Kiln-Direct Key Supplier for Drying Operations; New Mill Equipped by Ligna Machinery
PONCHATOULA, Louisiana — When some businesses cannot get the raw materials they need, they may lay people off, change what they’re doing, or just close their doors and quit. Not Frank Vallot, owner and president of Acadian Hardwoods & Cypress. When he couldn’t get enough lumber for his millwork and cabinet business, he tackled the problem head on. Frank started another company to handle the front end of the process — from standing timber to lumber — so he could maintain the level of production he wanted.
Frank started small, really small. When he was 22 years old and in college, he began his company as Acadian Cypress & Hardwoods in his back yard in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. It was 1987, and he had $400 in his pocket.
In 2005, with his company name now reversed to Acadian Hardwoods & Cypress to reflect a change in emphasis, the business is far from just a backyard project. Annual sales this year are projected to reach $45 million. Not bad for someone who didn’t even start out to work in the lumber industry.
Frank started his business by buying what he called “misfit” items from a local sawmill, remanufacturing them manually, and marketing them in the local area. “By misfit items I mean items that were mis-run, like tongue and groove cypress V-joint that might have been a downgrade board, a drop or a mis-run board,” he said. “I would take the board and remanufacture it and make it sellable.”
His customers were cabinet shops and similar businesses. “My primary goal and focus was to supply cabinet makers, architectural millwork firms, and other manufacturers with a variety of hardwoods and the matching plywoods, as well as the architectural moldings.” He also sold — and still sells — slides, hinges, pulls, and other hardware and parts that cabinetmakers need, making his company a one-stop shop for cabinetmakers in the region. The core of the business, however, was and remains hardwoods, particularly red oak, white oak, ash, poplar, maple and mahogany.
In 1999 Frank opened a second location in Panama City, Fla. “That’s a distribution arm of Acadian Hardwoods & Cypress,” he explained. “Then in 2002 we opened a location in Beaumont, Texas. And last year we opened a location in Little Rock, Arkansas.” Acadian Hardwoods & Cypress is still growing. This month (July), Frank expects to open yet another distribution location, this one in Oklahoma.
“Today, we bring in lumber from all over the world,” Frank said. “We manufacture mouldings and other products to meet market needs. We also have our own concentration yard where we have a number of kilns. We built our own kiln about 15 years ago and survived until I decided to increase the volume of the business to supply the distribution side.”
Frank, 43, has five children ranging in age from 18 down to 5. “I have an 18-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl, an 8-year-old girl, and twins that are 5 years old,” he said. “My son is working at the sawmill and learning the ropes. I hope all my kids walk in my footsteps, because this is a true family business.”
Besides the 150 employees the company has at Ponchatoula, Acadian Hardwoods & Cypress has another 70 employees at the various distribution centers in other locations. Then there’s the new business that Frank has just started, Louisiana State Cypress.
“I was running into problems on the supply side with the current climate in the market. The resource I need is here, but no one was manufacturing it properly.” The sawmill business opened its doors in June with 40 employees.
Acadian Hardwood & Cypress has 100,000 board feet of dry kiln capacity. In the next few months Frank plans to increase kiln capacity to 200,000 board feet. “And we’ll double again by next year,” he said. “We plan to go to 400,000 feet of capacity in the next 12 months.”
Customers of Acadian Hardwood & Cypress are scattered throughout the Southeast. “We have a fleet of more than 50 trucks that deliver five days a week to cabinet shops and architectural millwork firms,” said Frank. Deliveries go to customers in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and of course, Louisiana.
Besides lumber products for cabinetmakers and millwork, the new mill also will produce some dimension lumber, including sizes that run from 1×4 to 1×12. “That dimension lumber is used for both exterior and interior work,” Frank explained. “It will be primarily surface grade products. We sell a lot of architectural grade cypress beams and a lot of panel product.” The company also has provided custom manufacturing for a unique market: restorations.
When Frank needs to kiln-dry cypress lumber, it is placed into one of two 50,000-board-foot Kiln-Direct units. “We combine the load in the yard, right in front of a kiln,” he said. “Then we cut some drying samples we can use to check moisture content, load the kiln and close it, and start the drying process.”
Frank chose the Kiln-Direct dry kilns because he needed a lumber drying system that was fairly technologically advanced. “What interested me about these kilns was that they use a gas-powered direct heat source, so I have no boilers in them,” he said. “They’re supplied with natural gas, and each one of the burners is 1.9 million BTUs. They heat quickly and are very efficient, and you don’t have the compliance issues or the maintenance that you have with a boiler system. You just put the gas to it, and if it doesn’t work, you know real quickly and you fix it. The maintenance and change-out parts are less costly and less time consuming than for other kinds of systems. So the Kiln Direct kilns are easy to operate, and very efficient. They do a very good job for us.”
