Improvements Keep Pennyrile Sawmill On the Cutting Edge: Upgrades to Cleereman Headrig Include Scanning and Optimization

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The company has made important upgrades to its head rig — which runs a circular saw-and related improvements in recent years. Several key suppliers had roles in those upgrades: Cleereman Industries, Paw-Taw-John Services, JoeScan, and Nicholson Manufacturing.


CROFTON, Kentucky — One thing Mahlon Graber has learned in the hardwood sawmill business is that it pays to have the flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions.

He owns Pennyrile Sawmill in Crofton, Kentucky, with his father, James. Three of Mahlon’s brothers work in the business: Lester runs the company’s Cat® harvester and helps out in the mulch yard, Stephan is the mill’s production manager, and Solomon works in the mill yard. Stephan also trades off with sawyer Dwayne Miller; each takes a four-hour turn running the head rig.

“We’ve made an effort to adapt to several markets where we try to be competitive,” said Mahlon, whose family is Amish/Mennonite. “Something’s moving all the time. Markets change, and we jump from one to the next. We have multiple options. We can make ties, grade lumber, flooring.” The company also began cutting material for timber mats three years ago and assembling them into finished mats, which it continues to sell. It also began processing residual material into colored mulch.

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Crofton is located in southwest Kentucky, about 85 miles north and west of Nashville, Tenn. Pennyrile Sawmill has about 18,000 square feet under roof and employs about 15 people. The mill cuts an average of 245,000 board feet per week.

One of the company’s steadiest markets is the pallet industry. It cuts cants, rough lumber and dunnage material for pallet manufacturers. About 30 percent of its production is material for the pallet market, with much of it supplied to a neighboring pallet manufacturing business.

Pennyrile Sawmill buys standing timber. It employs a logging crew and relies on additional logging contractors to harvest the trees. About 25-50 percent of the mill’s logs are supplied by those timber harvesting operations, so the company buys a steady volume of wood from loggers.

“We buy all the gate logs we can buy,” said Mahlon. The company buys all hardwood logs, anything from veneer logs to pallet logs. “We can use the whole tree,” noted Mahlon.

Species does not matter. Predominant species are red oak, white oak and poplar. The company buys logs a minimum of 12 inches in diameter and cut to lengths ranging from 8 to 16 feet.

The company has made important upgrades to its head rig — which runs a circular saw-and related improvements in recent years. Several key suppliers had roles in those upgrades: Cleereman Industries, Paw-Taw-John Services, JoeScan, and Nicholson Manufacturing.

It was a project that evolved over several years. The sawmill had an old Cleereman model 40 set shaft log carriage that ran “quite a few years,” noted Paul Cleereman, vice president of Cleereman. Mahlon purchased a Cleereman LP-42 linear carriage that was manufactured in 1997, acquiring it at an auction, and had Cleereman refurbish it and install it four or five years ago. A linear drive carriage enables the sawyer to control each individual knee of the carriage and to move them independently for more precise positioning of the log; a set shaft carriage system moves all the knees together.

“They’ve always wanted to be on the cutting edge,” noted Paul, “wanting to cut faster…They really want to be a step ahead of everybody else.”

“Cleereman has been a very important equipment supplier for us,” said Mahlon.

Cleereman Industries got its start and is still known for log carriages. It recently shipped carriage no. 1,100. “That’s kind of a milestone for us,” said Paul. “We’re servicing over 1,000 sawmills.”

Cleereman has expanded over the years and now manufactures a wide range of sawmill equipment and has preferred suppliers. “We do the whole turnkey mill project now,” noted Paul. “We can do everything from start to finish.” Cleereman’s staff can provide complete engineering services. In addition, the company stocks a complete inventory of parts. “If you need it,” said Paul, “we have it on the shelf.”

To have the potential to upgrade to more modern controls and optimizer, Mahlon invested in a debarking system last fall. The company added a Nicholson r2 (r-squared) ring debarker in November.

Before adding the Nicholson equipment, he did some research on debarkers. For a mill the size of Pennyrile Sawmill, he determined a debarker would generate about five truckloads of bark per week. At Pennyrile Sawmill, the Nicholson r2 ring debarker generates about three truckloads of bark per week. Yet, according to Mahlon, “The logs are cleaner and have much less bark on them.”

Nicholson Manufacturing, based in Sidney, British Columbia, specializes in ring type debarkers. The company offers a range of models for any application — low speed or high speed, softwood or hardwood — for debarking logs for sawmills or mills that produce chips, veneer, oriented strand board, or other wood products. Nicholson debarkers provide excellent production of debarked logs and debarking quality, ease of maintenance, and years of reliable service.

