Middle Tennessee Lumber Attuned to Customers Hardwood Flooring Leader Benefits from Addition of Brunner Hildebrand Dry Kiln

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BURNS, Tennessee — When Bill Joyce acquired Middle Tennessee Lumber in 1985, the business was essentially a green lumber concentration yard. One of Bill’s first investments in the company was constructing a dry kiln to produce kiln-dried lumber in 1992.

Middle Tennessee Lumber continues to invest in its lumber-drying operations, adding its first dry kiln from Brunner Hildebrand late last year. The new kiln has enabled the company to trim drying time and improve lumber quality. In fact, the company has been so pleased with the outcome it is considering integrating the Brunner Hildebrand controls with its older kilns in order to improve their operational efficiency.

“So far…it’s been working tremendous,” said Josh Green, operations engineer for Middle Tennessee Lumber, who discussed the company’s investment with Brunner Hildebrand and its operations.

Bill, who owns the company with his son, Jesse, has responded to the market over the years by steadily making investments to add value to green lumber. Soon after putting in the first dry kiln, he added a planer and a straight line rip saw, and he eventually expanded to include a millwork division and flooring manufacturing operations.

Today, Middle Tennessee Lumber is a diversified company marketing hardwood lumber, flooring, and molding across the U.S. and for export. The company’s operations are contained on about 26 acres in Burns, Tenn., 35 miles west of Nashville. Middle Tennessee Lumber has four production buildings and two more for stacking operations plus an office, and it also operates a nearby distribution center. The company employs about 100 people. The company enjoyed its most prosperous year with sales of about $40 million in 2013, and this year it is on track to hit $50 million.

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The majority of revenues, about 45 percent, come from sales of solid unfinished flooring – mostly red oak, white oak, and hickory. Approximately 30 percent revenues come from lumber for export, and the remaining 25 percent is custom hardwood molding.

Although the original business was a sawmill in Nashville, founded in the 1930s by Bill Cockrall and later moved to Burns as the business grew, it eventually evolved into a concentration yard. Today the company buys rough green lumber from about 25 sawmills within a 50-mile radius – the majority is supplied by mills in middle Tennessee. It also purchases lumber from mills in northern Alabama and southwest Kentucky.

Middle Tennessee Lumber’s bread-and-butter product is unfinished flooring sold in widths of 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 inches. The company sells mainly to flooring distributors, including such big names as Lumber Liquidators, but it also sells to other flooring manufacturers that will pre-finish the product. Some customers specialize in offering hand-scraped or rustic-type flooring.

The company has a strong presence in Tennessee. Its distribution center, selling products to general contractors and flooring contractors, generates 50 percent its revenue. However, the company markets and sells across the U.S. and the globe, from China to Europe.

The company buys 4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 8/4, and 10/4 white oak, red oak, and poplar as well as 4/4 hickory, hard maple, ash, and walnut. Most of the material it buys is 4/4 white oak, red oak, hickory, and poplar. It purchases all grades — FAS, 1C, 2C, and 3A — in random lengths ranging from 4-16 feet and random widths.

Green lumber is treated in a dip tank system to protect it against mold, insects, and stain, then processed on one of two stacking lines with grading performed on one line. (Some lumber is purchased from small mills that do not have a grader, so Middle Tennessee Lumber pays according to its grading and tally.) Lumber is put into inventory in the yard to air-dry below 25 percent moisture content before kiln-drying; between 2-3 million board feet of lumber is air-dried in the yard at all times. The company also has a pre-dryer with 250,000 board feet capacity that is dedicated to FAS white oak.

For drying lumber the company has seven dry kilns, including the new unit supplied by Brunner Hildebrand. A 500 hp wood-fired boiler provides steam for lumber drying.

The company began work in August of last year to add the Brunner-Hildebrand dry kiln, and it began operating in September. The 35-foot by 55-foot kiln, the first to be supplied by Brunner-Hildebrand and equipped with Brunner-Hildebrand controls, has a capacity of about 85-90,000 board feet.

