CuddleBug Firewood: First Owner of Multitek’s Newest 1620 SS Firewood Processor

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Scott Swisher, owner of CuddleBug Firewood & Forestry Products, is not one to jump into business over his head. But Scott knew he needed to invest in some formidable equipment to keep his company growing. His choice was Multitek’s newest firewood processor, the 1620 SS.

Campbell Hill, Illinois—Scott Swisher, owner of CuddleBug Firewood & Forestry Products, is not one to jump into business over his head. Being assistant vice president of the local bank by trade, he’s seen too many businesses which start off too big and get into financial trouble. But when his firewood and forestry business kept running into time issues with actually cutting the firewood, and the increased regulations for workmen’s compensation, Scott knew he needed to invest in some formidable equipment to keep his company growing. His choice was Multitek’s newest firewood processor, the 1620 SS.
Scott had always admired the production and efficiency of the slasher-style blade, but he also realized that these types of machines were out of his current budget. He had considered custom building a cutoff saw to put in front of his previous machine, a Powersplit International Self Propelled log splitter, but then he decided that it was more cost effective and time efficient to purchase a firewood processor instead.
“I have had the fortunate problem of firewood orders stretching my ability to produce a product. And labor and time issues forced me to go back to the drawing board,” said Scott. “Rather than trying to construct what I wanted, I decided to purchase a firewood processor because my time is better spent producing firewood.”
In May, Scott sold the old splitter and began looking for the right machine. After investigating several manufacturers and not seeing quite what he was looking for, he heard about the 1620 SS with the built-in 40″ circle saw. After comparing some of Multitek’s original bar and chain style cutoff wood processors, he test ran the 1620 SS and knew this was the machine for him. In Scott’s opinion, the circular saw is its winning characteristic as well as its user-friendly controls.
The nearly 30-year-old Multitek North America, LLC, headquarted in Prentice, Wisconsin, has been an international leader in manufacturing industry firewood processors, wheel crushers, and skid steer attachments. Multitek was started by one of the pioneers in the forest industry, Leo Heikkinen, the inventor of the Prentice knuckleboom log loader in the early 1950’s. Multitek products are sold throughout North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South America.
The Mulititek 1620 was just released on June 15, 2010. Scott is the owner of the first model. Though he’s not had opportunity to put a whole lot of hours on the machine, he ran his first production run recently. The initial results were astounding.
“The first production run translated into a 46% increase in production per man-hour over the way we were doing our operations before,” Scott stated. “I anticipate a large increase as we get the rough spots in the overall operation ironed out and as we get the operator fully trained on the new controls and features.”
Scott also noticed that the machine has improved the firewood length consistency over his manual chainsaw method. With the Multitek machine, CuddleBug now cuts firewood between 15 ½ to 16 inches in length. Formerly, lengths were anywhere between 15 to 17 inches on average.
The splitting chamber for the machine can be equipped with a four-way or six-way wedge. Scott’s machine is equipped with the six-way wedge and they are currently attempting to limit the size of the logs to 10 inches and under so that high-end quality is assured and no respliting is necessary.
“The best feature on this machine is the slasher blade,” explained Scott. “It’s also very low maintenance and has a super quick cut time. I am also impressed with the speed of the splitting cycle. I believe it’s down to four seconds.”
For Scott it’s hard to compare this new machine with his previous method of hand blocking the firewood length and then running a production line of up to five employees to split and stack the wood. His old splitter had two vertical splitting rams with a cycle time of approximately five seconds each. Two people would split, and four others would move firewood blocks to the splitter or stack the finished product. He stated that the cut-off operation is the time saver for his business.
According to Marcus Steigerwaldt, sales manager for Multitek, the 1620 SS Firewood Processor is the only firewood processor on the market that incorporates a circular saw with a guillotine up-and-down cutting motion. This patent pending design allows a circular saw to be used on a small or medium-sized firewood processor. Because of this unique design, the machine is very smooth, stable, and most importantly safe to operate. In other “chop saw” style cutting paths there are increased hazards and machine instability.
“The real advantage to this machine is low maintenance cost and relatively low investment cost,” Marcus stated. “When you compare the operating expenditures to a machine of similar size and capacity with a bar and chain the cost savings are clear. Bar oil is about $8.00 a gallon and ordinary use is about 2-3 gallons per day. By the end of the week your savings are substantial. These savings go right to the bottom line of our customers’ businesses. At the end of the month, the savings alone are enough to cover a large portion of a finance payment.”