Kiln-Direct originally was started with a different business model. Initially it did not supply complete kiln packages; it was founded on selling component equipment and controllers for kilns.
The company also offers complete kiln construction information packages with drawings, illustrations, and guidelines for building a kiln. Kiln-Direct, which operates a Web site at www.kiln-direct.com, provides extensive, free information on everything from kiln theory to design and construction, and troubleshooting and upgrading.
Kiln-Direct has grown 50%-100% annually in recent years. Today it is a leading supplier of pallet heat-treating chambers with more than 155 installed. In addition, company president Niels Jorgensen is excited about the company’s latest product group, complete kiln packages, which he hopes will provide the fuel for continued growth. Kiln-Direct has spent recent years studying and designing a new concept in dry kilns that will focus on using an all stainless steel interior, more insulation (two times the industry average), heat recovery for venting, and the latest kiln controllers — all to help reduce the overall operating costs of lumber dry kilns.
“Kiln-Direct is committed to providing kiln equipment and controllers to the industry,” said Niels. “We can provide high quality kiln equipment at the lowest possible price directly. We can do this by designing and manufacturing all the components specifically for lumber kilns, then selling them directly to the customer.”
Kiln-Direct supplies kiln components compatible for steam or electric heat. Moreover, Kiln-Direct sizes all components for customers.
A native of Denmark, Niels helped his father, an entrepreneur who built kilns in Europe, before coming to the U. S. He came to the U.S. because he wanted to live here. He ran kilns for a U.S. company for a time, then decided to go into business, providing consulting services for dry kiln design and construction and lumber drying. His experience as a consultant led him to start Kiln-Direct. Since the company was launched, Kiln-Direct has sold kiln components to customers throughout the world.
Two years ago, Niels and his father decided to concentrate their worldwide operations in the North Carolina location in order to provide better and more efficient customer support. Niels said, “When everyone is complaining about out-sourcing, we are actually in-sourcing.”
Kiln-Direct offers 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.
An unexpected benefit of operating the Kiln-Direct kilns: the fuel costs were less than Frank anticipated. “It seems like the cost of running these kilns is less than I’d expected,” he said. “Keep in mind that gas costs have gone up in the last six months, and with those increases in fuel we’re still below what I had anticipated that it would cost us to dry per thousand board feet.”
Cypress lumber is kiln-dried in about a week. “We usually put wood in at around 28 percent moisture content,” Frank said. “That’s average. Some times if we put it in dead green, it will be up to 70 percent moisture. Or if it’s been sitting on the yard for 60 days, air-drying, it may be down to 15 percent moisture. But even then you have to stabilize it. No matter how low it is, you have to drive it down a little bit lower so you can get the moisture out of it and then condition it so it’s stable.”
Cypress dries readily and can withstand more heat in the process, Frank noted. “Once you get cypress to a certain moisture level, you can put more heat to it and drive the water out of it faster. If you did that to red oak you’d have to back up when you opened the door because it would explode, and it would have a lot a honeycombing in it. You just can’t treat red oak and some other species the way you can treat cypress.”
During the drying process, samples are pulled and the lumber evaluated two or three times a day. “They drying cycle is automatic,” said Frank, “but when we’re pushing it, we keep a close eye on it. There’s a mandatory morning check of the samples and fans every morning, and there’s another mandatory check in the evening to be sure everything is running correctly before we leave for the night. And we usually do another check in the middle of the day just to be sure everything is running properly.”
When the wood is dried, the kilns are shut down and the doors are opened to allow the chambers and the lumber to cool for about 24 hours. Then lumber is unloaded and moved to a warehouse to completely cool. Then the sticks are removed form the stacks, and the lumber goes through a Hemco double-end trim saw. The finished lumber is separated for grade, length and width, and packaged, loaded and trucked to one of Acadian’s other distribution yards or to a customer.
Frank said one of the biggest factors in his success has been the attention he has paid to lumber that is less than top quality. “I don’t worry about the good boards that sell themselves,” he said. “It’s the boards that are less desirable that you have to find a way to make acceptable. That makes your profit, and that’s the key to our success…We use a lot of things that other people throw away. They’re usable, and we just need to find a way to make them appetizing.”
When Frank started planning for Louisiana State Cypress, he did not have to start from scratch, building a new mill. According to Butch Wilson of Ligna Machinery, there was a complete sawmill fully equipped with Ligna equipment nearby for sale. It was exactly what Frank needed, and he bought it outright.
“Now Frank can buy green logs and manufacture his own lumber as opposed to having to buy the lumber from other manufacturers,” Butch said.
When cypress logs come into the mill at Louisiana State Cypress, they go to a Ligna end-dogging scragg mill for primary breakdown. “Frank needed this particular machine because of its accuracy in cutting,” Butch said. “Once the log is loaded onto the end-dogging carriage, it’s scanned for length and diameter and automatically adjusted with eight linear positioners and a log scanner, and it’s dogged from the ends.”
The Ligna end-dogging scragg mill is equipped with twin circle saws that are powered by 150 hp motors. It can process logs up to 30 inches in diameter. “One of the technical advantages of this Ligna machine is that we have a separate 90-degree turning system that is also controlled by a linear positioning cylinder,” Butch explained. “This guarantees a 90-degree turn every time.” The result is a cant that is either a perfect square or rectangle — two sets of parallel sides and four perfect 90-degree corners — still between the end-dogs.
As the log passes through the circle saws, slabs are removed on two sides of the log. “At that point we’ve created three different products,” Butch noted. “The first product is four slabs that can be sent to the Ligna-Jocar horizontal band resaw, and they go through the resaw and are cut into whatever size board Frank has set up for the setworks.”
When the remains of the slab come out of the outfeed, it is swept with lugged chains into an inertia separator. If the slab still has recoverable wood, it will be routed through the resaw again to get another board out of it. “When you get down to that final piece of rounded wood at the top of the slab, that becomes waste,” Butch said. The boards cut from the slabs go to a Ligna edger to be edged to the appropriate width.
The cant or square is conveyed to a Ligna thin-kerf gang saw. “This entire system, including this gang saw, is designed for maximum recovery out of the log,” Butch said. The Ligna thin-kerf gang runs blades that are 30 inches in diameter but only 0.140-inch kerf. “The capacity of the machine is up to 10 inches thick and 48 inches wide.”
“You can send the cant through the gang, where it’s ripped into individual boards, or add a pocket to recover timbers from the middle of the cant,” Butch noted. In other words, by removing blades from the center of the arbor, the gang can saw boards from the outside of the cant, leaving one or two large timbers from the middle of the log — depending on the diameter of the logs that are being run. “The secret to this machine’s performance is the design of our saw guide system,” Butch said.
At the end of the production line, the lumber passes down a collecting chain and falls into an unscrambler; from there it goes to a Ligna air-operated trimmer. “The trimmer handles lengths from 6 feet to 16 feet,” Butch said. “When they come out, you have a finished board of green wood.”
The company can recover a wide range of lumber products from a single log, noted Frank. “We may make fence boards,” he said, “1 inch thick or 4/4 by 4 inch, 6 inch, 8 inch, 10 inch, and 12 inch in Number 2 rustic,” he said. “We also do ‘pecky’ and select grade. From the largest logs, we run thicker stock such as 5/4, 6/4, and 8/4, in order to produce exterior doors, architectural millwork, boat parts, outdoor lawn furniture, and a variety of products. For any given log, we want to get as much as possible out of it, and we cut it to accomplish that.”
The green lumber is loaded on trucks and transported 25 miles to Acadian Hardwoods & Cypress. An Irvington Moore kiln hoist separates the lumber with sticks, and the stacks are put in the concentration yard. “We let it sit on the yard anywhere from one to 60 days,” Frank said. “It’s a fairly resilient wood out in the weather, and it won’t stain.”
Then it’s a matter of waiting until a customer places an order. “The kiln schedule is built around the market and the market’s needs,” Frank noted. “If we have a product on the yard and we have demand for it, we can coordinate the kiln schedule so the wood is dried for a specific order that we have.”
Once Louisiana State Cypress has been running for a while, Frank expects to keep around 2 million feet board feet of inventory on the yard, of which about 80% will be cypress. “That doesn’t include the dry inventory on the distribution side, where we have about 5 million feet of dry inventory,” Frank said.
Using 100% of the tree is important to Frank — not only for economic reasons, but for philosophical ones as well. “This is an industry that’s not looked upon with a lot of favor right now,” he observed. “Some people think that when you cut a tree down, it won’t grow back. Citizens want to take away other citizens’ rights to do with their land as they see fit. That’s my crusade: I want to make sure that that resource is there for decades to come, but that it’s also there for today’s landowner — who’s responsible for paying the taxes and who should have the right to do what he pleases within the parameters of the laws as they’re set forth…We have to find a balance. That’s what I see as our biggest challenge for the future.”