After a series of setbacks, Paul Blomquist, one of the owners of Frick & Frack Firewood in Bristol, Maine, has discovered that the MiniQuick firewood kiln from Kiln Direct does exactly what he needs for it to do.
Paul Blomquist, one of the owners of Frick & Frack Firewood in Bristol, Maine, has learned his business the hard way. After suffering through a series of setbacks involving kilns—setbacks which weren’t funny at the time but that he now looks back at with humor—Paul has found a kiln that does exactly what he needs for it to do. In fact, he likes his MiniQuick from Kiln Direct in Burgaw, North Carolina, so much that he’s hoping to expand it in the next few months.
“We’re a subsidiary of the local hardware store,” Paul said. “There are three owners in the business; myself, and the two owners of the Damariscotta Hardware Store, Rob Gardiner and Elaine Hilton.”
Paul’s story as a firewood producer started long before his business was named Frick & Frack.
“I took over a firewood business from my father-in-law, Norman Chase, in 2001,” he said. “He had taken over customers from his father. He did everything by hand, and I used to help him cut wood and split it on a 4-foot splitter. We were servicing customers that the family had had for 60 years.”
After Paul took over the business he purchased a TimberWolf Pro-MX firewood processor, and then his father-in-law worked for him.
“We went from doing about 100 cords a year to somewhere around 500 cords a year the first year we ran the TimberWolf,” Paul said.
At the time, Paul also had a portable sawmill business that ultimately led to the company name Frick & Frack.
“It seemed like every time we went out on a job with the bandsaw we had a problem,” he said. “We could saw half a million feet here in the yard and it wouldn’t break down, but as soon as we went out on a job it would.”
On one job, Paul set up the mill and started work, only to have it break down on the first log. It wasn’t a part that normally would have broken, so he didn’t have the part with him. Off he went, back to the shop for the part.
“We did that three times on this particular day,” he said. “We were even laughing about it because it was so ridiculous.”
The client they were sawing for watched this all with increasing amusement.
On their third trip back from the shop, he said, “Well, what do you know! It’s Frick and Frack!”
The name stuck.
“I thought the name was very unpretentious,” Paul said. “So we kept it.”
Over the next couple of years, the firewood business kept expanding, and in 2003, Frick & Frack started kiln drying firewood.
“Until then, my only experience with kiln drying had been in the lumber industry,” Paul said. “There, it’s slow and controlled dehumidification.”
Paul knew enough about the process to build his own kiln, so he rigged up half of his shop as a dehumidification-type kiln for firewood.
“It had four dehumidifiers, and operated at about 160 degrees,” he said.
Then one Friday in December of 2003, with the ambient temperature hovering around 0 degrees, things got a little hot.
“We had an electrical short, and the kiln burned down,” Paul said. “It didn’t work very well anyway; we had to put the wood in hand-stacked racks and load it in by hand. So quite honestly, when it burned down it was a blessing. It pretty well destroyed half of the shop with it, though.”
After that experience, Paul took a second run at building a kiln.
“Firewood dealers are notoriously cheap because it’s a low margin business,” he said. “So I figured I could build a firewood kiln cheaper than I could buy one.”
After he did some research on the Internet, Paul bought a refrigerated storage container and moved it into his wood yard, which, incidentally, is right next to his house.
“We put in an oil-fired boiler and a wood-fired outside non-pressurized boiler, tandem heating circuits, with a manual shutter system that we opened during the day and closed at night,” Paul said.
It took Paul a while to get the “hang” of using his new kiln, and it had some inconsistencies. However, it worked better than the first one, and Frick and Frack was soon back in the business of kiln dried firewood.
One problem with it was the length of time it took to process a batch of firewood.
“It was slow,” Paul said. “It took five or six days most of the time, although we got a few four-day batches in the fall. During the summer we had trouble getting the moisture out, and in the winter it took a day and a half to heat up.”
On the other hand, it was a good size, which was both good and bad.
“It was a six-cord kiln,” Paul said. “We were burning about a cord and a half of wood and almost a hundred gallons of oil to dry that much wood. It reminded me of something the Little Rascals might put together; they were always building some contraption that was kind of a death trap.”
Paul ran this kiln for about three years.
“It was expensive to operate,” he said. “We were burning 400 gallons of oil a month and using six or seven cords of wood, most of which was waste product, but it was manually fed. And we were only getting four loads of wood a month out of it.”
The biggest benefit of the kiln, Paul said, was that it took the peaks and valleys out of the wood business.
“Our seasoned wood pretty much comes in a batch in the fall, and when it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said. “In the dead of winter, the kiln provided wood when there wasn’t much to go around. So even though we weren’t making a big profit on it, at least we were able to provide a product that generated cash flow.”
Then in November of 2008, Paul got together with Rob and Elaine about firewood. Through the hardware store, the two of them were already selling wood pellets, Bio-Bricks, and other processed wood products for stoves.
“They also had a coal business, with both bagged and bulk coal,” Paul said. “And with the surge in oil prices a couple of years ago, they had a season from hell that was a big distraction from the hardware store.”
After a long conversation one day, Damariscotta Hardware partnered with Frick & Frack; Rob and Elaine—who are brother and sister—became joint owners of the firewood business, and Paul took over running the entire fuel division of the hardware store.
“It’s worked out really well for both companies,” Paul said. “Upon that merger, we decided with the market the way it was in terms of fuel costs, it would be a good time to expand. So we picked up the biggest TimberWolf processor we could get, and we decided to put another kiln on line. We dragged a refrigerated trailer in and propped it up on stilts and it too looked like something the Little Rascals would make.”
Going on the theory that if one is good, two is better, the partners hooked the refrigerated trailer up to two outside wood boilers.
“It dried about seven cords at a time, but it, too, took about a week,” Paul said. “We had both kilns wired up correctly and professionally, so we wouldn’t have an electrical short like I did with the first one.”
The partners went through the season on the two kilns, and then Paul’s long-standing premonition about the Little Rascals became reality. Even though everything was wired properly, a short developed…….and the new kiln caught fire and burned.
“That batch of wood came out extra dry, but it smelled like burned insulation,” Paul said.
Two days later, Paul got a bright yellow flier in the mail from Kiln Direct.
“It had a picture of the MiniQuick kiln, and said that the MiniQuick is engineered and designed to dry firewood in 24 hours,” he said. “It seemed like divine intervention.”
Furthermore, Paul recognized the company name.
“Niels had done some consulting on my previous, less successful attempt when I bought some parts from him,” he said. “The original concept of his company was to sell kiln parts, and he realized pretty quickly from talking to people like me who called him and asked a lot of questions that what we were doing wasn’t going to work, so it made sense for him to do it right. I remembered that he was very helpful and very nice, so I called him right up.”
Niels remembered Paul, and was happy to answer all of Paul’s questions.
“It was almost like he was inside my head and knew exactly what I wanted,” Paul said. “So my wife and I hopped in the car and drove down to North Carolina to see his operation and meet some of the people in his company.”
What Paul saw was the prototype wood waste kiln that Niels was just perfecting, with a 7-bin conveyor.
“Every question I asked, they answered,” he said. “Whether I understood the answer then or not, I’ve now educated myself to the point that the answers make sense. It felt good, and it felt right.”
For his part, Niels was glad to see Paul.
“Paul was one of the first people who actually traveled here to see the system run,” he said. “He looked at it and said, ‘That looks pretty good; let’s make a deal.’”
And so they did. Niels was coming to a Bangor, Maine trade show, and he brought a MiniQuick with him for the show and then took it to Frick & Frack, which saved Paul the freight cost.
“It took us a little while to get it set up on the slab,” Paul said. “Then we needed help, so we called and Niels’ father Valde came up to help us with the setup. He worked non-stop on us with the assembly and the electronics, and then he test fired it.”
Once Valde was satisfied with the setup, he pushed the kiln to its limits.
“I walked out the front door, and I could smell that awful smell of insulation burning,” Paul said. “My heart jumped up in my throat because that’s what kilns smell like when they burn; it makes a very acrid odor like burning plastic.”
