Graber Lumber Adds Its First Lumber Drying Kiln in 2013

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High-end hardwood lumber is dried with kiln from Kiln-Direct.

SPENCERVILLE, Indiana – The sawmill at the core of Graber Lumber cut 9.8 million board feet in 2013. Yet output from the sawmill represents just one part of the company’s diverse products and services, which include pallets, mulch and land clearing.

Neil Graber, the owner and president of Graber Lumber, started the company in 1988. “I always liked trees and I always liked sawmills,” he said. His grandfather owned a sawmill.

For eight years – from age 15 to 23 – Neil worked as a timber cutter. “It’s still my favorite [work] today,” he said of felling trees.

Graber Lumber buys standing timber and sends out its own logging crews, which use Husqvarna chain saws and 548 G3 John Deere skidders, to fell mixed hardwoods. The crews work within a 120-mile radius of Graber Lumber’s home base in northeastern Indiana.

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Logs arrive at the mill on trailers owned by Graber Lumber. “We are Amish, so we don’t own the tractors,” said Neil. But five logging trucks and five walking trailers are on the equipment roster of the company. The logging trailers are from Battle Wagon Trailers in Fort Wayne, Ind. They have “a very nice design,” said Neil.

The sawmill is a productive one, producing boards for skids and lumber. “We make about five semi-loads of skids a day,” said Neil. “We make about five semi-loads of lumber.” Most of the skids go to the steel industry. “We have an automatic nailing machine, a Woodpecker.” (The Woodpecker is made by Trace Equipment Corp. in Terra Haute, Ind.)

“We grade our hardwood out three different ways,” said Neil. “Only a small percentage is kiln dried.” The remainder is sold green.

Air drying had been the singular method at the company until early last year. In April 2013, Graber Lumber installed a 9000 bf kiln from Kiln-direct in Burgaw, N.C. “We only dry our high-end species – walnut, cherry, hard maple,” explained Neil.

The Kiln-direct standard small kiln was selected based on a trusted referral. “I’ve got an uncle in Kentucky who has a Kiln-direct and he recommended it,” said Neil.

Since getting to know Kiln-direct, Neil has formed his own opinion. “They’re very supportive,” he said. “They make good products.”

Neil relies on natural gas to heat the kiln. Kiln-direct offers options (gas heating or hot water) for heating its kilns.

The Kiln-direct dry kiln greatly accelerates the reduction of moisture content. The hardwood lumber is dried to six percent moisture content. Starting at approximately 25 percent moisture content, after some air drying, Neil estimates that it takes as few as two weeks in summer for the lumber in the kiln to reach six percent. In winter, it could take as long as four weeks.

Among the standard components on the Kiln-direct small standard kiln that Neil chose are computerized controls (with wireless communication), all aluminum construction, five main fans (each two horsepower) and heat recovery on venting. Many optional upgrades are available, including stainless steel sheeting inside and a high-pressure misting system.

On its 94-acre site, Graber Lumber has plenty of space to do air drying and consolidate logs. It also had the space it required to move beyond sawing lumber.

Even so, the sawmill remains the centerpiece of the operation. Fifteen years ago, Neil purchased a Helle Circle Saw from Sawmill Hydraulics in Farmington, IL. “I had a friend in Ohio who ran a Helle and he really liked it,” said Neil, explaining his decision to purchase the important piece of equipment. (In 2010, Sawmill Hydraulics won a 2010 Exporter of the Year award from the U.S. Small Business Administration, a recognition that demonstrates the good reception its heavy sawmill equipment gets worldwide.)

After a short time, Neil decided to fit the Helle with a Cleereman carriage. That turned out to be a very good choice, one that brings out the best in both machines. “I do really like the Cleereman,” he said. Cleereman Industries is located in Newald, Wis. Its equipment is built for strength, simplicity and longevity.

The mill at Graber Lumber also includes a Brewco run-around resaw, which was purchased 12 years ago. “I do feel that Brewco makes decent equipment” that is cost effective, said Neil.

