Superior VacuPress gets fast start, Ohio company already has ordered second Vacutherm lumber dryer
DUNDEE, Ohio — What do an Amish roofer and a Romanian electrical engineer-turned college professor have in common?
Not much, perhaps, beyond a common faith and an entrepreneurial spirit.
That’s apparently about all it took for Firman Mast and Vasile Bunta to decide they would enter into a joint venture. They formed a partnership and invested in a vacuum lumber dryer from Vacutherm to launch a lumber drying business in eastern Ohio. In the process, they are turning the lumber drying industry on its head, to hear Vasile tell it.
Although they have only been operating their new kiln since December, the business — Superior VacuPress LLC — has been so successful that Vasile and Firman have ordered a second vacuum lumber dryer from Vacutherm.
Although the Amish have a strong presence in the forest products industry in Ohio (as in some other states), Firman is a newcomer. He operates a roofing business and also a horse breeding business.
Vasile is the one who brought some expertise in the lumber industry to the fledgling partnership, although he, too, is fairly new to the industry.
An electrical engineer by profession, Vasile emigrated from Romania to the U.S. in 2003. At the time he was a college professor in Romania, but he was drawn to the U.S. because of the freedom of economic opportunity. No other country, he said, affords the freedom and opportunity that America does – the freedom to start a business and earn as much as one wants with the only limitation being the free market economic system.
It was not Vasile’s first experience with the U.S., however. He attended Wheaton College in the 1990s and earned a degree in hermeneutics, which is the study of the principles of interpreting the Bible.
When he emigrated to the U.S., Vasile lived briefly in Cleveland with other relatives, then landed a job with a business involved in hardwood lumber, where he started up their export department. That company operated a sawmill and produced green hardwood lumber; Vasile had to contract with other lumber companies or lumber drying businesses to dry production for export.
One of the companies he relied on for drying services was equipped with eight vacuum dry kilns – albeit older models. Customers whose lumber had been dried with the vacuum lumber drying technology praised the quality of the lumber and requested that their orders continue to be dried with the same process as opposed to conventional lumber kilns. While working there, Vasile also had an opportunity to meet Jim Parker, owner and president of Vacutherm, the Vermont-based maker of vacuum lumber drying technology, who visited the region on a sales trip.
Vacutherm has been a leader in vacuum lumber drying technology since 1980. The family-owned company’s vacuum kilns are designed to dry lumber and wood components that require the highest quality in color, flatness, and stability. The VacuPress vacuum dry kiln is easy to use, requires very little training, and is suitable for operations drying anywhere from 8,400-9,500 board feet per cycle, totaling up to 1.2 million board feet annually.
Vacutherm kilns utilize vacuum technology because water boils (evaporates) at a much lower temperature in vacuum, and as a result, wood is dried at a lower temperature in a less invasive manner, preserving much better the physical qualities of the wood. By drying at a low temperature, the drying time can be accelerated without harming the wood. Drying lumber faster increases throughput, inventory turnover and cash flow. At the same time, vacuum kiln drying produces excellent color in the wood and reduces degrade – increasing lumber value and yield.
In 2010, because of the downturn of the economy, Vasile was laid off. His export customers wanted to continue to do business with him, and he launched his own export business, DIM X Port LLC, which he still operates.
Vasile and Firman met through some mutual friends in 2013. They were discussing various business opportunities and what type of business would be a good fit for the region. Someone asked Vasile, and he launched into a description and analysis of the region’s hardwood lumber industry and the feasibility of starting lumber drying operations using the vacuum kiln technology – although there is abundant hardwood lumber capacity in the region, there is not enough lumber drying capacity, he suggested. After about 30 minutes, Firman already was convinced of what Vasile was saying, and he tapped the Romanian on the shoulder and told him to stop: he was ready to consider going into business with him.
Although Vasile is not Amish, he considers himself a Christian like the Amish. That’s an important factor in their relationship, he asserted. The Amish would not enter into a business venture with a non-Christian partner, he said.
Their company, Superior VacuPress LLC, serves mainly Amish and Mennonite businesses in the region that make furniture or furniture components. Their customers make furniture that is sold at retail, to chain furniture stories and into export markets.
One customer is a flooring manufacturing business; Superior VacuPress dries 4/4 hickory lumber for flooring. With the vacuum kiln drying technology, it has both significantly reduced degrade and drying time – huge advantages for their customer. The flooring company had experienced 35-45 percent degrade using a company with conventional dry kilns. Superior VacuPress, with its Vacutherm vacuum lumber dryer, has reduced degrade to 20-22 percent, said Vasile.
That is one of the key benefits of using the Vacutherm technology, noted Vasile — improved lumber quality. Not only is lumber quality generally improved, but the color of maple lumber, particularly hard and soft maple, is much better – the white is brighter and there is no stain.
A conventional dry kiln heats the lumber with hot air that is circulated with fans. The heated air flows through lumber which is stacked on stickers to separate the boards above and below one another. As the lumber temperature increases, moisture begins migrating to the surface of the wood. As the moisture evaporates the damp air is vented out of the kiln. Conventional kilns require higher temperatures than the Vacutherm kiln.
Vacutherm’s vacuum lumber driers use aluminum plates that are placed between the lumber. The plates are like a radiator with hot water flowing through them, heating the lumber. In a vacuum, the boiling point of moisture in wood – when it becomes vapor and migrates to the surface, is much lower. In addition, the vacuum drying process does not require moving and circulating the air, which can contribute to lumber degrade. The dried lumber is flatter without cupping and end-splitting.
