Innovation Keeps H.W. Culp Lumber Company Strong for more than 90 Years: Samuel Strapping Systems supplies equipment to southern pine lumber mill.

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Southern pine lumber mill chooses new equipment from Samuel Strapping Systems.

NEW LONDON, North Carolina — H.W. Culp Lumber Company sold 103 million board feet of Southern yellow pine (SYP) lumber in 2013. The company offers graded dimension lumber (2×4, 2×6, 2×8, 2×10, 2×12) in six- to 16-foot lengths in strapped packs.

In January 2014, Culp Lumber began using a new compression strapping system from Samuel Strapping Systems. The purchase of the strapping equipment illustrates the care the company takes in getting it right from the start.

At Culp Lumber, it’s never about just going out and purchasing the first system or piece of equipment that looks good or good enough. “It’s a slow process if you do it right,” said David Richbourg, the plant manager at Culp Lumber. “We investigate to the nth degree – and then, we fine-tune it.”

The purchase of equipment often involves factoring in feedback from customers – as the selection of the system from Samuel Strapping did. It also typically includes talking with colleagues in the industry about their experiences with equipment and visiting their mills.

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“Some of our good customers asked us to change our packaging spec – so we were going to have a new strapping machine.” said David. “They really only wanted us to put the batten on the bottom of the pack instead of the top of the pack.”

The process began with researching possible vendors. Then, two vendors were invited to give presentations on site. David also visited other mills to see their strapping systems in service.

A compression strapping system from Samuel Strapping proved a good fit for Culp Lumber, said David. “I liked the ruggedness of the design and the quality of the engineering that goes into it,” he explained.

Culp Lumber does much of its own fabrication. It installed the system from Samuel Strapping Systems. “We started pretty much at the strapper and changed the whole outfeed system,” explained David. “We designed and built it [the outfeed system].”

The system from Samuel Strapping gets high marks from David. “We’re very satisfied with the machine – the strapping, the corner protectors. This machine is a shining star in our plant.”

In fact, said David, he now ranks Samuel Strapping in the top three of the 60 major vendors that serve Culp Lumber. (The other two vendors are Porter Engineering, which provided optimization to the sharp chain and to the curve-sawing gang, and USNR, which provided the curve-sawing gang.)

“I feel like Samuel [Strapping] is one of the top companies in our industry in terms of building equipment and service,” said David. “They are some true, passionate people about helping people.”

In addition to supplying its ready-to-go SLP-25 compression strapping machine for the panel and lumber industries, Samuel Strapping Systems offers a full range of custom-engineered solutions. Steel and plastic strapping, corner protection and hand tools are a few of the many choices customers have.

The Culp Lumber sawmill is a “modern, fully optimized Southern pine dimension mill,” said David. “It is a sharp chain and carriage mill with curve sawing.”

Culp Lumber puts together equipment it considers best, configuring in-house as needed. “We work with four major optimization vendors,” said David, giving one example. “We do the installation ourselves.”

The Culp Lumber team of 100 employees is close-knit and turnover is low. “The main thing that’s unique about this plant is the people who work here,” said David. The combination of a “highly loyal” and “experienced” team makes the mill very special.

And David has a good basis for comparison. “I have been in most of the mills in North America,” he explained. He worked in equipment sales (first high-speed planers and then “everything in the mill”) prior to joining Culp Lumber in 1997.

In his role as plant manager at Culp Lumber, David keeps the specifics and the overarching goal tied together. That means a focus on daily production, prioritizing and planning, and installation of projects. The goal is always to purchase, install and maintain equipment so the Culp team can function at the highest level.

Working with colleagues at other mills is one of the aspects of his job that David enjoys greatly. Culp Lumber has recently hosted groups of visitors from New Zealand, Australia, British Columbia, Texas and Georgia.

On the reciprocal side, David travels to other mills to garner information that might inform changes at Culp Lumber. “We travelled for a year before we got our gang,” said David. Treks were made to other mills to acquire a look at saws in service and hear directly from sawyers.