Brewco, a pioneer in thin-kerf resaw technology has worked over the years to perfect the use of a two-inch wide resaw band – or one that gets the job done without expensive tools in a filing room. Brewco is based in Central City, Ky.

The unincorporated town of Spencerville, which is home to Graber Lumber, has approximately 3,300 residents. It is part of DeKalb County.

Graber Lumber has 62 employees. The retention of employees is excellent and many have been with Neil for 25 years. “A business like this cannot be run without employees,” said Neil. “And I really notice employees.”

Maintaining a stable group of employees with low turnover is important to Neil. “I pay them good [wages],” he said. “I take care of them. But I also expect hard work.”

Appreciating that “we’re all the same” is part of what brings harmony to the workplace, explained Neil. “Everybody has a different talent. A talent belongs to God. Maybe one guy can run equipment and another guy [can do] nailing. God should get the credit for someone’s talent. And then, we’re all equal.”

Across 26 years of business, Graber Lumber has grown to include many different facets. In addition to the pallet and lumber production, there is a mulch operation that began 12 years ago. “We sell a little over 1000 semi-loads of mulch [each year],” said Neil.

With the brush that comes from land clearing – for construction and right-of-way, as well as from the tops of trees that become raw material for the sawmill, a Morbark 4600XL portable grinder is fed. The Morbark often is taken into the woods. A Vermeer tub grinder stays at the mill site and it is used for second grinds of mulch.

All mulch is colored with SaharaTM colorant and system from Becker Underwood® (now part of BASF). A deep chocolate color is one of the mainstays, but many colors are available. To complement its mulch product, Graber Lumber also offers some stones, shrubs, and boulders to customers.

For all the diversity of his company’s line of products and services, it’s still the basic pairing of the wood products industry – working in the woods and working in the mill – that Neil relishes “Logging is in my blood,” said Neil. “I love to log, even though I don’t do it myself anymore. Sawdust is in my veins.”

Neil also farms with six Belgian horses supplying the power. “I farm approximately 152 acres,” he said. “I’ll make 10,000 bales of hay once a year – beans and corn.”

Jason Graber, Neil’s oldest son, is vice president of the company. Vernon Graber, who joined the company nine years ago is often given a bit of assistance scaling logs from Neil’s youngest child, Neil Alan, who is in the fourth grade. Neil Alan enjoys tagging the logs, using a hammer. Both Jason and Vernon began working with their father when they finished school at age 15.

“I’ve been blessed with six children and a lovely wife, Rose Mary,” said Neil. “My oldest daughter [Kathleen] died in a horse-riding accident three and one-half years ago. That was really hard. We’re a very close family and it’s a very big hole for us.”

Neil’s daughter Katurah works in the office and daughter Kanoshia helps her mother in the gardens. “My wife makes dinner for us family. We take a 40-45 minute dinner break – to eat and pray. I am blessed with two daughters-in-law and three grandchildren.”

In all things, Neil is guided by the same philosophy. “If we don’t have the blessing of the Good Lord, I don’t want to be involved,” he said. “Honesty” matters most in interactions, he explained. “If you always say the truth, you never have to remember what you’ve said.”

The first four years in the sawmill business were the most difficult financially, said Neil. He explained that his wife had some trepidation during the early years, wondering if he should sell the mill and take a different path. But he persisted and things got better.

Adding the kiln from Kiln-direct is an example of the sorts of careful decisions that Graber Lumber has made since its inception. The small standard kiln from Kiln-direct amplifies the value and aesthetics of already valuable wood.

Some of the high-end grade lumber that goes into the Kiln-direct kiln actually comes from log sizes that are so small they would go to pallet stock absent a highly skilled grader and expert sawyer and others – a Graber team using all its different talents together.

Neil does not belong to any wood products organizations. And he said he is not sure that anyone would know that his business is “out there.” But he is happy with the trajectory of Graber Lumber.

“We are not the biggest sawmill in the country,” said Neil. “But we are successful.”