Log Home Builder Turns to Milling Components

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Manufacturer of log home parts, takes do-it-yourself approach to drying operations with Kiln-Direct.

ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. — White pine is common in northeastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and western South Carolina. And white pine is a species that Lynn Scott, owner of Mill Direct, likes. “It’s a good wood to work with,” said Lynn. “If maintained properly, it will last a long time. It’s a pretty wood and it makes a beautiful home.”

Putting white pine into homes, log homes in particular, has been Lynn’s business in one way or another for several years. “We’ve been building log homes for about four years,” he said. “And we decided we wanted to start milling our own logs.”

In turn, the interest in milling prompted Lynn to learn more about kiln drying. Because he was having a difficult time finding kiln-dried white pine cants, he decided to start drying his own. By the time he put his first kiln in operation at the end of last year, Lynn realized the market niche for kiln-dried log home parts
was wide open in the region. He decided to fill it.

Lynn launched Mill Direct six months ago. The business specializes in manufacturing and drying wood components for log homes. “We kiln dry timbers, six by eights, white pine timbers and lumber,” said Lynn. “We also mill logs for log homes, beams for log homes, and siding.” The company buys cants from sawmills and dries them prior to milling and remanufacturing.

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Seeing an opportunity for a niche market does not necessarily mean that one should leap into it right away, and Lynn did not. Instead, he took a studied approach to beginning Mill Direct. He went to Haywood Community College in Clyde, N.C., to take a dry kiln course. Months before he bought components for his first kiln, he began talking with Niels Jorgensen, the owner of Kiln-Direct. He also did a lot of research.

Ultimately, Lynn bought the components for two kilns and also four heat recovery units from Kiln-Direct. “We purchased components and constructed chambers ourselves,” he said. “We’re using a direct natural gas system.”

One kiln was up and running when Lynn talked with TimberLine in May. The other was close to being operational. Each has a 45,000 board foot capacity and a log chamber. Lynn was “very pleased” with the performance of the Kiln-Direct equipment.

By using natural gas and fitting his kilns with heat recovery units, Lynn has made the drying process “almost one hundred percent efficient,” he said. Natural gas is just one option for fuel, he pointed out. Kiln-Direct also supplies components compatible for steam or electric heat. Moreover, Kiln-Direct sizes all components for customers.

What he learned from the kiln course gave Lynn enough of a foundation in the physics of wood drying to make him a discerning customer when he set about buying components. The expertise Lynn brought to his search was just fine with Niels, whose company serves customers that build their own kilns.

“People wouldn’t go online to buy a kiln,” said Niels, unless their “comfort level” was high. That means “they know enough” to understand what they want and why.

A native of Denmark, Niels helped his father, an entrepreneur who still builds kilns in Europe, before coming to the U. S. He came to this country because he wanted to live here. He ran kilns for a U.S. company for a time. Then, he decided to go into business, consulting for people about building kilns.

The consulting made Niels aware that many forest products companies are interested in gaining expertise and buying the components to build their own kilns. He concluded that he could sell both. A little over two years ago, Niels started Kiln-Direct. The evolution of the Internet made it possible, he explained, because he could sell through a Web site, Kiln-Direct.com. The Web site now reaches customers throughout Europe as well as in this country. Sales have also been made to customers in Russia and Chile.

Kiln-Direct offers customers independent pricing for each component, and it is not necessary to purchase all components from Kiln-Direct. Fans or steam valves might be bought cheaper locally in Chile, for example, and buying items elsewhere remains the prerogative of the Kiln-Direct customer.

The heat recovery systems on the kilns that Lynn built “vent moisture out,” explained Niels. Moreover, the systems are designed to vent moisture in a balanced way. Some species, such as pine, said Niels will “dry in few days.” Others, like oak, require a gradual process of about 30 days; if the process is rushed, the wood will be damaged, Niels noted.

Proper venting for even drying and a high-quality finished result requires periodic adjustments to a kiln’s internal environment. The environment in the kiln can be affected by the type of wood itself and external conditions, such as extreme cold or heat. Niels developed computer controls for fans, heat sensors and other equipment.

Lynn, who has some background in computer technology, said it was the computerized system that hooked him on dealing with Kiln-Direct. “I was very impressed with the computerized control system,” he said. “The control system is very easy to understand, schedules are easy to maintain, and temperature and humidity are easy to control.” Using a personal computer with a Windows operating system, Lynn said he “can operate the kiln from office or from home.”

