Upgrades at Alabama Company Include Wagner Moister Meters, American Wood Dryers Kilns
LINDEN, Alabama — Each lumber company, like every other business, has its own structure. It seems like those that grow into their structure over the long term do so because they’re good at operating that way — and provide a lot of added value to their customers because they do.
Such is the case at Linden Lumber, a family-owned hardwood flooring and hardwood lumber company in Linden, Alabama. This vertically-integrated company developed over a number of years. It services its customers with a level of support and integrity that has become ingrained in Linden Lumber’s culture over many years.
Hugh Overmyer is chief operating officer and co-owner of Linden Lumber. His father, Don, started the company in the early 1960s, establishing it in the ashes of a burned sawmill.
“My grandfather—my dad’s father—owned Chattanooga Box in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” Hugh recalled. “Chattanooga Box made Coca-Cola crates and ammunition boxes, so they owned sawmills for their lumber supply. One of those sawmills was here in Linden.”
In those years, during and after World War II, Don Overmyer was a young man, just out of high school. He worked at some of the Chattanooga Box sawmills in the summer while he was a student. “My dad would go back and forth and work at the Linden sawmill,” Hugh said.
When the Linden sawmill was destroyed by fire, Don still saw possibilities. He offered to buy the property from the family, and his offer was accepted. “My dad rebuilt the mill from burned ruins and opened as Linden Lumber in the mid-1960s,” Hugh said. “At that time it was just a little peckerwood sawmill with 12 employees. It was just little bitty, and there wasn’t much to it.”
When Don started Linden Lumber, he cut a lot of the “soft hardwoods” but later moved into cutting oak. The young company had all the work it could do, and Don gradually added capacity so the mill could increase lumber production.
In the mid-1980s, Don began testing the waters of the flooring market. “He first experimented with it in a joint venture down in Bay Minette, Alabama,” Hugh said. “Later, at the end of 1988, he moved that plant to Linden.” Since then, Linden Lumber and its affiliate companies, Linden Floorings and Medallion Hardwood Flooring, have grown steadily.
“Our growth has been pretty controlled over a 40-year time frame,” said Hugh.
Hugh came to the business naturally. Raised in Linden, he was around the sawmill as a child and worked there part-time from the time he was a young teenager until he graduated from college.
“When I went to college, I knew I would be back,” he said. “My dad wanted help and wanted me to come back to the business, and that was what I wanted as well. So I went to Auburn and graduated in 1994 and came back to work at the mill.”
Linden Lumber works with contract logging crews and buys standing timber. The loggers harvest the trees, process them into logs, and the mill manufactures them into lumber.
“We convert a portion of our lumber into flooring,” noted Hugh. “That’s a little unusual for a lot of flooring plants. Most of them buy lumber and convert it into flooring, but we are vertically integrated. We have a slogan — ‘From the forest to the foyer.’ ”
Flooring has become an important product line for the company. About two-thirds of revenues now come from flooring with the remaining one-third from lumber sales.
Linden Lumber sells grade lumber mainly to cabinet and moulding manufacturers. Low-grade lumber and cants are sold to pallet manufacturers. “The balance of our lumber goes to the flooring plant here to produce flooring,” Hugh said.
Most of the operations — sawmill, flooring mill and company headquarters — are on about 200 acres in Linden, which is located in southwest Alabama, a little over 100 miles west of Montgomery. The company also operates another sawmill and dry kilns in Thomasville, about 25 miles south.
Linden Lumber and its flooring affiliates employ about 500 people. The company has good employee benefits, according to Hugh.
“First, we pay them well,” he said. “We have a good health insurance plan and a good 401k plan. We provide paid vacations and life insurance, and offer disability insurance as an option at the employees’ expense. We also offer dental insurance and eye care.”
The company takes safety very seriously; safety training is required for all employees. “We probably have one of the best safety records in the industry,” Hugh said. “We’re well below the average OSHA incident rate for our industry.”
Linden Lumber produces more than 1 million board feet of lumber a week. About half goes to the flooring mill, about 40% to cabinet and moulding markets, and the remaining 10% to the pallet industry. The company works with only three species: red oak, white oak and ash.
The company looks outside its immediate environs in its search for timber and logs. “We go all the way to Mobile to the south, we go over into Georgia, and we procure timber all over Mississippi,” Hugh said. “We have 25 rail cars we use to rail hardwood logs in from the further points. We’ll even go north to Tennessee to get logs if it makes sense.”
The Linden sawmill is equipped with a drop sorter system at the end of the lumber manufacturing line. Lumber moves along a chain conveyor system to be graded. The marks made by the graders are read by an automatic grade mark reader, and the lumber moves down the chain conveyor system until the computer drops it in the appropriate bay. The lumber is stacked, separated with stickers and dipped; it is moved to the yard for air drying prior to kiln-drying.
The volume of lumber the company can kiln-dry at one time is impressive. “We have about 4 million board feet of dry kiln capacity,” Hugh said. “That’s pretty unusual. It’s a lot.”
Linden Lumber recently invested in a new dry kiln from American Wood Dryers; the company already was equipped with two American Wood Dryers dry kilns.
“Each of the three has a 220,000 board foot capacity,” said Tim Thornburgh, formerly the dry kiln manager but now a sales representative for Linden Lumber. “They’re some of the largest package kilns that I know of.” The large capacity was a big factor in Linden Lumber’s decision to buy the kilns from American Wood Dryers.
“The Linden kilns are unique,” explained Bill Moore of American Wood Dryers. “They’re not like anything we’ve done before…They are basically two 54-foot-wide by 36-foot-deep kilns mounted back to back — but without a back wall.” Heating coils with separate controls create an identical climate in the second half of the double kiln.
