Keenan Industries

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Stroke Boom Delimber Is Key for W. Va. Logger

CEDAR GROVE, West Virginia — Robert Keenan takes the ups and downs of West Virginia in stride. In fact, the 35-year-old native of the Mountain State traverses the steep slopes to log their timber.

“Very few people log the steeps,” explained Robert, whose company, Keenan Industries Inc., provides contract logging.

Keenan Industries operates in the western or southern part of the state. (The orientation of West Virginia — its longest axis stretches southwest to northeast — makes west and south virtually synonymous; so too, north and east.) The Allegheny Plateau girds the western region; many of the surrounding mountains are 4,000 feet or higher.

It may seem like the sort of topography where chainsaws and cables offer the greatest flexibility. But Robert has found a machine that is well suited to the slopes. For more than a year, he has been using a Timberline SDL2A stroke boom delimber, built to handle hardwoods, in Keenan’s operations.

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Robert is accustomed to the topography around his Cedar Grove home in Kanawha County, just 15 miles southeast of Charleston. He laughs about the slight inclines in the eastern part of West Virginia. “That is like being in Indiana,” he said. (The comparison to the Mid-West may surprise anyone who has coaxed a vehicle along Interstate 68, the main route through the eastern part of the state, nestled between Maryland and Pennsylvania.)

“The terrain is so bad here (in the west), we are sometimes logging a 55-degree slope,” he said. Until a year ago, when he acquired the Timberline machine, “everything was done with saw hands.” The Timberline delimber can operate on slopes to 40 degrees.

“I was running 24 men in the woods,” he explained of his earlier method. “I had toppers for the older timber cutters, but I was not getting the volume I thought I should be getting.

“I started watching the mechanized equipment in operation, and I estimated that 50 percent — or even 80 percent — of what we cut could be cut with equipment.”

At the same time, Robert was leasing six skidders, two Timberjack, two Franklin and two John Deere. He also leased three bulldozers and two loaders.

He evaluated the options for mechanical harvesting and decided on the Timberline delimber. Soon after he paired it with a Timbco 445 feller-buncher. As for his other machines, he has gone to two John Deere rubber-tired cable skidders, a Cat 527 track skidder, two Prentice 410 loaders, and two bulldozers.

After learning that Timberline delimbers had the features he wanted, he rented one for a month trial period, then bought it. The trial period was important to Robert because the machine proved itself.

According to Timberline, the SDL2A is the only stroke delimber-processor designed for working in hardwoods. It comes standard with a Cummins C8.3 engine that generates 215 hp. Its patented 42-foot high-strength boom has full surface, sealed, double-bearing rollers and slides and can travel 10 feet per second. The machine is equipped with front topping saw with oiler pump and tank, a butt saw with oiler pump and tank, front grapple pressure reducing system, butt plate, and 5.5-inch delimbing knives. Its Smart System computer can make measurements in inch or metric units. And the cab has the latest in ergonomic design features.

Two features of the Timberline machine are especially suited for the sort of jobs that Keenan Industries tackles. One is the hydraulic system. On the Timberline SDL2A stroke boom delimber, the boom design allows the hydraulic hoses to be enclosed and protected. “On the Timberline, the hoses are inside,” said Robert. There are no exterior hydraulic hoses or support cables. It is an important feature for a machine that must operate on steep inclines and along narrow paths because exposed hoses or cables could snag a standing tree. “For me, they wouldn’t last,” said Robert.

A second feature that sold Robert on the Timberline is cab leveling. The machine’s hydraulic system provides four-way leveling. “Just because of the size of the trees we cut, we need it,” he explained. “The trees here are so big we can actually get good wood from the top. That’s the glory of the delimber.”

The leveling feature was engineered with the basic design of the machine. The engine and hydraulics are off-set from the center of the track system, on a Cat 330 undercarriage, counterbalancing the boom, reducing tail swing and eliminating counterweights.

Delimbing power plus reach make the Timberline perfect for the conditions in which Robert logs. The machine’s hydraulic system puts out 3,650 psi, and every bit of power is sometimes needed. “Scarlet oaks and chestnut oaks have 8, 10 and 12-inch limbs,” Robert noted. The 42-foot boom has a 30-foot reach.

Before adding the Timberline, Keenan’s saw hands were cutting 16-inch trees at chest height. “The Timbco picks up so much more wood,” said Robert, “that we are close to a one-to-one ratio with the delimber. We used to get one load of wood for every two loads of logs.” Timberline representatives estimate an average output of 12 to 15 loads per day with the machine. In December 1998, Robert’s output was 387 loads — seven more loads of wood than the logs that produced it, according to Robert.

