Gearing Up for Wood Pellets: Bay State logger turns to Morbark to debark material for clean chip market

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The market for clean chips pays about double the markets for biomass, so the company was looking for a way to process more material into clean chips.


OAKHAM, Massachusetts — When Paul Davis went looking for a way he could process more wood material into clean chips and increase his profits, he turned to Morbark for the machine to do the job.

Paul, the owner of Forward Enterprises Inc., which has logging and chipping operations, already had a flail chain debarker – with two chain flails – for debarking low-grade hardwood material, and he also had a Morbark chipper to make the chips. In fact, he already was making clean chips, which were being supplied to a plant that manufactures wood fuel pellets. However, a lot of material – the tops – was chipped with the bark on for biomass markets. “I separate the tops, and a lot of it was going into biomass,” said Paul.

Paul’s market for clean chips pays about double his markets for biomass, so he was looking for a way he could process more material into clean chips.

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The two-flail machine could not debark the tops, noted Paul, and they had to be cut off. “I wanted something I could put the whole top through and come out with clean chips,” he said.

Paul considered investing in a new chain flail debarker with three chain flails, a machine that would enable him to debark material he was diverting to biomass. He weighed how much additional material he would be able to recover for clean chips that were currently going to biomass production, and the value of the additional product for the pellet mill. He did the calculations and figured it would cover the payment on the new debarker and add to the company’s profitability.

His solution turned out to be a Morbark model 5500 chain flail debarker, which he purchased in the spring of this year. “It’s worked out excellent,” said Paul. “It’s working really well in debarking and being able to recover as much product as I can.”

The debarked wood is fed directly into a Morbark 30 Chiparvestor® whole tree disc chipper to make clean chips. “For me, it was less handling,” explained Paul. “It added efficiency.”

Paul had the chipper refurbished to enable him to produce 5/8-inch chips. It was originally designed and built to produce 7/8-inch chips. “Schmidt Equipment was instrumental in helping us do that,” said Paul.

“There are a number of reasons why we did that,” added Paul. Essentially, he wanted to reduce his percentage of ‘overs,’ chips that were too big for the pellet company’s specifications and would be screened out, and to supply as much acceptable material as possible. “We are still tweaking the system, but confident with the results we have had so far.”

He had the new chain flail debarker modified to improve debarking of short wood and smaller diameter wood. “Now we’re recovering clean chips out of four- and five-inch material,” said Paul, and wood down to 8 feet long. (The previous minimum length was about 12 feet.) “No problem.” Morbark personnel gave Paul technical assistance on how to modify the machine according to his requirements.

Paul credited the equipment dealer, Schmidt Equipment in North Oxford, Mass., with helping him make the investment. Both the equipment company and dealer “were instrumental in helping put this deal together,” said Paul. Schmidt Equipment took his previous two-flail debarker in trade along with another piece of equipment. “There were some stressful times, working out the deal, but the salesman at Schmidt remained confident and supportive. It worked out really well,” he recalled. “That’s what actually got me into a new flail.”

Forward Enterprises is based in Oakham in central Massachusetts, less than 20 miles northwest of Worcester. The company has five employees. They produce about 40 loads per week, a figure that includes round wood, clean chips and biomass. The breakdown of wood products depends on the tract they are cutting. In some weeks it may be mainly chips; in another about half the loads may be round wood. “It depends on the job,” noted Paul. When he was interviewed in early September for this article, the crew had just moved onto a cord wood job that he projected would average 40 loads a week of clean chips. Sometimes he works two jobs, but generally Paul likes to keep all the employees working together. Forward Enterprises generally works within a 75-mile radius of its base in Oakham.

Forward Enterprises primarily works for a lumber manufacturer, Hull Forest Products in Pomfret, Conn., which is only about 35 miles away. The Hull sawmill makes mainly grade hardwood lumber.

“It’s a good symbiotic relationship with them,” said Paul. “For me to make clean chips, I need a lot of hardwood,” said Paul. “Cutting their wood works out really well.”

The trees to be harvested for Hull are marked by foresters. Paul is paid by the board feet for the saw logs, and the low-grade material and tops he can utilize for firewood, clean chips, or biomass. About 80-90 percent of the trees the company cuts are for Hull Forest Products. He also buys some standing timber. “We deal with a large variety of hardwoods,” said Paul, including maple, hickory and oak.

Paul’s business has changed in recent years. He has been contracting to Hull Forest Products now about four to six years. Previously he used to do a lot of land-clearing work for residential and commercial construction, working for a flat price per acre, according to the terrain and conditions. When the homebuilding industry led the economy into a nosedive around 2008-09, “We had to go back into the woods, so to speak,” said Paul. He still does some land-clearing work. “It’s come back some,” said Paul, but not to the level where it was in the early 2000s.

