Northland Forest Products a Player in Thermal Modification of Lumber, Selects WDE Maspell

WDE Maspell thermal treatment system was purchased from SII and began operating in January 2017. It is the first WDE Maspell system sold by SII and the third in the U.S. The WDE Maspell thermal treating system processes 3,500 to 4,000 board feet of lumber per charge. Tony Lawson (below), kiln manager at the Troy, Virginia location of NFP. Thermal modification produces lumber products that are a uniform rich brown in color
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A New Hampshire-based hardwood lumber company with operations in Virginia is helping blaze the trail for thermally modified lumber products. And they’re doing it with the help of SII Dry Kilns, the North American representative for WDE Maspell, a leader in thermal modification technology as well as the originator of vacuum drying technology.

Northland Forest Products (NFP) produces about 20 million board feet of kilndried lumber products annually between its locations in the two states and employs 67 people. Both facilities are lumber concentration yards with kilns to dry lumber, and they also are equipped to provide valueadded services.

The New Hampshire operations are located in Kingston, which is in the southeast corner of the state and close to Massachusetts. The Virginia operations, added in 1984, are based in Troy, which is located between Richmond and Charlottesville.

NFP is owned and led by Jameson (‘Jamey’) French, CEO, whose father founded the business in 1970. “Jamey has been a leader and a great advocate for our industry,” said Scott Seyler, vice president for international sales.

Since its inception, the business always has operated as a concentration yard — buying green hardwood lumber produced by sawmills and drying it, and later expanding operations to add value to it for customers.

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“A unique thing about our company is that in Virginia we are close to nice white oak, poplar, and red oak, Appalachian hardwood species, and in New Hampshire we have access to the Northern hardwoods, like white ash, northern red oak, hard maple, soft maple, and yellow birch,” said Scott. NFP also offers cherry and walnut.

The Virginia plant sources lumber primarily from producers in Virginia while the New Hampshire plant buys lumber from mills in the New England states plus New York and Pennsylvania.

NFP buys rough-sawn hardwoods, mainly random length and random width. It buys 4/4 through 16/4 thicknesses. “We offer a wide variety of species and thicknesses and have a diverse inventory,” noted Scott. “Because of our diverse locations…we like to say we can offer the best of Northern hardwoods and Appalachian hardwoods,” said Scott. “We try to keep a diverse inventory of species and thicknesses…for product diversity for our customers.”

The value-added services the company offers include ripped widths, surfacing, and sorting for width and length. NFP will ship mixed truckloads of products as well as mixed containers.

The company has Weima grinders at both facilities in Virginia and New Hampshire for processing cut-offs, and the grindings are used for its wood waste-fired boilers. Shavings are supplied to poultry farmers.

NFP was interested in entering the arena of thermally treated lumber products for two reasons, explained Scott. “NFP has had a tradition of innovation,” he said, going back to being one of the first companies to offer ripped strips, mixed container loads, containers with multiple species and multiple thicknesses of lumber. “That kind of innovation motivated the company to stay on the cutting edge of this new technology.”

“The environmental aspect was very appealing to us,” he added. “We saw a market for ‘green’ building products,” a higher utilization of the hardwood resource.

Thermal modification of wood, which has been practiced in Europe for a number of years, involves heating the wood at high temperatures — think of an oven — in the absence of oxygen. The process essentially removes moisture from the wood — more so than the kiln-drying process. With thermal modification, the cellular structure of the wood is actually changed, imparting new qualities to the wood, notably, coloring the wood brown and significantly enhancing its stability and durability. Stability relates to the wood’s ability to absorb less moisture and lose less moisture. Durability relates to its ability to resist fungal decay. Those qualities make it suitable for exterior applications, such as building products.

NFP invested in thermal modification technology from a European supplier and began producing thermally modified lumber products in New Hampshire in 2008. However, the system was destroyed in a fire in 2016.

In the interval, NFP had expanded its operations in Virginia and had a 20 year long relationship with SII. North Carolinabased SII supplied two cross-flow pre-dryers — each with a capacity of 225,000 board feet — and a new kiln that began operating in January 2013. (NFP has seven dry kilns in all at Troy and four in Kingston.) SII also retrofitted kilns in New Hampshire with new roofs and control systems.

NFP made additional investments in equipment for its Virginia plant in 2013. It added an HMC multi-saw trimmer to its main production line. (This year it added a new Pendu multi-saw trimmer to its secondary grading line.) And it added a Kentwood six-head moulder so it can remanufacture thermally treated lumber into profile form for siding.

