Pike Lumber Company has built its lumber drying and products around Brunner-Hildebrand dry kilns. Pike ships Pike Brand Hardwoods around the world. The company has 37 operating dry kilns and six new ones being installed.
AKRON, Indiana — The tight link between quality and longevity is amplified in multiple ways at Pike Lumber Co., Inc. Established in 1904 by D.A. Pike, the company has always focused on quality, said Jim Steen, the executive vice president and treasurer of the firm.
Jim joined Pike Lumber in June 1982 when Howard Utter, Pike’s son-in-law, was at the helm. “Howard Utter believed in surrounding himself with qualified people,” said Steen. “[He] would refer [to the company] as Pike University.” Back then most of us were foresters.
Utter’s philosophy – that learning is lifelong – still guides the company with only one important change. Pike Lumber looks for the best prospects for employment across a wider range of disciplines. “We look for top-notch folks – some from forestry, some from other fields,” said Steen. “We now reach out to Business management, engineering, marketing…”
Today, John R. Brown serves as president of Pike Lumber and the focus continues to be, as it always has been, on quality. “We have three hardwood sawmills and some procurement outposts,” said Steen. “We are also vertically integrated into the forest which gives us the ability to control the quality of the incoming resource”. The company has 37 operating dry kilns and six new dry kilns in the process of being built.
Eleven of the existing kilns are from Brunner-Hildebrand, which is headquartered in Hannover, Germany. (Brunner-Hildebrand has a U.S.-facility in Nashville, Tenn.) The six new dry kilns are also from Brunner-Hildebrand.
“I personally helped select, design and build the first Brunner-Hildebrand kilns [at Pike Lumber] in 1996,” explained Steen. The choice of the Brunner-Hildebrand dry kiln was made only after careful consideration of capabilities of the kilns.
“We had had older cinder block kilns that were high maintenance [at the time],” said Steen. “Acid from the oak was very caustic to the cinder-block kiln. We were looking for a kiln that would stand up to corrosion.”
A methodical search led to Brunner-Hildebrand. “As in anything we do, we did thorough research,” said Steen. “We expect dry kilns to last 50 years or more.” To achieve a long lifespan, he explained, a kiln must be able to withstand the constant exposure to the tannic acid in oak.
Nearly 20 years ago – or when the search leading Pike Lumber to Brunner-Hildebrand began, one problem was that most kilns were using a silicone-based sealant on the joints of aluminum kiln panels; and the sealant was susceptible to failure over time. Much has changed now among kiln manufacturers, but back then they were unsure how to deal with the extreme environments caused by drying green oaks, Brunner-Hildebrand was leading the way, explained Steen.
“We came across Brunner-Hildebrand…They could TIG-weld [tungsten inert gas-weld] panels for a permanent seal, [leaving] just a few locations where [the kiln] needed a silicone seal.” Steen also liked how the rock-wool insulation could shed moisture through vented outside panels in the Brunner-Hildebrand kilns.
The due diligence on the kilns did not stop there. “We visited many locations with Brunner-Hildebrand kilns [in operation],” said Steen. “Our observation was that Brunner-Hildebrand had longevity.” High quality Aluminum panels with stainless-steel fasteners also helped make the long life possible.
Because Pike Lumber specializes in a broad product line of quality hardwoods, it must have many small drying chambers available to allow species and thickness of lumber to be separated. “We are pretty much perfectionists,” said Steen.
Indeed, Pike Lumber waited to adopt its first package kilns until it was certain that technological advancements, such as reversible fans, and computerized controls functioned flawlessly. Each of the six new Brunner-Hildebrand kilns has a 36,000-bd.-ft. capacity. They will stand with seven other Brunner-Hildebrand kilns — five 18,000-bd.-ft. capacity track kilns and four 54,000-bd.-ft. capacity package kilns – at the plant in Akron, Ind., the headquarters city for Pike Lumber.
In addition to the site in Akron, Ind., which has a sawmill and dry kilns, Pike has plants in the Hoosier State towns of Carbon (sawmill and Brunner-Hildebrand kilns) and in Milan (sawmill). Akron is part of Fulton County in north-central Indiana. The town has approximately 1,000 residents.
At the Akron site, wood waste from the sawmill is used to heat kilns. A 600-horsepower Hurst Hybrid boiler is fed wood waste. A 600-horsepower natural gas boiler provides the backup. (Jim explained that natural gas is now so economical in his region that some colleagues in the industry are turning to it as a primary heat source.)