Mill Direct dries most white pine log home components to a moisture content of 19%. Most logs are in lengths of 12, 14 or 16 feet, but the company also supplies logs up to 24 feet. The kiln chamber is 26×40 and 16 feet high.

Five employees currently staff Mill Direct. “They do a little bit of everything,” said Lynn. A Pinheiro planer-moulder supplied by Auburn Machinery is used for shaping logs, and tilt-hoist and infeed and outfeed systems moves logs to and from the machine.

For deliveries, Mill Direct uses a Kenworth tractor and a flatbed. “We are typically a wholesale business,” said Lynn, “We sell to log-home builders that don’t mill their own logs.” But he added, “We may eventually want to start a dealership program of our own.”

Mill Direct is based in Elizabethton, a city of 12,000. The town’s history includes being a manufacturing center for rayon and rayon yarn. Elizabethton is about 60 miles northeast of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and about 70 miles northeast of one of the busiest tourist towns in the East, Gatlinburg, Tenn. There are also many recreational lakes around Elizabethton.

So Mill Direct is located in the center of a resort region that is attractive to people looking to build a second home or vacation residence. It is a good location for supplying the log home builders that are busy erecting houses for second-home buyers.

The switch to a core business of drying and milling has been a good one for Lynn. “I enjoy drying lumber,” he said. “I enjoy things associated with log homes.”

Yet Lynn cautioned that there is more to drying than buying a kiln. “It’s very important to understand how wood dries, the scientific aspects of drying lumber,” he said.

That scientific knowledge base is just what Haywood Community College strives to provide in its course. “Our main goal is to give people the knowledge and confidence they need to go back home and do a better job by reducing drying defects and increasing productivity,” said Joe Denig, a wood products extension specialist at North Carolina State University and the organizer of the Haywood course. “We emphasize breaking the science of drying into understandable concepts. The students get hands-on experience by actually drying a charge of lumber.”

(The next Hardwood Dry Kiln Operator’s Short Course will be held at Haywood from Sept. 24 to 27. The course is sponsored by the Southeastern Dry Kiln Club. Similar opportunities are available in other parts of the country, including one at the University of Minnesota, said Joe.)

Kiln-Direct also provides on-line instruction in kiln theory and kiln construction, free of charge. The heat recovery system it offers as an option is a trademarked Wooddryer System, a device that has been available for 20 years. Kiln-Direct and Wooddryer System promote each other.

An essential feature of the heat recovery system Niels recommends is the location of the exhaust fan on the lower back wall of the kiln. Working together with the natural and fan-enhanced flow of air around the drying wood, the exhaust vents both a higher-humidity and lower-temperature air than it would if located elsewhere.

The heat recovery system capitalizes on the gradient established because warm air rises and water-laden air sinks. Thus, the hottest air is not removed along with humidity, as it would if the exhaust system was at the top of the kiln. Heat saved translates to energy recaptured for reuse, which helps control fuel costs.

With the heat recovery system, a kiln with a direct gas-fired heating system “may actually end up using 50 to 75 percent less energy,”said Niels. In most cases, savings would be in the range of 30%, he said. The Kiln-Direct computerized monitoring system turns off the exhaust fans if the vented air is not moist, another feature that saves energy.

The computer system can generate a “snapshot report” with information on a number of aspects of the drying process, such as how much time the fans have run, said Niels. The reports are useful to kiln owners in many ways, such as planning a sequence for drying different types of wood. As one illustration, drying a species that requires more fan activation can be made to coincide with seasons of non-peak prices for fuel.

Kiln-Direct provides other recommendations for companies that want the most efficient kiln possible. Kiln-Direct recommends small heating coils, for example, because small coils are easier to install, save space and improve air circulation.

In addition to kiln parts, Kiln-Direct sells components for steam chambers, which are popular in Europe for darkening beech wood. The chambers are also used to darken sapwood to match heartwood in species like walnut and to accomplish steam shocking, a process that prevents color change in wood.

Building a kiln from components matched the needs of Mill Direct. And Lynn had every confidence he could get help if he needed it. He said, “The technical support Kiln-Direct offers is outstanding. Niels Jorgensen was always there.”

Lynn never logged or worked in wood products before he started selling the log homes that initiated the switch to milling and drying. But he is now definitely in the forest products sector with both feet.