Ohio lumber drying business growing, running second vacuum dry kiln from Vacutherm
DUNDEE, Ohio — A small start-up hardwood lumber drying business made a splash a year ago in TimberLine. The company only had been drying lumber for seven months with a new vacuum dry kiln supplied by Vacutherm. The business — and its lumber drying effectiveness — had been so well received, however, that the two partners already had ordered a second kiln from Vacutherm.
Now, their second vacuum dry kiln has been operating since February, and Superior VacuPress has been able to double its lumber drying production.
The growing business has evolved in the last year, too, according to Firman Mast, one of the partners in the company. Superior VacuPress now has about 20 customers, up from about six customers a year ago.
Business obviously is picking up. “We’re busy,” said Firman, 28, who is Amish.
Last year the company was mainly doing custom lumber drying. That part of the business now represents only about 30 percent of sales. The other 70 percent of revenues flows from buying green hardwood lumber, drying it, and selling the dried lumber into various markets. The company’s biggest market is the flooring industry, for which it supplies kiln-dried 4/4 lumber. Firman also buys some poplar material that is dried and sold to companies that remanufacture it into moulding. The company has started to export wood products, notably hickory and some other species for flooring, and is providing container loading services, too.
Superior VacuPress also has done custom drying for such high-end applications as yachts and luxury homes. In one instance it dried imported Baltic pine from Germany. “We even dried some lumber that came from Maine,” said Firman, 10/4 curly maple that eventually would be remanufactured into gun stocks.
Superior VacuPress also has been drying some live edge slabs, and Firman is starting a venture to market them. A live edge slab is a slice about 2 inches thick from a large log, about 36-48 inches in diameter. The slabs, usually 8-10 feet long, are used as the surface for a kitchen or dining table or bench-style seats or components.
Firman has begun drying slabs and wants to sell them wholesale. They are supplied by an uncle, Nelson Mast, who operates United Hardwoods, a sawmill business; the slabs are cut on a band mill. Firman has an inventory of nearly 400 slabs of soft maple, pin oak, sycamore, walnut, and willow. They are warehoused at a neighboring business that is acquiring equipment to surface both sides of the slabs, planing and sanding them to a smooth finish. Slabs also will be offered for sale rough-sawn. (For more information about purchasing slabs, call Superior VacuPress at (330) 600-1991.)
The company’s Vacutherm vacuum kiln can dry the slabs in 6-8 days. With conventional kilns, the process would take about a year, noted Firman.
Vermont-based 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.
Vacutherm kilns utilize vacuum technology because water boils (evaporates) at a much lower temperature in vacuum. As a result, wood is dried at a lower temperature in a less invasive manner, preserving the physical qualities of the wood much better. By drying at a lower 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 both lumber value and yield.
Vacutherm offers two types of vacuum kilns. One system uses aluminum plates circulating hot water placed between each piece of lumber; think of a sandwich — the boards are the bread and the aluminum plates are the filling. In the other system, the lumber is separated by stickers like a conventional kiln, and the wood is heated by hot air circulating throughout the chamber by fans. Vacutherm offers kilns of various capacities for both types of systems as well as kiln control systems. The kilns are easy to use and require little training.
Superior VacuPress has two of the Vacutherm VacuPress systems, the vacuum dry kilns that use aluminum hot water plates sandwiched between the lumber. The company’s first kiln had a capacity of 8,000 board feet; the newest one has a capacity of 12,000 board feet.
“It’s quite a bit bigger,” said Jim Parker, president and owner of Vacutherm. “This kiln is sized to fit every stick of lumber that comes off a truck…so he can do a whole truck-load at one time.” The larger kiln will hold about 9,000 board feet of 4/4 lumber, a truck-load.
The new unit also came with a new software package. The EASYDry software enables drying more species that are difficult to dry and optimizing the lumber drying process for time, quality, and energy use, said Jim.
(For more information about Vacutherm and its products, visit the company’s website at www.vacutherm.com.)
Firman ordered another set of plates and another trolley to enable the company to build another ‘sandwich’ ready to go into the kiln as soon as a load was finished drying. That enabled the business to increase production from two loads per week to three. Now, with the second unit, the company can dry about six loads per week — about 50,000 board feet. Natural gas-fired boilers provide the hot water to heat the kilns.
The company is equipped with a French-made machine that assembles the lumber and plates into a ‘sandwich’ to be loaded into the kiln and also disassembles them in a reverse process. The machine, supplied by Vacutherm, takes an hour or two to prepare a load and an hour to unload. “It’s awesome,” said Firman.
Superior VacuPress now has three full-time employees. Firman’s younger brother, Merv, supervises the lumber drying operations.
Superior VacuPress is a partnership between Firman and Vasile Bunta. Vasile, emigrated from Romania to the U.S. as a college professor and electrical engineer in 2003. He lived briefly in Cleveland with relatives, then landed a job with a hardwood sawmill business, where he started up their export department. The company did not have its own dry kilns, so Vasile had to contract with other lumber companies or lumber drying businesses to dry production for export. He became acquainted with vacuum lumber drying technology and Jim Parker.
Vasile formed his own lumber export business after being laid off in 2010. He and Firman met through mutual friends in 2013, and the two quickly agreed to partner together to form a lumber drying business.
The eastern Ohio region produces about 200 million board feet of hardwood lumber annually, Vasile estimated when he was interviewed a year ago. The vast majority of the lumber produced is sent out of the region to be dried and shipped back.
The Amish have a strong presence in the forest products industry in Ohio — as in some other states.
Firman has been able to market the company solely by word-of-mouth, although he is planning on establishing a website. “Our advertising is the quality of the lumber,” he said. “Everybody knows the quality is better than what they’re doing,” he said.
Firman has no other immediate plans for the business, but he is interested in continuing to expand and add drying capacity if the demand is there. “We’ll see where the market goes and what it brings,” he said.