RIDGEVILLE, South Carolina — Ashley River Lumber Company has gone through a number of permutations over the years. Now the company has shifted away from operating as a production-oriented hardwood sawmill and focused on manufacturing specialty lumber products, a change in strategy that also is putting more emphasis on lumber drying. The company recently began operating a new dry kiln supplied by Kiln-Direct in order to increase drying capacity.
Ashley River Lumber is located in Ridgeville, S.C., which is about 35 miles northwest of Charleston. The company has good access to I-95, which is only about 20 miles further northwest.
Andrew Branton, 37, is vice president of the company and the third generation helping lead the family business. His father, Joe, is the majority owner and still works full-time in the business but is phasing out his role as he approaches retirement.
Ashley River Lumber is located in the same place where Andrew’s grandfather started the sawmill in 1962. It is a collection of 12 buildings, including open air-drying sheds, with about 100,000 square feet under roof. The company has 11 employees, including a small logging crew.
In recent years Ashley River Lumber’s focus was high-volume production of grade lumber that was supplied to large flooring plants. In addition, it had contracts to supply large quantities of low-grade material for dunnage, shoring and blocking to a major steel company and other businesses. The mill cut about 60,000 board feet per week and generated a little over $1 million in annual revenues.
However, now Andrew and his father are taking the company in a new direction. “We’re kind of changing over,” said Andrew. “It got to the point where it was hard to compete with production mills that are larger,” he explained.
“We decided to cut back and do more high-end products,” said Andrew, who began leading the company in the new direction last fall. “It was kind of a big step for us…It was a little nerve-wracking to do it, but it seems to be working out pretty well.”
Years ago Ashley River Lumber harvested hardwoods in swamps, including a lot of cypress, which is known for its durability and resistance to moisture. “It was big back then,” noted Andrew, before the advent of treating pine lumber with chemicals. The company sold mostly at retail to customers in the region building barns, stables, as well as material for fencing, siding, and flooring.
The development of pressure-treated pine in the 1970s sank the cypress market; as that market declined, the company turned more to manufacturing flooring and other products, such as grooved paneling, ship-lap, before the ‘big box’ home improvement stores came on the scene. “That became a niche,” said Andrew.
The company also supplied hardwood lumber furniture makers in Virginia and North Carolina, but that business dried up when the manufacturers moved their operations overseas.
Ashley River Lumber had a few instances of flooring that customers considered defective and threatened to sue. Joe decided to avoid liability issues, halting production of flooring and instead selling green lumber to flooring companies.
When the Great Recession hit, the flooring market slowed down. Small accounts and specialty products kept the company going — decking for trailers, contractors looking for special beams, custom material to accent a wall in a home, dunnage for ship builders. “Wedges for chocking tires,” added Andrew. “Pretty much anything we could get.” The business has constantly been evolving over the years, he noted, as markets have changed.
Andrew graduated from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2006, then worked for a government contractor designing blast resistant trucks for the war in Afghanistan. After being laid off in 2009, he decided to join his father in the family business.
Joe’s duties include trouble-shooting machinery, buying timber and overseeing the logging crew, and responsibility for most major financial decisions.
Andrew described his role in the company as “Jack of all trades.” He is involved in sales and marketing as well as scheduling what orders need to be cut any given day or week. He designed the company’s website and social media presence and has been advertising online and through social media. He also keeps up with maintenance and ordering replacement parts and does the company payroll. “I’m trying to do too much, honestly.”
The focus now is more on specialty lumber products. The company’s primary products are items like long oak boards for trailer decking or hardwood beams as well as 4×4 material for dunnage. Trailer decking is supplied for low-boy and other semi-tractor trailers that haul heavy equipment. “We can cut a 2×12 by 20 or 30 feet,” said Andrew. Other popular items include hardwood or pine lumber for planter boxes and fencing. These type of products, which are sold green, account for about 75 percent of revenues.
Slabs are the company’s second-biggest product — live edge slabs of hardwood, cypress and pine. They account for 15-20 percent of revenues. Andrew is also marketing old, excess lumber the company produced and stored over the years.
The company put in its own dry kiln in the past, converting an existing building, but since it was not originally designed as a kiln it was not very efficient, and without the need to dry lumber to make flooring, they discontinued using it.
As drying slabs became more important, the company purchased a small, used dry kiln five years ago. However, it outgrew the kiln, which has a capacity of only 500 board feet, as it began drying more lumber and the material it has in inventory. Andrew invested in a new kiln from Kiln-Direct in order to have more drying capacity and greater efficiency in drying operations. In addition, he wants to be able to have an inventory of kiln-dried lumber products in various species, ready for sale. “We wanted to build a shed of inventory full of this material,” in order to be able to sell more products like a home improvement store.
The Kiln-Direct unit, which began operating in April, has 9,000 board feet capacity of 4/4 lumber. Features include 14 hp of main fans, direct gas heating at 600,000 btu per hour, heat recovery on the venting, 100 percent aluminum construction, and integrated wood moisture content meter.
The unit is a conventional, direct-fired package dry kiln. Ashley River installed the kiln on a concrete pad, and a Kiln-Direct technician made an on-site visit to ensure the unit was ready to run.
The Kiln-Direct unit is more versatile and efficient, noted Andrew. It can dry larger loads and also can dry a very wide range of lumber products, from old heart pine 4 inches thick and 70 inches wide to 4/4 maple.
