WILKESBORO, North Carolina – Church & Church Lumber Company is paving the way for a fourth generation of the Church family to take its place in the forest products industry.
Church & Church Lumber Company is a family-owned enterprise with diverse operations. The company operates a sawmill that produces Appalachian hardwood and softwood lumber. The company’s planer mill produces Southern Yellow Pine decking and also pre-cut stock for pallets and packaging. Another division, Select Hardwoods, has drying operations to produce kiln-dried premium Appalachian hardwood lumber; it also serves as the marketing arm for Church & Church Lumber.
Church & Church Lumber buys logs, standing timber, and forest land. Finally, it provides forest management planning services to landowners.
The company is based in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, about 55 miles west of Winston-Salem, which puts it just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and somewhat further east of the Cherokee National Forest and the Pisgah National Forest. (Select Hardwoods is located 6-7 miles away in Millers Creek.) The greater region, stretching into Virginia, is known for abundant hardwood forest resources and the once thriving domestic wood furniture industry.
The sawmill, with the planer mill across the street, operates one shift and cuts 23-25 million board feet of lumber products annually. The company’s operations employ 80 people: 55 in the sawmill, 10 in the planer mill, and 15 in the drying operations at Select Hardwoods.
Mark Church, 66, manages the sawmill operations with his son, Sebastian, and Mark’s brother, Kin, 67, oversees the drying and sales operations of Select Hardwoods with his son, Drew. “We are third generation lumbermen,” said Kin, who discussed the company and its operations, “and we are grooming the fourth generation to take the torch forward upon our retirement.” Bruce Church, father to Mark and Kin, introduced his sons to the sawmill business; Bruce spent his life in the lumber industry and was introduced by his father, V. M. Church.
Kin’s path to launching Select Hardwoods and joining his father and brother in the family ownership of Church & Church Lumber was a bit circuitous. After studying history and business in college, he took a job with Holly Farms (Inow Tyson), where he worked 15 years.
His affinity for the forest products industry motivated him to find a way back. “I’ve always been intrigued by lumber,” he said. “I had grown up in the lumber business,” he explained. “I worked with my father – summers, in high school and college. So I knew the business well.”
Church, Barnes and Severt Sawmills were established in the mid-1980s. Kin established Select Hardwoods as a concentration yard in 1988 and added drying operations to his business in 1990. Bruce and his sons established Church & Church Lumber in 1993 when they bought two sawmills from Barnes and Severt Lumber, where Bruce and Mark had previously been business partners. They wanted to get into kiln-drying to add value to lumber, and Kin brought his business in to become an affiliate of Church & Church.
The Churches are committed to producing quality lumber products. “We produce the best looking, most aesthetic product we can,” said Kin, whose father passed away at age 88 in 2016.
“We control all processes of wood and lumber manufacturing, from the harvest of the trees to the boards that leave the sawmill, planer mill and dry kiln facilities, to destinations all across the globe,” he added.
Three foresters on staff work with landowners to procure standing timber that is harvested by logging contractors. Church & Church Lumber also buys gate wood from loggers.
About 86 percent of the sawmill’s production is hardwood and 14 percent pine. About 40 percent of the mill’s production is grade lumber, 30 percent low grade lumber, 25 percent pallet cut stock, 3 percent decking, and 2 percent railroad crossties.
Select Hardwoods obtains 100 percent of its green lumber from Church & Church Lumber and dries and sells about 9.5 million board feet annually. Select Hardwoods sells to domestic and export markets.
The remainder of the sawmill’s green lumber is sold to concentration yards, other lumber-drying businesses, flooring manufacturers and furniture makers. Pallet cut stock is sold to pallet and container manufacturers in Virginia and North Carolina.
One of the mills the Churches initially purchased was destroyed by fire. They decided to focus on improvements to the remaining mill to increase production and efficiency. For a time, the company ran two shifts at the mill to maintain production levels. Now, employees working just one shift meet or exceed the production that was achieved first by two mills and then by two shifts at the single mill.
The most recent improvements to the sawmill were the addition of a McDonough resaw system and replacing an aging Cooper scragg mill with a new Cooper scragg, both in early 2019.
In the log yard, an electric Caterpillar knuckleboom loads logs onto a deck that feeds a Nicholson debarker. Grade logs are broken down with a Corley carriage and circular saw. Smaller logs are routed to the Cooper overhead, end-dogging scragg mill that features a Salem twin band mill. Both mills are equipped with USNR and Lewis Controls scanners.
