WELLSBORO, Pennsylvania – Quality workmanship and high-end lumber products define Irion Lumber.
“We’re a specialty hardwoods retailer,” said Aubrey Irion, vice president of the eponymous company. “We make a product we would want to use.”
Woodworkers, furniture restoration professionals, small furniture makers and others turn to Irion Lumber for hardwood lumber products such as premium grade hardwood lumber, heavy stock, matched sets, crotches, and slabs. Grade lumber is available from 4/4 to 16/4. Most of the company’s lumber products are kiln-dried in a kiln supplied by Kiln-Direct.
Aubrey, 32, has been with Irion Lumber “since its inception” in 1997, the year the company moved to its north-central Pennsylvania location. His father and mother, Louis and Wanda Irion, previously owned a period furniture business in Lancaster prior to moving and changing the focus of the company. The furniture business produced hand-made, custom furniture on a retail scale.
Today, Louis, owner and founder, Myron Yoder, president, and Aubrey share leadership. The company has four full-time employees and up to three or four part-time employees at times. The company sells about 12-15,000 board feet of lumber products monthly. About 35 percent of the lumber is produced in the company sawmill, and the remaining 65 percent is purchased from other sawmills; approximately 75-80 percent of lumber purchased from other mills is green. All the company’s production is sold kiln-dried.
“I was home-schooled on and off,” recalled Aubrey, who grew up in his parents’ business. He tallied lumber as a boy and later began operating a forklift.
Today Irion Lumber is located on a farm in Wellsboro, a little over 50 miles north of Williamsport and not far from the New York state line. “We have a big family farm, 300 acres – hay, herd of beef cows, chickens, pigs, horses,” said Aubrey. The business consists of two sawmill buildings, three open air sheds, and a shop.
One mill building houses a custom Baker Products 36D band sawmill and a Riehl Steel board edger. The other mill building houses a home-built slabber mill that was designed and fabricated by Aubrey.
Louis does most of the sawmilling although at age 69 he is beginning to step back and hand off more duties to Myron and Aubrey. Myron handles sales and deliveries, deals with customers, and also maintains the company website, which enables customers to place online orders. Aubrey buys logs and lumber and oversees trucking for the raw materials, and he runs the slab mill and the drying operations; he also handles all fabrication, construction, building, and excavation. Myron and Aubrey also share some duties, like preparing loads for the kilns and loading the kilns. In the past, Wanda went to mills with Louis and helped tally lumber; she remains an owner but has stepped back from the business.
The Baker sawmill is powered by a four-cylinder diesel engine and features computer setworks It runs 2-inch band blades and cuts logs up to 36 inches in diameter. “It works really well,” said Aubrey. “I like the setworks. All the torque you could want.”
Aubrey recalled how he and Louis settled on buying the sawmill three years ago. “We had a friend who liked the Baker design,” he said. “Dad and I looked at it and agreed. We had it custom built for us, stationary.” Aubrey made some additional modifications to the sawmill.
In order to cut wide slabs, Aubrey modified the guides. Even with the guides modified, however, it was difficult to cut wide material for slabs. That is when he went to work making a slab cutter.
“The reason I built it, I couldn’t find anything like it,” said Aubrey. “I wanted an electric chainsaw mill. I bought raw metal and some components. I don’t have any CNC works in the fabrication shop – would have made it easier. I used a chainsaw bar and blade – built the rack, the gantry, the head saw.” He built the control box, too.
The slab saw, which has been running for just weeks, is powered by a three-phase electric motor. It can cut logs that are up to 7 feet wide and 27 feet long. Besides cutting wide edge slabs, the mill also is used to cut oversized logs into quarters that are then sawn on the Baker band mill.
Aubrey has been building and fabricating machinery since he was about 12 or 13, so the project was nothing new. “I don’t sit still very well,” he said. One project in recent years was taking a Dodge 3500 truck, pulling out the transmission, which kept blowing, and replacing it with a 10-speed transmission from a semi-tractor.