His father did the initial research into dry kiln suppliers and then handed off the information and his recommendation to Andrew. Joe liked the turn-key delivery of the Kiln-Direct kiln, which is constructed by Kiln-Direct and shipped completed on a truck, ready to be put in place. Kiln-Direct also got favorable recommendations from existing customers. Another factor was that Kiln-Direct is located in North Carolina, only about 4-5 hours away.
Andrew took the information and Joe’s recommendation and considered several kiln suppliers. One thing that certainly impressed him was the commitment to service from Kiln-Direct.
“I don’t think anyone else would have had the level of customer service we have with Niels,” said Andrew, referring to Niels Jorgensen, president of Kiln-Direct. “He’s the owner, he knows everything, and I was able to talk to him after hours.”
As he began interacting with Niels and have contact with him via phone calls, Andrew thought, “Wow. I can’t believe this guy answers our phone calls.”
“Niels takes conference calls,” added Aaron Lucas, general manager and director of kiln operations for Ashley River Lumber. “He can log into our computer and we can work out things together and do our drying schedules together…I talked to him six times on one day. That level of service is phenomenal.”
(Kiln-Direct offers lumber kilns ranging from 9,000 to 40,000 board feet capacity and also pallet kilns, firewood kilns, and kiln control systems. For more information about Kiln-Direct and its product line, visit www.kiln-direct.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (910)-259-9794.)
Ashley River Lumber has an assortment of sawmill machinery and equipment. A Baker Products BP Dominator band sawmill is the company’s go-to mill for cutting long decking, beams, and other custom orders; a Meadows Mill three-saw edger operates behind it. A custom Baker LQ72 band sawmill, installed in June, will be the permanent solution for cutting slabs from logs as long as 31 feet.
Another key machine is a Wood Wizz, imported from Australia and distributed by Baker Products; it is essentially a cutter head on a movable gantry that makes multiple passes over a slab automatically to surface it.
Other equipment includes Wood-Mizer and Brewco single-head band resaws for splitting lumber or cutting small orders and a Brewco three-saw edger.
In the past when the company operated as a production sawmill, the workhorse machine was a Sawmill Hydraulics Hele overhead, end-dogging scragg mill along with a Brewco band mill that was used as a resaw.
Surplus material was stickered and put into sheds to air-dry over the years. When Andrew joined the family business, “The sheds were bulging with lumber,” he recalled, 28 species in all. He began advertising and selling off some of the stock. “It’s kind of been snowballing.”
The lumber that has been accumulating over the years is “a little better,” said Andrew — all from local-grown, slow-growth timber, as opposed to plantation forests, and cut on a circle saw. It’s attractive to contractors and homeowners who want specialty beams for a vaulted ceiling or other custom material.
Andrew began selling the stock nine years ago. Aaron did an inventory when he began working for the company last summer and determined that it had 1 million board feet of stock, including more than 3,000 slabs. “It’s easy money,” noted Andrew, if the lumber can be marketed and sold. The lumber still must be dried to get it to the target moisture content of 6-8 percent.
Another relatively new initiative Andrew has embarked on is recovering logs that sank in rivers and lakes decades and even centuries ago and sawing them for specialty lumber products — especially heart pine flooring. He was somewhat familiar with recovering sunken logs after seeing a television show on the subject. Andrew has formed a joint venture with Nathan Tarpien, a commercial diver who has been searching for and locating sunken logs for the last 10 years.
The region contained old growth longleaf pine and cypress that was harvested during the Colonial era. Logs were put into the Congaree River to the Santee River and floated down-river to a sawmill. In the 1940s, the river was dammed to create Lake Marion, and the area of the sawmill was flooded. Logs that were left behind stayed on the bottom of the lake.
Andrew initially bought a few of the ‘sinker’ logs — cypress — and milled them and dried the lumber and sold it for a nice profit. “You can charge a lot more,” he said. “It’s hard to come by.”
Some logs were harvested by axe centuries ago. “The growth rings are so tight, you can’t even count them,” said Andrew.
Andrew and Nathan have teamed to harvest logs from all over the Lowcountry region and recently have geared up production. The company already has about 30,000 board feet of lumber recovered from sunken logs, 20,000 board feet of it kiln-dried. “This weekend we pulled eight logs,” said Andrew. “The problem is getting them out of the river and getting them on a truck.”
There’s quite a bit of government regulation involved. Nathan has obtained eight special permits for the work, one for each river. “Now we’re trying to gear up with the right equipment and production,” said Andrew.
“It’s slow right now, but it should be speeding up,” said Andrew. “It’s spurring a lot of interest.” The Discovery Channel heard about Ashley River Lumber and will be filming an episode about recovering the logs. “It kind of turned out to be pretty neat,” said Andrew.
The sunken logs are “perfectly preserved,” noted Andrew. “We’re getting trees that don’t exist anymore …The best longleaf heart pine and cypress.”
The wood from sunken logs can have shades of green, brown, purple, red, and orange. “It adds a lot more character to the wood,” said Andrew.
The wood is particularly suited for lumber for projects that involve restoring or preserving old homes in the region, noted Andrew, because ordinary lumber products made from trees harvested recently will not match the grain of trees harvested during Colonial times. The trees originally were harvested to be sawn into material to construct homes and buildings in the Charleston region or to build ships, and some logs were exported back to Europe.
Ashley River has the only active legal permit to conduct these kind of operations in South Carolina, according to Aaron. Along with it comes responsibility. It is a limited resource, he noted, and the work has to be done properly.