WATERTOWN, New York —
When Phil Clement added firewood sales to his sawmill business, little did he realize that one day firewood would be a full-time enterprise, supplanting the sawmill.
Today, with his son, Andrew, and a Bell’s Machining firewood processor, father and son stay busy year-round producing and delivering firewood, and they have just begun expanding their business by offering kiln-dried firewood.
The business, Phil’s Firewood, is located in Watertown, New York — 70 miles north of Syracuse and not far from Lake Ontario. It is situated on the site of a former sawmill, Clement’s Burrville Sawmill, named for a nearby hamlet.
They sell firewood by the face cord, which is one-third of a cord. A minimum order is four face cords. The company sells about 2,300 full cords per year. In addition to Phil, 56, and Andrew, 29, Phil’s wife, Candice, keeps the books for the business.
The Clements have operated the firewood business full-time since 2006. They also broker sales of pallets to a few customers. Annual revenues are about $750,000, split about evenly between firewood and pallet sales.
Phil’s father bought the sawmill in 1964. The mill cut hardwood and pine, selling hardwood material to pallet manufacturers. The company also built hardwood pallets and skids for paper mills and other area businesses and at one point had as many as 13 full-time employees. Slabs were sold for firewood. Phil’s father passed away in 1990, and Phil and his mother and his brothers continued to operate the mill.
Phil purchased the mill in 2006 from the other family members and continued to operate it, cutting custom orders for industrial lumber, such as trailer decking and side boards for dump trucks, and building pallets by hand. When pallet customers began requiring their pallets to be heat-treated, Phil arranged for heat-treating services with Paul Bunyan Products, a pallet manufacturer in Cortland, about 90 miles south. Eventually, he arranged with Paul Bunyan Products to build pallets for his customers.
The old mill consists of about 5 acres, half on one side of the road and half on the other. The equipment was sold off in 2015. The old mill building now is used to store finished firewood. A second building contains an office and shop.
When Phil acquired the mill, he began doing firewood production and sales full-time, and that segment of the business gradually grew. He had begun cutting and splitting firewood by hand at nights and on weekends in the late 1990s. A friend of Phil’s, a logging contractor, had a home-built firewood processor, and Phil gravitated in the early 2000s to using it to produce wood, still doing it nights and weekends.
The company has owned firewood processors from a few manufacturers over the years. After an unsatisfactory experience with one manufacturer, Phil began searching the Internet for others. He came across Bell’s Machining and watched a number of their product videos on the company’s YouTube channel. He took a weekend to drive up to Perth, Ontario, to check out the company’s manufacturing facility and look over a particular firewood processor model.
He was still considering other manufacturers, too. The cost of a Bell’s Machining firewood processor and models by some other manufacturers were significantly more than Phil had paid in the past.
Andrew and his father also talked to Bell’s Machining customers about their experience, and they were impressed with the positive feedback, particularly about the dependability of the firewood processors.
When his father returned home from Canada, they discussed whether to invest in a Bell’s Machining firewood processor. Phil didn’t think he could do it because of the cost. However, he came to work one morning and told Andrew he was going to call Bell’s and order a machine. He bought a Bell’s Machining 4000 firewood processor, a circular saw model. Bell’s delivered it in February 2015. “It worked out great,” recalled Andrew.
“The Cat engine was a big plus for us,” said Andrew. Another thing they liked about it was the chain conveyor, which was more suitable in tough winter weather; their existing processor at the time had a belt conveyor.
Phil was planning on buying a firewood processor without an operator’s cab. Andrew convinced him otherwise. “I told him, ‘You’re going to be out in the winter time, cutting…You’ll probably love the cab and never want one without one.’” Phil agreed and ordered the optional cab.
They have been satisfied with Bell’s Machining and have upgraded with a newer version of the same model every few years as the manufacturer has made improvements they wanted. (Phil has continued to order the optional cab.) “They’ve always gone above our expectations,” said Andrew.
They are now using the third firewood processor — the same 4000 model — they purchased from Bell’s Machining, obtaining it in December 2019. “They have held their value quite well,” noted Andrew.
The latest improvements include powered hourglass feed rolls to advance the log to the slasher saw. Another new feature is a roller system that can reposition a log round for splitting and even eject the block if it is not suitable.
Another reason the Clements have stuck with Bell’s Machining is the manufacturer’s service. “If we have an issue,” said Andrew,” we can call them up and get them that day or the next day…They’re 24-7.” Bell’s Machining provides over-the-phone technical support, and the Clements can buy whatever replacement parts they need from local stores or suppliers.
The Clements also have a pair of conveyors from Bell’s Machining and a disc-type cleaner to remove loose debris.
Bell’s Machining, Welding & Hydraulics has been providing customers with welding, machining and millwright services since 1939. The company offers seven models of firewood processors for logs of various diameter and with various features, and the company will customize a machine to suit a customer. All processors come with a one year parts and labor warranty. Each machine is portable and easy to transport.