Paul went flying down the steps and around to where the kiln was set up by the side of his house.
“There was smoke coming out of places I knew there wasn’t supposed to be smoke coming out of,” he said. “I looked over at Valde, and he was happily doing his thing. I alerted him to the smoke, and he said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, “No, no, no, no, you don’t understand.’ I was beginning to panic, because the smoke was getting worse. Valde said, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry. We now realize that we put foam too close to the firebox, which we aren’t going to do any more. So I’m taking it up hotter than you should run it, to melt that out. Don’t worry, it doesn’t burn.’ And about that time a big flame shot out between the tin on the outside of it, and I was having my own meltdown. I ran and grabbed the garden hose and stood by, just in case.”
Valde just looked at him and chuckled, and finished testing the kiln.
Paul has been very happy with the MiniQuick.
“It takes me about 36 hours to dry a batch of firewood,” he said. “Our firewood is pretty consistently about 20% moisture content when it’s finished, although some of the real big pieces might be 22% to 24%. Since the ambient humidity here on the coast is about 18% EMC of the wood, it doesn’t make sense to try to get it any drier; it would just be added expense without benefit.”
Most of the time, Paul shoots for a 36-hour turnaround on a 5-cord load of firewood in the MiniQuick. He can do it in 24 hours if he pushes it, he said, but that would mean staying up all night to keep the conveyor loaded. Instead, he starts the kiln on one day, lets the fire die down during the night, and heats it back up again the next day.
“It’s a lot faster than what we were doing, and we burn only about three quarters of a cord of waste wood in that time,” he said. “Plus, our electric bill hasn’t changed much with the MiniQuick, so our heating cost has gone down a lot. All of a sudden kiln dried firewood is a profit maker for us, instead of just being here to fill a niche.” A lot of customers are buying it, and are very happy with it, Paul said.
Niels said that although Paul was kind of the guinea pig for the MiniQuick, he’s made sure that Paul’s system has been upgraded as they’ve learned more about what the kiln can do.
“The 2010 model has seen many improvements, such as inside sheeting, ventilated walls, a sprinkler system, and a special way to keep the motors operating cooler,” Niels said. “In addition, the software package is much better now with a truly integrated PLC control system and an increased loading capacity to six cords. In April of this year, we also went back to Paul’s system and upgraded his kiln so it includes most of the advances we have made for 2010.”
“We are excited about 2010 and have just launched a kiln that’s twice the size called a Small Quick, plus an improved firewood basket design,” he said. “Lastly, for true 24 hour operation we have now developed a 34 bin conveyor for high volume users. This new wood waste conveyor only needs to be filed twice a day; it enables companies to run their kiln 24/7 and still get some sleep.”
“We’re 90 percent sure that we’re going to go with the long conveyor system,” he said. “I don’t want to go through another winter of having to go out twice in the night in order to make a 36-hour drying cycle. “
Paul said the MiniQuick does exactly what Niels said it would.
“It works as it’s advertised, and I’ve never had a problem with it,” he said. “One thing I really like is that when I’ve had a question and called Niels he doesn’t say, ‘I never heard of that before.’ That’s something I’ve heard all too often with different pieces of machinery I’ve had. But every time I’ve called Kiln Direct with a technical question or a glitch, they’ve had it figured out and were telling me how to fix it before I even explained the whole thing. The most complicated thing was when I blew a fuse and it took them about ten minutes to diagnose it over to the phone. That’s just unbelievably refreshing.”
Paul also was pleased when Niels upgraded his system to the 2010 model at no charge.
“They said that’s just what they expected of themselves,” he said. “We didn’t even have to ask for it. It didn’t change things that much, but it did give me more control over the fire control system. Now I can adjust for the product that we put in it.”
At the end of the day, Paul said, the business relationship he has developed with Niels and Kiln Direct is very different from any he’s had before.
“They make it a very personal thing,” he said. “From the first time I talked to them about components for my homemade kiln until two weeks ago when they came up and did the upgrades, they’ve always treated me like they care. They want me to be happy with the product, and I am.”