According to Marcus, he and Scott have stayed “in close touch” since early 2008. Marcus has watched Scott grow his business over time and as a sideline operation to his profession as a banker. Marcus noted that Scott was originally considering 3-phase electric models and other ways to cut his operational costs in regards to his firewood production.
“Scott is very analytical and takes a good hard look at efficiencies, costs, and business expenditures,” Marcus stated. “He’s a visionary and he is on the right path to success. We see him as a Multitek customer for life as his business evolves and grows.”
For as long as Scott can remember, he has always been interested in forestry and conservation. In 1992, his father and mother, Gary and Sharon Swisher, purchased the family’s first 160 acres of their farm. As the years have passed, the family farm has grown to approximately 400 acres and other family members have purchased another 500 adjacent acres as well. Scott grew up establishing walnut plantations, planting prairie grass fields and food plots. His family was also vested in improving wildlife habitats. In fact, the main focus on the Swisher farm continues to be the improvement of wildlife habitats and reducing soil erosions. The family maintains special precautions as it is located on highly errodible land (HEL) and in the watershed for an area lake.
“In this area, there has been a history of ‘high grading’ the timber, and that is something that I’ve really wanted to avoid with our business,” explained Scott. “I wanted to focus on cutting the worst first and leave the forest in better condition for the future generations. That was probably the overall motivation behind deciding to log myself.”
Scott received his first taste of logging while he was in college when he worked for a part time logger. He and his boss worked clearing land for area farmers with a chainsaw and tractor. He said he learned much during this time, and this actually developed and grew his interest in the logging industry.
CuddleBug Firewood and Forestry actually began in the winter of 2005/2006. In 2004, Scott and his wife, Brandi, purchased 20 acres and a home just down the road from his parents’ farm. After getting their house gutted and rebuilt during that first year, Scott and his dad, Gary, started with harvesting just 10 acres of their family farm. In keeping with his vision for conservation, Scott concentrated on taking out trees that were overly mature, or showing some signs of weakness. He sold the marketable timber, and then cut the rest for firewood. His first set of equipment consisted of a Husqauarna 372XP, a used Timberwolf TW6, and a John Deere 6420 tractor equipped with a Tajfun forestry winch. He cut 12 cords of firewood that winter for the next year. He sold all of it in 2006.
“I had logs and firewood piled up in the front yard that first year,” Scott stated. “Since then I’ve cleared about 3 acres of timber off my land and I hired a local Amish contractor to excavate and level the area for a large lot.”
As business began to grow, Scott purchased two items in the spring of 2008, a Powersplit International Self Propelled log splitter and a 1985 John Deere 548D swing boom grapple with winch. Scott and his dad were impressed with the log splitter and felt that it was “well thought out”, but then time issues with cutting the wood and hiring helpers to both cut and split became issues.
“Workman’s compensation is exceptionally costly here in Illinois,” Scott stated. “The part-time workers that we were hiring weren’t experienced in using chainsaws. As a result the work wasn’t efficient and neither was the quality. Safety was also an issue with inexperienced workers. Besides, we were constantly sharpening chains as a result. My dad had retired by this time, but then stepped in to cut for my business because it was much easier. He knew what to do and how to do it. Then we set up splitting teams after all the wood was cut.”
According to Scott, there are no cut-to-length operations in his area that he is aware of. Logging operations are mainly for high value hardwood. As he’s talked with mill owners in the past about CTL, no one seems to run them in this area. Most of the trees that are harvested would be considered select cut with diameters over 24 to 34 inches.
Over the years Scott has observed the aftermath of “high grading”, where landowners and loggers have gone after the money in the best trees and have left behind the low value trees. Eventually all that remains is low value trees which weaken the forest reproduction and growth for high grade trees. Scott considers himself as an individual tree and group selection specialist.
“Generally, what I like to do is meet with a landowner, look over their tract with them, and get a feel for their goals for the tract,” Scott explained. “I mark the stand or recommend having a forester mark the stand on a per-hour or per-acre basis as opposed to a percentage basis. This encourages the forester to mark for the health of the forest as opposed to the immediate monetary return. Any trees or logs fewer than 12 inches are going to be firewood in this area. The exception might be some walnut or cherry.”