Because the Timberline SDL2A runs on tracks, it earns good marks for conserving the forest floor. “Under BMPs (Best Management Practices), we can’t get mud in creeks, we must reclaim land, and so on,” noted Robert. In West Virginia, BMPs are promoted by the West Virginia Conservation Partnership, a group that unites district, state and federal conservation agencies.

Like the Timberline, the Timbco feller-buncher also runs on tracks. The machines have been an effective combination matched with the Cat 527 skidder, which also is a track machine, and they allow Robert to abide by BMPs and log in wet conditions early in the spring. “We could log enough in two days to work the other four days (at the landing),” he said.

“The way we log,” said Robert, “we fell trees up-hill so the track skidder can drag more down-hill.” In some areas where the slopes are particularly steep, a contract saw hand does the felling.

The reach of the Timberline delimber combined with pairing it with the Timbco feller-buncher also mean fewer roads. “Sixty to 65 percent of the roads are eliminated,” said Robert. “We use one road instead of four roads.”

With mechanized felling and limbing, Robert was able to significantly reduce the number of employees he needed. The company now employs six men instead of 24 for its logging operations. The business also employs four truck drivers.

Robert’s brother-in-law, Johnny Clark, operates the Timberline delimber. Johnny has become so adept at running the machine that Timberline recruited him to travel and give demonstrations for the company. “He has been going all over the state,” said Robert.

Timberline is a member of the Oldenburg Group Company, which is based in Kingsford, Mich. The delimbers are manufactured and assembled at its facility in Iron River, Michigan.

There are a few advantages for a logging contractor who can work effectively in the mountainous terrain: not many other loggers have the equipment or expertise to work on the steep slopes, and there is plenty of timber. “We started out on an 8,500 acre tract about four to five miles away near Cedar Grove,” said Robert, recalling his first big job after forming his company in 1995. “Ninety percent of jobs now are at most 30 to 40 minutes away.”

A cedar forest growing in the area lent its name to Cedar Grove, a town of about 1,200 that lies along the Kanawha River, a tributary of the Ohio River. Conrail railroad tracks and Route 60 run along the banks of the Kanawha, the highway snaking along the river to link Cedar Grove to the capital, Charleston, where Interstates 79 and 64 meet.

The nearby interstates were once even more important to Robert than they are now. Before entering the logging business, he owned a trucking company from 1985 until 1995. His father was also a trucker, and he grew up with a great first-hand knowledge of the business. “I started logging as a hobby,” Robert recalled, “to give the trucks extra work. But I liked being in the woods.”

Keenan Industries logs exclusively for Jim C. Hamer Co. in Madison, located about 75 miles southwest of Cedar Grove. Hamer manufactures common and select boards and furniture dimension lumber. The hardwood manufacturer gives Robert wide latitude in deciding how to log a tract. “He lets me go at it however I want,” said Robert. This spring Keenan Industries took on some clear-cutting work. “We are pushing to the maximum all the time,” said Robert.

His company makes three type of cuts. Good oaks and maples are cut to such lengths as 8, 10, 14 and 18 feet and are destined for the sawmill. Trees that will be converted to pulpwood or oriented strand board are cut to 12-foot to 24-foot lengths. Trees such as poplar, sycamore and cucumber (American magnolia) are cut for 9 or 18-foot pillar logs.

Keenan Industries works all year long, and the schedule doesn’t leave room for much down-time. Timberline’s service staff has helped Robert keep running. The first summer, the machine’s air conditioning system had problems cooling the cab effectively. With lexon windows, the cab was hot. Timberline responded to the call. “The repairman drove 17 hours to fix the machine,” Robert recalled. Service representative Bill Kelly also recommended a deflector skirt for the leveling system. “The service that Timberline gives us has been great.” Robert said.

The machine’s performance has satisfied Robert. The Timberline delimber “can do anything, anywhere,” he said. “I am well-pleased with it.”

The Timberline delimber’s computerized measuring system, side saw and dump sometimes are utilized by Keenan Industries for cut-to-length logging. For regular trims, the butt plate, butt saw and top saw speed processing.

“On short drags we leave it on the landing and use our (Cat) 527 and (Prentice) 410 skidders to (skid the wood to) the landing,” he said. “On long drags, we take it to the woods.”

The machine’s two delimbing knives have performed admirably with the hardwoods. “My delimber has 1,500 hours on it,” said Robert. “I’ve had to sharpen them twice.”

In his spare time, Robert is with his family. He joins his wife, Sonya, in “running after two young daughters,” ages 1 ½ and 4.

West Virginia is arguably the most rugged state in the nation. Its few level spaces are along streams and rivers. The state has a spirited motto, however: Mountaineers Are Always Free.

Robert exemplifies that motto. He enjoys his calling and the diversity it offers — “a little bit of everything” — and the opportunity to be outdoors.