Irion Lumber invested in a 9,000-board-foot side-load dry kiln from North Carolina-based Kiln-Direct in order to keep pace with demand for kiln-dried slabs from the company’s new slab mill. (The company has another small kiln giving it about 12,500 board feet of drying capacity.) The Kiln-Direct lumber kiln has been operating about a year.
“I did my own sprayer system,” explained Aubrey, and it was integrated into the controls by Kiln-Direct. He spent about a month working on and testing the sprayer system — modeled on a carbonator pump — for conditioning the lumber.
“It’s an economical, low-cost spray system and fully integrated into the control system,” noted Niels Jorgensen, owner and president of Kiln-Direct. “Aubrey uses an actual temperature and humidity sensor to monitor the drying process whereas most kilns use a wet/dry bulb method.”
Aubrey explained that multiple features attracted him to Kiln-Direct him, beginning with the construction. “It was a nice, rugged, aluminum design,” he said. “I like the modular nature and mobility.” That’s important if there’s a need to sell or move, he noted. “If we want to move it, it’s just a matter of removing a few bolts.”
“It’s very well-thought out,” said Aubrey. He also cited other features, such as thick insulation, swing doors, and power venting with heat recovery that conserves energy by using the hot humid exhaust air to heat the incoming air.
The Kiln-Direct dry kiln is heated with natural gas and is truly “plug and play,” said Aubrey. Combined with the Kiln-Direct integrated moisture meter and control system, he can monitor and control the kiln for lumber moisture, kiln temperature and humidity from his desktop computer and also remotely via an iPad.
The company began cutting slabs about three years ago. It has only been in the past 18 months that it accumulated enough inventory of kiln-dried slabs to begin promoting them.
As a specialty lumber and wood products producer, Irion Lumber offers many different species. A kiln charge may contain different species and lumber ranging in thickness from 4/4 to 16/4. In fact, species and thickness often are mixed in a load.
“We plan our loads out,” said Aubrey. “We often have to mix loads. We use past experience to develop drying schedules.” For example, 8/4 walnut and 12/4 cherry dry at about the same rate, so they may be combined in a load.
Niels understands the approach of mixing loads. “The reality is that people need to mix,” he said. It’s necessary for a small business to be efficient.
“We never let the kiln get below 30 percent humidity,” said Aubrey. “We are never in a huge rush because our product is a quality product.” The objective is to condition the lumber so well that the shell and core never deviate from each other more than 0.5 percent in moisture content.
High quality, evenly dried lumber products are essential for the specialty woodworking customers of Irion Lumber, noted Aubrey.
Electricity generated by a solar ground array (45 kWh, grid-tied) installed by Smucker’s Energy now powers the kiln systems.
Aubrey worked with Kiln-Direct sales representative Maury Wilkinson on the purchase and installation. “We were on site to make sure it was done correctly,” said Niels, who noted that when there was a small technical issue following start-up, he personally traveled to Irion Lumber to resolve it.
Irion Lumber buys logs and green lumber from logs yards and sawmills throughout the Northeast. Most logs are sourced from Pennsylvania and New York while some are sourced from Maine and New Hampshire.
The company orders lumber from mills and hand selects all material. Some species, such as maple and other white woods, are purchased nearby so they can be stickered quickly because the lumber will stain if it is not stickered soon after it is cut. “Tiger maple (also called curly maple) we buy dry,” said Aubrey. “A mill might make 100,000 feet, and the mill will pull 1,000 feet for us.”
All of the company’s production is kiln-dried “premium lumber,” said Aubrey. It is shipped less-than-truckload to customers who range from individual hobbyists to large wood products shops. The company sells lumber and slabs of walnut, cherry, curly cherry, tiger maple, butternut, and ash, genuine mahogany, and flame birch. It also sells some sassafras, aspen, hard maple, and calico walnut and quarter sawn and rift sawn white oak.
All production is rough-sawn. “We ship all over the country,” said Aubrey, so it’s important that the lumber can acclimate to the climate of the customer before surfacing.
Slab material is sold to individuals for firewood. The company sells some sawdust to farmers and also composts some sawdust.
Irion Lumber belongs to the Foundation for Sustainable Forests, the American Chestnut Foundation, and the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy.