BERKSHIRE, New York – Rob Etienne has a nice small business going, producing niche Eastern white pine lumber products, when disaster hit a little over a year ago in the form of a fire. Kiln-Direct is a key supplier that enabled the company to get up and running again relatively quickly.
Rob grew up in a family forest products business in southern Indiana – Phil Etienne’s Timber Harvest, Inc. The company includes a sawmill, pallet plant, logging operations, and colored mulch production. Working in the family business gave Rob an education in all things sawmill-related.
He parted with the family business in 2014, leaving to move to New York to help design and manage a state-of-the-art sawmill in Owego for Wagner Lumber, which is an affiliate of Baillie Lumber. He left on amiable relations with his family. “We just had different ideas,” he said, on growing the family business.
Five years later Rob wanted to get back to a family business, and he and his wife, Shannon bought Halstead Lumber in Owego and christened the business Labrador Lumber. Halstead already was making the same type of niche products offered today by Labrador Lumber, albeit using some different equipment.
The business suffered the fire in April 2022. “We lost just about everything,” said Rob. Following the fire, Rob bought an old furniture manufacturing facility about a 15-minute drive north in Berkshire and rebuilt on the 13-acre property. Berkshire is just under 60 miles south of Syracuse.
The company has three main buildings – sawmill, planer mill, and warehouse – with about 15,000 square feet combined under roof. The company has six employees. The sawmill is still in the process of being rebuilt although the building itself is finished.
When Labrador Lumber operated at the former Halstead Lumber location, it was equipped with a circle saw headrig, vertical edger, planer-matcher, rip saw, and two aging home-built dry kilns.
Rob is currently running a Wood-Mizer LT70 sawmill for primary breakdown with a Wood-Mizer ER600 edger behind it. The planer mill or finishing mill is equipped with a Kentwood M509S moulder, a Stetson-Ross 6-10-A1 planer-matcher, a Diehl straight-line rip saw, a Mereen-Johnson 424DC gang rip, and a Buss double-sided planer. All the equipment was purchased in used conditions, although the Kentwood moulder was almost brand new when Rob bought it. The only equipment he purchased new was a lumber kiln from Kiln-Direct.
Rob Etienne in front of the company’s Kiln-Direct lumber kiln. He was attracted to Kiln-Direct because the kiln would arrive pre-built and was in his price range. He also was impressed with the expertise of Niels Jorgensen, president and owner of Kiln-Direct.
Labrador Lumber has customers in niche markets, which are more profitable, noted Rob. The company has been averaging about $1 million in annual revenue, and he projects it will reach $1.2 million in 2024.
In addition to making specialty softwood lumber products, the company also manufactures some hardwood flooring. To make flooring Rob buys kiln-dried hardwood from Wagner Lumber or Tioga Hardwoods.
The old home-built kilns were too close together to stop the fire and were destroyed in the blaze. Rob invested in a new Kiln-Direct lumber kiln that has been operating since April.
(He purchased a refurbished Nyle dehumidification kiln that was housed in a refrigerated trailer van, but it is not operational yet.)
Rob was impressed with Neils Jorgenson, the president and owner of North Carolina-based Kiln-Direct. “He’s a sharp guy,” said Rob. The Kiln-Direct lumber kiln also was “within our price range.”
Another factor in his decision to go with Kiln-Direct was the fact that the kiln would arrive pre-built, ready to be set up on a concrete pad and connected to power and a fuel source. “We were very busy building everything and installing everything,” recalled Rob. “The idea of building a kiln was just out.”
He also talked to some Kiln-Direct customers, and the lumber kiln “got rave reviews.” He had planned to visit some of those customers, but it didn’t work out.
Kiln-Direct offers 10 models of lumber kilns. The North Carolina company also manufactures kilns to heat-treat pallets and to dry firewood.
The kiln purchased by Labrador Lumber is the Kiln-Direct Small Standard model. It is the smallest of the turn-key delivered lumber kilns with a realistic loading capacity of 9,000 board feet of 4/4 lumber. The exterior of the kiln measures 12 feet by 28 feet and more than 12 feet high. Standard components include five 2 hp main fans, direct gas heating, and two 2 hp power exhaust vents with heat recovery on venting. Other features include fully computerized controls and wireless communication. The kilns are all-aluminum construction, including interior and exterior sheeting.