SII’s involvement in thermal modification of lumber dates back to 2008. “We initially represented an Asian manufacturer but within a year or so dissolved that relationship on very friendly terms,” said SII president Dan Mathews. The company had invested time and resources in learning about the process and technology and decided to seek an agreement to represent another supplier rather than enter the arena of manufacturing thermal modification systems itself. “We wanted to represent someone who invested in R & D, made a quality product and stood behind it,” said Dan.

In 2014, SII had supplied dry kilns to Bingaman & Son Lumber, Inc., a Pennsylvania hardwood producer. Dan met Chris Bingaman a few years earlier while both were researching thermal modification equipment of the same Asian manufacturer which Chris ultimately purchased and utilized for a few years. Bingaman later chose to change to a different thermal modification system. Company executives made a trip to Europe to meet WDE Maspell president, Ernesto Pagnozzi, and purchased two systems from the Italian manufacturer.

When Dan learned of Bingaman’s decision, he followed up with Scott Shaffer of Bingaman monthly for about six months after the new units were operating to learn about their experience. Their staff was very pleased both with the performance of the WDE Maspell thermal modification chambers as well as the company’s service after the sale.

It was based largely on Bingaman’s favorable relationship with WDE Maspell that Dan sought to represent the Italian company, and SII and WDE Maspell entered into an agreement in January 2016. SII also represents WDE Maspell for its line of vacuum dry kilns. SII personnel have received training from WDE Maspell on multiple occasions and provide service for WDE Maspell systems.

WDE Maspell has produced vacuum lumber dryers since 1962 and thermal modification systems since 2011. It is one of the best known manufacturers of vacuum technology with over 5,000 customers and 91 patents throughout the world.

The WDE Maspell thermal modification system is the only system that modifies the lumber in a vacuum, noted Dan. That’s a plus because the vacuum helps the wood maintain more mechanical strength as well as remove an odor associated with the process.

The association of SII and WDE Maspell combines the best available vacuum technology and equipment with the best customer service and skilled technicians in North America.

“One of the reasons we’ve been so impressed with WDE Maspell is that they have been dedicated to working with several universities in Europe to analyze and study thermal modification and how it changes the wood,” said Dan.

“Not only does WDE Maspell bring this new technology to our line of offerings but their extensive experience with vacuum drying is an absolute bonus,” said Dan. Vacuum kilns and thermal treatment systems complement SII’s conventional dry kilns, he added. “We now have the ability to provide quality products for any drying need you may have.”

On a personal note, Dan was pleased to learn that WDE Maspell, like SII Dry Kilns, is a family business that has involved three generations.

When NFP researched the available thermal treating technology the second time around, it was impressed with WDE Maspell, said Scott.

“We also focused on working with SII. We had a great deal of confidence in them from working with them on the pre-dryers and kilns. That positive working relationship of a good supplier that was knowledgeable and stood by their products…was also a determining factor in working with them.”

NFP purchased a WDE Maspell thermal treatment system from SII and decided to have it located in Virginia instead of New Hampshire. It began operating in January 2017. It is the first WDE Maspell system sold by SII and the third in the U.S. The WDE Maspell thermal treating system processes 3,500 to 4,000 board feet of lumber per charge. The treatment process takes about 36 hours.

The start-up “went very smoothly,” reported Scott. “SII did an excellent job of coordinating the delivery and installation. Any time you put in a new system like that, it’s a huge endeavor…making sure you are modifying the wood correctly…We had a very smooth delivery, installation, and startup.”

“We trusted our instincts,” said Scott, based on the company’s previous experience with SII. “Our experience with them was as seamless as the installation and startup of the SII pre-dryers and kiln.”

“We’re very pleased with the performance…and having it in that location.”

NFP markets thermally modified lumber products under the Cambia brand name. The name comes from the word cambium, which is the active growth layer between a tree’s sapwood and the bark. As a tree grows, the cambium produces new wood. Similarly, the process to make Cambia wood products results in ‘new’ wood, observed Scott.

The company offers Cambia products in yellow poplar, white ash, red oak, and soft maple. “It’s exciting to have a good, well-functioning oven in Virginia,” added Scott, “where we have access to a lot of the species we talk about.” Products include siding, trim, ripped blanks, pulled widths, and rough lumber.

One reason the company decided to locate the system in Virginia was its proximity to poplar timber and lumber. The company’s Cambia line of siding products are manufactured from thermally modified poplar.

“Poplar makes an ideal species for siding production,” noted Scott. “It grows tall and straight and has minimal defects, properties that lend itself well to siding.” For people who want an open grain look, thermally- treated ash is a good choice, he suggested.

Thermal modification produces lumber products that are a uniform rich brown in color, and a look on the Cambia website (www.cambia.com) shows some samples. Along with other properties, the color makes it a nice replacement for hardwoods from tropical regions.

