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Pennsylvania Mill Stays Focused Cutting Rail Ties, Pallet Cants, Grade Lumber
Railroad Ties Are Important Product of Keystone State Mill

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 7/1/2004

LEWISTOWN, Pennsylvania -- Come October, Toby Spigelmyer, owner of Spigelmyer Wood Products Inc., will have been cutting railroad ties for 30 years.

            Toby started his sawmill business as a joint venture with his father and brothers, but today he is independent. Spigelmyer Wood Products cuts railroad ties, pallet cants and grade lumber in relatively equal proportions of board feet. The balance among the products begins with availability of logs.

            “It’s by the logs we take in,” said Toby. “There are a couple of niches out there. We’re basically a tie mill, but definitely, we want to cut all the grade we can.” During the first quarter of 2004, grade rough-cut lumber accounted for 38 percent of total output at Spigelmyer Wood Products.

            Six years ago, Toby reconfigured the company’s operations in order to produce more grade lumber and invested in a Wood-Mizer single-head band resaw. The addition of the Wood-Mizer was a strategic one.

            “At the time, my son was coming into the business,” said Toby. “I wanted something he could work with me.” The Wood-Mizer was a logical choice, he explained, “with its thin kerf and one person” operation. The resaw runs 1-1/2-inch blades supplied by Wood-Mizer that have a kerf of 1.5 mm, or less than 1/16-inch.

            The head rig at Spigelmyer Wood Products consists of an Edmiston Hydraulics circular saw, purchased new in 1987, and an Edmiston carriage, purchased new a year ago. Until the Edmiston was installed 17 years ago, the company ran a Frick hand mill.

            Spigelmyer Wood Products buys standing timber and contracts for logging. The company also buys ‘gate wood’ – mainly tie logs. “It is close to fifty-fifty,” said Toby, speaking of the division between ‘gate wood’ and logs from timber purchases.

            Two CAT wheel loaders, an IT28 and IT14, are used to offload incoming logs and to move them around to stockpiles. Trees are sorted to species; red oak, white oak, maple and poplar predominate.

            Besides running the Wood-Mizer, Toby’s son, Jared, 24, grades lumber. He grades according to standards set by the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA). Toby’s daughter, Tia, 23, who began running the debarker several years ago, recently began working with Jared. They work well as a team, said Toby, who also has two teenage sons.

            Incoming logs are debarked on a Mellot rosserhead debarker. (The bark is sold wholesale to a company that processes into bark mulch.) A Mellot log trough carries the logs to the head rig. Mellot live rolls move boards to the green chain for grading and stacking and convey flitches to a jump skip transfer and onto an Edmiston three-saw edger. Squares to be resawn to recover grade lumber – mainly butt logs – are moved via forklift to the Wood-Mizer multi-head.

            Sawdust is collected and sold for boiler fuel; wood waste is chipped with a Morbark chipper and sold to paper mills.

            The head saw usually is filed – a 10-minute process -- about four times a day. Spigelmyer uses B.H. Payne to supply saw blades and Simonds Industries for saw teeth.

            Whether a log is sawn into a tie, cant or grade lumber hinges on the log itself and the current prices of each product category. “That’s why it’s very important for a sawyer to know the grade,” said Toby. “If it would make all FAS grade” that is what the sawyer would cut. The sawyer’s decision is based on the log species, size and diameter, quality – and current prices. “You have to look at each log,” said Toby. “It comes down to the economics.”

            Spigelmyer Wood Products cuts about 600 ties per week, mainly No. 5 ties. A No. 5 tie is 7 inches wide by 9 inches tall and 8-foot, 6 inches long. Tie grades vary slightly by dimension (some ties are 8 inches tall) and the amount of bark on the rail bearing area of the tie, Toby explained.

            Some ties are sawn and then reevaluated. In other words, they do not stay ties. For instance, if the pricing works out better, a prospective tie might be cut instead into  two 4x6 pallet cants and two boards. To do so, a 1-inch board would be cut off the 7-inch width  of the tie and another 1-inch board from the 9-inch height. The remaining 6x8 piece would be cut into two 4x6 pallet cants.

            “The labor’s actually less cutting the tie,” Toby noted. “To cut into cants, you’re going to make three more saw lines. Since it takes only four saw lines to cut a tie, it is faster. But if cutting the tie into two boards and two cants brings more money, the extra time can be worth it.” It takes the mill 45 to 60 seconds to cut a tie and 75 to 90 seconds to cut a cant.

            At the time Toby was interviewed for this article, beech tie prices were $19.50 while a beech cant sold for $13.83. Red oak ties were selling for $22.50 although the same log cut into a cant and grade lumber would yield about $24.

