KEYSVILLE, Virginia — When Tim Tucker started a sawmill business in the mid-1980s, he focused on cutting pine lumber. Little did he realize that one day he would be cutting hardwood logs into railroad ties and become a leading sawmill for a company that is the largest supplier of railroad crossties in North America.
Tucker Timber Products has come a long way since Tim started his first sawmill in 1986. The business has grown in acreage and from one mill to three sawmills. Also, Tim’s youngest son, Seth, has joined him in the business.
As the business has grown and Tim has updated or added mills, he has relied heavily on a couple of suppliers for key machine centers. Each of his three sawmills is equipped with a Hurdle Machine Works sawmill package and an HMC Corp. debarker.
Tucker Timber Products is located in Keysville, Virginia, which is 77 miles southwest of Richmond. It is in a sprawling rural region called Southside (Virginia) that borders North Carolina and is well known for its forest resources and also agriculture.
Tim, 64, grew up in the region. His father owned and operated a portable sawmill, and he worked for his father as a young man starting in 1977. Seven years later he decided to get into the sawmill business himself and bought an old planer mill. He “floundered around a year or two” and then put in a sawmill and began cutting pine. He cut pine for a year or two before he was approached by a representative of Koppers, the largest supplier of railroad crossties in North America, and was asked to supply ties to the Pittsburgh-based company. Tom made the switch to hardwood and cutting ties and apparently has never looked back.
The mill originally was located on 60 acres, but Tim has expanded over the years and purchased adjoining land. Tucker Timber Products now has 100 acres and three sawmills, about 15,000 square feet under roof, and an old pallet factory with another 25,000 square feet. The company has about 40 employees and cuts 12-15 million board feet of timber products per year.
About 75 percent of the company’s production is ties or other industrial timber products, primarily similar ties for subway systems. The remaining 25 percent is grade lumber and pallet cants.
Like other mills that cut ties, production is not sold directly to railroad companies; the ties primarily are sold to other businesses — like Koppers — that treat and preserve them and then supply them to the railroads.
Local markets for ties have been down recently, said Seth, 35, and Tucker Timber Products has been shipping ties to Western states. Some railroads in the West are buying all the ties they can, he indicated.
“Cross ties are down, but not critically down,” said Seth. “Flooring lumber is almost nonexistent. The warehouses are full. It’s terrible for them. Pallet cants — everybody’s full. They’re afraid,” he said, because of the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the U.S. economy.
“Everybody’s trying to be positive,” said Tim, “but it hasn’t appeared yet. Everybody’s just waiting for this damn thing to explode.”
Tim’s first mill was a Hurdle sawmill. “We took the slabs from that mill and ran them through a chipper,” said Tim. “That’s when I made money,” he added, laughing.
Eventually he added a second mill — hand-operated — to cut crossties, later upgrading the hand-operated machinery to a second Hurdle sawmill. When Seth decided to withdraw from college and join his father in the business, they added a third mill with another Hurdle sawmill. The newest mill was added by Tim’s oldest son, Blake, who decided to start a sawmill and launched his own business about 18 months ago.
All of the mills are similarly equipped. The Tuckers are believers in sawmills from Tennessee-based Hurdle Machine Works; each mill has a complete Hurdle sawmill, including sawmill and carriage. The mills run Simonds circular saw blades.
The company even notes Hurdle on its website, listing it on a page that features the company’s sawmill equipment. “Hurdle is an efficient crosstie mill, and they’re inexpensive to operate,” said Tim. “And they cut good lumber.” As Tim has upgraded or added mills over the years, he has looked at other sawmill equipment manufacturers but has continued to rely on Hurdle.
Two mills have a Rosser head debarker from HMC Corporation, a sawmill equipment manufacturer located in New Hampshire. The Rosser head debarker in the third mill was supplied by Pennsylvania equipment manufacturer Mellott.
The mills also are equipped with Mellott log decks and vibrating conveyors, Morbark chippers for processing slabs and scrap material into paper quality chips, and Patz barn sweeps for moving bark.
The newest mill also features a Corley gang saw with dual movable blades, a Meadows Mills edger, and a Ligna end trimmer.
The company’s other primary mill is similarly equipped, with a Crosby gang, a Meadows Mill edger, and an HMC trimmer.
The third mill, the smallest of the three, is operated on a seasonal basis when demand is strong and the company needs more production.
The company specs logs 34 inches in diameter on the butt end and 12 inches at the top and lengths of 9 feet and 18 feet, oak and mixed hardwoods. They also buy poplar logs down to 10 inches in various lengths. About half of the company’s production is oak (white and red) and the remainder hickory, sweet gum, and other species, like poplar. “This area is loaded with poplar,” noted Tim.