“We really focus on the environmental benefits of it,” said Scott. Thermal treatment produces a solid wood product with good stability and durability, and it has the same appearance as dark, exotic wood species. It requires the use of no chemicals, such as pressure-treated wood. The finished wood product has a very low carbon footprint and a better life cycle analysis than an artificial wood product or a composite, said Scott. And wood is a renewable, sustainable resource. “We’re excited about the environmental benefits of using it in outdoor applications,” he continued.

“It’s a chemical-free process,” added Scott. “This process only uses heat. It’s a natural product that comes from a fast-generating wood species, like poplar. That’s a great environmental story.”

“We can produce a dark, exotic wood from a species like yellow poplar that has good mechanical properties,” observed Scott. “We really found that attractive.” Yellow poplar is an abundant, fast-growing forest resource, allowing more rare tropical hardwoods in endangered rainforests to be conserved.

“With thermal modification, you want to have that uniform color change and enhanced mechanical properties while minimizing degrade,” said Scott.

“We’ve had a really good experience,” he said, with SII and the manufacturer. The system produces “very good color, very good yield.”

“They are one of the leading companies when it comes to thermally modified wood,” observed Dan.

The process of kiln-drying lumber reduces it to a target moisture content of 7-10 percent, noted Scott. The moisture content of thermally-treated wood “is much less than that,” said Scott.

Thermal-treated poplar and ash have a class 1 durability rating based on European Union standards. “It has the same durability class as teak and ipe,” said Scott.

The wood-database.com refers to teak, which is used in boat building, as the “gold standard” for resistance to decay. Ipe is another tropical hardwood with similar properties for durability and weather resistance and is known for its use in exterior decks.

There is only a small handful of U.S. lumber companies that produce thermallytreated wood products, according to Scott. About 2 percent of the company’s overall production is the Cambia line. “We are growing our markets for Cambia organically,” said Scott.

NFP expects the market for thermallytreated wood products to grow. “It will grow…as builders and developers become more aware of the importance of a product’s life cycle analysis,” said Scott.

In addition, consumers are becoming more educated and aware of product origins and life cycle analysis, and issues like sustainability and legality. As they become more knowledgeable about product information, demand for thermally-treated wood products will grow, predicted Scott.

As the market grows, it will open up more opportunities for the hardwood industry, observed Scott.

For marketing its Cambia line, NFP has relied mainly on its website and social media. It also exhibits at trade shows that showcase home building products.

About half of NFP’s overall lumber business volume is in domestic markets, and the other half in export markets. The company ships to 26 countries.

The export portion of the business has grown in the past five years, acknowledged Scott. NFP worked with the New Hampshire International Commerce Office and participated in the State Trade Expansion Promotion program in 2016 and 2017. Through this program the company expanded its global reach into Germany, Vietnam, and Malaysia while developing leads in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, among others. The Small Business Administration honored NFP SBA’s 2018 New Hampshire and New England Small Business Exporter of the Year.

Serving overseas customers is nothing new for NFP, however. It has been exporting to Europe and Asia for more than 40 years. “Jamey has been the driving force behind that,” said Scott, who was preparing to make a business trip to China the week he was interviewed for this article.

Jamey has helped to promote American hardwoods around the globe. He is considered the “founding father” of the American Hardwood Export Council, said Scott, who serves as chairman of the ACHEC’s industry board — the fourth board chair in NFP’s history.

Jamey also has been an industry leader as well as a leader in advocating for forest certification. He has chaired several major industry trade associations and is the immediate past chairman of the Hardwood Federation, the political voice for the hardwood industry in Washington, D.C. As chairman of the Hardwood Federation, Jamey was a leader in building a coalition of organizations and trade associations that supported a Lacey Act amendment to stop the flow of illegal wood products into the U.S.

He has helped develop pragmatic solutions to contentious forest use issues, finding common ground for the forest products industry and the environmental community. Jamey was one of a small group of industry leaders who embraced the concept of forest certification in the mid-1990s. He was instrumental in the formation of a national initiative for the Forest Stewardship Council in the U.S. and was elected to the FSC-U.S. Board for three years, serving as the first chairman from the economic sector.

Jamey and NFP also have been leaders in responsible forest products, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council since 1998. The company has been chain-of-custody certified by the Rainforest Alliance to Forest Stewardship Council standards since 1996. The council is the leader in thirdparty responsible forestry certification, and NFP is committed to sourcing and marketing FSC-certified lumber.

(For more information about SII Dry Kilns or WDE Maspell, visit the SII website at www.siidrykilns.com or call the company at (800) 545-6379.)