The Nicholson r2 model is designed to provide the superior debarking and fiber saving benefits of a ring debarker in lower speed (50 fpm) applications. Its production capability and competitive price contribute to a significant value advantage over other applications, according to Nicholson. It is available in a 40-inch ring size, which is designed to debark logs up to 38 inches in diameter.

“It seems like the r-squared gets more of the bark off,” added Mahlon, yet reduces the amount of wood fiber it removes.

The Cleereman LP-42 linear carriage used old Silvatech controls and light curtain scanning system, but Silvatech is no longer in business, and the sawmill began experiencing problems with the controls.

The company subsequently decided to add Paw-Taw-John optimized controls — purchased new at an auction — with a JoeScan scanning system. Paw-Taw-John, one of only a small handful of companies that supply log carriage controls, is a preferred supplier to Cleereman, and JoeScan is a preferred supplier to Paw-Taw-John.

“That’s been a good investment for us,” said Mahlon.

The project to upgrade the controls on the head rig was completed on a weekend in January. Pennyrile added the new controls and scanner. At the same time, Mahlon decided to upgrade to a more powerful carriage drive from Cleereman.

The old carriage drive ran for 10 years and was very dependable, noted Mahlon. However, when the Cleereman LP-42 linear carriage was added four years ago, the old 100 hp carriage drive was being “maxed out,” said Mahlon.

He elected to replace it with a Cleereman 200 hp hydrostatic carriage drive. In his experience, over-sizing equipment and running it at lower capacity increases equipment life, said Mahlon.

“The drive has been a good investment as well,” reported Mahlon, performing fast, consistent but still smoothly. “It’s increased our production.”

Cleereman manufactures hydrostatic carriage drives of 75, 100, 150, and 200 hp. All of the carriages are equipped with programmable electronic adjustable controls, enabling them to be tailored to the sawyer’s capabilities and experience level. “No other manufacturer makes such powerful hydrostatic drives,” said Paul. In fact, the company installs quite a few of its hydrostatic drives on the carriages of other manufacturers, he said.

Cleereman hydrostatic carriage drives are very energy efficient, according to Paul. They only use power when the sawyer moves the control arm. Idling, they require little power. That translates to significant savings in electricity for customers compared to other carriage feed systems, according to Paul.

Technicians from Paw-Taw-John and Cleereman worked over a weekend to complete the improvements, replacing the carriage drive, controls, and scanner. Come Monday, the head saw, which runs blades supplied by Simonds or B.H. Payne, was cutting again.

“We had to get them up and running (by Monday) so they wouldn’t lose any production,” said Matthew Mittan, a systems engineer and hydraulic specialist with Paw-Taw-John who performed the installation work.

Matt revisited the company’s mill in recent months to modify the controls for Pennyrile. “They’re real specific on how they like to cut and how fast they like to cut,” said Matt. “We did some modifications to adapt to their wants and needs.”

“They’ve just been great,” Mahlon said of the Paw-Taw-John staff. “Great people, great friends.” The supplier’s employees have been “very helpful” with any updates or upgrades to the controls.

The scanners supplied by JoeScan® were the company’s new JS-25 X6B scan head, a high-performance, six-laser scanner designed for high-density, snap-shot scanning on carriage head rigs. It was engineered to make it easy for optimizer and sawmills to upgrade obsolete carriage scanning systems, often reusing the existing scan frame.

The JS-25 X6B scan head takes six profiles, each spaced 6 inches apart, with each profile measuring up to 35 inches wide. It provides a high-density scan in less than 6 inches of travel. Each scan head can be mounted end-to-end to scan any length of log on 6-inch spacing.

The JS-25 X6B uses an Ethernet interface, allowing the optimizer to communicate directly with the scanner without special hardware. The scan head’s built-in profile processing eliminates the need for large numbers of PCs to process the image data. The interface enables users to configure and calibrate the scanner on their PCs and to view real-time profile data and camera images.

“Because of our dedication to sawmills, we felt it was important to give sawmills a better option for upgrading obsolete carriage scanning hardware,” said Joey Nelson, president and founder of JoeScan. “The JS-25 X6B is an easy upgrade that provides higher scan rates, double the scan density, and is based on the sawmill-proven reliability of the JS-25 platform.”

The JoeScan scanners have “done really well,” reported Mahlon. “They scan very fast and consistent. Even with rougher logs, the system does pretty well.”

So, what kind of results did Pennyrile Sawmill achieve with the improvements? “We’ve increased about seven to eight percent on yield…and a sufficient amount of production as well,” said Mahlon. He estimated it at four to five percent.

