Prized Hardwoods Prosper Highland

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Pennsylvania Company Turns to McDonough to Recover More Lumber from Valuable Cherry

KANE, Penn. — One hundred years ago, when the firm that is now National Fuel began acquiring what eventually amounted to more than 150,000 acres of forest lands in northwest Pennsylvania, it was primarily for the purpose of gas and oil exploration. The acquisitions were serendipitous, however, because the woodlands of northern Pennsylvania are world renowned for the quality and quantity of the cherry logs they produce. Today the forest lands have a prominent place in the company’s resource portfolio because of the highly desirable lumber and veneers made from cherry and other hardwoods that grow on those acres.

Highland Forest Resources, a subsidiary of National Fuel, operates four sawmills in the region, producing grade lumber from the cherry and other hardwood trees harvested on company lands. Highland also sells high-grade cherry logs to customers throughout North America and Europe.

Because cherry is one of the most valuable of the hardwoods that grow in America’s forests today, Highland has taken steps to significantly upgrade its mills to improve both the quality and the quantity of the lumber it recovers from its timber. Most recently Highland built a completely new sawmill centered on milling equipment supplied by McDonough Manufacturing. Highland chose McDonough after using the supplier earlier for improvements to another mill in order to enhance yield.

Fred Carrier is General Manager of Highland Forest Resources. National Fuel was a utility company that began in the early 1900s to acquire the base for what is now the company’s timber resources. The forests were cut around the turn of the century, regenerated and grew for more than half a century. In the 1950s National Fuel began to sell stumpage on its lands. In the mid-1980s the company began to realize increased value from its timberlands by investing in a circle sawmill that was capable of sawing about 2.5 million board feet per year. Since 1985 the company has acquired other mills.

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Today, Highland’s four sawmills manufacture lumber from logs harvested from company lands or purchased in the marketplace; about 70% of its logs come from Highland lands and it buys the remaining 30%. The mills are within a few dozen miles of Highland’s main facility in Kane. In addition to the mill in Kane, Highland has others in Kersey, Hazen, and Marienville. They produce a combined 21 million board feet of grade lumber per year.

Because of the unique characteristics of forests in northwest Pennsylvania, Highland’s lands produce logs that are of extraordinarily high value. About 38% of the logs are cherry. The logs are graded with the highest grade going to buyers throughout North America and Europe. The remaining logs are milled in one of Highland’s sawmills. About 31% of Highland’s lumber production is in cherry, 24% soft maple, and 22% red oak. The remainder is made up of a variety of species, including ash and hard maple. Highland is particularly well known for its high quality cherry logs and lumber. Cherry logs and lumber currently are among the most valuable species in the U.S., Fred noted, and those from Highland’s forests are among the most sought after.

Because of the high quality and value of its cherry resources, Highland has taken steps in recent years to improve and maximize the yield and grade quality of the lumber it recovers from each log. “With timber of the quality we have growing on our lands,” said Fred, “any improvement in yield or grade can have a significant impact on profitability. So we’ve been working towards maximum recovery and grade as part of our approach to the business.”

The major approach taken to improving yield at the Highland operations has centered around shifting the company’s milling operations from circle saw operations to modern thin kerf bandmill technology. The Kane mill was the first to be converted; McDonough break-down equipment was installed almost 10 years ago. More recently, the company’s mill in Marienville was dismantled and rebuilt around a McDonough sawmill system consisting of a McDonough 6-foot headrig, a 36-inch three-knee board carriage and a 6-foot linebar resaw.

The Marienville mill is an example of how relatively small, incremental changes can significantly improve profitability. Logs are more intensely merchandised at Highland than at most other hardwood mills because such a large part of the company’s business is resale, Fred noted. The mill is set up to maximize value. Logs are tagged and sorted for value with a Prentice 210 E self-propelled log handler. Veneer logs are separated out and sold to buyers representing North American and European customers; remaining logs are stored until milling. Highland has two Cat 928s and a 930 to move logs in the yard.

When ready for the mill, logs are debarked by an HMC 2110 rosser-head debarker, then fed into the mill’s system for break-down. Break-down is accomplished on a McDonough 36-inch, three-knee board carriage equipped with a Silvatech scanning system for optimization and a McDonough 6-foot air strain headrig.

McDonough’s air strain headrig system is an advance that is important to mills like Highland that saw particularly high grades of lumber, according to Larry Bins, president of McDonough Manufacturing. The headrig’s use of air pressure — instead of mechanical linkages — provides greater accuracy. Mechanical linkages gradually wear and lose accuracy, Larry noted, and inadequate maintenance hastens the decline. McDonough’s air strain system eliminates many of those potential problems.

A linebar resaw, a McDonough 6-foot band unit, was selected for recovering material from cants. Highland chose a linebar resaw because it gives the operator the best look at the cant so that the best possible grade board can be sawn, said Fred. The cants travel on a run-around feed. The operator selects and turns the cant for grade.

Boards from the resaw move on to a Tierney 8-inch edger or to an HMC drop-saw trimmer.

About half of the mill’s production is sold green. The remaining half is dried in one of the plant’s five American Wood Dryer kilns (four 65,000 board foot units and one 40,000 unit). Highland does not surface its lumber before sale, so after drying the lumber goes through a grading line with Silvatech scanners and is prepared for shipment. The company’s lumber is sold mainly to manufacturers in the furniture and flooring industries.

Highland installed its first McDonough break-down system in its Kane mill some years ago so. McDonough had proved to be an excellent supplier for the Kane facility, and when it came time to decide on a supplier for the new mill for Marienville, it was a fairly easy decision because of the history with McDonough, according to Fred. “After some research on what was available in the marketplace and based on what we’d experienced already, we decided that McDonough was the best choice for us.”

The three other mills were somewhat limited in their ability to expand, and Highland decided the Marienville mill would be its main plant for the future. The company wanted state-of-the-art technology that could be upgraded easily in the future as it became financially and technically feasible. Highland also sought equipment that would hold up to rigorous production.

Working with the McDonough staff on designing and building the mill was a smooth and efficient process that allowed Highland to continue milling on the old machinery up until a week before the new lines were up and operating. “The biggest challenge was training our people,” said Fred, “and even that didn’t turn out to be too much of a problem because we were able to train them on our existing equipment at our other locations.”

In a hardwood mill, Fred noted, operator skill can have a big impact on lumber quality, so Highland’s operators are cross-trained and rotated among machines. Having fresh people at the controls avoids operator fatigue and resulting lapses in judgement. “It also allows us to continue to operate efficiently if someone is ill,” Fred said.

Highland expects the pay-back for optimizing the operations of its Marienville mill will be very rapid. When the Kane mill was upgraded, the new McDonough line was so efficient that it returned the investment in one year. “We think, given the improvements we expect in both yield and quality here, that the pay-back for the entire mill in Marienville will be between two and three years,” said Fred. “We haven’t operated long enough to get firm figures, but we think we will have a yield increase of about 15 percent.”

Under Fred’s management, Highland Forest Products has moved its milling facilities into the 21st century. It has upgraded its mills to produce both better grade and expanded volume. Its investments in state-of-the-art machinery enable the company to make better use of resources. At the same time, it will achieve a rapid pay-back and increase profitability.