Two invasive wood-eating insects have impacted forests in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Northeast – the Asian long-horned beetle and the emerald ash borer. The state is “basically under quarantine” for the emerald ash borer, and a large portion of where Paul’s company works in Worcester County is under quarantine for the Asian long-horned beetle. Federal and state officials are requiring that infested material that is chipped must consistently be less than 1 inch.

Paul has three markets for biomass — all power generating plants that use biomass for fuel. He supplies biomass to three power plants in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.

“The price difference is about double if I make (clean) chips out of it,” said Paul. “I was tired of barely making a profit. The clean chip market has been growing exponentially,” and there is abundant wood material in the Northeast to serve that market.

His clean chips are supplied mainly to New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, N.H., now owned by Rentech. The pellet plant is located in southern New Hampshire only about 40 miles from where Paul’s company is based.

“I wanted to put myself in the clean chip manufacturing process so I could be basically first in line” at the New England Wood Pellet mill, he said. Paul’s company has been supplying New England Wood Pellet for about five years.

“We have a large resource here of low-grade wood that we can put into that kind of market,” observed Paul. “We just need to make clean chips.”

When he thought about investing in a three-chain flail, Paul considered at least one other manufacturer but was attracted to the Morbark 5500 Flail for several reasons. “First off, I liked the design,” said Paul. The Morbark 5500 uses a conveyor to remove debris and form it into a pile. “That design was much better,” he said. Some other manufacturers use a device that pushes the debris out, but Paul suggested it can get “jammed up” under the machine.

The Morbark 5500 Flail is available as a two-flail or three-flail machine. Both models are powered by Cat or John Deere engines, the two-flail machine ranging from 325-500 hp and the three-flail, from 500-600 hp. The chain flails feature Morbark’s patented segmented drums and are equipped with eight flail chain rods. The machine features two stationary bottom feed rollers and two (or three) top feed rollers mounted on yoke assemblies; the unique infeed system spreads multiple stems apart, which aids in more complete bark removal. The bark discharge conveyor is hydraulically driven and folds for transport. The Morbark Integrated Control System monitors hydraulic pressures, feed wheel and flail drum speed to maximize performance. Morbark flails allow flexibility to control individual variable flail drum speeds, rpm, feed rate, and other parameters.

Michigan-based Morbark manufactures an extensive line of equipment to process trees, limbs and brush into chips for biomass markets or into clean chips for pulp and paper and fuel pellet markets. The company manufactures whole tree drum chippers as well as brush chippers. It also manufactures several models of chain flail debarkers to remove bark prior to chipping. In addition, Morbark offers a line of machines that perform both functions; the Morbark Flail Chiparvestors consist of a chain flail to remove bark, after which the material is processed directly by a disc chipper.

Morbark also manufactures tub and horizontal grinders, debarkers, peelers, stump grinders, and other equipment for wood recycling, forestry and biomass applications, tree care, and sawmills. For more information about Morbark or its products, visit the website at or call (800) 831-0042.

In addition to the Morbark 5500 Flail and the Morbark model 30 Chiparvestor, the company is equipped with a Morbark 30/36 Drum Chipper, a Komatsu XT430L-2 track carrier paired with a Risley Rolly II single-grip harvester and also a lesser-used Hydro-Ax 721 feller-buncher. For getting the logs out of the woods there are a John Deere 748 grapple, a Timbco 820 forwarder, and a Franklin 170 grapple skidder. For any manual cutting, the company uses Husqvarna chainsaws. The business has three trucks along with trailers for hauling logs, chips and biomass material.

Paul also sells some low-grade logs wholesale to firewood businesses. He also keeps some low-grade logs for specialty firewood he sells to his own customers; he uses debarked oak logs, cut to the length desired by the customer and split. The company sells “a couple hundred” cords of firewood per year, estimated Paul, who normally operates the Komatsu-Risley combination. The debarked firewood logs are bucked and split with a Cord King firewood processing machine.

Paul began working for himself – with a Franklin 170 forwarder and a chainsaw – in 1985. He named his business for that first machine he had and still keeps as a lawn ornament.

Paul, 50, a member of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, grew up in the forest products industry. His father, now retired, owned a sawmill, Davis Lumber, in Templeton, about 15 miles north, and Paul worked in the mill for a short time. “It was all pine back then,” recalled Paul, in the 1970s-80s. The mill cut low-grade pine. “There was plenty of it,” he said.

In his leisure time Paul enjoys volunteering his time to construct buildings for Bible education, windsurfing if the conditions are right and being with his family, particularly in the outdoors. He has a son, 18, who already is involved in the business.

He also is a student of the Bible and enjoys sharing his faith with others.