Keeping the mill productive is important to Mahlon and his own ingenuity has contributed toward that end. Eight years ago he invented a quick-change mandrel for sawmills that features removable plates. It can be switched out in minutes eliminating costly downtime associated with machining the wear surface of a conventional mandrel. He obtained a patent for it and it is now being marketed as the AccraMax Quick-Change Mandrel. It is manufactured by Troyer Brothers Inc. in Indiana. The company also serves as one of the sales and marketing arms for the AccraMax. (For more information, call (260)568-2534.)

On the mill yard, logs are sorted by species. They pass through the Nicholson debarker before going to the MDI metal detector. The log trough carries the debarked logs to the mill infeed system. The head rig squares up the log, and a drop-belt conveyor carries away the slabs. The head saw also is used to remove a few boards, and they are routed to a Cornell three-saw combination edger to be edged into finished lumber. The squared-up log is kicked off the carriage and moved to a Brewco horizontal band resaw to remove more boards. The Brewco resaw, which can handle squares up to 16×16, is fully automated; a run-around system returns the square to the saw to resume removing boards until the cant is finally kicked off.

Finished lumber is ultimately conveyed to a green chain grading line. The company has lumber graded, and boards are pulled and stacked by hand. All production is sold green.

The sawmill’s material handling equipment was manufactured by various suppliers, including Mellot Manufacturing.

Grade markets have improved in recent years, noted Mahlon. The mill currently cutting about 50 percent grade lumber. The remaining roughly 20 percent of production is dunnage, ties, and mat timbers.

The mill is currently transitioning to a new vendor for log and lumber inventory solutions and handheld computers. Its

current supplier is moving customers to a cloud hosted system and Mahlon wants to maintain mill data on his own company servers. Mahlon stated that the new vendor, eLIMBS, LLC, based in Belpre, Ohio has been extremely helpful and has done well in working to accommodate his needs.

The sawmill originally was started by a neighboring pallet company, Pennyrile Pallets. The pallet company, led by Melvin Kauffman and Leland Yoder, has remained a good customer of the sawmill. Mahlon reflected on the continued relationship and expressed much gratitude, “I am so thankful for all the help, friendship, and ongoing business. It has truly been a blessing knowing and working with the people at Pennyrile Pallets.”

Mahlon’s appreciation for people turned toward his own workforce. “You can’t do anything without good employees,” he said, “We really have been blessed.” He commented specifically on the great work of his sawyers, Stephen and Duane.”

“The spring brought some challenges though,” reported Mahlon. A paper mill closed that had provided a market for boiler fuel. Accordingly, the company was not able to move as much of its residual material. “So we started a mulch business,” said Mahlon.

The company already was equipped with a Bandit Beast 3680 grinder for processing slabs into grindings. It added a used Morbark 1200XL tub grinder. The Bandit machine still is used to perform a primary grind of slab material, and the Morbark machine is used for a secondary grind. The company also grinds bark into mulch and produces both natural and colored mulch. Mulch is sold wholesale to landscape companies and nurseries.

The company logging crew is equipped with a Cat 522 track harvester with a Risley Equipment Rolly III processor attachment, John Deere skidders, and a Prentice knuckleboom loader with CTR slasher saw. Mahlon tries to provide steady work for logging contractors who bring the company gate logs, too. “I try not to shut off my raw material suppliers,” he said. The mill keeps an inventory of about 1-3 million board feet of logs on the yard. If his inventory gets too high, instead of turning away loggers or putting them on quotas, Mahlon can have them deliver wood to another mill that custom cuts specialty logs for Pennyrile.

The Cleeremans have a genuine friendship with the Grabers that goes beyond business, according to Paul. His parents have spent time visiting the Grabers for days at a time, staying in the Amish home. Mahlon has been to Wisconsin to visit with the Cleeremans and speaks by phone with Fran weekly. “There’s quite a relationship there over the years, with my dad in particular.”

“That’s how this industry is,” added Paul. “You make a lot of friendships along the way.”

Mahlon echoed the sentiment expressed by Paul. He considers the owners of Cleereman to be personal friends, he said. “I know them all very well. They’ve been a blessing in my life.”

There was something else Mahlon wanted to make sure was included in this article. “I want to thank the Lord,” he said, “for He’s the one that provided all these things. He’s the one who should get the praise and honor.”

(For more information on Cleereman Industries and its products, visit; for more information on JoeScan, visit; for information on Paw-Taw-John, visit; for information on Nicholson, visit