HERTFORD, North Carolina – As a contractor who chips whole trees and supplies the microchips for feedstock to a leading manufacturer of wood fuel pellets, James Rhodes knows the value of keeping his chipper knives sharp.
Sharp knives provide a lot of benefits, and he keeps them sharp with the Bevel Buddy tool and replacement abrasive from Precision Sharpening Devices.
His company, R&S Logging, is based in Hertford, North Carolina. James owns 50 acres just outside of Hertford, which is about 15 miles southeast of Elizabeth City. On that site now are his home, his son’s home and daughter’s home, and two shops, one for servicing trucks and the other for the logging equipment. One shop building also contains the company’s office. The property also provides space for parking trailers and some of the trucks.
R&S Logging normally works within about an 80-mile radius of Hertford – sometimes more, sometimes less. Most of its work is in northeast North Carolina although it also does business in Virginia.
The company has 25 employees, including James and family members and 12 truck drivers. R&S Logging averages about 200 loads of wood – roughly half chips and half saw logs – per week between two crews. One crew is larger than the other, and James leads one himself, operating a loader.
All the machines on his crew are Tigercat; the smaller crew uses all John Deere machines except for a Tigercat cutter. For producing microchips and also fuel chips, the company is equipped with three Morbark 50/48 chippers.
James, 65, has been in business for 25 years. He was born and raised in Columbia, a small community about 35 miles west of Roanoke Island, which is adjacent to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He grew up in a commercial fishing family. The family’s boat operated out of Wanchese, a village on Roanoke Island, and Hatteras, a village at the southern tip of the Outer Banks on Hatteras Island. They trawled for shrimp and used nets to fish for bluefish, trout, croaker, and flounder.
James married into a logging family and began working in logging part-time – mainly in the winter when fishing was slow. He started doing small jobs with a cutter, one skidder, and a loader, although he admitted he “didn’t really like it at the time.”
As the work and his business slowly grew, he made the decision to buy the 50 acres on the other side of Albemarle Sound, near Hertford, because it was near where he was logging.
James used to contract to harvest timber, but in the last 15-18 years he transitioned to buying timber. He likes to get a 3-year deed to harvest timber so he can cut it at the optimal time, based on market conditions. “I cut some for other mills from time to time if they get in a bind and need help,” he added.
Northeast North Carolina is very flat. And with several rivers draining into Albemarle Sound, there are plenty of swamps. The dominant species in the swamps are cypress, which is a coniferous species, tupelo, and black gum. River bottom lands contain more cypress and tupelo and some oak and ash.
James buys mainly stands of hardwoods although he buys some pine timber for the smaller crew. He works with a forester who buys timber for him from landowners; the forester also helps James prepare bids for sealed bid timber sales.
Enviva, the world’s largest producer of industrial wood fuel pellets, buys microchips for its mills. The company has nine manufacturing plants in six states in the Southeast. R&S Logging supplies three Enviva plants – two in North Carolina, in Ahoskie and Garysburg, and one in Franklin, Virginia. Fuel chips are supplied to Virginia Dominion power plants in Franklin and Hopewell, Virginia.
Two of the Morbark chippers are set up to produce ¼-inch microchips for Enviva. Chip quality is critical. “You have to have a good quality chip because they frequently check for quality at the mill,” said James. “You can only have so many oversize chips before they reject a load.” Chips of poor quality cause problems at the mill and can lead Enviva to reject loads of material. (The other Morbark chipper produces fuel chips, and chip quality is not as much of an issue.)
Sharp chipper knives are a must. “Keeping them sharp is the key to having a good quality chip,” added James. Sharp knives produce uniform chips that are cut properly.
R&S Logging is equipped with several of the Bevel Buddy tools and similar hand-held tools for sharpening chipper knives. James also purchases all the abrasive bits for the tools direct from Precision Sharpening Devices, which distributes the Bevel Buddy.
James had been buying the abrasive bits from an equipment dealer – the same dealer that sold the Bevel Buddy – until he learned he could buy them directly from Precision Sharpening Devices at half the cost.
Prior to purchasing the first Bevel Buddy tools, the chipper knives had to be removed and sent out for service when they got dull.
With the Bevel Buddy and the abrasive supplied by Precision Sharpening Devices, the knives can be sharpened perhaps five or six times before they need to be removed and sent out to be serviced. The number of sharpenings and how frequently they are performed depends on the condition of the wood – how wet it is, how much dirt or sand the logs have accumulated from skidding, and so on. It could be as few as four loads of chips between sharpenings but no more than 10. A company in Gatesville is used for servicing the knives, which usually are returned in a week.
Without resharpening with the Bevel Buddy, the knives may be good for 10-15 loads of chips, possibly as many as 20, before they need to be removed and serviced. Resharpening consistently with the Bevel Buddy, James has gotten as many as 60 loads of chips from a set of knives. “It helps your production,” he said. “You lose less time changing your knives out. And it helps keep the quality of your chips. Most of all, it saves a lot of time and money.”
Precision Sharpening Devices Inc., based in Erie, Pennsylvania, has been manufacturing counter grinding/back beveling equipment since 1988 for the industries that use knives to process wood – mostly for the pulp and paper, sawmill, plywood, and whole tree chipping markets. Thousands of its sharpeners are used on several continents by companies in the forest products industry, helping those businesses increase production while reducing costs associated with servicing and replacing knives as well as overall costs.
