Ohio Lumber Mill Operating Again Following Fire, Rebuild

Cleereman Lumber Pro is Centerpiece of Sawmill at Winesburg Hardwood & Pallet
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DUNDEE, Ohio — Winesburg Hardwood & Pallet is still recovering from a fire that destroyed the company’s sawmill nearly a year ago, but they are up and running again thanks to a longtime supplier, Cleereman Industries.

At the helm of the lumber company and its affiliated business units is Robert Coblentz, 64, the patriarch of the Amish family. Robert spends most of his time overseeing the sawmill while his son, Bryan, 40, and Bryan’s four brothers are involved in the other operations. Although Robert and Bryan were the spokesmen for this article, the company is very much a family enterprise and all are involved in the daily operations and success of the business.

The company is located in Dundee, Ohio, in the western portion of the state and about 70-odd miles south of Cleveland. It is located in the Appalachian Plateau region — the rugged high plains on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains. The northern section of the plateau is known for its quality northern hardwoods, like sugar maple and white oak.

Beside the log yard and sawmill, the company’s sprawling operations include dry kilns, lumber sorting operations, furniture manufacturing and finishing, a flooring mill, and pallet manufacturing. They invested in dry kilns in the late 1990s and began offering kiln-dried lumber to customers.

Viewing the company’s facilities today, it’s hard to imagine the humble beginning of the business whose origin began when Robert and his father, Levi, began buying and harvesting timber and selling logs in 1975. They decided to establish a small sawmill about a year later, and it was about a year after that when they got into the pallet business with a friend whom they eventually bought.

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The flooring and furniture manufacturing operations were added later. Bryan and other third generation members of the family recommended diversifying the business, and in 2001 they ventured slowly into furniture, first making doors and chairs. Today the company makes complete custom dining and bedroom furniture, selling to a network of dealers. In 2015 they began a twoyear expansion that enabled them to triple production. The company’s operations are fully integrated, from standing timber to its own fleet of delivery trucks.

The mainstay of the company, however, has been the sawmill and lumber operations. When Robert and his father built their first sawmill, within a few years they began doing business with Cleereman Industries. “We hit it off very well,” he said, with the Cleereman family.

From the beginning of the first mill, the sawmill was added onto 12 times over the years, and various equipment added or upgraded, and mill production capacity increased. Before the fire that struck in July last year, the mill and its various additions contained close to 30,000 square feet, and its operations employed 25-30 people. Production was about 18-19,000 board feet per day.

The fire started in a sawdust bin about 5:30 one afternoon, after the mill was closed. A truck driver with a load of logs actually spotted smoldering smoke and was in the process of trying to extinguish it and calling 911 when the flames ignited. The mill was a total loss, including the lumber remanufacturing operations to make pallet components and the pallet manufacturing operations.

Remarkably, the Coblentzes did not have to lay off any employees. “We kept everybody busy,” recalled Robert. They quickly contracted with another sawmill and hauled their logs to that company within a few weeks, and they contracted with a few other companies for some other operations. Some employees worked at the other mill in the interim, and some were absorbed in the company’s furniture and flooring operations. Others with mechanical ability were tapped to begin building the infrastructure of the new mill.

The mill that was destroyed by fire was equipped with a Cleereman carriage and circular saw head rig and also 54-inch McDonough band resaw. “I thought it was the greatest thing there ever was,” said Robert, referring to the Cleereman carriage and head saw.

In replacing the old mill, the company went with a 25,000-square-foot steel building. The Coblentzes had some excavating work done to re-shape the area where the new mill building would be constructed. The centerpiece of the sawmill is a new Cleereman 62-inch Lumber Pro head rig.

Because of his relationship with Fran Cleereman, there was little doubt in Robert’s mind about turning to Cleereman to replace the sawmill’s head rig. “Whatever he told us, we were going to consider,” he said.

They began discussions with Cleereman about a week following the fire. Cleereman referred them to several customers equipped with Lumber Pro as well as conventional head rigs and suggested they visit those mills to take a look at them in operation, which they did. They went to the Cleereman offices in Wisconsin about a month or so later to finalize their decision. The goal was to be up and running around the end of March. The new mill was operational by mid-April.

Robert was suitably impressed with the engineering department and the staff that Cleereman sent to install and set up the Lumber Pro. When they installed the track for the band mill, for example, if the track height differentiated by as little as 0.002- inch, the technicians put in a shim to level it.

The process of equipping the new mill was “a very good experience,” said Robert. “Cleereman’s known for that,” he added. The company’s first Cleereman carriage was a rebuilt one purchased in the late 1970s, Robert noted. “They’re as good as new.” They upgraded to a new carriage from Cleereman in the 1990s.

The Coblentzes still buy their own timber, but now they use logging contractors for timber harvesting. Logs are harvested tree-length and trucked to the mill. Dominant species are soft maple, hard maple, white oak, red oak, cherry, and some poplar.

Robert compared managing forests and harvesting timber to farming and growing and harvesting a crop. The company is going back to some forests where timber was harvested 30 years ago and harvesting more trees.