Middle Tennessee Lumber had not added a new kiln since the late 1990s. The company’s other six kilns are of cinder block construction. “We basically have grown up with them,” noted Josh.

However, the time had come in planning to add more dry kiln capacity to look at more efficient kiln operations. “We’re getting pretty close to maxing out our boiler as far as steam production,” explained Josh.

The company began researching aluminum dry kilns and narrowed the field to Brunner Hildebrand and another supplier. Middle Tennessee Lumber considered a number of factors in comparing both suppliers, such as the kiln control package, kiln design, customer service, price, and more. Those factors led them to choose Brunner Hildebrand.

Some members of the company’s management staff previously worked for another business that was equipped with Brunner Hildebrand dry kilns. “And they spoke very highly of them,” said Josh.

The Brunner Hildebrand dry kiln has benefited the company. “It’s improved our drying time almost a full day on kin charges,” said Josh. In addition, lumber quality has improved significantly, reducing degrade. “Probably the best thing about its performance is just the consistency of the moisture content of the lumber exiting the kiln,” he said.

“Our preference is to process our higher grade white oak through that kiln,” said Josh, in order to maximize the value of the lumber and minimize degrade.

Middle Tennessee Lumber dries green lumber to a target of 7 percent moisture content. The older kilns essentially raise the temperature and humidity to a certain level and try to maintain it, but they do not equalize well. “We still have the occasional board or two that is over 10 percent,” said Josh.

The Brunner Hildebrand kiln, on the other hand, features a control system that gradually raises the temperature and humidity. “Without a doubt, it has greatly improved our ability to control the drying process and make it more consistent throughout a kiln charge,” said Josh.

“That was the major thing we were looking at,” he added, “to have more control over our drying process.”

In fact, the company has been so pleased with the Brunner Hildebrand controls that it is starting the process of converting three of its other six kilns to Brunner Hildebrand controls. “That should make a big difference,” said Josh. The goal is to convert three kilns to Brunner Hildebrand controls by the end of 2015.

The mechanics of dry kilns, essentially producing steam to provide heat and moisture to an enclosed chamber, have not changed much in the past 30 years, noted Josh. However, kiln control systems have made important strides. Newer, sophisticated control systems have enabled companies like Middle Tennessee Lumber to make big advancements in improved drying time and lumber quality.

There are numerous methods of measuring temperature and humidity in dry kilns, noted Josh, including weight-based systems, probes, and others. “For us, it was such a big step forward, we didn’t want to go to far.” Middle Tennessee Lumber uses dry bulb and wet bulb temperatures as the controlled parameters for their drying schedules, and it wanted to use the same method in its new kiln.

“We wanted to maintain the same method of control,” explained Josh. “We just wanted to do it better.” Brunner Hildebrand personnel were “very cooperative” in helping the company achieve its goal, he added. “They didn’t try to over-sell us,” he said, or attempt to persuade the company to switch to new measuring methods. “They understood our needs and were able to adjust their controls to how we wanted to do it.”

To the kiln operator, the new Brunner-Hildebrand unit functions just like the other kilns, noted Josh. “They were able to display the wet bulb temperature so that the controls to our kiln operator (are similar) to the way the others run. To the operator, it’s all the same.”

In the past, the most common customer complaint with flooring has been related to variation in width, according to Josh. “Without a doubt, the number one contributor to that…was moisture content,” where the wood had picked up moisture or had dried after the machining process. The company received about five customer complaints per month in that regard.

Drying lumber in the new Brunner Hildebrand kiln, however, has eliminated those complaints, said Josh.