“Seeing the technology perform – and also fine-tuning” are components of what David sees as a vigorous collaborative spirit in the industry. “This is a very open technology,” he explained.

“I’m just really into efficiencies,” said David. So any gain to be had through modification gets attention. The curve-sawing gang from USNR is an example. “We changed a lot on it,” he explained.

Building and reconfiguring are part of what keep Culp Lumber strong. The company dates to the early 1920s when Henry W. Culp Sr. launched it with a portable sawmill. The son of the company’s founder, Henry W. Culp II (now deceased), hired David. “After I’d been selling equipment to his company for 11 years, Mr. Culp called” and offered a position as plant manager.

Today, Culp Lumber is headed by Henry W. Culp III, president, and Amy Culp Shelton, vice president. Home to the company is New London, N.C., a town of 600 residents, in Stanly County in the south-central part of the Tar Heel State.

Culp Lumber produces timbers in addition to dimension lumber and several byproducts, including shavings, bark, and wood chips. Eighty-five percent of the shavings from the planer mill are used in a direct-fired shaving burner that heats the two dry kilns, one an Irvington Moore (USNR) and one in-house built. (The remaining 15 percent of shavings are sold to board plants and chicken and turkey farms.) Timbers are dried to 25 percent moisture content and dimension lumber to 19 percent.

Ninety-four percent of lumber heads to the Newman M990 high-speed planer. Most of the lumber sold will be pressure treated by its buyers and ultimately used as a structural product for residential and industrial construction.

The only product Culp Lumber sells retail (and bulk) is shredded bark, produced with a shredder from Gauld (Alabama). A chipper from Acrowood in Everett, Wash. is dedicated to chipping wood waste for paper mills. Chips are the biggest volume byproduct.

Culp Lumber uses contract loggers. It also purchases logs from loggers that it knows well, sometimes having cruised standing timber with them.

“We do all our byproduct trucking and some short-haul trucking,” said David. “We truck less than 10 percent of our lumber.” Most buyers pick up their own loads.

The strapping system is the first purchase that Culp Lumber has made from Samuel Strapping. It now buys all its strapping from Samuel Strapping. “From top to bottom, Samuel Strapping is one of the most customer-oriented companies we have worked with,” said David.

Samuel Strapping Systems started in 1964 as part of Samuel, Son & Co., Limited. Each member of its large team strives to provide very good and appropriately tailored service. Dave Gagnon, the building product industry manager at the company, has been in the strapping business since 1977 – first in Canada and then in the United States. He has always worked on the wood products side of strapping.

“Culp Lumber to us was a very high-end mill, very innovative – paid a lot of attention to detail,” said Dave. “David Richbourg, the [plant] manager, is very thorough. We were able to provide him with a reliable piece of equipment.”

Dave and his wife recently became U.S. citizens during a swearing-in ceremony in Atlanta, Ga. “It was a long and complicated process,” he said. “We’re very happy to be U.S. citizens.” (He is also pleased to have responded correctly to each question on the citizenship exam, a test for which native-born citizens have only a 38 percent pass rate when sampled.)

The sale to Culp Lumber involved Dave and others from Samuel Strapping. “Michael Creger and members from their engineering department” were available for the startup, said David.

Members of the Culp Lumber team are deeply involved in a number of wood products and related organizations. Memberships include the Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association, the American Wood Council, the Treated Wood Council and the Structural Building Components Association. Culp Lumber also is part of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

David attributes his keen interest in equipment to his father. “My dad was a sales engineer,” said the native of Greensboro, N.C. “That kind of shaped me.” Although he did not study engineering, as his father had, David found a similar professional niche.

When he takes time away from his work, David is quite busy. “I like restoring and driving old European cars,’ he explained. Currently, he is working on a Jaguar XKE. And he and his wife are both EMTs who volunteer with their county’s emergency medical service (EMS). David is a squad captain at his EMS base.