Diversity, Flexibility Keys for Surviving: Vacutherm Lumber Drying Kilns Also Help Distinguish Iowa’s River City Hardwoods

- Advertisement -

River City Hardwoods – Vacutherm Dry Kilns Benefit Iowa Company

MUSCATINE, Iowa – Diversification is what has helped River City Hardwoods Inc. to survive the last few lean years. That and a flexible workforce made up of employees who are willing to take on other tasks to keep busy during weak lumber markets.
Another thing that has helped set the company apart: its Vacutherm lumber drying kilns.
River City Hardwoods is located in Muscatine, Iowa. The city is on the Mississippi River, which divides Iowa from Illinois. It is about 40 miles southeast of Iowa City. The company is owned by two partners, Patrick Mealy and John T. Peters, who grew up together in the Muscatine area.
River City Hardwoods officially incorporated in 1995. The company manufactures random width, random length hardwood lumber and some specialty products. Specialty products include thick stock lumber and turnings made from hard and soft maple. The main species it cuts are soft maple, walnut, cherry, red oak, white oak and hard maple.
The company’s 25 employees produce about 4 million board feet annually. About 75% of the company’s lumber production is sold green and the remaining 25% is sold kiln dried.
The lumber produced by River City Hardwoods is sold primarily to large wholesalers, cabinet and furniture manufacturers as well as door and millwork manufacturers. Customers include several businesses that export lumber to Europe, China and the Pacific Rim. River City Hardwoods provides container reloading services.
Pat began his business career as a stockbroker in Chicago. He became interested in hardwood manufacture when he began rehabilitating a 1880s Queen Anne Victorian house in Oak Park, Illinois. Dissatisfied with available millwork, Pat bought a small moulder in order to produce his own oak millwork to exactly replicate the original mouldings in the house.
Pat relocated to Iowa in 1993. He began dabbling in the forest products industry with John – buying small tracts of timber, hiring contract loggers to harvest the trees, and milling the logs with a Wood-Mizer portable band sawmill. John worked for a forklift manufacturing company, so his background was in metal working and fabrication.
“We liked what we were doing,” recalled Pat. “It was tough to get the business started,” he noted, because neither man had a background in the lumber industry. “We got our act together and started growing.”
The company built a new 25,000-square-foot facility in 2006. They contracted with an engineer to design the sawmill. “One thing we’ve learned over the years is to draw on” the expertise of others, said Pat.
The mill is equipped with a Cleereman carriage and a McDonough 6-foot band mill for primary breakdown; the head rig is optimized with an Inovec Stereoscan system. The resaw is a Brewco B-1600 bandsaw complete with run-around system. Several other key machine centers are a Salem edger and a new HMC drop-saw trimmer.
The company runs Simonds blades on the McDonough head saw and Wood-Mizer bandsaw blades on the Brewco resaw.
The Inovec Stereoscan system is “really, really nice,” said Pat. “We’ve had very few problems with it. Probably the most trouble-free equipment we have is the Cleereman equipment.” In addition to the carriage, Cleereman supplied a large bar turner, track and sawyer’s cab. Pat and John are considering adding optimization to the edger in several years.
Scrap wood material is processed by a Mellott chipper, and the chips are sold to the landscaping industry and the wood fuel pellet industry. Bark is processed by a Precision tub grinder and sold locally to landscapers and individuals, and sawdust is sold to farmers for livestock bedding material.
For lumber drying, the company is equipped with two Nova (formerly Koetter) dry kilns with combined capacity of 12,000 board feet and three Vacutherm drying kilns. Their first drier was a 2,500-board-foot Vacutherm, and the Nova kilns were added a year later. They subsequently added two more systems from Vacutherm, most recently a 4,000 board foot kiln in the fall of 2008.
The company dries primarily oak and lower-grade lumber in the Nova kilns. The Vacutherm kilns are used for drying soft maple, hard maple, walnut and cherry.
Vacutherm has been a leader in vacuum lumber drying technology since 1980. Its kilns are designed to dry lumber and wood components that require the highest quality in color, flatness and stability. Vacuum dry kilns are easy to use and require little training.
The Vacutherm VacuPress dryer uses a continuous vacuum to dry the lumber while heating with aluminum hot water plates. The process dries wood up to 12 times faster than conventional methods, according to Vacutherm. In addition, a rubber membrane keeps the lumber straighter. Customers report energy savings and dramatic improvements in lumber quality and drying speed.
In addition to its own production, River City Hardwoods uses its Vacutherms to dry lumber for other companies. Pat was contacted by a company that was importing lumber made from ancient kauri trees from New Zealand. The trees were 40,000 years old, most having been recovered from peat bogs. The company was not able to get the lumber to dry properly. “After contacting us and sending some samples, River City Hardwoods was able to develop a schedule to dry it, and it did beautifully in the vacuum driers,” said Pat. The History Channel produced a program on the other company’s experience with the ancient wood, according to Pat. The Vacutherm kilns also have been used for other specialty woods, such as drying redwood slabs from the West.
Pat praised Vacutherm’s Jim Parker Sr. and Jim Parker Jr. for their competence. “They had done a lot of research,” he said. “These are smart people,” he said.
“They’ve helped us develop drying schedules,” added Pat. “They know what they’re doing.”
Vacutherm kilns also are well-constructed of stainless steel, he noted.
One of the primary reasons for investing in Vacutherm technology is the rapidity with which they dry lumber. “We can target markets more rapidly,” said Pat. Normal drying schedules with the Vacutherm kilns are in the range of 40 hours to five days; drying with conventional kilns would take 10-20 times longer.
Another reason was low capital cost. A Vacutherm kiln does not require a large boiler system. River City Hardwoods can use either a propane boiler or another small boiler fueled with waste wood.
Other equally important reasons relate to lumber quality. In a Vacutherm kiln, an aluminum plate is placed between each two layers of lumber. The drying process exerts pressure on the lumber as it is dried. “The lumber comes out extremely flat,” said Pat, eliminating a lot of the checking and warping associated with drying in conventional kilns.
However, the main reason the company uses Vacutherm driers is the color the drying process produces on white wood species. “The white woods come out so much whiter and brighter,” said Pat, because the moisture is removed so quickly. In addition, the color is consistent throughout the whole board.
Color is very important to some customers. There is a demand for premium color lumber products. “There is a group of customers out there that always wants to run the best lumber they can run through their plants, whether they are making cabinets or widgets…They’re always going to pick the whitest product.”
“It’s easier to sell something that’s the brightest in the industry versus anybody else’s,” he added.
The last several years have been challenging, Pat acknowledged. The hardwood industry has suffered from weak markets since the housing bubble burst at the end of 2007, and the recession has added to the challenges. River City Hardwood sales have been down 30% the past year.
“To some extent, we’ve been fortunate because we’re diversified,” said Pat. River City Hardwood sells both green and kiln dried lumber.
Another thing that has helped the company get through these tough times is the willingness of employees to be flexible and to make adjustments, said Pat. “We’ve got a really good workforce, and they’ve been extremely flexible in this market.”
To keep employees in a down market, they have been asked to perform different tasks outside their normal area of responsibility. For example, there have been days when sawyers and lumber inspectors stickered lumber and loaded kilns. The head filer has helped out with machine maintenance and buying parts. The River City Hardwoods employees have responded by rising to the challenge and performing other tasks as needed.
“Instead of people pulling their hair out…people helped out,” said Pat. “I’m pretty proud of our group…That’s probably the most important thing” that has helped the company survive recently.
Pat oversees operations of the sawmill and also handles lumber sales; in addition to Pat the company also has one full-time salesman. John oversees the forestry aspect of the business – buying timber, contracting with loggers to harvest it, and buying ‘gate’ logs. He also is active in the sawmill operations. “We both wear a lot of hats here,” said Pat.
“We have pretty good benefits,” said Pat. They include a group health insurance program and a 401(k) retirement plan. All employees are eligible for a week of paid vacation in July during their first year on the job. A number of employees have 8-12 years of service with River City Hardwoods. About half of the workforce is Caucasian and the other half is Hispanic.
“I think things are starting to pick up a little bit,” said Pat. “We have people calling with an interest in lumber more frequently than a few months ago, and we are moving a little more lumber. Purchase orders are a little easier to get….There is business to be had.”

