By Carolee Anita Boyles, Contributing Author
PEACH BOTTOM, Pennsylvania –The COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges to many businesses. Companies were forced to modify goals and business strategies in response to the pandemic’s impact on markets.
However, sometimes adversity leads to opportunity. Benuel Stoltzfus, who owns Stoltzfus Forest Products with his father, Sam, and brother, Abner, saw the effect on their green lumber sales. The market slowdown became a catalyst to act on an existing goal of adding dry kilns to the sawmill’s lumber operations. It would enable diversification of the company’s lumber products and a modification of its markets.
Stoltzfus Forest Products has been in business for 32 years, and up until recently all lumber products were sold green. About 70 percent of the mill’s production is grade lumber and 30 percent is low-grade or industrial products like ties, mat timbers, and pallet cants. The mill produces over 10 million board feet per year.
The move to incorporate drying was instigated by the pandemic. “What really made us pull the trigger was that in 2020, with the COVID slowdown, we had a hard time moving all of the poplar lumber that we were producing,” Benuel said. “When you’re talking green grade lumber, it has to move. You can’t sit on it.”
In addition, one of his regular buyers was looking for a good source for kiln-dried poplar. That helped Benuel and Sam decide that it was the right time to add the dry kilns they had been talking about for a number of years. Being new to lumber drying, it was important to find a company that could also provide the education, training, and hands-on help that would be needed to add successful drying operations.
Benuel talked to a number of dry kiln manufacturers but ultimately chose to work with SII Dry Kilns, a company based in Lexington, North Carolina. During the pandemic slowdown, SII had sponsored a series of NHLA webinars on lumber drying. Benuel really appreciated that a kiln manufacturer would make the effort to educate people on how to more efficiently dry lumber. He contacted the company. “SII was the one that was most helpful, was best able to answer my questions, since I was pretty new with the drying part of things and didn’t know much about drying lumber,” Benuel stated.
SII Dry Kilns has been in business for over 50 years. With over 2,000 drying facilities in operation worldwide, SII offers a diverse product line to serve both hardwood and softwood drying applications. The company’s product line includes single and double track-loaded kilns, conventional package loaded kilns, predryers, fan sheds, steamers, and pallet heat-treaters and firewood kilns.
A high level of expertise would be necessary as Stoltzfus Forest Products had some special requirements. As an example, this kiln project would require a hydraulic motor system to drive the kiln fans, rather than the typical electric motors found in most kilns. SII coordinated with other industry suppliers to make sure that all the project requirements would be met.
Bob Pope was the SII Dry Kilns representative who primarily provided project support. Working with Benuel and others at Stoltzfus Forest Products, Bob was available during the installation of the kilns and provided training for all the employees who would be involved in the drying process. This included education both in kiln operations, as well as proper drying technique and process. For a mill that is just getting started in lumber drying, education and hands-on support was extremely important.
Benuel was also very impressed with SII’s scheduling. The initial kiln order was placed in October of 2020. “They told us then that the kilns should be getting installed end of March, into early April (2021), and that is exactly what happened,” said Benuel. Stoltzfus Forest Products is adding a third kiln from SII, and installation will commence late July, early August 2022. “The kiln was ordered back in July of last year, so over a year lead time and they are right on schedule,” Benuel added regarding SII’s scheduling efficiency.
The SII kilns are unit-packaged or forklift-loaded kilns, designed to dry hardwood lumber from many species. The kilns are all-aluminum structures with stainless steel insulated roof panels and Al-Clad aluminum insulated wall panels for corrosion protection.
Benuel said the existing SII Dry Kilns have a capacity of 37,000 board feet, but the company is consistently averaging about 42,000 board feet. The kiln that is being constructed this summer is rated for 50,000 board feet, but the expectation is to average about 55,000 board feet per load, according to Benuel.
The move to kiln-dried poplar added new markets. “It meant a lot of new customers,” said Benuel. “One broker – the guy who was looking for a source for kiln-dried poplar, and who was the reason we started this – is buying a lot more lumber from us.”
Benuel went to several trade shows and ran a few advertisements, and now he has all the customers he needs for his poplar, including a lot of small local buyers. “We have a lot of woodworking shops here in our local area,” said Benuel. He also sends out a monthly newsletter that contains the company’s current stock list and pricing, making it simple for any size buyer to know exactly what is available at any given time.
Besides poplar, Stoltzfus Forest Products also dries quite a bit of walnut and some white oak. “We actually dry almost as much walnut as we do poplar,” Benuel said. “So far this year (as of late June) the mill has produced a little over 700,000 board feet of walnut. It’s used for almost everything.” FAS grade goes for moulding, and Number 1 Common is used a lot for cabinets. Stoltzfus Forest Products sells a rustic walnut product that’s used for flooring. Some of the lesser quality material goes to a company that makes a butcher block product. The white oak goes for a wide variety of uses as well. Some of it is used for rustic flooring, with the better grades used for moulding and cabinets.
As with the poplar, the move to drying walnut and white oak meant Benuel’s markets for lumber changed. In the past, he sold most of his walnut logs to a couple of companies that paid more than what he was able to average by sawing the walnut into green lumber.
“But now, with being able to kiln-dry the walnut and sell it directly to end users, that has changed,” said Benuel. “We’re definitely better off drying it ourselves and selling it that way.”