At the time of this article, Tucker Timber Products was operating two of its mills, including the newest mill.
At the company’s main mill, a knuckleboom loader picks logs from a stack and uses a ground slasher saw to cut them to length. The loader also feeds the bucked logs to the infeed deck of the HMC debarker. After debarking, the logs are kicked onto the mill infeed deck.
The Hurdle head rig makes quick work of each log to open the faces and remove side lumber. One employee is stationed near the mill to help position material coming off the log onto the offbearer belt conveyor that carries it away. Material that will be cut by the gang is transferred 90 degrees to the gang saw. Material that is ready to be edged is fed in-line to the edger. Slabs that will be chipped are dumped to a conveyor below and automatically
routed to the chipper. Another chain conveyor system can carry material exiting the gang saw to the edger. All finished material is routed to a green chain where a group of employees grades, pulls and stacks products.
Hurdle offers complete sawmill packages as well as carriages in three lengths (2 knees, 3, and 4), edgers, resaws, log turners, and control systems. Sawmill packages are based on heavy-duty platforms with three steel beams. They come complete with log deck (2, 3, or 4 strand), stop and loader, saw husk assembly with mandrell and collar, offbearer belt, insulated and air-conditioned sawyer cab, log turner, carriage and carriage drive, and more. A single hydraulic system powers the carriage feed, setworks, log turner, optional vertical edger, and log deck. Hurdle offers three types of setworks: mechanical, electronic, and computerized.
Hurdle’s most popular sawmill package is the HeavyWeight version, it’s ‘Cadillac’ mill. Over 500 customers operate Hurdle HeavyWeight sawmills.
(For more information about Hurdle sawmill machinery, visit www.hurdlemachineworks.com.)
HMC manufactures debarkers, carriages and carriage drives, band mills, trimmers, and lumber and material handling equipment, including waste conveyors, resaw infeed and outfeed systems, chain turners, and tilt hoists.
HMC has been a pioneer in the development of Rosser head debarkers and offers four models for log diameters ranging from 6 inches to 54 inches and other sizes, depending on customer requirements. They feature a slant track design that eliminates log hang-up and variable speed hydraulic controls for smooth, responsive log rotation and carriage control.
(For more information about HMC products, visit www.hmccorp.com.)
In the log yard, the Tuckers have shown a preference for Barko knuckleboom loaders. They have four loaders in the yard, three of them Barko models and a Husky Brute. “They’re pretty reliable and easy to work on,” noted Seth, like the Hurdle sawmills. One machine unloads logs in the yard, two are for loading logs onto the infeed decks at the mills, and another is used to load railroad cars. For moving logs and bark the company has five Volvo wheel loaders and a Cat wheel loader.
The newest mill is equipped with a Patz conveyor system to move bark from the debarker directly to top-loaded trailers.
Grade lumber is sold to companies with kiln-drying operations, mostly in North Carolina. Pallet cants are supplied to pallet manufacturers or mills mainly in North Carolina and some in Virginia.
Chips are supplied to paper mills in Virginia and North Carolina. Bark is supplied to vendors in Virginia for various applications; the company also processes some bark into mulch with a Morbark 1100 tub grinder. Sawdust is supplied to Enviva wood fuel pellet mills near Franklin, Virginia and Garysburg, North Carolina. Tucker Timber Products has a fleet of five trucks to deliver lumber and residuals.
The Tuckers are active in two state trade associations, the Virginia Forest Products Association and the Virginia Forestry Association, and a national one, the Railway Tie Association.
Seth is taking more responsibility for the overall company. “I try to aggravate everyone I can and leave,” joked Tim. Tim owns several farms and raises livestock — cattle, llamas, donkeys, goats. “That’s my hobby,” he said. Some of his employees live on the farms with their families.
Seth oversees log procurement; the company buys land and timber, contracting with loggers for timber harvesting, although currently Seth is only buying gate logs. He also deals with employees and is taking a more leadership role in sales.
Most key employees have been with the company 20 years or more. Tim singled out George Daniels, who will be 80 in October. George and two other mechanics are responsible for keeping all the company’s equipment running and can do any job in the mills, from running a debarker to sawyer to packing lumber.
“We’re very fortunate, employee-wise,” said Tim. Keysville is a small community, he noted, and does not have a large pool of employable workers. The company offers a group health insurance plan to employees and also a retirement savings plan.
Tim turns 65 in June but indicated he has no immediate plans to retire. “I’ve dealt with a lot of really good people over the years,” said Tim. “I’ve had fun with most of my employees. I got to watch my children grow up. It’s been very fulfilling for me.”