NOVELTY, Missouri —
Cardwell Lumber has been making hardwood lumber products for 60 years, now operating two plants in Missouri. When the Cardwell family decided to build their ‘dream’ sawmill a few years ago at their main plant, they turned to a supplier they had trusted for a key machine center at their other location: Cleereman Industries.
Wisconsin-based Cleereman supplied its 62-Lumber Pro system and most of the supporting equipment for the new mill, and provided all the engineering services. The new sawmill has been operational about a year.
Both Cardwell Lumber plants are located in northeast Missouri. The company’s main plant is in Novelty, and the other plant is about 70 miles southeast in New London. About 30 employees work at the New London facility, which contains about 10-15,000 square feet under roof and conducts operations to manufacture grade lumber, pallet stock, and barrel staves.
At the main plant in Novelty, 70 people are employed, working in three mills — including the new sawmill — plus two storage facilities, a shop, and an office. The plant produces grade lumber and barrel staves along with some remanufactured wood products, such as flooring and trim.
In addition, the company has a retail store in Jefferson City, in central Missouri, that employs about 10 people selling hardwood lumber and trim.
The company’s operations generate about $18 million in annual revenues. Cardwell Lumber is overseen by Leroy Cardwell, 77, mill founder and CEO, and his grandson, Bill Cardwell, 30, President. Leroy’s son, Mark, also was involved in the business until he retired about five years ago. Mark’s younger brother Tony Cardwell, vice president of the company, runs the Jefferson City store.
Leroy’s father bought a small, manually operated sawmill in 1959, when Leroy was in his late teens, and used it to cut components for barrels. A few years later, Leroy purchased the mill from his father and began cutting pallet lumber and some grade lumber. He formed a partnership with another man in 1965. A year or two later they upgraded their equipment and bought another mill. The two men parted ways amicably in 1969 when Leroy’s partner decided to focus on logging and Leroy chose to continue operating the sawmill. Leroy invested in an automated sawmill in 1973 and ran that until the company upgraded to the new Cleereman Lumber Pro last year.
The Cleereman Lumber Pro upgrade is the company’s second experience with Cleereman Industries. The Cardwell family purchased the New London mill in the late 1990s and rebuilt it, upgrading the plant with a new Cleereman carriage.
About 40 percent of the Novelty plant’s production is lumber, about 5 percent of which is flooring and trim. The remaining 60 percent is components for barrels.
Cardwell Lumber buys all hardwood species native to the region: white oak, red oak, hickory, walnut, soft maple, and a little hard maple and cherry. (About 75 percent of production is red oak, white oak, and walnut.) The company buys logs ranging from 7 to 16 feet and 12 inches in diameter and larger.
In the log yard, logs that will be processed by the Cleereman Lumber Pro are debarked by a Mellott debarker and then pass through a Metal Detector Inc. metal detector before being loaded onto the stationary carriage of the Lumber Pro, which is integrated with linear scanners and optimized controls. The Lumber Pro features a double-cut band mill that completely saws the entire log; there is no resaw behind it. Depending on the log, the sawyer will remove any 4/4 grade lumber and-or cut a railroad tie or a pallet cant. The flitches are sent to an American Built Machinery 5-blade edger, then to a collection area and unscrambler and ultimately to an American Built Machinery trim saw.
After trimming the lumber is sorted and pulled by hand for length and stacked into bunks. Bunks of lumber that will be dried are handled first by a Froedge automatic sticker system to separate rows of lumber with sticks, then moved into air-drying sheds prior to kiln-drying. The company has six dry kilns, supplied mainly by American Wood Dryers, with combined capacity of 200,000 board feet.
After kiln-drying, lumber goes through a grading station to be graded and sorted, then is put in a warehouse for storage. The plant also has some operations for secondary manufacturing kiln-dried material — remanufacturing lumber into flooring and trim on orders.
Besides the dry kilns, the company has a home-built steamer to equalize the color of walnut lumber. Capacity is about 18-20,000 board feet.
At Novelty, the Cardwells took a very deliberate approach to constructing a new sawmill. “We took our time,” recalled Leroy, about three years. The project included a new 20,000-square-foot building for a completely new sawmill.
The Cardwells together decided they wanted to go with a double-cut band mill to replace their old mill. Cleereman has been a leader in the double-cut band mills since introducing them in 2010, noted Leroy. “And the fact that we had the Cleereman carriage at New London — they did a good job.”
Mark had researched various options for a new sawmill, recalled Bill, and “was the one who leaned into the Lumber Pro…He looked around,” considered some other brands, “but nothing really caught his eye like the Lumber Pro…The Lumber Pro was really what got him going to want to update the mill.”
What impressed all of them was the yield. “The recovery you could get in a log and how much you could save with the linear scanning,” said Bill.
Leroy took the time to visit three mills that had installed a Cleereman Lumber Pro. His reaction when he saw the first one? “This thing may work,” he said. Leroy was familiar with double-cut band mills running in the West, but not in the hardwood industry.
