Va. Companies Partner with Kiln-Direct

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Hardwoods firms benefit from dry kilns built with Kiln-Direct help & components

TREVILIANS, Virginia — Wood waste makes a great fuel. But that’s only if there is some.
“We don’t produce enough wood waste” to heat a kiln, said John Fox, owner of Foxwood, Inc. That fundamental observation led John to establish the first requirements to be met when he added on-site kilns to his wholesale hardwood lumber business.
“If you’re going to heat kilns with propane,” said John, good insulation is a must. He began researching kilns several years ago and looking for a kiln with good insulation.
Among the features that got him interested in a kiln from was the high R value of the insulation. Kiln-Direct offered a kiln with 8 inches of insulation in the walls and ceiling and 4 inches around the door, according to John. The thick insulation got his attention. Foxwood put two 45,000-board-foot kilns from Kiln-Direct into service in January.
Foxwood buys green hardwood lumber from sawmills in the region of central Virginia, kiln-dries the wood and re-sells it. “We buy, dry and sort into specific grades and species and resell it to wholesalers, retailers and manufacturers,” explained John.
When John started his business some 12 years ago, he was located in leased space in Madison, about 30 miles northwest. The business that owned the space Foxwood rented had track kilns on site, and John contracted to use them. The arrangement worked well until Foxwood moved to its own facility in Trevilians, which is located in Louisa County northwest of Richmond and only about 20 miles east of Charlottesville.
“We’ve always been drying,” said John. “In the past we subbed it out.” When he moved the company, the logistics of drying operations in Madison and having offices 30 miles away spurred John to look at building his own dry kilns.
The move proved to be a good experience on several levels, said John. First, he was able to get exactly what he wanted. He also got an “up close and personal” look at the quality of the components, he said. What he saw impressed him.
As for assembling the kilns himself, John was candid. “It’s not easy,” he explained. “But it’s very do-able.” Anyone in the wood products industry with some technical and mechanical expertise can assemble a Kiln-Direct dry kiln, he said — “if you’ve got a good head on your shoulders.”
From start to finish, it took two Foxwood employees a full year to complete the preconstruction and construction of the two Kiln-Direct units. One employee was hired specifically to work on kiln construction full time.
The part of the installation process that slowed John down the most and was the most frustrating had nothing to do with the actual construction. It took one year to get a permit to use propane fuel at his location. Although the Trevilians location is zoned industrial, the use of propane fuel required the business to obtain a conditional use permit.
The inventory at Foxwood includes a large amount of oak and poplar along with other hardwoods that are native to the region. All species experience considerable air-drying before they are put in the kilns. After all the lumber is air-dried to 20% moisture content or below, it takes about five to seven days to kiln-dry the lumber to a moisture content of 6%-8%, said John. The company sells a small percentage of green lumber.
One of the things that John has noticed with the kilns from Kiln-Direct is the “consistency” of drying across the seasons and across the lumber. “It seems to be uniform in drying,” he said.
The direct-fired propane heat system used with the Kiln-Direct equipment at Foxwood establishes a finely controlled source of heat. (Kiln-Direct dry kilns can utilize any heat source.)
When John spoke with TimberLine in May, he had not yet installed one component — a conditioning humidifier that will be important when drying greener lumber.
John loads and unloads his kilns with forklifts. He loads the kiln according to lumber thickness. Drying boards of the same thickness helps obtain better results, he said. Kiln-dried lumber that requires storage is put in a cement-floor building and placed on 4×4 or sticks.
John contracts with independent truckers for hauling. With the high cost of trucking materials and the competition for tractor drivers and trailer space, getting trucking service to haul incoming green lumber and finished kiln-dried lumber is getting complex, he noted. Moreover, John believes the nation must take seriously the importance of truckers and the trucking industry to the well being of the economy.
The son of a furniture designer, John was born in North Carolina but moved to New Hartford, Conn. as a youngster. He can recall how he got hooked on the wood products industry first by observing his father and later when he began working summer jobs. “I worked in a furniture plant in the summer while I was in high school,” said John.
He liked wood products immediately and he still does. “It’s a business that, unlike dot-coms, you can walk out there, see the wood, touch the wood,” said John. “It’s a very good business with good people.”
John studied marketing at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn., a college that has now become synonymous with polling for political and other interests. After college, he continued to work in the wood products industry.
“I had an uncle in the hardwood business,” said John. The uncle had a Pittsburgh-based company with a railroad tie yard in Virginia, where John worked for a time. “I was buying ties, loading them into railcars and brokering lumber,” said John. “I got to know the mills.” Eventually, John launched his own business, Foxwood Inc. When John gets free time, he likes to play golf, hunt and fish, and simply do work around his house. Foxwood keeps him very busy, however.
One visitor to the small community of Trevilians over the last few years has been Niels Jorgenson, the owner of Kiln-Direct. “He came here on several occasions,” said John. Niels was “very helpful” as the needs at Foxwood were identified and matches in kiln components were made. “I’m very glad we went with heat-recovery systems,” said John. “Sixty percent recovery will really help in winter.”
The adoption of special system features was just one of the particulars that John was able to work out thanks to consulting with Niels and reading the extensive information Niels provides on the website. The Kiln-Direct website not only lists options for kiln builders and buyers, it also provides extensive, free information on the theory behind lumber drying and kiln construction. Tips for troubleshooting and doing upgrades are available too.