In the rough mill, upgraded with some new equipment in December 2013, the kiln-dried lumber comes off sticks and goes through a Brookhuis inline moisture meter system to pull any boards that need further drying. With a Lycidyne grade mark reader and ScanMeg scanners, data about every board’s grade, length, width, and shape is captured. The data, combined with a table of desired products and values, determines how each board will be processed with four options: rough lumber, rough dimension lumber (ripped to width), surfaced lumber, and blanks for flooring or molding (surfaced and ripped to width). The rough mill, equipped with a Lico rip saw, OSI planer with batch feeder, and a Piche trim saw, can process more than 6,000 board feet per hour. Data for finished products is captured by a VisionTally system that also records the weight of each bundle, and the tally and weight information is incorporated into the Agility MRP software package.

The flooring production facility handles 2,500 board feet of flooring blanks per hour. It features a Woodstorm infeed system, a Dimter Opticut automatic defect chop saw, a Waco solid molder with directly opposed side heads to side-match blanks, and a Hasko end matcher. The production operations also feature a flooring grader, four nesting stations, and a bundle strapping station.

The molding operations begin with a Newman finish planer and a Raiman shifting arbor rip saw with ValuRip optimizing software and infeed. The workhorse machines are a Weinig Powermat 1000 molder and a Weinig 22-AL molder, both with Woodstorm infeed, and a Challoner double-end tenoner. The operations surface and straight-line rip lumber and produce S4S board stock, herringbone flooring, custom flooring, and custom molding.

Wood shavings are sold to dairy, horse, and poultry farms. Other residual material is processed to provide fuel for the boiler.

Middle Tennessee Lumber has a global customer base for lumber with a heavy emphasis on FAS white oak exported to markets in Asia and Europe – to the tune of about 100,000 board feet per month. Other major export products are FAS white oak molder blanks. The company also sells lumber direct to cabinet makers and trim carpenters.

Customers for molding range from molding distributors to cabinet shops and carpenters. The company is focused on servicing customers with quick turn-around and short runs. It has the capability to make custom molder knives; it can produce a knife to match unique profiles provided by customers, replicating and producing the moldering they need in less than a week.

The company is a member of several forest products trade associations, including the National Wood Flooring Association, Wood Component Manufacturers Association, and Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers.

During the economic slump of a few years ago, Middle Tennessee Lumber took stock of itself and its operations, according to Josh. “We actually took advantage of the downturn in the economy to focus on what value we’re adding to our product,” he said, what customers wanted and what they were willing to pay for. Demand was down during that period, of course, but the company evaluated processes to improve efficiency.

“We were financially stable enough to endure and invest in the company in those tough economic times,” said Josh. The company devoted resources to researching new product lines, new options for drying lumber, and upgrades to its rough mill, among other things. “So when the market turned, we were already in the process of implementing changes that better prepared us to respond.”

When it began implementing changes, one of the first things it did was expand the air-drying yard in preparation for adding the new dry kiln. The yard was expanded and the row layout was reconfigured to maximize space. The company also evaluated how it was layering lumber in packs for kiln-drying in order to maximize the volume of lumber that could be dried; that process enabled it to improve the volume of lumber dried in kilns from about 80-85 percent of kiln capacity to 92-95 percent.

“The biggest thing…was taking that step back and doing a lot of self-evaluation,” said Josh, “and looking at what we can do better.”

Brunner Hildebrand a Partner to Lumber Industry

Brunner Hildebrand has been serving the U.S. lumber industry with dry kilns for more than 50 years and is based in the heart of the hardwood lumber industry in Nashville, Tenn. It counts among its customers some of the leading lumber businesses, including Pike Lumber Co, Armstrong World Industries and Columbia Vista

Brunner Hildebrand has been a pioneer in dry kiln advances, such as aluminum construction, reversible airflow and false ceilings, computer controls, variable speed drives, and vacuum kilns.

The company offers conventional lumber dry kilns of various sizes and applications, Dual Path Continuous Dry Kilns, vacuum kilns, specialty dry kilns, steaming chambers and pre-dryers. The company also offers their own computerized kiln control systems and is a partner for turn key solutions including boilers.

For more information about Brunner Hildebrand, see the company’s website at www.bhl-drykilns.com or call (615) 662-0745.