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Hancock Lumber Expands Kiln Capacity
Leading producer of eastern white pine lumber ads dry kiln from USNR

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 7/2/2004

CASCO, Maine — Hancock Lumber Co., the largest manufacturer of Eastern white pine lumber in the U.S., is a family-owned business that has spanned six generations and 166 years.

      Kevin Hancock is president of Hancock Lumber. His brother, Matt Hancock, runs an affiliated business, Hancock Land Co.

      Operating three sawmills in Maine, Hancock Lumber sells to wholesalers, lumber traders, buying groups and its own retail lumber yards throughout the state. The company ships lumber worldwide for some customers.

      Hancock Lumber mills exclusively Eastern white pine. “All we do is saw and manufacture Eastern white pine,” said Mike Shane, general manager of the Hancock facility in Casco.

      “We bring in logs, we saw…dry and plane lumber,” said Mike. The company makes dimension lumber as well as specialty lumber products and mouldings for both exterior and interior applications.

      Eastern white pine dries relatively quickly. In the slowest drying seasons, it still takes less than one week. But keeping up with demand for dry lumber requires sufficient kiln space.

      The Hancock Lumber facility in Casco relies on five dry kilns. The newest addition to kiln capacity was added in early May. The new dry kiln was supplied by USNR.

      “I was the person primarily responsible” for selecting the supplier, said Mike. High on his list of priorities, he explained, was reliability in kiln performance.

      As he discussed Hancock Lumber’s requirements with USNR representatives, Mike liked the feedback he received. Moreover, he was already somewhat familiar with USNR because the Casco facility has three Irvington-Moore kilns in operation. (Irvington-Moore has long been owned by USNR and recently began doing business as USNR.).

      “What I like about this kiln,” said Mike, referring to the new USNR dry kiln, is “the center coils.” The coils are arranged to improve even drying. The coils swing out (forward) to allow access to the back half of the kiln. When the kiln is loaded, the coils swing into place like barn doors across the middle of the kiln, which improves heat distribution. The coils also allow for the establishment of heat zones, much like those in drying operations for softwood lumber, and can speed drying times.

      “We load half the kiln,” said Mike, and “then fold coils and load the other half.” The speed of the lumber drying process depends on the time of year, largely because in spring the lumber experiences some air-drying before it is kiln-dried.

      “Late spring is usually our best drying weather,” said Mike. “We get a head start with the wind in the yard.” The boost from nature clips total drying time to just four and one-half to five days.

      “Out target is 10 to 12 percent” moisture content, said Mike. It generally takes six to six and one-half days to reach that moisture content when drying during the winter months, he said.

      The Casco mill manufactures boards in 3-inch to 12-inch widths in lengths ranging from 6 feet to 16 feet. To optimize kiln capacity, the company normally loads it with lumber of the same or similar width. “We generally load close to the same width, the same narrow, same wide,” said Mike.

      As Hancock Lumber has expanded kiln capacity at Casco to 320,000 board feet, the capacity of its 100 hp wood fuel burner, which burns green waste and sawdust, has been surpassed. A Cleaver-Brooks 350 hp oil burner provides the heat for the new USNR kiln. The company may add a larger wood burner in the future because of the high cost of oil, said Mike.

      The USNR dry kiln is loaded and unloaded with forklifts. From the kiln, lumber goes to a dry storage area until it is used to fill an order or it is sent to the planer mill to be ‘dressed.’

      The Casco sawmill produces about 18.5 million board feet of rough Eastern white pine lumber annually. (Hancock’s three mills have a combined annual production of about 65 million board feet.) Most of the production is in the form of 4x4 although the mill also cuts 2x6 and 2x8.

      About 19 million board feet is sent to the planer mill. Most of the lumber sent to the planer mill, about 13 million board feet, is simply smoothed and leveled while the other 6 million board feet is remanufactured to produce 4/4 patterns.

      “We still manually trim with an Irvington-Moore trimmer,” said Mike. A Waco planer and a Weinig moulder, both products of The Weinig Group, are the key pieces of equipment in the planer mill.

      Hancock Lumber gets its raw material in several ways. It buys standing timber from private landowners and also buys ‘gate wood’ from independent logging contractors. The company also harvests trees from timberlands owned by an affiliated business, Hancock Land Co.

      At the Casco mill, all logs are debarked with a 36-inch debarker from Nicholson Mfg. Co. The mill is equipped with a Sanborn Machine Co. double-band head rig that was retrofitted in 2003 with a Lewis Controls Inc. optimization system and 3-D scanner. “We had an old curtain system” type optimizer, said Mike, before upgrading to the Lewis optimization system.

      The head rig breaks down logs into 6-inch, 8-inch, 10-inch or 12-inch cants. Edging is accomplished on a PHL manual edger; the company is looking at optimizing the edger in the near future, according to Mike. An Estra sash gang resaw with 22 blades is the centerpiece of the secondary breakdown line. After boards exit the resaw, they are routed to a Hi-Tech optimized trim saw. Finished boards go to a Hi-Tech 30-bin drop sorter and then are stacked.