The benefits of this type of construction are lower cost per unit capacity, a more compact footprint, and eliminating the need for separate pre-dryers and kilns. “So the operation is more efficient, and operating costs are lower than with separate pre-dryers and kilns,” said Bill.
Linden Lumber has been very satisfied with the performance of the three American Wood Dryers kilns. “We can average 2 percent moisture loss per day,” said Tim. “In that large a capacity, that’s pretty amazing. We have overhead heating coils and a reheat coil in the middle of the kiln. We can load eight rows of lumber 50 feet wide with the coil system that we have. We have a 100-horsepower fan capacity; the air circulates well, and with the good heating system we can have good average moisture loss per day. These dry kilns were specially engineered for our application.”
Waste wood generated by the sawmill is used to fuel the boiler system for the dry kilns. “We use a waste-fired Hurst boiler to make steam for all the dry kilns, and we also make some electricity with the steam,” Hugh said.
Lumber is kiln-dried in seven to 10 days. Dried lumber that is sold to the cabinet and millwork industries then is inspected, packaged, and shipped. “The wood going to those industries is shipped all over the nation and the world,” Hugh said.
Lumber to be remanufactured into flooring goes directly to the flooring
mill. Each board goes across an in-line moisture meter. The newest ones the company has are two Wagner in-line Apex moisture meters.
“We have a number of older Wagner systems,” Hugh said. “We recently replaced two of them with new Wagner Apex systems. So far we’ve been very happy with the Wagner Apex systems.” The Wagner equipment is located where the lumber enters one of five flooring lines.
The packages of lumber go on a breakdown hoist, and each layer of boards is automatically shuffled off onto a chain conveyor system. “The Wagner moisture meters have sensors located across the chain every two feet,” Hugh explained. “When the moisture meter finds too much moisture within a given board, it puts an ink spot on the board. This tells our flooring plant personnel that the board has a wet spot. We pull the board out so that it never goes into the production line, because wet lumber that’s made into flooring can be disastrous.”
The new Wagner Apex moisture meters have a superior reporting capability, noted Hugh. “We can get a lot of statistics off the new system,” he said. “For instance, how much wet lumber came into the plant, and what was the range of moisture in it? We can get a lot more meaningful information out of these new systems than you could in the past. The Wagner Apex moisture meters have a lot of value at a competitive price, and they perform very well.”
Ed Hilderbrand, maintenance manager for Linden Lumber, elaborated on the benefits of the new Wagner Apex moisture meters. “The new design architecture, with remote communication capabilities, is a tool we use a lot,” he said. “The system has a built in Web server, and we’re able to pull up a graph in any computer in the company and look at the Wagner Apex moisture meter to see what it’s doing. We can tell from the chart and the graph our standard deviation and our average moisture content, the total number of boards that go across the machine, and the total number of boards that was kicked out because they exceeded the meter setting. That’s very useful information. Since we’ve been using the Wagner moisture meters, we haven’t had any moisture get downstream of the process.”
In the flooring mill, the dried lumber is ripped to fixed widths of 2-¼ inches and 3-1/4 inches. Then it goes through Yates American ‘side matchers,’ which form the tongue and groove on the side, and Yates American ‘end matchers,’ which put a tongue and groove on the end. The flooring is inspected, packaged according to grade, bundled, and palletized for delivery.
“We have nationwide distribution,” Hugh said. “We sell to specialty flooring distributors and to total floor covering distributors. The difference is that the specialty flooring distributor typically would handle just wood, and the total floor covering distributor would do all types of floor coverings.”
Linden Lumber also makes factory finished flooring. “In the finishing plant the flooring goes through a rail sander and from there to a Dubois finish line with Jenkins end matcher for rework material,” Hugh said. “Once the finish is applied, it’s graded and packaged and ready for distribution.”
Linden Lumber generally contracts for trucking services for deliveries although it has some customers that send their own trucks for pick-up.
One of the things that makes Linden Lumber stand out is that it is vertically integrated. “We take the product and the process all the way from the forest to the time it’s delivered to the customer,” Hugh said. “That’s what separates us from a lot of the competition.”
When his father started the company, Don did not plan to grow the company in that direction. Linden Lumber just built on its strengths and grew in ways that made the most sense at the time.
“We’ve been independent for a long time, and we think if someone else can do something, we could probably do as good or better a job than they can,” Hugh said. “We just believe in adding value every step of the process, and being vertically integrated is the way we feel we can add value the best.”
The biggest challenge to growing the company has been the capital investment required for expansion. “Over the years we’ve taken profits and reinvested them back in the company to grow it,” said Hugh. “But one of the biggest challenges we face now is being able to continue to do that in light of government regulations, our legal environment, global competition, and things of that nature. And I think that’s going to get worse. We’re at a disadvantage in terms of global competition because we’re competing with countries that are getting their timber at a cheaper price and in some cases for free. We’re at a huge labor disadvantage when you look at countries we are competing against. How can we compete with labor that costs 60 cents an hour? One thing we’re trying to do is get costs out of the equation, and a lot of the cost will have to come from the timber.”
The most important factor in the company’s success has been its employees, according to Hugh. “My dad has had a very, very loyal following for all these years,” he said. “Our employees have been fiercely loyal to him and fiercely loyal to the company, and they have worked very hard and been a part of the growth of the company. My dad was able to lay out his vision, and the employees worked with him and made it a reality.”
For more information about the Wagner Apex in-line moisture measurement system, call Julie Longanecker, industrial application specialist, at 800-634-9961, ext 124.