LAURINBURG, North Carolina —
Edwards Wood Products (EWP) never does anything halfway. The sawmill and pallet manufacturer celebrated its 50th anniversary last year by developing a new hybrid sawmill capable of processing softwood and soft hardwood. EWP converted an existing 300,000-square-foot facility into its new Laurinburg sawmill with leading edge technology and automation.
The new Laurinburg mill is extremely versatile and its design seeks to reduce labor while boosting production where possible. EWP even experimented with some new suppliers to develop improved capabilities. One example is Piché, a Canadian company that has a strong reputation for manufacturing sawmill equipment for material handling, sorting, trimming, and other functions.
Jeff Edwards, the president and CEO of EWP, commented, “This was our first experience doing business with Piché, and it went very well. Our deal with them was turnkey, so they installed all of their equipment, which included a line shaft trimmer, 50-bay sorter, two grading stations, and the electrical and controls to run their entire line…They were the only vendor we used that did their own installation. They did a great job and were ahead of schedule throughout the project.”
Lumber remains at the heart of EWP as the company is perfecting its latest sawmill development. EWP acquired an existing metal manufacturing plant on 100 acres adjacent to its existing scragg mill and chipping operation and retrofitted the facility. Edwards explained, “There were several reasons for building the new sawmill operation in Laurinburg. One was to produce enough pine cut stock to eliminate the need for sourcing from outside suppliers, while also adding enough capacity to grow the pallet sales side of our company. We also wanted to have the flexibility to run soft hardwoods for industrial timbers and ties. The mill is also designed for producing a high volume of pine dimension lumber if we wanted to move in that direction in the future, so we designed the mill to do a lot of different things.”
Construction went quickly at the new Laurinburg mill; it took about a year from the time the crews broke ground to the first day of operation in 2019. This sawmill provides EWP the ability to process pine cut stock with logs coming from the 30,000 acres of mostly pine plantation owned by the company as well as a good mix of log supply from local wood dealers.
Edwards believes it is important for a pallet manufacturer to control the raw material supply chain as much as possible. He said, “It enables you to control the cost while assuring yourself a consistent supply of material. We may go a little overboard with the amount of stumpage (standing timber) we keep bought ahead, as well as the large inventory of round wood we keep on our mill yards ahead of production. We’re serious about maintaining an uninterrupted supply of products to our customers.”
Few pallet companies process or procure all of their material from company-owned sources. But EWP has developed a network of loggers to harvest material from third-party sources as well as EWP forests.
Controlling raw material costs is a major driver for EWP’s success. Edwards recalled, “In the early stages my dad’s philosophy was whoever did the best job at making pallet lumber in the most cost-effective manner was going to have the upper hand. Thus, we started off with scragg mills back in the early 80s. We were buying small, low-grade logs and turning them into pallet lumber. And that was kind of what gave us the boost we needed to grow.”
The company was founded by his father, Carroll Edwards, a truck driver who built a large, vertically integrated pallet company and sawmill from nothing. Carroll’s success made him an industry legend before he passed away in 2008. Much of the company’s success also springs from the ingenuity and planning of his son, who guides the operations today.
EWP has grown from a small pallet shop started in an abandoned chicken house in 1969 to a major force in the pallet industry. Today, it produces about 135,000 pallets per week, consuming 350 loads of wood per day. The EWP network includes three scragg mills, five hardwood grade mills, two chip mills, and the new pine mill in addition to drying facilities and multiple pallet manufacturing plants spread across North Carolina and South Carolina.
New Hybrid Mill
The new Laurinburg sawmill begins with a Nicholson A8 debarker. Tree-length logs are debarked and then travel through a dual zone log scanning system provided by Porter Engineering. The scanning solution is then passed off to a Timber Automation Log Pro 5 Saw Bucking Station. Cut-to-length logs then pass through an MDI metal detector before heading to the primary breakdown.
Logs enter a Cone-Omega Tru-Position line that includes a linear motion log turner for correct log positioning. Logs go through multiple Porter Engineering scans before entering a canter twin section featuring the Omega slant canter and McDonough twin band mill.
Edwards said, “We used Porter Engineering out of Canada for our scanning solutions and controls for the log bucking line and primary…We chose Porter because we believe they are the best value. When you power their equipment up, it’s ready to go to work, and they have excellent service. Having the right scanning and controls can significantly improve the efficiency of your operation and allows for smarter processing.”
Boards are sent to the edger or resaw. Side cants go to the curve canter and gang. Cone-Omega also supplied its curve canter and curve sawing gang system, which ties into the outfeed of the sharp chain to accept the center cant and side cants.
This approach allows EWP to process larger than normal logs because it produces side cants. Edwards, declared, “We designed a lot of versatility into the new sawmill. It cost extra money up front, but I believe it will prove beneficial in the long run.”
This new mill primarily processes six-inch and eight-inch-thick center cants, which work well for internal pallet production and lumber headed to outside markets. Cants are singulated and loaded into an infeed system, scanned by a Baxley cant optimizer, then placed on the optimized feed table. Then cants go through a curve canter and are swept off onto another deck. Cants are sawn in a Cone-Omega curve sawing gang designed with shifting pockets that can transition from 3.5 inches to 12 inches.