The counter grinding/back beveling process is very simple. A knife is re-sharpened while remaining in the machine two to three times. The counter ground/back beveled edge is a more effective chipping edge while under normal as well as adverse conditions.
Sharp knives produce high quality chips, provide less wear and tear on equipment and easier maintenance, reduce fuel consumption and knife purchases, extend the life of chipper parts, and enable a safer operator environment. Those factors reduce operating costs. In addition, fewer knife changes mean less downtime and increased production.
The Bevel Buddy from Precision Sharpening Devices is a hand-held tool designed to sharpen knives on disc and drum style chippers and conventional pocket style, face-mounted and reversible/disposable knife systems, as well as recyclers with chipping knives.
The company offers several models of the Bevel Buddy, including a version that is powered by a pneumatic drive motor.
Bevel Buddy sharpeners are used on brush chippers, whole tree chippers, and in sawmills, chip mills and pulp mills.
(For more information, visit www.precisionsharpeningdevices.com, call (814) 899-0796, or email email@example.com.)
The Bevel Buddy and abrasive from Precision Sharpening Devices provide numerous benefits, noted James. “It saves a lot of time. You can sharpen your knives in 10 minutes, or you can spend 30-45 minutes pulling them and changing them out.” It also reduces the cost of having the knives serviced because resharpening extends the life of the knives, and they don’t need to be sent out for service so often.
James has been using Morbark chippers since he began chipping operations about nine or 10 years ago. All three machines are Morbark model 50/48 whole tree drum chippers. Track loading machines do double duty at the landing, processing logs and feeding wood to the chippers. The company has two Tigercat 865 track loaders performing these tasks and a John Deere 2156 track loader.
The larger crew of six men is equipped with the two Tigercat H65 track loaders, a Tigercat 855E track harvester with a 26-inch saw head, two Tigercat 635G skidders, which have two axles at the back, and two Tigercat 855 shovels.
The shovels are used in swamps, James explained, to help arrange trees to form a road for the skidders to travel on. “Like a wood mat.” The cutter actually lays the trees down to form trails about every 130 feet. The shovels are used to maintain the mats and to pull logs up to the mats and bunch them so the skidders can latch onto them and drag them out. “Everything done in the swamp is on a mat or on trees,” said James.
Shovel logging is a “dying breed,” added James. “We don’t get the rates we used to.” The operations are expensive, requiring numerous track machines.
The small crew of four men is equipped with a Tigercat 724 wheel cutter, a John Deere 948-L2 skidder, and a John Deere 2156G loader; all the machines are equipped with flotation tires. James recently sold off three other machines because of the high cost of fuel.
Trees are processed at the landing with the track loader machines and a CSI 4400 ground saw, one for each loader. The slash – tops and limbs – will be chipped for fuel chips. “We utilize everything from the tree,” said James.
“This time of year, when it’s dry, we’re pretty much on quota,” said James, for microchips. Demand is steady and pricing is fair, he added. When conditions are wet and loggers cannot produce as much, Enviva typically increases the price it pays for microchips.
Grade saw logs are supplied to Meherrin River Forest Products in Weldon, N.C., and Mackey’s Ferry Sawmill in Roper, N.C. Low-grade logs are sold to Enfield Timber in Enfield, N.C., and Charles City Timber and Mat in Providence Forge, Virginia. “Those markets are pretty good,” reported James.
Some mills have been paying a surcharge to help loggers offset the high cost of fuel, which escalated earlier this year but recently has been falling. “They give us some break,” said James, although it doesn’t completely cover the spike in fuel prices.
For the company’s trucking operations R&S Logging has a fleet of 12 Kenworth semi-tractors and about 25 assorted trailers for hauling chips, logs, and equipment. Besides the drivers, R&S Logging employs two mechanics and two foremen. Four service trucks ferry the mechanics and parts to jobs in the woods.
James has two sons who work with him. His oldest son, Jimmy, 39, operates the Tigercat 855E track harvester. His youngest son, Joshua, 28, operates the other Tigercat 865 track loader next to James. His daughter, Jessica, 24, works part-time in the office, where James’ wife, Janice, works as the secretary.
“I start the day off early in the morning,” said James, around 6:30. He works until 5 or 5:30. On the evening he was interviewed for this article, he was just arriving home at 7 p.m.
James and Janice contracted COVID pneumonia last year. He was hospitalized for 10 weeks in three hospitals and almost died. “You never think it’s going to happen to you,” he said.
While in one hospital, in a section for COVID patients, other patients on both sides of him were dying. “Several times they didn’t think I was going to make it,” he recalled. “People prayed for me. I’m a firm believer, and by the grace of God I’m still alive.” Janice’s case was less severe, and she was released from the hospital after three weeks.
“That was a bad time,” recalled James. “But the boys and our daughter kept the business going and kept the wheels turning. Everything went okay for the business. Thank the Lord for that.”
Besides working Monday through Friday, sometimes he works a half-day or all day on Saturday, taking care of equipment. And sometimes he works into the night.
Besides the long hours, “I go fishing once in a while,” said James, “saltwater fishing and church. That’s my life.”
“Bevel Buddy is a great help,” said James, who has been using the tool since he started chipping in 2011. Just about any logger he knows with chipping operations also uses Bevel Buddy, he noted. “If they don’t, they could save themselves a lot of time and money. Call Precision Sharpening today.”