Vacutherm a Leader in Vacuum Lumber Drying
Vacutherm Inc., headquartered in Vermont and with offices in New Zealand and Italy, has been a leader in vacuum lumber drying technology since 1980, when its first air vacuum dryer was introduced to the North American market.
The company’s vacuum kilns are designed to dry lumber and wood components that require the highest quality in color, flatness, and stability.
The VacuPress vacuum dry kiln is easy to use and requires very little training; it is suitable for operations drying anywhere from 10,000 to 10 million board feet or more of high quality wood per year.
The company’s VacuPress dryer will dry lumber up to 10-20 times faster than a conventional kiln, according to Vacutherm. For example, it can dry 3-inch hard maple from green to 6% moisture content in six days. The faster drying process enables lumber producers to bring product to market faster and avoid holding large inventories of dried lumber.
Wood dried in a VacuPress dryer is free from oxidation and staining due to the nature of the low oxygen environment inside the vacuum chamber. The result is brighter, richer and whiter (in the case of white woods) color.
In addition, pressure of 1,200 pounds per square foot is maintained on the wood throughout the drying process. This produces lumber that is free of distortion — no twisting, bending, or cupping. Degrade, such as checking and honeycombing, is significantly reduced, and lumber producers get more sellable product from every load.
A VacuPress is also economical to operate. A VacuPress with capacity for 500 board feet averages energy costs of $60 per thousand board feet, according to Vacutherm.
An optional computer connection enables the VacuPress to be controlled from an office or home. Vacutherm also provides services to remotely operate and optimize a company’s VacuPress.
A vacuum creates a pressure gradient between the shell and the core of the wood. Vacuum drying maintains a small differential between the shell and the core moisture content throughout the drying period. Typically, the core of the wood is essentially at atmospheric pressure while the shell of the wood is at a much reduced pressure, causing the water to flow toward the shell more rapidly. Moisture from the wood is converted to water vapor, and it is condensed and removed from the pressure vessel and drained via the vacuum pump.
Vacutherm offers a number of different dryers, and they are available in various capacities. It also offers a new dehumidification kiln that can function as a primary kiln or a pre-drier in front of a vacuum kiln.
For more information, call Vacutherm at (802) 496-4241 or visit the company’s extensive Web site at www.vacutherm.com.