As Scott looks over the timber, he measures and scales the trees with a cruise stick to give the landowner a written bid a few days later. He discusses timber characteristics and values with the owner as well. According to Scott, there is very little softwood in this area. Most of the timber harvested is white and red oak, hickory, ash, poplar, walnut, and cherry. His company harvests all sizes of trees from about 10 inches up to 36 inches or more.
Scott’s philosophy is to remove the poorly-formed trees, suppressed trees, or the overly matured ones. The idea is to allow the nutrients of these trees to go towards the desired high quality trees. According to Scott, the forest does this naturally over time, as the injured and old trees begin dying. He sees his job as just speeding up that process.
“I like to think of it as weeding the garden,” stated Scott. “All the plants are competing for a limited amount of nutrients, and we are encouraging the better plants (more desirable trees). Over time, this method will lead to an increased value of the remaining stand, which makes each future harvest more profitable. At my age, I like to think of it as saving for retirement.”
In 2009, bulk firewood made up 41% of his gross sales, sawmill operations made up another 40%, and the remaining 19% was timber harvesting. Scott is looking to increase the percentage of gross sales attributed to firewood, and to make a conscience effort to specialize in firewood as it fits with his business model and his location.
Most of Scott’s grade lumber is sold to East Perry Lumber Company in Frohna, Missouri, and the blocking and tie logs go to either Tree O Lumber in Pinckneyville, Illinois or Alstat Wood Products in Murphysboro, Illinois. But his primary product is palletized firewood. CuddleBug wholesales the majority of its production to Chicago-area landscapers and nurseries.
Scott and his crew generally cut about nine months prior to selling the firewood. Most of his firewood is cut in January through May and is allowed to season over the summer before selling. The average moisture content on last year’s firewood was 19 percent, but that was prior to upgrading to the palletized method. Previously, his firewood was stacked in large piles, but he expects the pallets to facilitate drying the firewood and looks to reduce the moisture content by a few more points. His firewood is now palletized in 1/3 cord increments on pallets that allow for easy unloading with a forklift or skid steer. According to Scott, there are several advantages to this method; very little handling, no mess, consistent measurements, and a well-seasoned product.
“The retailer does not have to spend time restacking the product, or worrying about getting ‘short loads’ from bulk traders,” Scott explained. “They can also sell the full pallet for a 1/3 cord measurement, or sell ½ pallet for a 1/6 cord measurement.”
For CuddleBug’s wholesale accounts, they offer contracts on a one-year basis, which allows for the customer to lock into a price and quantity for the next year. It also guarantees the customer that they will have the firewood that they’ve ordered. Otherwise, Scott’s product is sold on a first-come/first-serve basis. Last year they sold out of firewood by the middle of November.
Scott exercises caution with his marketing and advertising because of his unique position as a part-time venture. Most of his business is done by word of mouth and he doesn’t like to turn business away, but he also wants to be able to deliver on what he promises.
“Since the purchase of the Multitek 1620 SS, we will be looking to take on new accounts as our production increases,” said Scott. “We are also looking to purchase pulpwood or firewood logs from logging contractors or land clearing companies. Our ability to produce firewood has now surpassed the supply that I can generate from my own logging operations.”
Scott currently has about 2 ½ acres of flat work area. About 1/3 of the area is graveled to allow more room for pulp trucks and firewood delivery trucks to turn around. In the near future he hopes to build a nice shop where he can house his wood processor. Currently his processor is set upon gravel and the logs are delivered directly to the unit for cutting and splitting. His current equipment inventory consists of his 2010 Multitek 1620 SS, 1985 John Deere 548D skidder, 2002 New Holland LS170 skid steer, 1988 Chevy C70, Corn Pro dump trailer, Corn Pro Equipment Trailer, and a 1996 TimberKing portable sawmill.
Scott’s main employees are himself and his dad, Gary. With his latest equipment purchase he believes that he’ll be able to hire about two to three people as opposed to the five that he’s needed before. His mother, Sharon, does all his business book work.
As to where the company’s business name was derived, Scott simply stated that he and his wife were brainstorming for company names after their daughter was born. Her nickname was “CuddleBug” and that name kept working its way into their firewood conversations. They figured it would be a “very memorable and marketable name.”