“We specialize in highly differentiated products,” said Steen. They include thick stock walnut and rift and quartered (R/Q) white oak and R/Q red oak. Other species on the product roster are ash, basswood, cherry, hard maple, soft maple, hickory, poplar, coffeenut, grey elm, hackberry, sassafras and sycamore.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of our drying is to 6 to 8 percent target moisture content,” said Steen. “On a rare occasion our customers want lumber dried to moisture contents conducive to their climates and with the small compartments that are tightly controlled we are able to do this”. Some 80 percent of the sawmill production, which is all hardwood lumber (no softwoods), is dried. The remaining 20 percent if our mill production is primarily pallet stock sold green at the back of the sawmill.
The drying process for thick stock refractory hardwoods at Pike Lumber is designed to maintain the integrity of the wood. It is slow and relaxed. It begins in curtained sheds that shield the lumber from the harsh rays of the sun and dry winds while allowing moisture flow along natural air gradients; the lumber remains in the sheds for one to three months. From the sheds, the lumber heads to pre-dryers for 60 to 90 days and finally, to a dry kiln. On the other hand white woods are promptly handled from the forest to kiln dried in about a month.
All the kilns at Pike Lumber depend on controls from Lignomat USA., Ltd. in Portland, Ore. “We retrofitted all the kilns [with Lignomat controls],” said Steen. “We felt they had the best controls – the most accurate, easy-to-use, reliable controls.” “We do not use the in-kiln moisture monitoring capabilities as it is not suited for our operation where we dry highly differentiated products. We get in the kiln to see the lumber and monitor core and shell moisture contents through actual oven testing.”
Steen earned a degree in forest industries management with a minor in business from The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. And he is a native of the Buckeye State.
Prior to college, Steen served for four years in the U.S. Army as a Ranger, taking part in special operations. It was the military service that sparked his interest in trees. “I spent four years walking around the woods of the world, wondering about the species [I was looking at],” he said.
After his first year of hands-on training and indoctrination to the Pike culture, Steen moved to the drying operation where he worked for ten years. That’s when “real schooling in drying occurred,” he said, noting the “Pike University” moniker favored by Howard Utter very much describes the combination of immersion learning and opportunities to reach higher that characterize each day at the company.
Howard met his future wife, Helen Pike Utter, D. A. Pike’s daughter, in the 1930s, when he was a logger. As a spousal team, Howard and Helen built and expanded Pike Lumber on the foundation D.A. had put in place.
Raw material for the sawmills at Pike Lumber comes from Indiana and the four surrounding states (Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan). D.A. founded his company in Wabash, Ind., moving the business northwest to Akron in 1933. Using locally-grown timber and practicing sustainable forestry management have always been commitments of the company.
Everything Pike Lumber does is made possible by excellent employees. Stepping back to look at Pike Lumber, Steen said that “the key” to day-to-day and long-term success is “the high caliber of co-workers we have working with us.”
Expertise of the Pike Lumber team makes guarantees provided by the company possible. “We guarantee our product,” said Jim. “Pike Brand Hardwoods come with a 100% guarantee. If, for any reason our customer is not satisfied with our product, they can call day or night and we will do everything possible to ensure their complete satisfaction. Our guarantee is that it is measured accurately, it is on grade, it is dried properly, and it is as specified in the order acknowledgment.”
Brunner-Hildebrand mirrors the essential facets of quality and longevity that define Pike Lumber. Since 1950, Brunner-Hildebrand has recorded more than 15,000 kiln installations. It offers a full range of sizes and applications in conventional dry kilns, as well as small and large vacuum kilns and progressive/continuous dry kilns. Specialty dry kilns for products of secondary wood manufacturing are among its many offerings, too.
As for the favorable reception of Brunner-Hildebrand dry kilns at Pike Lumber, the purchase of the six new kilns that will be online in October certainly speaks to it. Brunner-Hildebrand has met expectations. “They’ve been a good company to work with,” said Steen.
“We’re glad we made the change to Brunner-Hildebrand,” said Steen. “I can’t say enough good things about them. “[They] just have high-quality components all the way through. [They] are partners in putting out a quality product.”
In 2011, Brunner-Hildebrand introduced its Hildebrand Greenkilns® line. The Hildebrand GreenKilnsR green power kilns are designed to be more environmentally friendly than ever by reducing the carbon dioxide emitted as a byproduct of heating kilns. You can see a video on www.brunner-hildebrand.com/GREENKILNS.
Among the many industry organizations in which Pike Lumber is active are the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association (IHLA), and the Hardwood Manufacturers Association. John Brown currently serves as president of the American Hardwood Export Council. And Jim is on the board of the NHLA. Both are Past Presidents of the IHLA.
Steen refers to himself as “adopted into” the wood products industry. But once he found his niche, it became both vocation and avocation. “In my free time, I often work with wood,” he said. That includes building furniture and installing hardwood flooring in the homes of his adult children. One of his most recent wood-working projects was a walnut rocking horse, built as a Christmas gift for his first grandson.