Colton Enterprises – SII Dry Kilns Will Help Vermont Firewood Business Expand
PITTSFIELD, Vermont — It’s good that we all do things differently because the diversity leads to all sorts of innovation. That’s the case with Ray Colton, owner and president of Colton Enterprises Inc. He has taken the best parts of several kinds of equipment in building a unique firewood business.
Ray started Colton Enterprises in Pittsfield, Vermont in 1970. He used logging equipment to cut the timber and processed it into firewood with chainsaws and splitters.
He bought some land in 1983, set up a small mill, and designed his own firewood processing machine.
More notably, Ray began kiln drying firewood. It was a move that few, if any, firewood businesses made back then.
“I think we were the first in the country to kiln dry firewood,” Ray said. “I know that’s a pretty big statement, but I believe it’s true.”
His first dry kiln had a 35 hp boiler, but it didn’t last very long. Ray discovered almost right away that the demand for kiln dried firewood was going to outstrip his production capacity. He took out the small boiler in 1985, installed a much larger boiler, and added a second kiln.
“At that point, we could dry firewood in three days,” said Ray.
His firewood business grew, and once again demand began to outpace what he could produce. That was 1994.
“Then we added a second, 90-horsepower boiler, which got our drying time down to two days from green wood,” Ray said. “That’s where we are today.”
Now, 15 years later, Ray decided to upgrade his drying operations.
“We’re tearing down the old kilns and replacing them with new SII dry kilns,” he said. “These new kilns will make us much more energy efficient…which is very important. They will increase our capability to produce more kiln dried wood. Right now, in the winter we can dry green wood at the rate of about 168 full cords a week. The new kilns will allow us to do between 250 and 275 full cords a week.”
Both the old boiler and the new one will use wood chips for fuel. Ray buys chips from sawmills in the region.
Ray chose SII to supply the dry kilns because of the company’s reputation. “I know other mills in this area that use them, and I did quite a bit of research on them,” he said. “I was impressed with the quality of their kilns and with the knowledge of their staff. Also, they’re a family-owned business. You can call up SII and talk to Dan Mathews, who is the president of the corporation. When you work with really big businesses, you end up talking to salesmen, and then things don’t always go so smoothly.”
When the upgrade is complete, Colton Enterprises will have one building containing the three new SII dry kilns.
SII, located in Lexington, North Carolina, has been in the dry kiln business since 1969. The company began as a kiln installation and refurbishing business and later began offering complete lumber drying systems. Today, SII manufactures conventional package-loaded kilns, single and double track-loaded kilns, various types of fan sheds, and multi-zoned pre-dryers. The company has more than 1,000 drying facilities in operation across the country.
When the installation of the SII kilns at Colton Enterprises is complete, it will continue Ray’s tradition of doing things his own way — which is to say, the way that works best for him.
“I don’t have a regular firewood processor,” he said. “Our production line is set up like a sawmill. For example, we have a Mellott live deck and use a Multitek grapple carriage to feed the saw. In 1996 we went from a chainsaw-like pond and deck saw to a chop saw that’s actually a circular saw with carbide teeth that blocks the wood. This saw is from L-M Equipment in Portland, Oregon. This is one of the better moves we have made. We can go literally thousands of cords without sharpening the blade. That saves a lot of downtime and speeds things up.”
The one saw cuts enough wood to feed two Multitek splitters. Multitek manufactures firewood processing machines, but Ray didn’t buy a processor. He bought components from Multitek and set them up in his mill in the way he wanted.
“I use three people to run my firewood production line,” he said. “There’s one guy sawing and two splitting. I realize that a lot of new processors use one person, but mine is a three-person operation.”
One reason for having three people, Ray said, is quality control. It is much easier to re-split a large piece of wood, he noted. “The operator retrieves the block and re-splits it right there.”
After the wood is cut and split, it falls from the splitting operation into half-cord steel wire mesh baskets. “We handle the wood very little in our operation,” said Ray. “Most of the work is done by machines.”
After the baskets are filled with firewood, they are placed into the kilns. When the wood has been dried, the baskets are removed and stored in a shed. For deliveries, the firewood is dumped from the pre-measured baskets into a truck.
The company has two large sheds to store kiln dried firewood in the off-season. The two sheds can hold an inventory of 1,200 cords of dried firewood.
Vermont regulations prohibit Ray from operating his dry kilns during the summer, so he has to lay off two workers who split wood. “We continue to split and sell green wood during the summer and also sell dried wood from our inventory.”
Most of Ray’s firewood is sold wholesale in other states. “We sell 60 to 70 percent of our wood in eastern Massachusetts — the Boston area — and southern Connecticut,” he said. “We wholesale to both areas. A round trip to Boston is about 350 miles or about 175 miles each way, so it’s really not that far. We have a dealer in Greenwich, Conn., called Vermont Good Wood who uses our firewood exclusively.”
Ray uses contract truckers to deliver firewood into Massachusetts and Connecticut. “We have two live-bottom trailers that are pulled by sub-contractors,” he said. “Each trailer holds 15 to 16 cords.”
Colton Enterprises also sells wood at retail to local customers in and around Vermont, and Ray has three trucks he uses for these deliveries. “We have one tandem that holds seven cords and two small trucks that hold two cords each,” he said.
During the summer, when he’s not able to kiln dry wood, Ray stays busy producing bark mulch.
“We have literally no waste here,” he said. During the firewood production process, the wood is screened, and the bark and scrap material is collected. Ray also gets bark from other mills in the region, and all this material is processed by a Duratech Industries tub grinder into ground bark mulch.
Ray’s wife, Lynda, is an integral part of Colton Enterprises. “She does the book work,” he said.
He also has a dedicated team of employees who have been with him a long time. “The guy who supervises the splitting operation and also runs the saw has been here since 1992,” said Ray. “One of the splitters has been here for five years. Diane, the office manager, has been here for 13 years. One of my truck drivers has been here 16 years and the other driver, seven years.”
One reason Ray’s employees are so loyal to him is the way he treats them. He provides a benefits package that’s almost as unusual in the firewood industry as the whole way Ray does business. “We offer health insurance, vacations, holidays, and we even have a retirement program,” he said.
Even in the face of a sagging economy, Colton Enterprises has found a business model that works well.
“We’re growing every year, and the demand continues to grow as well,” said Ray. “These new SII kilns should help us produce more and expand our production. Unlike other businesses — and I know this could change in a heartbeat — we have had excellent winters, and we’re in good shape. I don’t see many problems for us.”
Ray is very proud of the fact that his firewood comes from Vermont, and his business provides jobs and work for people from Vermont.
“The trees are grown here in Vermont and are cut by Vermont loggers,” he said. “They are trucked by Vermont truckers, and our labor at the mill is Vermont labor. To fire our boilers, we use Vermont wood chips. All of that represents a lot of people —not just the people here, but the loggers and their families as well. That is part of what makes us successful.”
The best part of the firewood business, Ray said, is the challenge of it all.
“I come to work every day, and it is always an adventure,” he said. “I have to figure things out, and I enjoy that. I’ve been doing this a long time.”