The Bell’s Machining 4000 series machine owned by the Clements can process logs up to 20-22 inches in diameter, depending on the type of bucking saw, and up to 30 feet long. It is available with a Simonds 44-inch circular saw or an Oregon bar saw. The 5-inch splitter cylinder has 30 tons of force. It comes standard with a Cat 67 hp Tier 4 turbocharged diesel engine that has a 3 year warranty. The Bell’s Machine 4000 can produce more than three cords of hardwood firewood per hour, according to the manufacturer.
Standard features on the 4000 model include adjustable splitter head, automatic splitting cycle, saw blade stop, single joystick control, 3-strand hydraulic live deck. Options include operator’s cab with heat or air conditioning, conveyors, and 4, 6, 8, and 12-way splitting wedge.
In addition to manufacturing and selling firewood processors, Bell’s Machining manufactures a splitter for oversize logs, tumblers and disc cleaners, conveyors, cabs, wedges, and power packs to separately power conveyor and cleaning equipment.
Bell’s Machining is a family-owned and operated business headed by the husband-and-wife team of Brent and Cyndi Easton. Known for their rugged, heavy-duty design and fabrication, Bell’s Machining firewood processors are operating in countries around the world.
(For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call toll-free (888) 995-1965, or visit the company’s website at www.bellsmachining.com.)
The Clements buy hardwood logs and are supplied by 10 logging contractors. They spec logs 6-20 inches from 8-30 feet long. Dominant species are maple, ash, cherry, birch, beech, and some hickory.
The firewood processor is set up outside in the log yard. They have a Prentice 180 knuckleboom loader mounted on another truck in the log yard for unloading and handling logs. They have a Bobcat S850 skid-steer loader that does double duty, retrieving logs and loading them onto the live deck of the firewood processor, and also loading their dump trucks for deliveries. The Bobcat bucket holds one face cord of firewood. One dump truck can hold eight face cords, and the other, 10. The Clements also have a flatbed truck for hauling pallets.
Scrap material is supplied for free to a company that processes the wood into mulch. In the future the Clements may have markets to sell their residual material.
The Clements, who do not provide services to stack firewood, sell to customers within a 30-40-mile radius of their business. “Occasionally we might go over that, but not very often,” said Andrew. People who burn firewood for heat usually stock up in the summer, he noted, “but not everyone’s that smart. So fall is busy with last-minute people looking for dry wood.” November-January are good months for sales, too, although business slows by late February and in March and April.
The Clements have plenty of competition in the area. In fact, there are about five or six other firewood businesses within 30-40 miles that also have Bell’s Machining firewood processors.
One thing that differentiates Phil and Andrew from other firewood companies is the fact that firewood is a full-time business for them while many others do it as a part-time business. The Clements also will deliver to customers who need firewood on a weekend. “People call and order, we get right to them within 24 to 48 hours,” said Andrew. “You don’t have to wait three or four days or even a week or two.” They stockpile plenty of finished firewood whereas small operators will not cut and split their wood until they are preparing to deliver an order. The Clements have a blacktop slab, and between the slab and indoor storage they have an inventory of 400-500 face cords of firewood on hand all the time. Since they have an inventory of firewood, they can deliver faster than other companies that are operated part-time.
When Andrew was interviewed for this article in early February, they had just begun operating a new Kiln-Direct firewood kiln a week earlier. They are the only firewood supplier north of Syracuse now offering kiln-dried firewood, according to Andrew.
The Clements elected to invest in a firewood kiln for several reasons. One is that in some heating seasons, they have come close to running out of seasoned firewood by the end of the calendar year; with a kiln, they can always offer dry firewood.
“We were looking for something else to set us apart from the competition,” added Andrew.
However, they are having to educate customers because the concept of kiln-dried firewood — and the benefits of it — is new to them. The benefits of kiln-dried firewood, noted Andrew, are that it burns hotter, longer, and cleaner, and the wood is free of mold and insects. “The wood is giving you more BTU compared to green or air-dried wood,” added Andrew. The Clements charge $70 for a face cord of seasoned (air-dried) firewood, and $100 for kiln-dried.
Customers have been receptive. “We’ve sold quite a bit just in the first week,” reported Andrew.
The new kiln can dry six full cords (18 face cords) at a time with a drying cycle of about 24 hours. The Clements have it configured to burn propane for heat.
The Clements participate in New York’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP). When supplying wood to qualified low-income customers, the company is paid through the state program.
Andrew has overseen the company’s marketing efforts. He built a website for the business (www.philsfirewoodny.com) and developed a Facebook page (Phil’s Firewood). Occasionally they advertise on radio and television and also Facebook.
A lot of business comes to them via their website and Facebook page. “That’s where a lot of it comes from,” said Andrew. His father did not think a presence on Facebook would help the company, but their page has been ‘liked’ by 5,500 people, and they get two or three orders per week from their Facebook page.
The Clements have little if any time to spare, so they have few leisure pursuits. “We don’t do much other than the firewood,” said Andrew, who is married with two children. “This is what we like to do.”