Mill in the Old Dominion dries American black walnut for custom products.
HARRISONBURG, Virginia – Every starting business model – even the most focused – undergoes revision. The changes here and there allow a business to keep pace with the dynamics of economic activity.
So it is with Willow Run Custom Lumber, which was established in 2003. “Our original business model was to do custom sawing and drying,” said Justin Schweitzer, vice president of the company.
That original business model has not changed. But it has been refined. For instance, the Wood-Mizer LT40 Super Hydraulic saw that was used to start the business is still at the core of the operation. The Wood-Mizer is no longer used as a portable, however, having been fixed in place under roof.
And more recently, kiln capacity has been added. “We had been running two small dehumidification kilns for approximately 13 years, and they were in need of serious repairs, as well as being severely undersized for our operation,” said Justin. “After careful consideration and looking at multiple different kilns…we felt Kiln-direct offered the best fit [for] our operation.”
The search for a new kiln took many directions but all of them seemed to end at the same point. “We looked at different kilns,” said Justin. “We went all over the East Coast looking at different models, different brands – and we kept coming back to Kiln-direct.”
Justin chose the Kiln-direct small standard model with a loading capacity of 9,000 board feet. His kiln has five 2HP/20 inch main fan blades, two 2HP power venting systems with heat recovery, 300,000 BTU/hour of gas heating using liquid petroleum gas (LPG), standard Swing main doors, and a fully automated control system with wireless connection to an office computer. According to Niels Jorgenson, president of Kiln-direct, some customers install as many as nine 2HP main fans and up to 900,000 BTU/hour gas heat, allowing softwood to be dried in as little as 2-3 days.
With the purchase of the kiln from Kiln-direct in December 2016, Willow Run has been able to reconfigure its operation. The Kiln-direct small lumber kiln is dedicated primarily to drying black walnut, which now accounts for 95 percent of the raw material used at the company.
Production is high, so lumber waiting to be kiln dried is pre-dried to a moisture content of 30 percent, all under roof and on sticks. The Kiln-direct kiln is used to reduce the moisture content of black walnut to between six and eight percent, a process that takes about two weeks for 8/4 lumber.
So effective is the Kiln-direct in supporting an optimal production schedule that Justin has run charges on the two older kilns only three or four times in the last six months. The older kilns will be an asset for small custom orders, explained Justin.
As for air drying, it is done under roof because it produces a “brighter color” and ultimately “better quality for customers,” said Justin. The walnut is used for flooring, S4S and paneling.
“For our millwork and dimension business, we employ a 36-inch Oliver Straitoplane planer, a Mereen-Johnson gang rip saw, a Wadkin moulder, a Doucet end matcher and a Dimter optimized chop saw,” explained Justin. Not all boards go to the planer mill; some are sold rough.
The quick overview of the equipment at Willow Run suggests quite a bit of wood waste. So why did propane get the nod as the fuel source for heating the Kiln-direct small lumber kiln?
“We were thinking to possibly use our wood waste [with boilers],” said Justin. “It was not a feasible option for us.”
Economy of scale was key to the decision, said Justin. Although his company generates abundant wood slabs, balancing the needs for fuel with the output of wood waste would add an unnecessary point along the production chain that would have to be carefully maintained.
Propane works well. “I’m glad we went that route,” said Justin. “It’s efficient. It’s easy.”
And the slabs? “We sell slabs to customers with wood stoves,” said Justin. Because most of the product at Willow Run is black walnut, making mulch from slabs is not an option. “Nobody wants entirely walnut mulch.”
“Shavings and sawdust are sold locally for animal bedding,” said Justin. “Slabs and other wood waste are used to heat our two older kilns and our dry-storage and processing building.”
In addition to the majority of black walnut product, Willow Run produces red oak and white oak. The millwork and dimension components head to both domestic and export markets.
“The majority of our products are exported,” said Justin. “What is sold domestically is mainly [sold] within the mid-Atlantic region.”