Boards that need to be edged move to a Cone-Omega high-speed edger featuring Baxley optimization and controls. All lumber products then head to the Piché trim and sort line, designed to handle a wide variety of material from 1x3s to large cants. The bin sorter can handle a wide variety of products. It is fully automated, which saves labor.
Piché also supplied a fully automatic cant trimmer that feeds into two gang saw lines. This equipment automatically repositions to accommodate changes in dimensions, eliminating downtime caused by manual adjustments. Edwards said, “I really like the way they designed the throughput chains in the trimmer. Their double-acting tipples on the sorter are neat, too, and provide for a higher lug per minute operation to get the piece count we need.”
Edwards added, “The Piché pallet trimmer features seven saws that move and set by the push of a button to desired length for fast changeover. We are feeding two gang saws behind this trimmer, and they designed a really innovative dispatch system to keep both gangs fed.”
Last year, EWP celebrated its 50th anniversary with a huge party for customers, employees and suppliers. Edwards reflected, “Our success goes back to our core values – doing what we say we are going to do, offering on-time delivery, keeping plenty of inventory on hand, and focusing on quality and service.”
“Our success goes back to our core values – doing what we say we are going to do, offering on-time delivery, keeping plenty of inventory on hand and focusing on quality and service.”
- Jeff Edwards, the president and CEO and son of the founder
EWP focuses on eight core values. Edwards said his company’s number one core value is safety with the objective to create, foster and maintain a work environment that is safe for all employees. All EWP plants are Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP)-certified by OSHA. Edwards said, “It is tough to get in that program and to stay in. Our first plant to get SHARP certified was 13 years ago.”
The EWP operations are massive with much of the facilities under roof. This allows the company to supply even the largest accounts with ease.
Besides the size and scale of its operations, two things that set EWP apart are its wood procurement program and lumber manufacturing processes. The Marshville location, about 60 miles west, includes a grade hardwood sawmill as well as pallet manufacturing, lumber drying and pallet lumber processing. The Laurinburg facility features the hybrid mill, some pallet manufacturing, and drying capacity.
Edwards explained, “We have diverted some of our gum and other soft hardwoods into the new hybrid mill because we can cut about 35,000 feet per hour there compared to 16-18,000 feet per hour at the Peachland plant,” which is near Marshville.
Edwards described EWP’s approach at the two chip mill facilities. He said, “We take tree-length or double-bunk hardwood pulpwood. Our system is designed where we can pull out better quality stems that then travel through an adjacent scragg mill operation to make pallet stock, and the rest of the wood flows into a chipper to provide chips for paper companies.”
The sawmills at Marshville and Liberty — another plant about 90 miles north — take five species: red oak, white oak, maple, poplar and ash. Everything else on the saw log portion goes into the production of cross ties, switch ties and industrial timbers.
For the first 20 years, the company’s operations centered solely around pallets, but in the late 80s EWP began producing grade lumber and added dry kilns in the early 90s. Today, pallets make up about 35% of sales, with grade lumber making up another 35%, and the balance is industrial lumber products and by-products. EWP currently produces lumber, crossties, board mats, pallets, pipeline skids, and mulch/landscaping.
EWP currently has 15 Viking nailing machines, a combination of Turbos and rebuilt Duo-matics. Most pallets are assembled on a nailing machine, but Edwards does build some specialty pallets. The company has worked with Pallet Machinery Group to upgrade older Viking machines with new controls. This upgrade improves operator efficiency and has allowed EWP to extend the life of the nailing machines.
“We try to do things right… We focus on running safe facilities. All of our plants are Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP)-certified by OSHA.”
- Jeff Edwards
“The nailer upgrade programs that Greg Wine’s company (Pallet Machinery Group) provides are really beneficial to maintaining pallet production levels and keeping new technology on older machines,” explained Edwards. “Greg also provided eight new lumber stackers for the resawing portion of our new mill. They do a great job.”
Edwards added, “Well, we’ve had Viking forever. They are reliable, and we know how to get strong production out of Viking nailers. I don’t see us doing anything else when it comes to making stringer pallets.”
Focusing on quality, EWP uses NexGen mold treatment on a good portion of its pallet stock, and the company also dries a large percentage of its pallet stock. EWP relies on SII Dry Kilns due to their reliability and capacity.
“On our kilns, we started using SII on the first kilns we purchased in the early 90s and have used them ever since,” said Edwards. EWP purchased a new natural gas direct-fired batch kiln for the new mill. EWP chose natural gas because it requires less capital expenditure on equipment, is readily available, provides a more consistent flow to the burner compared to sawdust, and has become cost effective due to expanded U.S. production.
SII has become a preferred supplier for EWP. Edwards explained, “I like the fact that SII will work with you to help you arrive at what you need from an equipment and control standpoint, so you have the ability to match equipment and design with your needs. We bought batch kilns, but SII designed the kilns so we could go with the continuous flow upgrade at a later date. I like their fan design. They really move a big volume of air. That, combined with the correct burner size, really takes the moisture content down very quickly.
Looking to the Future
EWP has become a vertically integrated pallet and lumber company. This newest mill gives it even greater versatility to respond to changing lumber markets.
Where is EWP headed in the future? The company continues to grow with a focus on continuous improvement in safety and operations. Edwards projected, “We are still focused on growth in the right place and in the right way.”