Kiln-drying walnut is not as simple as other species. Walnut sapwood is white, not the rich dark brown of the heartwood that the consumer is accustomed to seeing in finished lumber. For the entire board to be that dark brown, it must be steamed before it’s dried. Since Stoltzfus does not have a steamer on site, Benuel must send out the green walnut lumber to another company to be steamed first.
“It’s right around 200 degrees and very humid in there,” he said of the steaming process. “It bleeds the color of the heartwood into the sapwood. When it comes out, it’s all one color.” When the walnut comes back to Stoltzfus, it is then kiln-dried on site.
Soon Benuel will no longer have to send out the walnut to be steamed. He has a steamer on order from SII Dry Kilns, planned for installation next year. Benuel worked with Bob Pope on the design, as SII offers several steamer design options as well as site placement. The steamer ordered is SII’s fully welded steamer.
Adding the dry kilns also changed the company’s specs for logs. Now the focus is more on sawing only grade logs and selling off the low-grade logs. This meant finding new markets for the low-grade logs and new suppliers for some grade logs. “We’re buying grade logs from other local mills and from loggers,” Benuel said. “So we’re selling off our low-grade logs and buying grade logs to supplement what we are cutting.”
The company still sells a small amount of green lumber. Industrial blocking, pallet cants, and railroad ties still are sold green.
Stoltzfus Forest Products is adding equipment to support the drying operations. This new equipment is being supplied by Mellott Manufacturing, a company based in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. The Stoltzfus family has been doing business with Mellott Manufacturing since 2004. When Sotltzfus built their new sawmill which began operating in 2016, Mellott supplied all material handling equipment for logs and lumber as well as several key machine centers.
To prepare the lumber for drying, Mellott installed an accumulation deck that feeds a Gillingham-Best stacker. Benuel chose the stacker for a number of reasons. It offers safe operation by one person with high efficiency, a rugged design that requires minimal maintenance, and excess stacking capacity for future production expansion. It is designed to provide perfect sticker alignment even with bowed boards, and the mill sets the stick discard standards rather than the machinery, which maximizes stick life. The electrical installation is relatively simple. The control console monitors and displays all cycle conditions and allows the operator to adjust stacker set-up and timing.
In addition, Mellott is providing a tilt hoist and stick stacker system, unscrambler, and sorting and grading chain. The Mellott tilt hoist will handle lumber coming out of the kiln, quickly and efficiently removing the sticks between the lumber and segregating the sticks and the lumber for processing. The lumber will go to a belt that takes it to the Mellott sorting and grading chain.
“They’re custom building a lot of this equipment to our specifications,” Benuel said. “Carl (Park) at Mellott and I spent a lot of time looking at different layouts and went to another drying operation until we figured out what’s going to work best for us. It’s going to be very versatile in that we can run either green or kiln dried lumber on the same line.” To surface the dried lumber, the company added a Newman EQ24 planer with a Mellott infeed belt conveyor to the same line.
Along with adding the dry kilns and other equipment, the company built a 12,000-square-foot warehouse that it started using in April 2021 for dry lumber storage and for the planer and sorting chain. Adding the kilns and the warehouse building didn’t require more land, but with the Mellott equipment and the Gillingham-Best stacker, the company would not have enough space.
At the end of 2021, a 7-acre industrial property came up for sale a quarter-mile away. The property already had been used for reclaimed lumber and had a 14,000-square-foot warehouse and office and a small manufacturing building. Benuel purchased it with the caveat that it would be available to them on July 1 of this year.
These changes and investments have transformed Stoltzfus Forest Products into a more robust company than it was before the pandemic. With the addition of the second location, the company now operates on 17 acres, including its original 10-acre site. New personnel to oversee the drying operations have been added, along with two foresters, two logging crews, and workers for the new distribution yard. The company now has 38 employees, growing from 22 over the last few years.
“One thing all of this will do is allow us to really cater to our local markets,” Benuel said. “Now we can inventory most of the different items that our local furniture shops are going to need. A lot of the shops around here operate pretty lean. They don’t want to inventory a lot of lumber; they want us to hold the inventory for them. They just want to be able to order lumber and have it the next day. If we don’t have it, they will go to someone else.”
The Stoltzfuses are an Amish family, and Stoltzfus Forest Products continues to be a family-run business. Sam loads lumber trucks at the mill, handles office responsibilities, and does maintenance on rolling stock. Benuel’s brother, Henry, is the kiln operator and also oversees maintenance and repairs on the kilns. Another brother, Melvin, spends about half his time in the sawmill and the other half in the drying operations, loading and unloading the kilns. Abner is in charge of mulch production operations and works on one of the logging crews. And a sister, Elizabeth, works in the office part-time.
Five years from now, Benuel said, he would like to see Stoltzfus Forest Products have a drying capacity of 300,000 board feet. “With that capacity we would have the opportunity to purchase some green lumber from other local mills. We’ve talked about that a little bit, but we haven’t really made any decisions.”
What Benuel appreciates most about the company and his work is the opportunity to employ people and watch them learn and grow. “We’ve had a couple of managers who we trained and then they took over one of our departments. They really benefited from that. It increased their self-confidence as they assumed the responsibilities of a very important role within the company. I find it very rewarding to give people a chance to grow.”
Equally rewarding to Benuel is working with his customers, and providing them with quality lumber products. “Seventy percent of the logs we process are bought standing. So quality control is maintained from the time we fell the tree, through the milling and drying processes, down to lumber surfacing and final delivery. I find it very rewarding and satisfying that we have the ability to deliver high-quality products to our customers.”