The Cleereman Lumber Pro is the company’s first experience with a stationary carriage and a mill that moves as well as the first experience with a slant carriage. The Cardwells went with the 62-inch mill, which is running 10-inch double-cut blades. It features a 17-degree slant carriage with high performance air, hydraulic, or hydraulic linear setworks with Brownsville turners and rotary bar turner. The Lumber Pro comes standard now with Cleereman Controls computerized setworks. Other features include a deluxe sawyer’s booth that comes pre-wired and pre-plumbed and full length lumber and waste conveyors.
The Cardwells worked closely with Cleereman lead engineer Rod Chitko and sales engineer Rob Kittle. Rod made on-site visits to Novelty and did all the design work. “Both guys were very good to work with, very easy,” recalled Bill, and readily accessible by phone.
Cleereman vice president Paul Cleereman met with the Cardwells at a trade show of the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association and reviewed the design with them and the layout of the new mill.
“I was really impressed with the three technicians that came down and started this mill,” said Leroy. “They definitely know what they are doing and got in there and worked…I was very, very, very impressed.
The company kept running the old mill until the new mill was complete and equipped and ready to go. The Lumber Pro operated from day one the way it was designed and built, noted Leroy. “When we sawed the first log, it cut very true lumber…When it started, it ran and was ready to go.”
Besides improving yield, the Cleereman Lumber Pro cuts a lot faster than the company’s previous sawmill. “The biggest thing is, it just sits there and runs,” said Leroy. “We have very little down time.” The old mill required more maintenance and also was prone to breakdowns.
A lot of the decks and material handling equipment was fabricated in-house by Cardwell Lumber staff. “We have our own electrician,” noted Bill, “and a very good shop.” The mill is in a remote location, and it is somewhat difficult to obtain parts. For that reason, the company has built a lot of its own machinery and stocked its own parts, said Bill.
About 30 percent of grade lumber production is sold green and the remainder kiln-dried.
Grade lumber is sold ordered to length and random width to concentration yards, flooring mills and other end users, and also to export markets.
“It’s always been our philosophy to focus on quality and to utilize the log to the best of its capability,” said Bill.
“We make a lot of different products out of the same log,” added Leroy, always recovering products of the highest value.
For making barrel staves, the company uses 100 percent white oak that is quarter sawn after being cut into bolts. The company is equipped with various Brewer and Brewco band mills with automated run-arounds for quarter-sawing bolts into staves. Along with making staves, the company added production of barrel heading (the ends of a barrel) since about 1990.
The company supplies barrell components to wineries and distilleries. Its customers include Brown-Forman Corp., makers of Jack Daniels whiskey. About 50 percent of cooperage production is exported.
Cooperage stock is meticulously dried, too. Stock for bourbon barrels, for example, is air-dried for six months before kiln-drying while stock for wine barrels is air-dried for two years.
The company makes good use of all residual material. “There’s no scrap,” said Bill. Slabs are processed by a Precision chipper, and bark and other material is processed by a Montgomery horizontal grinder into mulch. The company has markets for its sawdust, too.
Like other lumber producers, Cardwell Lumber was impacted by the Great Recession. “It certainly didn’t help us,” recalled Leroy. However, the company was somewhat insulated because of its diverse product mix, and loyal customers stuck with them. “It didn’t affect us that much,” said Leroy.
“We’re constantly sawing new products and trying to get the maximum yield out of the log,” said Bill. “We always try to go down to a finished product.
July will mark 50 years that Leroy has been involved in the business. Over the years he also has cut furniture squares and — years ago — material to build chicken coops. “We cut anything if it added value or if it was challenging and maybe other people couldn’t do it efficiently…We always looked for that (kind of work) and jumped on it.”
The company also has been blessed with good employees, Bill added. “They make it work.”
Leroy, who lives within sight of the mill, still goes to work most days. “If there’s a problem, I ‘retire’ and go home and come back the next day or so.”
Bill’s duties include making sure that maintenance is done on schedule “and everything is caught up and staying ahead.” Both men also handle some sales, and the company has additional sales personnel. Bill’s brother, ‘Junior,’ also works in the company, heading the shop and carrying out practical maintenance responsibilities.
“This is a family business,” said Bill. “We know a lot of these employees outside of business. We try to treat them like we want to be treated…We try to take care of our employees because they’re an important part of what we do.” Compensation and benefits include a bonus that is paid at Christmas.
Cardwell Lumber is a member of Associated Cooperage Industries of America and the Missouri Forest Products Association. The Cardwells have been attending functions of the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association and are considering joining.
“If we were going to do it again, I would do it all over again with them,” said Bill, referring to the project they did with Cleereman. “They’re very nice people. They do quality work and build quality equipment. Everything just lined up and went together very well. It’s very good craftsmanship.”
“Cleereman machinery is built very heavy and parts are reasonably priced and in stock,” added Leroy. “It’s well manufactured… We were very happy with the Cleereman machinery and their service.”