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Ball Brothers Treating 80% of Its Pallets
Missouri pallet manufacturer sterilizes production with Converta Kiln system

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 10/1/2003

KOSHKONONG, Missouri — Ask Marvin Ball, co-owner of Ball Brothers Forest Products Inc., what his company does and expect a simple, comprehensive answer: "Anything a tree will let us do with it," he said.

Ball Bros. Forest Products operates sawmills, flooring mill and a pallet plant. And it still does some of its own logging. "We started out logging," said Marvin, who explained the company has three sawmills at one location.

Marvin’s brother, Fred Ball Jr., who is usually known as Bill, is his partner in Ball Bros. Forest Products. Marvin and Bill started the business 30 years ago. They each put up $500, and they got help from their father, who mortgaged an 80-acre farm to help his sons get their business started.

Over the years, Marvin and Bill have ventured in many directions. For example, in addition to the company they co-own, they are partners with other principals in Ozark Mountain Hardwoods, which manufactures hardwood flooring and furniture blanks. It was through Ozark Mountain Hardwoods that Marvin got to know the people at Converta Kiln Inc., which is headquartered in Bartlett, Tenn. "They built some dry kilns for us at Ozark Mountain Hardwoods," he said.

Ball Brothers Forest Products heat treats pallets, but it was involved in heat treating before it invested in a pallet sterilization system from Converta Kiln. "I’ve been sterilizing pallets since October 2001 with steam heat," said Marvin. In order to supply heat-treated pallets to customers that required them, Marvin built a heat treatment system. He bought an old boiler and configured it with an existing dry kiln.

In early May of this year, Marvin bought a pallet sterilizer from Converta Kiln. He fires it with propane gas. Converta Kiln had its pallet sterilizer under development for about a year. Marvin bought one of the first units on the market.

The majority of the pallets made by Ball Bros. is heat-treated by the Converta Kiln pallet sterilizer. "I’ve been sterilizing about 25,000 pallets per month," said Marvin. "Eighty percent of our pallets are sterilized.

Besides knowing the people at Converta Kiln and liking the dry kilns the company had supplied, Marvin saw a good match for what Ball Bros needed in the many features of the Converta Kiln pallet sterilizer.

The aluminum and stainless steel construction of the chamber is one important feature of the Converta Kiln pallet sterilizer. "Aluminum will not rot from acid in the wood," Marvin noted.

The size of the pallet sterilizer from Converta Kiln was also important. The unit can heat-treat 630 pallets in two hours. That is a truckload quantity, which is important to maintaining the pace of production at Ball Bros. Pallets are loaded into the Converta Kiln pallet sterilizer with a forklift.

After treating, each pallet is stamped with the heat-treatment certification number that Ball Bros. is authorized to use. Ball Bros. Forest Products is certified to heat-treat by the National Hardwood Lumber Association. Although Marvin elected to heat his Converta Kiln pallet sterilizer with propane, fuel oil or natural gas may also be used. The furnace is designed to run with a fossil fuel of some sort.

The Ball Bros. Forest Products sawmills produces grade lumber, cants, railroad ties and pallet cut stock. The company cuts mainly red oak, white oak, hickory, short leaf pine and sycamore.

All the company’s pallets are made from oak. The pallet operations are automated with Viking nailing machines and also a Rayco nailer for assembling odd pallets, such as those with five stringers. Pallets are supplied to customers mainly in the Midwest, from Chicago to Houston.

The Converta Kiln sterilizer can treat different types of pallets and provide reliable heat treatment because of the way the probes and timing device work together. Three probes monitor the temperature of the wood; a hole is drilled in the largest stringer in the most distant pallet for one probe, and this probe — the ‘third probe’ — is used as a guide for timing the process. When the temperature recorded by the third probe reads 133 degrees, the computerized system begins to time the treatment process.

The entire process takes an average of two hours, said Marvin. "In the winter time, it’s going to take a little longer," he said, anticipating it will take more time for the pallet sterilizer to heat up.

There are always adjustments to be made with any new equipment, so Marvin said he was glad to know that Converta Kiln is in neighboring Tennessee. "Close enough that if I had trouble," said Marvin, help would be available quickly.

The town of Bartlett, Tenn., where Converta Kiln is based, is in the far western part of the Volunteer State, near Memphis. It is about 150 miles from Koshkonong. Koshkonong is a town with just 200 residents. It is nestled in the picturesque Ozark Mountains in south central Missouri, close to the Arkansas border.

(According to Phyllis Modeland, author of "A Living History of the Ozarks," the name Koshkonong was ‘borrowed’ from the town by the same name near Madison, Wisconsin; Koshkonong derives from an Indian word that means ‘wild rice.’)

Ball Bros. Forest Products employs about 70 workers at its operations in Koshkonong. The company also has one logging crew that operates with chain saws and skidders. "Ninety-nine percent" of the logging performed by Ball Bros. Forest Products is on private land, said Marvin.

Ball Bros. is a member of the Missouri Forest Products Association (MFPA), which promotes the forest products industry as well as safety and the wise use of natural resources.

Marvin was born 10 miles from Koshkonong. He wanted to stay in the area after high school. That is one of the things that motivated him to start a business. He and his brother started logging with no family ties to the industry. Neither his father nor his grandfather was a logger, he emphasized.

Working in the forest products industry has been a very good experience, said Marvin. In fact, one of his regrets is that, as a business owner and manager, he is not in the woods, engaged in logging. On the other hand, being a business owner brings its own rewards. "It all has to work together," said Marvin, who enjoys solving the challenges the businesses faces.

When Marvin takes some time away from business, he enjoys skiing, fishing and hunting. He particularly likes hunting in Colorado.

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