Niels even gives tips for kiln operators, such as how to place lumber on sticks. For example, he advises that to prevent sticker stain, lumber should be stacked on dry sticks, which are placed in a straight line.
Over the years, Niels has expanded his offerings to match the needs of customers. Not only do lumber buyers want flat, dry lumber to plane and mould, but pallet buyers also want assurances that pallets meet the requirements of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) for heat treatment. Kiln-Direct helps pallet manufacturers meet their needs with heat-treating chambers.
Kiln-Direct is very much a product of Niels’s philosophy — that business thrives when the owner meets the needs of customers. Niels believes that many companies in the wood products industry want the ability to pick and choose components for their kiln because that gives them maximum flexibility.
Some companies want turnkey solutions, however, and Kiln-Direct provides those, too.
For Jim Adams, president of Adams Lumber Co. Inc. in Brookneal, Va., the option of building a kiln was quite appealing. “We liked his concept,” Jim said of Niels’s approach. Jim’s brother and company vice president, Richard Adams, was also involved in the decision to purchase from Kiln-Direct.
“We could do construction in-house,” said Jim, and having the ability to get the instructions and parts from Kiln-Direct made it possible. Adams Lumber Co. already had dry kilns operating when it built its two Kiln-Direct dry kilns in 2000. The two dry kilns made with Kiln-Direct components each has a capacity of 70,000 board feet.
“We are a hardwood manufacturing facility, a hardwood sawmill,” said Jim. “We service both domestic and international markets, and we make hardwood flooring.” Adams Lumber also sells some pallet stock.
Like John, Jim had many discussions with Niels prior to deciding to go the Kiln-Direct route. “He made several visits here,” said Jim of Niels. “Initially, I was a skeptic.”
In the course of doing research into kiln design, Jim got to know more about Niels’s background and the context of energy conserving design that Niels brought with him from experience with wood drying and kiln design in his native Denmark.
Jim was eventually persuaded of the Kiln-Direct approach. “I’m very pleased” with the result, he said.
Jim pointed to the 8-inch thick insulation in the walls of the Kiln-Direct kilns Adams Lumber Co. built. “Denmark is years ahead of us, due to the high energy costs in Europe,” said Jim, in design and construction of kiln chambers to reduce heat loss due. The thick insulation provides unusually high R-value.
The R-value actually measures the resistance to heat flow. It is the reciprocal of thermal conductivity, or the amount of heat transmitted through a 1-inch piece of homogeneous material that is 1 foot square. The higher the R-value of insulation and wall materials, the better able a kiln is to retain heat.
As a point of comparison, consider wood, which has an R-value of 0.91. Metal has an R-value of 0.00. Phenolic foam, which unfortunately sounds environmental alarms, has an R-value of 8.30. Poly­isocyanurate has an R-value of 5.56.
Kiln-Direct equipment is designed to recover heat even as moisture is being vented from a kiln or pallet-heating chamber. To the fullest extent possible, Niels makes use of natural gradients in moist air to keep water moving out and simultaneously retain heat. Niels has developed his own computer controls, fans, heat sensors and other equipment.
Adams Lumber had existing kilns when the equipment from Kiln-Direct was added. The ability to see the kiln through from start to finish gave Jim the opportunity to take a close look at the details of the design. “We did it ourselves,” he said of the final assembly, the “fans, housing, heat exchangers.”
The Kiln-Direct kilns are used to dry No. 1 and better grade red and white oak lumber. “We dry all our high grade oak for domestic and export markets,” said Jim. The lumber is dried to moisture content of 6%-8%.
The drying time depends on the season, said Jim. Because almost all lumber gets some significant air-drying time in the summer, or as much as 60-90 days, the interval in the kiln can be shortened considerably then.
Sawdust from the sawmill serves as the fuel source for heating kilns at Adams Lumber. “We burn sawdust,” said Jim. “We don’t buy any outside fuel.”
The Kiln-Direct dry kilns have been in use at Adams Lumber for four years, so Jim has plenty of experience with their performance and maintenance requirements. “It’s been very user friendly” equipment, he said. The only components requiring replacement were minor exhaust fan motors, he indicated.
An important benefit of the Kiln-Direct components is that they can be purchased anywhere, said Jim. “A couple of local vendors,” he explained, have been able to supply him with all he has needed to keep the kilns working optimally.
Brookneal, the home to Adams Lumber Co., is located in south-central Virginia in Campbell County; the community is about 30 miles southeast of Lynchburg. Adams Lumber is a family business that has been in operation since 1946. Today, Jim and his brother Richard run it.
“If you like a challenge, the wood products business is the place to be,” said Jim. Indeed, Adams Lumber has encountered many challenges and met them by adapting.
“Up until the 1990s, we were a pine mill,” said Jim. In 1999 the company converted to processing 100% hardwoods. The switch was necessitated by market demand.
Despite the ups and downs of the marketplace and the adjustments businesses in the wood products industry must make to remain profitable, Jim is happy with his profession. “The people that we meet,” he explained are a large part of what makes doing business such a good experience.
“Things are still done on a handshake,” said Jim. “A man’s word still means something” in the wood products industry. If everyone were like his colleagues and clients in the wood products industry, business could be transacted on mutual trust alone.