The small lumber kiln from Kiln-direct has given a real boost to smooth throughput at Willow Run Custom Lumber. “It has alleviated the bottleneck in production that our older kilns were causing,” said Justin. “We are drying mainly 6/4 and 8/4 walnut and the kiln has essentially been running nonstop since it was commissioned.”
At present, the small lumber kiln from Kiln-direct is loaded with a wheel loader. The program for operating the kiln is installed on the office computer.
“The kiln will run itself,” said Justin. “We were advised by Niels to run the first charges manually. Then we could let it update automatically while always monitoring the drying process in order to make periodic adjustments to optimize the process.”
Justin self-describes as a “hands-on” person. “We normally check the kiln twice a day,” said Justin. “I’ve never actually run the kiln in the full automatic mode. I’m in there tweaking things to increase efficiency wherever possible.” As Justin emphasized, it’s his hands-on nature that causes him to want to keep a close check on things.
“I can’t say enough good things about Niels and Kiln-direct,” said Justin. “I’ve been really impressed. During the first several weeks we had several on-line meetings, where Kiln-direct could see our computer screen to help us understand the software and how to best improve our drying. This really helped us get comfortable with the operation.”
Any issues or questions are quickly resolved by Kiln-direct, said Justin. And all issues have been “minor” ones. “Actually, 1-2 months into running the kiln, we were concerned about how it was operating. After setting up an on-line meeting, Niels quickly spotted some set point changes that made the kiln operate better,” Justin explained. The installation and operation of the Kiln-direct small lumber kiln has been “a very pleasant experience. The kiln comes as a complete unit and was easily off-loaded onto our concrete slab. Then we anchored it to the slab and connected electric power and gas. Once that was complete, Kiln-direct sent a technician to get us going and to train us on operation and maintenance.”
Willow Run Custom Lumber is family owned and operates with a team of four members. Justin’s father, Randy Schweitzer, is president of the company, while Justin runs the day to day operations. They also have two hourly employees.
Neither Justin nor his father had direct experience in wood products when they founded their business 14 years ago. They did, however, belong to a long lineage of sawyers. “I’m fifth generation in the sawmill industry,” said Justin. “My great-great grandfather had a water mill in upstate New York, which he shut down in the sixties.
Randy’s memories of early days in his father’s mill-he can recall the wooden cheese boxes made there (veneer, manually nailed together)- remained with him. He, like his son, was keen to reestablish their wood products legacy – and more important, start a business.
In its first five years, Willow Run Custom Lumber did a brisk business in supplying hobbyists. “When the recession hit in 2008, a lot of custom work dried up,” said Justin. “We started doing industrial products and green sales. As we added more employees, it became more difficult to do portable sawing. Five to 10 percent [of the business] is still custom sawing and drying. But we no longer go to the customer’s site.”
Most of what Justin initially learned came from professionals in the industry and some from online sources. He also took a one-day “crash course” from Wood-Mizer when he bought his saw. Today, he runs all the machines he owns, depending on need. The engagement is a very rewarding aspect of his profession.
“I am in a unique position where I am able to procure the raw product and literally have a hands-on approach up through the delivery of the finished product,” said Justin. “I literally handle every board that passes through our facility. Not many operations can claim that attention to detail. I enjoy the challenge of obtaining the best quality product for the specific client’s needs.”
Willow Run Custom Lumber is located in Harrisonburg, Virginia, along route 81 in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. The town, which is part of Rockingham County, has a population of 49,000.
With Willow Run’s focus on walnut, the word has spread to sellers of walnut logs. “We have a good reputation as a buyer of walnut,” said Justin. “Most of our wood comes from gate logs. The loggers come in [to the mill].”
Willow Run also buys standing timber. All cutting is subcontracted.
Justin appreciates the attention to detail that Kiln-direct provides. (It mirrors his own.). Not only does Kiln-direct provide great customer service, but the people at Kiln-direct are “real easy to get along with,” said Justin.
Quality is a must for Justin. Being a small company, their prices may not always be the lowest. But he says their company focus is stated well in a quote of Benjamin Franklin’s: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”
When Justin takes time away from his business, his interests are very definite. “I enjoy fly fishing, the outdoors and spending time with my family,” he said.