The company purchased a new Nicholson R2 ring debarker with the 2-speed option that is proprietary to Cleereman Industries, replacing an old Rosser head debarker, in rebuilding the sawmill. Cleereman also provided the sub steel package with the debarker operator cab. They bought a used Reckart three-saw edger and rebuilt it and purchased a couple of other used machines, including a Precision chipper and a Crosby double-end trimmer.

The slabs from the head rig are conveyed directly to the chipper. The flitches and side boards go directly to the edger and then to a grading station before trimming. Employees pull boards by hand from the green chain. Grade lumber that will be dried and later used in the company’s own furniture or flooring operations or sold is pulled off and immediately stacked with stickers. Grade lumber production that will be sold green and low-grade lumber is stacked and stored in the yard.

About half the company’s lumber production is dried, and the rest is sold green or used in the company’s own operations. For drying lumber the company has four Nova Dry Kilns with a combined capacity of 80,000 board feet. The company uses about half of its grade lumber production in its flooring and furniture operations and sells the rest of it. Lumber is sold random length and random width.

The company’s principal customer for lumber is Brenneman Lumber Company, a brokerage business that operates a concentration yard and other facilities about 60 miles west.

Some of the company’s sawdust is used for fuel to fire the boiler that provides hot water for the dry kilns. Some sawdust along with the company’s bark is supplied to Smith Brothers Inc. in Medina, about 50- odd miles north, a business that produces mulch, compost, and similar products. Chips are supplied to paper mills in Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

The portion of the mill where rough green lumber is remanufactured into pallet parts is equipped with an optimizing chop saw and a double-arbor gang saw. An M2L board stacker from Pallet Machinery Group automatically stacks finished deck boards or stringers. The company has two Viking pallet nailing machines, a 304 Champion and a QC306 Champion. The pallet operations also include a Kiln-Direct heat-treat system to produce pallets that comply with ISPM-15 for export shipments; the certification process for ISPM-15 compliance is handled by Timber Products Inspection.

Although they had some experience with a band mill resaw, the Cleereman Lumber Pro is the first head rig the mill has had that cuts with a band saw. “I feel good about it right now,” said Robert.

Unlike a conventional head saw, the log carriage is stationary, and the band mill is propelled on tracks. It also runs a doublecut blade and saws the logs in both directions, going and coming. The Lumber Pro is optimized with Paw Taw John controls, which utilize Joe Scan 3D scanners.

The Cleereman Lumber Pro thin kerf system is set up on a 17-degree slant. “Which is very nice,” noted Robert. “Your gravity starts working for you,” and the slab or side board falls easily into a conveyor.

The company runs 10-inch-wide, double cut bandsaw blades manufactured by Simonds. Filing and sharpening is done by a local company that picks up used blades weekly and delivers serviced blades. Although the mill has been rebuilt and is operating, production is not at 100 percent yet as they tweak some operations. Some machinery is still being set up in the pallet operations, too.

Average daily lumber production is up to 20,000 board feet at this point. “We’re happy with what we’ve seen so far,” said Bryan. At the same time, the process is similar to starting up a new plant, noted Robert. “We should be better in six months,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”

Robert has done business with Cleereman since his father bought his first head saw from them in the late 1970s. It was a foregone conclusion they would turn to Cleereman to rebuild the mill. “We had no reason to think of anything else,” said Robert. He has built strong business relationships over the years with companies like Cleereman and Brennaman, noted Robert.

Those kinds of ties go beyond business.

“We’re not just partners in business,” added Robert. “We’ve become friends.”

Fran Cleereman, too, appreciates the lasting friendship that has developed since that first business interaction several decades ago.

Robert offered an interesting observation on partnering with suppliers and customers. “To be successful, you have to surround yourself with successful people, like the Cleeremans,” he said, as well as companies like Brenneman Lumber Company and Smith Brothers.

Wisconsin-based Cleereman Industries has developed and manufactured sawmill machinery for over 60 years. The Lumber Pro thin kerf band mill is the company’s most recent innovation. Available as either a 54-inch or 62-inch band mill, it can readily be installed and sawing high grade lumber in days. It is designed to operate on a 17-degree slant with a stationary carriage, with several models available. The Lumber Pro is a double-cut and saws in both directions. It features either high performance air, hydraulic, or hydraulic linear setworks with 3D scanning option and Brownsville turners with rotary bar turner.

Cleereman also manufactures related sawmill equipment as well as material handling systems and sawmill packages. The list of products includes carriage drives and carriage rails and track frames, debarkers, log turners, and conveying and handling equipment for cant resaw, board edger, and trim and grading machine centers.

(For more information, visit the company’s website at www.cleereman.com, email info@cleereman.com, or call (715) 674-2700.)

The Coblentzes are members of several trade associations, including the National Hardwood Lumber Association, the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, and the Ohio Forestry Association. They were very satisfied with the way their insurance carrier handled the fire claim. “They were very reasonable with us,” said Robert. “They were very nice to work with.”

For now the Coblentzes are focused on fine-tuning the rebuilt mill and new machine centers and have no other immediate plans. “You never say never,” observed Robert, although they have no other plans for now.

“You’re always looking to get better,” added Bryan.