            In the first quarter of 2004, Spigelmyer Wood Products cut 300,000 board feet of grade lumber, 270,000 board feet of ties, and 280,000 board feet of pallet cants. The company also cut 2,000 board feet of switch ties, which may be any length between 9 feet and 16 feet.

            “We don’t cut many” switch ties,” said Toby. The company specializes in the 8-foot, 6-inch-long cross ties for U.S. railroad tracks. Ties for Canadian railroads are 8 feet long.

            Logs must be at least 11 inches in diameter in order to make a tie. The optimum log for  Spigelmyer Wood Products is 16 inches. The company does not mill every tree it fells or every log it buys. Some large butt logs are sold to veneer mills and small logs are sold for pulpwood.

            Trees in central Pennsylvania are averaging 16 to 24 inches in diameter, according to Toby. “Our diameters are bigger than 30 years ago,” he said. The bigger trees are the result of  good practices of loggers working collaboratively with foresters.

            Ties are made from hardwoods only, such as red and white oak, hickory, beech, gum, elm and birch. Certain hardwood species cannot be used for ties, including poplar, basswood, aspen and willow. Spigelmyer Wood Products does not saw any softwood.

            “There are very few species we wouldn’t make grade lumber” from, said Toby, except gum and beech. “Pallet cants are made out of everything.”

            Toby’s company has been selling all its cants to Gray’s Pallet since the early 1970s. The relationship has been a good one, said Toby. Gray’s Pallet buys all Toby’s cant production (plus cants from other sawmills) to ensure a steady stream of raw material, and Toby’s company benefits from a steady customer despite ups and downs of cant availability and prices. “Gray’s has been there for us,” said Toby.

            Spigelmyer Wood Products has long-term relationships with other customers, too. It has sold ties to RailWorks Inc. for 20 years and to other railroad tie customers for more than a decade. It sells grade lumber to Catawissa Specialty Products, Cherry Hill Hardwoods and Bailey Lumber.

            Besides Toby, Spigelmyer Wood Products has eight employees. Brian Imes is the full-time sawyer; he has been working at the company since 1987 and has been the sawyer since 1991. When Brian is on vacation, Toby enjoys the opportunity to run the Edmiston. He also alternates with Jared, running the Wood-Mizer.

            Lewistown is about 45 miles west-northwest of Harrisburg. The town, with a population of about 10,000, is the site of a former Shawnee Indian village. Toby was born in nearby Port Royal.

            Even though Toby and his brothers have separated their businesses, they still work together. “I have four brothers and a sister,” said Toby. “Our business is family oriented.” Andy is a forester for Spigelmyer Wood Products. “He buys all timber, oversees road construction, seeding…erosion control,” explained Toby. It is valuable to have a company forester in order to meet forestry and logging requirements on private and state lands where Toby’s company buys standing timber. Todd owns a logging business and contracts for Toby. Two other brothers, Jason and Mike, drive logging trucks and haul wood for Spigelmyer Wood Products. His sister, Tammy, is a married to a contract logger, Tim Nipple, and Tim and his brother, Tracy, cut timber for Toby’s company.

            “I’ve been an environmentalist for 30 years,” said Toby. “Here in Pennsylvania, we’re very conscious of the necessity to maintain healthy, renewable forests that will easily meet our woods products needs now and in the future,” said Toby.

            Toby attributes the company’s strength to several factors. “First and foremost, the employees,” he said. Having good business relationships with long-term customers also has been beneficial. “A good bank that’s going to work with you through thick and thin” is also a must. Put all that together, he explained, and “it gives us a chance to make sure there’s something here for our kids.”

            “I’ve always enjoyed taking a log and seeing what I can get out of it, getting the maximum out of it,” said Toby. “My love’s always been in the wood business.” Day-to-day management responsibilities aside,  Toby is still a sawyer at heart. “I started out sawing ties,” he said. “I worked on the Frick hand mill for about 12 years. Sawing is still my first love.”

            Wood railroad ties face some competition from composites, plastic and cement. Yet Toby does not see the demand for wooden ties subsiding. Wood has the flexibility to respond to and endure different and varied loads that many materials do not. Over 15 million  railroad ties are replaced annually in the U.S. as part of regular track maintenance.

            The companies that buy ties from Spigelmyer Wood Products air-dry the wood and treat the ties with preservatives that are designed to improve the longevity of the wood.

            Outside of Spigelmyer Wood Products, Toby enjoys some activities that are far from the forest industry. “I like to hit a little white golf ball,” he said. “I like to take the kids to Disney World.”

            At his business, Toby genuinely relishes the opportunity to do even more with the raw material. “I’m still learning,” said Toby. “I have a lot to learn yet.”

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