Vermont Sawmill Serves Firewood Market in Northeast

Clifford Lumber Relies on Longstanding Cord King Processor
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HINESBURG, Vermont – Six degrees of separation…how about one degree? Perhaps it’s inevitable two wood-products industry doers – Lynn Gardner, partner at Clifford Lumber, and Stephan Maisonneuve, president and CEO of Cord King – were destined to find a connection. Even so, when the link is a Cord King firewood processor that has been serving Clifford Lumber for 26 years, the connection becomes mighty interesting.

Lynn Gardner, a partner at Clifford Lumber, launched the firewood portion of his multifaceted sawmill with a Cord King model 54. That machine continues to process all firewood, which accounts for 25 percent of the product line at Clifford Lumber. “[It’s] one of the best machines on the market – the slasher saw is very important [and] the V-splitter,” said Lynn. “[It’s] very efficient.”

The Cord King venture began in 1974 and commercialized in 1978, the company a pioneer in building firewood processing equipment. Stephan, who is also the current owner of the company, was drawn to it because of its “excellence” and the people who make it so, he explained. “This year, we are celebrating 40 years of business. We are currently doing business in more than 20 countries around the world and are still expanding. [The] strength of this company is the quality and dedication of my staff. They are passion driven. They build these machines as if they were making [them] for themselves…”

The longevity of the Cord King is a natural fit at Clifford Lumber, which was established by Lynn’s grandfather in 1929. Lynn acquired the company in 1972. Today, he, his wife Marie Gardner, and his son Peter Gardner are partners in the business.

Lynn recalls how he came to start a firewood product line and why he chose Cord King. “In the early ‘90s, I was talking with a college friend, Ron Colton – his brother Ray owns Colton Enterprises, the largest kiln-dried firewood company in Vermont. Ron planted the seeds that being in Chittenden County [Lynn’s location] there was a huge unmet demand for firewood.”

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With the idea planted in their minds, Lynn and Marie began traveling around New England to look at other firewood operations. They observed that most of the commercial firewood processors at the time were chainsaw type. And they assessed that Cord King with a slasher saw was out-producing them.

“The ease of operation and design sold us on buying a Cord King,” said Lynn, emphasizing he also very much liked the Vshape splitter.

On average, Clifford Lumber produces 1250 cords per year of firewood. “We have had three high years – 2000 cords, and two very poor years – 400 cords,” said Lynn.

Cord King’s service and assistance over the years has been important to Lynn. He noted that the staff at Cord King has been, and is, very knowledgeable and helpful in keeping his firewood processor producing. Whether it’s maintenance information, supplying parts, or even suggestions on his equipment modifications, Lynn has appreciated Cord King’s orientation toward meeting its customers’ particular needs.

As Lynn is very keen on innovation and improvement, so is Stephan.

“I started to weld and operate a chain saw when I was eight years old,” says Stephan. “My dad was an excavation contractor and he also built his own sawmill.” The array of equipment on his father’s roster got Stephan involved in maintenance and he learned a lot. But it was a chance encounter that led to his buying Cord King. Stephan is a pilot. He was looking for a plane and the previous owner of Cord King had one for sale. When he learned that Cord King was also for sale, he bought the business. (Lynn is also a pilot.)

To push back the spread of the emerald ash borer and the woolly aphid, all firewood produced by Clifford Lumber must be kiln dried. Lynn uses one-half cord steel crates, which he designed and had fabricated, to hold the firewood. The kilns used to dry firewood are also his own design. They are made from overseas shipping containers.

“We cut and split the firewood and then it goes up the conveyor into one-half cord steel crates,” explained Lynn. “Then the wood is loaded into one of our eight-cord fired kilns. The wood is dried to 18 percent or less moisture, which takes five to seven days.”

The heat source for the kilns is wood waste – slab wood and four-inch pieces, which comes from the lumber mill. A small portion of the firewood is wrapped for sale, mostly it’s the kindling sticks. “Wrapped wood is very, very competitive here in Vermont,” said Lynn. Wrapping is done with a machine from Twister Industries.

“[Raw material] is delivered from the forest to our yard and stacked,” explained Lynn. “Wood is moved to and from the firewood [processor] with a Bobcat S-250 skid steer loader. This is a two-man operation – one running the wood cutter, one feeding the mill with the skid steer. The firewood is loaded into the steel baskets or truck under the conveyor.”