Outfeed of the company’s Stetson-Ross 6-10-A1 planer-matcher. Labrador Lumber also has a Kentwood M509S moulder for cutting profiles as well as a double-sided planer, gang rip, and straight-line rip.
Optional upgrades include stainless steel interior sheeting, bi-fold main door system, increased btu output, additional fans, integrated wood moisture meter, dual controls for drying or heat-treating lumber, high pressure mist system, and hot water or steam heating coils.
(For more information, visit the Kiln-Direct website at www.kiln-direct.com or call (910) 259-9794.)
The kiln has performed “fantastic,” reported Rob. He would “absolutely” recommend Kiln-Direct to other lumber businesses. It is being used to dry all kiln-dried products.
Most of the company’s 4/4 pine is air-dried four weeks outside. The Kiln-Direct dries the lumber in two or three days, “just like they said it would,” noted Rob. And the quality of the kiln-dried lumber has been very good – “great,” said Rob.
The installation and start-up were “seamless,” said Rob. “The only issue on my end,” he said, was that he planned to operate the kiln on a 3-phase electrical system. However, the kiln arrived before the electric company had done its work, so Rob got a phase converter.
Rob decided to buy the refurbished Nyle kiln to have enough kiln capacity for future growth. “We just got an unbelievably good deal on the Nyle kiln,” he said. Shannon came across it listed on Facebook Marketplace. Rob expected the Nyle kiln to be operating the following month.
Labrador Lumber’s products are made almost exclusively from Eastern white pine logs. The company buys mostly gate logs although Rob does buy some standing timber. Log specs lengths from 8-26 feet, 12 to 26 inches diameter at the top. Logs must be straight. “If it’s not a straight log, I can’t make a good product,” noted Rob. “It’s got to be straight.” He also purchases some stock locally from A.D. Bowman & Son Lumber Co. in Castle Creek.
Rob Etienne and Tony Alexander stack a piece of finished material. Labrador Lumber makes components for post-and-beam homes and log cabins from Eastern white pine logs. Other white pine products include log siding, loft flooring, and paneling. The company also makes hardwood flooring.
The company’s leading sellers are stock to build homes and components for post-and-beam homes. “We focus on the big timber and the log cabins,” said Rob. “We’re value-added white pine. We stay out of the commodities.” After those, log siding and loft flooring (a 2-inch thick tongue and groove product), followed by paneling. Log siding may be manufactured with the whole log or just a portion of the log with a curved edge. Customers building a log home or a post and beam home provide a detailed list of the components they need and what type of log profile. Pricing is based on the number of lineal feet of logs.
All notching of log home components is done on-site by the building contractor.
The majority of the company’s customers, about 60 percent, are building contractors, and other 40 percent, individual homeowners. Although most customers are within 50-100 miles, the company has shipped products as far away as South Carolina, Texas, Idaho, and Arkansas.
“We deal with a lot of different customers,” said Rob. “We can get 20 phone calls in a day” from customers or potential customers.
Word-of-mouth referrals are an important source of new business and customers. The Halstead brothers that Rob purchased the business from had developed a reputation for “great product, good prices.” Rob also promotes the company through several social media outlets, including Facebook and others.
The company has a Montgomery hog for processing scrap wood material into playground mulch. Sawdust is supplied to farms with livestock. The biggest residual by volume is wood shavings, which are mainly sold to horse farms.
The business employs his son, Jules, and a former associate at Wagner Lumber, Tony Alexander. “We pay well and demand a lot from our people,” said Rob, who is a member of the Empire State Forest Products Association.
As you might guess, Rob and his family own Labrador retriever dogs. The two chocolate labs they currently own are among several they have owned in the past 27 years.
The fire prompted offers of help “from a lot of different people,” said Rob. “It was quite remarkable what we’ve done in a year’s time. We went from nearly a total loss to being operational and making all our products again. We’re very grateful for all the help we’ve had.”