sawmill, coupled with auxiliary equipment, Sam contends, allows for installation of a fully operational, high yield production sawmill for a fraction of the cost of a traditional facility, even as it allows for higher return on the resource base. "That means," he continues, "A mill owner can set up and profitably operate a number of satellite operations rather than have a single mill that may be located dozens, or even a hundred mills or more, from the source of log supply". All that’s good for the sawmill owner, good for harvesting contractors and land owners, good for the environment, good for the community and good for the economy, Sam concludes.

The advantages of the new system to the sawmill owner are obvious. The LT300 amounts to a mechanical optimization system for the hardwood sawmill, providing significant grade uplifts and increased yields due to the ve ry thin kerf being used. As Sam points out, in his opwn operation he is getting 15 percent or more in increased yield, all out of the grade portions of the log, using his Wood-Mizer in place of a traditional head rig.

To the harvesting contractor having mills nearby means increased profitability as well. The shorter runs required to deliver fiber to the mill mean less fuel consumption, more wood delivered per hour of labor, less wear and tear on machinery, and an expanded ability to work with smaller amounts of fiber and still make a living.

The ready availability of processing infrastructure is also important to progressive landowners. Because harvesting contractors don’t have to haul long distances, they are able to work with smaller landowners and smaller amounts of wood and still make a living. That allows for proper thinning, selective cutting for forest health or fire reduction and an overall enhanced ability to do good silviculture. Land can be managed rather than having to be overcut due to lack of milling infrastructure.

The ability to do better forest management is vital in an environmental sense, especially in terms of controlling green house gas emissions. In a document produced as part of the U.S.Forest Service’s response to the nation’s Renewable Resources Planning Act, research scientists point out that agroforestry, use of fiber that would otherwise rot of burn, improved forest management, reduced use of energy in the growing, harvesting and processing of wood and expanded use of wood products for more energy intensive products are all important greenhouse gas reduction strategies (Mitigation Activities in the Forest Sector to Reduce Emissions and Enhance Sinks of Greenhouse Gases). All of those things require milling of the wood at locations as near the source of fiber as possible, something Sam points out has become possible with the introduction of the LT300 to the market.

At the community level, the environmental improvements a locally available mill can bring, as well as the new jobs and taxes, can be important assets for local citizens, even if they don’t work in or depend upon the woods for a living.

All of these things are possible because the LT300 is not only inexpensive in terms of a high production mill, but, as installed in the Dunaway plant, easy to operate at capacity with a small work force.

As in any mill, logs are delivered to the Dunaway facility, merchandised by species and, to some extent, by potential grade, then are decked, ready to be introduced into the plant. When needed, they are loaded onto a delivery deck and forwarded to the LT300.

The LT300 is operated remotely from a control room behind the saw. Sawyers have a variety of options available to them depending on what is desired out of a log, what downstream equipment is available and the nature of the resource. In the Dunaway plant, the LT300 is utilized as a head rig to remove slabs and grade lumber down to the point where a 12 by 12 cant remains. The cant is then forwarded to a Brewco E 1200 for final processing, allowing the "head rig" to move on to processing the next log. "When the Brewco line fills up, the LT300 saws all the grade out of logs until the production can again he handled downstream". A Meadows edger is utilized to edge boards coming directly off the Wood-Mizer.

Lumber coming from both the Wood-Mizer line and the Brewco resaw is forwarded after processing to grading and sorting stations, where it is graded and stacked for delivery to either outside customers or for use in other Dunaway operations. A precut pallet stock facility right next door takes low grade material as well as the cants, once the grade opportunities have been exhausted. A vibrating conveyor runs below the entire operation, forwarding material not suitable for lumber to a hog where it is chipped and sold.

Nine hours sawing on a nine-hour shift?
According to Sam, an important part of the profit making opportunities provided by the Wood-Mizer comes from the fact that the machine is almost never down for more than a few minutes at a time. The thin-kerf blades used on the machine are very inexpensive compared to the huge blades used in traditional mills and can literally be changed in a few minutes. This has meant, he says, that by cross training the six people required to operate the mill on a nine hour shift and average between 8.7 and 8 hours of up time per shift. "We’re still refining the operation but our goal is to achieve nine hours of sawing in a nine hour shift," he comments.

Sam says he’s still fine-tuning his production processes as well. Originally, he comments, the goal was to saw 750 feet of grade hardwood per hour, a level at which he calculated the mill could be profitable at the level he wanted it to be. That goal was soon exceeded, so new goals were set. Today, Sam says, production is exceeding 10,000 board feet of #2 or better grade lumber per day with an additional 3,000 to 5,000 plus feet of cants being produced for the pallet stock plant. Sam believes incremental improvements in production constantly being worked on promise continued increases. "I don’t know what we can top out at, but we will find out," he laughs.

A sign in Sam Dunaway’s office window lays out the Dunaway Timber Company philosophy that Sam and his employees live by. The firm’s goals, according to the statement, are to have the best possible sawmill, the best crew, the best lumber, the best yield from logs, the best work environment, the best profit percentage and the best pay scale in the industry. "Around here we all strive to be the best in all we do," Sam summarizes. At a time in life when many other were retired, Sam Dunaway is still striving to be the best, but this time around he’s exploring new ways of working toward a better future for the entire industry, as he investigates what he sees as a new way of assuring the environmental enhancements, economic opportunity and quality of life improvements a healthy forest products industry can provide for all of America’s people continue to be available into the nation’s future.

Wesley Peterson, Forest Product Equipment

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