In the future, Lynn may be able to speed his processing operation further. That’s thanks to something on the horizon from Cord King.

“We are working on a revolutionary piece of equipment that will dry wood in a continuous conveyor belt that will eliminate bugs completely,” said Stephan. “We are working to get certification done by the end of 2019.” He went on to state that the new equipment “will be sold to clients who are part of the Cord King family.”

Stephan said that close attention to the changing needs of customers drives innovation at Cord King and excellence is the mindset that guides all endeavors. “We always try to look at things from a different angle and simply engineer the best,” he explained. “All of our equipment is custom built to the exact specifications of each client. We reverse engineer each machine starting with an understanding of the client’s operation,” Stephan continued, “and purpose to build the most productive machine possible tailored to the customer’s needs.”

Stephan pointed out that Cord King also backs its equipment with one of the best warranty packages in the industry; life time on the cutting chamber, two years bumper-to-bumper, and three years on the engine. He shared with TimberLine that Cord King was featured on the television show, “World’s Greatest” and directed readers to his company’s website to view a video.

“Re-inventing is an exciting process,” said Stephan. In that context he gives a nod to the expertise of chief engineer, David Kravacek, who is “one of the best in the industry and been with the company for 20 years,” he explained.

Lynn also knows firsthand the necessity and the vigor that derives from re-invention. “Our sawmill of 25 years burned down on December 29, 2007,” he said. Peter took responsibility for building a new mill, which was up and running by mid- June 2008.

The head rig in the mill is a circular Lane with computerized setworks purchased from and installed by Thomas Industrial Controls. It feeds a Baker ABX resaw with a merry-go-round feed system. Lumber – kiln-dried, shiplap, tongue and groove, D4S, hardwood flooring, timbers, rough lumber — accounts for 70 percent of the product line at Clifford Lumber. Wooden boxes account for five percent.

The planer mill at Lynn’s company runs with two Weinig moulders – a Unimat 17A and a Profimat 23E, as well as a Crescent 25, a Newman 36 and a P-24 planer. The mill also has cut-off saws and straightline rip saws.

Lumber is dried with a side-loading kiln from Kiln-Direct, which Lynn purchased used. The heat source on the lumber kiln is propane.

Clifford Lumber is based in Hinesburg, Vermont, a town with a population of 4,400. Chittenden County is located in the northwest part of the state and the entire western edge of the county aligns with Lake Champlain. Cord King is headquartered in Perth, Ontario, Canada.

Clifford Lumber purchases logs from suppliers within a 60-mile radius of Hinesburg. All logs come from managed forests. Lumber and boxes produced by Clifford Lumber are sold all across New England.

The team at Clifford Lumber includes six full-time and one part-time employee in addition to Lynn, Marie and Peter. The company has a straight-forward philosophy.

“[We] consistently produce a good quality product at a fair price,” explained Lynn. “Eighty percent of our sales are repeat customers.”

Clifford Lumber belongs to the Northern Loggers Association and Vermont Woodlands. The company sells all its byproducts – sawdust to farmers, bark to landscapers, slabs not burned become wood chips, etc. The company uses a Precision 48-inch chipper to breakdown byproducts. Three delivery trucks – one-ton dump trucks all, a log loader truck with a Prentice loader, and pickup trucks keep the products and company moving.

Lynn is very happy with the professional path he chose. “I started working in the sawmill the summer I turned 15,” he said. That was in 1964. He remembers how he was immediately captivated by the machinery, the rugged life, the outdoors, the sound of the saws, and the smell of lumber.

“I learn something new every day,” said Lynn. Firewood markets have changed greatly in the last several years, he explained. Keeping pace with the changes is a challenge and it’s also an opportunity to grow stronger.

Only recently did Lynn meet Stephan. “I just was introduced to him at the Northern Loggers Expo and look forward to a long-term working relationship,” he said. On a related trade show note, Cord King will be exhibiting at the EuroForest trade show near Lyon, France in late June.

Lynn’s time away from Clifford Lumber is fully engaged. “I am a private airplane pilot – [we] have a winter home in Costa Rica.” And he’s involved in local politics.

Spending winters in Costa Rica, Lynn has had the opportunity to visit many sawmills and teak farms in that beautiful nation over the years.