Another key benefit of the Vacutherm technology is the faster drying time. The difference in drying times between conventional lumber kilns and vacuum dry kilns is nothing less than remarkable. For example, as noted by Vasile, it takes 32 hours to dry 5/4 ash with vacuum technology — 30 days in a conventional kiln. It takes 10 days to dry 8/4 hickory with a vacuum — 11 months with a conventional kiln drying process.
Their business was visited by the representatives of a company that supplies 80 percent of the flooring for National Basketball Association teams. They were duly impressed with the speed of the process and the quality of the lumber, according to Vasile.
“People in the kiln-drying business, they don’t believe it,” said Vasile, until they come and see for themselves. Their reaction: “This is amazing.”
“It’s the machine,” added Vasile. “It’s very versatile.”
“The lumber is flat,” said Vasile. “It doesn’t cup. It doesn’t bow. It’s flat because of the pressure. You don’t have end splits because there is no air circulation at the end of the board.”
Also, “it’s perfectly equalized, which means you don’t have moisture pockets here and there.” The wood is perfectly straight because there is no stress.”
The color of the maples are bright, he said. The lack of oxygen means the lumber does not stain or turn brown. “The white in the white woods is much brighter.”
The speed of the vacuum drying process is a huge factor. “Timing,” said Vasile. “You dry lumber in three days versus three or four months.”
“You can have it in a week or two weeks versus 11 months…And the quality is much better,” he added.
When they talked to a banker about financing, he exclaimed why so few others have embraced the technology, said Vasile. “People wanted to see how it worked first.”
Vasile suggested to Jim that he design a unit that could dry a truck-load of material at a time. He did, and Vasile and Firman bought it. They have ordered a second unit that is in production.
The kiln is 8 feet tall, about 10-1/2 feet wide and 31 feet long – “like a box made out of steel,” said Vasile. The unit is stainless steel construction. The water that is used to heat the lumber is pre-heated in boilers.
They have a special machine supplied by a French manufacturer that assembles the ‘sandwiches’ and unpacks them – it takes about 90 minutes to unpack the ‘sandwich’ and two to three hours to build the ‘sandwich.’
The kiln is set up in an 80×80 workshop. The lumber is loaded onto a trolley system, and the trolley pushed into the chamber. Two people operate the kiln, Firman’s father and brother.
Having hardwood lumber dried in a conventional kiln typically costs about $200 per 1,000 board feet, noted Vasile. He and Firman actually can charge more; their customers can afford it because the shorter drying time increases their throughput. They charge $500 per 1,000 board feet for hickory, and their customer happily pays more. “They booked us for all their hickory production,” said Vasile. They save them time, which increases cash flow for the flooring company. They have their dried lumber in a week as opposed to waiting a half a year. In addition, their yield increases because degrade is being reduced.
The Vacutherm kiln is only “slightly more expensive” than a conventional kiln, according to Vasile, but the profit margin to operate it is much higher. The first Vacutherm kiln they purchased will pay for itself faster than they predicted. After that, it’s “profit, profit, profit.”
“We did it because the numbers are there,” said Vasile.
Their business has six customers, and their Vacutherm vacuum lumber dryer already is being used to capacity. The flooring company, for example, gives them 40,000 board feet of hickory per month for drying. Firman and Vasile expect to receive their second kiln by the end of the year.
The lumber industry began to rebound about two years ago, noted Vasile, who still operates his export business. (He primarily supplies ash lumber for export to Turkey as well as walnut lumber for customers in Europe.) The U.S. industry peaked at 14 billion board feet of production in 2008, he noted. The following year after the housing industry bubble burst and the economy went into a nosedive, production fell to about 5-6 billion. A lot of sawmills went belly-up. It started to revive a few years ago and now is back to about 7.5 billion, a little more than half the 2008 peak. So production now is on an ascending curve, he noted. It will take five to 10 years before the industry reaches that peak again, he predicted. “We’re in the middle of a crescendo…It’s going to be more and more.”
The export market is picking up, too. Although China’s economy is slowing, “we don’t feel that,” said Vasile, and “other markets in Europe are going to pick up.”
The U.S. housing industry continues to revive albeit slowly. “We feel that…especially in hardwood.”
He has encountered two types of skeptics, said Vasile. One group is envious of the technology and what it can do. The second group is hoping the entrepreneurs will fail.
They are not always well received, observed Vasile. “People don’t really take that easy…a foreign guy and an Amish guy…turning the kiln industry upside down.”
“The competition doesn’t really like you. That’s what happened with us.”
There is a certain amount of inertia in American business, said Vasile. Innovation and change are somewhat slow, he suggested. In Europe, with more countries, “When something news comes on the market, they jump on it faster.”
One thing that is indisputable is lumber quality, according to Vasile. “Quality is A-one.” That is hard to swallow for some people who are second and third generation in the lumber drying business. “There is a little bit of tension,” acknowledged Vasile.
The credit goes to the technology, he said. The Vacutherm kilns can be adjusted for the air pressure, temperature, and condensation. The adjustments may be made remotely via computer controls. Vasile can adjust the controls from an iPad computer at home.
“The numbers are there. The quality is there.”
Even the Amish businessmen “want to see it work,” noted Vasile.
The region produces about 200 million board feet of lumber annually, he estimated. The vast majority of the lumber produced is sent out of the region to be dried and shipped back. Vasile’s argument is: Why not dry it here? The region could support about 80 Vacutherm kilns, he estimated.