After a grade log is squared up, it is kicked off to the McDonough vertical band mill with a return system to remove grade material. “We try to strip every bit of grade,” said Kin. “The wood just keeps coming around – just keeps going back to an experienced sawyer who is taking off grade.” The remaining square is routed to a Ligna gang-edger along with squares that come off the scragg mill.
Lumber is trimmed to length with an HMC trim saw. “The trim saw operator makes decisions of what he can get off the board,” said Kin. “He may have a 16-foot board that, if it were cut, would yield more grade.” At the green chain, lumber is graded and marked, and manually pulled and packed, sorted by length, thickness, and grade.
The planer mill houses a Yates A-20-12 planer for surfacing Southern Yellow Pine decking. The building also is equipped with a line of Pendu equipment to remanufacture cants from the sawmill into pallet deck boards and stringers and stock to build crates and containers. The Pendu line includes a gang saw, trim saw and stacker.
Residual materials from the sawmill and planer mill are separated. Slabs and scraps from the sawmill are processed by chipping. “We make quality chips that ultimately go to operations making engineered wood or paper,” said Kin.
The company added a Rotochopper grinder in 2018 to process bark into mulch. Although Rotochopper machines can grind and color the material in one pass through the machine, Church & Church uses it only to produce natural mulch, not colored mulch. It is sold in bulk form mainly wholesale to landscape contractors.
Green sawdust from the planer mill is used to fuel the Biomass Combustion (now Messersmith) boiler that heats the dry kilns at Select Hardwoods.
Sawdust from the sawmill and pallet cut-up operations is supplied to poultry farmers and other outlets. The company has to be scrupulous in separating sawdust from cutting oak logs because oak wood contains tannins that can sicken chickens.
The new Cooper overhead, end-dogging scragg mill was a joint project of Cooper and Salem, which supplied the twin band mill. The control system was supplied by Lewis Controls.
Cooper has made numerous improvements to its overhead, end-dogging scragg mill. For example, the dogs have been reversed so the rear pivot dog now can allow a log to load while the log on the mill is dropping, which reduces the sawing cycle by more than 6 seconds. A Gates poly chain belt drive helps harness better use of horsepower, and a wider cant support helps to better support and ‘true up’ the cant. Other improvements include heavier slides that make the beds more uniform, replacing a conventional pantograph with an igus plastic energy chain, a wider slab belt, a new graphic display that gives the sawyer a visual image of the cutting solution, and more.
When Kin joined his brother and father in business and Select Hardwoods became a division of Church & Church Lumber, he had one Converta Kiln dry kiln. Over the next several years he invested in four more Converta Kiln dry kilns to increase drying capacity. The latest investment was an 80,000 board feet capacity SII Dry Kilns dry kiln added in 2003. Overall, Select Hardwoods now has 400,000 board feet of dry kiln capacity, which gives it the ability to dry about 9.5 million board feet of lumber annually. In addition to the dry kilns, the company has three sheds with a combined 25,000 square feet for air-drying lumber and storing kiln-dried lumber.
From the inception of Select Hardwoods, Kin has put the focus on quality. The company’s grade lumber products are used to make furniture, cabinets, millwork, flooring, and log homes.
Church & Church Lumber is a member of the Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Association and the National Hardwood Lumber Association. “We do our best to be good stewards of the resource so that future generations will have the same opportunities that we have had,” said Kin. Being good stewards includes providing forest management services to landowners with consulting services by the company’s staff of foresters.
Resilience is a key to success in the forest products industry and for Church & Church Lumber. In recent years the industry has recently faced reduced pricing, export tariffs, and now the COVID 19 pandemic. For example, furniture manufacturers have seen their business slow as the impact of the coronavirus has dampened consumer demand. With unemployment high in the U.S. and people sheltering in place, retail sales of furniture are down, noted Kin. As a result, furniture makers are buying less raw material.
Nevertheless, Kin is optimistic. “Being innovative and embracing change will provide a bright future,” he said.
Kin spends his free time at his small tree farm and hunting. He has not had enough time in recent years to maintain his early interest in woodworking. From a very young age he enjoyed working with wood and had a shop where he made everything from a butcher block to cabinets.
The lumber industry has had a positive impact on communities in Wilkes county, noted Kin. “We directly employ a lot of people, and we have outside contractors in the community that provide goods and services to enable us to continue to operate daily. We are very blessed to have all these people working for us and with us. We want to say, ‘Thanks for what you do.’”
For the industry’s future to be bright, “We want to conduct ourselves in a way that we have integrity – in a way that is honest,” said Kin.