      Lumber is staged in the yard according to grade and width, and it is air-dried before being kiln-dried.

      Hancock Lumber also has sawmills in Pittsfield and Bethel. Casco is in southern Maine, about 30 miles northwest of Portland. Bethel is about 35 miles northwest of Casco and Pittsfield is about 80 miles northeast of Casco.

      The town of Casco has a population of 3,500. In the summer months, however, it grows to as many as 15,000 residents as the community and surrounding region are popular resort areas and the hub for many summer camps.

      One of the many factors that persuaded Mike to buy a dry kiln from USNR was the favorable experience Hancock Lumber has had with other USNR equipment. The Irvington-Moore dry kilns have performed well, and, as noted earlier, Irvington-Moore has long been part of the USNR family. In addition, Hancock already had a USNR dry kiln in operation at its Bethel facility, and managers there were very pleased with its performance.

      Like Hancock Lumber, USNR is a company with more than a century of experience. USNR began as a supplier of sawmill equipment. It held its first patent more than 100 years ago, and its list of patents has grown extensively with each passing year.

      Today, USNR offers a full range of log handling, primary and secondary breakdown, trimming, sorting and stacking equipment and systems as well as lumber finishing and remanufacturing equipment. Its products range from lift trucks to sophisticated scanning and optimization technology. USNR aims to supply customers with single machines or complete turnkey wood processing solutions, whichever approach suits the customer best.

      USNR also provides consulting services to design equipment based on client specifications. Customized equipment and systems allow its mill customers to work within the parameters that are most beneficial to them.

      USNR, which introduced its first dry kilns for softwood lumber in 1910, supplies package kilns, track kilns and high temperature softwood kilns. USNR kilns are designed to remove moisture quickly. For hardwoods, especially, the faster the moisture is removed the lighter and brighter the dried lumber. Air-tight seals on the kiln doors ensure that moisture and heat are vented predictably. Motors used in the USNR kilns are cast iron, making them tough and durable. USNR dry kilns feature an all aluminum frame.

      USNR also offers its own dry kiln control system – the Kiln Boss computer control system. The Kiln Boss manages the kiln schedule and functions, eliminating the need for human intervention. It also compiles diagnostic information that can be used to refine kiln operations.

      At Hancock Lumber’s Casco mill, USNR sub-contracted with J.L. Strout & Son for the installation of its kiln.

      Hancock Lumber employs about 500 people in its operations, including about 70 at the Casco mill. The Casco employees work one shift with a single exception: the moulder is operated on two shifts.

      Hancock Lumber grew from a small logging business. Its first sawmill was started in the 1880s. Besides its three sawmills, Hancock Lumber operates a sales division for installations, a panelization company, and other business interests, including Millwork Plus, Atlantic Kitchens and Marvin Window Store. The company operates several retail lumber businesses in Maine and also ships regularly to customers in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

      Because of the way it stands up to the elements over time, Eastern white pine has been an important building material for homes in New England for over 200 years. Eastern white pine lumber is used for millwork, mouldings, paneling and wood siding. It also finds its way into boxes, crates, coffins, boats and other applications.

      Hancock Lumber employs graders at its mills, and its lumber carries the Northeastern Lumber Manufacturer Association (NeLMA) grade stamp. Grades are based on frequency of knots, spacing of knots, wane and strength. Standards are rigorous. For example, even the industrial grade, which is most commonly used in rough construction, must have sufficient strength to allow for reasonable handling.

      The highest grade Select lumber has no more than one tight knot per square foot, and knots are no more than ½-inch in diameter. Select lumber is used for high quality woodworking and interior trim.

      Finish grade boards have tight knots with no holes. Premium grade has some wane but only on the reverse face. Standard grade has a coarse appearance, but it is very well suited to construction and it contributes a rustic, decorative look to exposed surfaces.

      The low resin content of Eastern white pine is one reason the wood has so many uses. The wood has a texture that takes readily to staining and also is easily worked. It also has less fluctuation in moisture than some other species.

      The Eastern white pine is the state tree of Maine. The pine cone and tassel constitute the state flower. Maine takes its nickname, the Pine Tree State, from the tree as well.

      Hancock Lumber has a strong marketing department, and sales usually dictate production schedules in the planer mill. “A lot may be for a direct order,” said Mike. Even so, some products are made for inventory and stored until orders need to be filled.

      Mike has been with Hancock Lumber almost 10 years. A native of Casco, he is a graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington, where he earned a degree in business. Mike had no experience in the wood products industry prior to joining Hancock Lumber although he always had an interest in it. He has long been engaged in crafts endeavors of various sorts, and he has undertaken a variety of building projects in his free time.

      Before joining Hancock Lumber, Mike worked in another industry, honing his management skills. “I worked in a family business for six or seven years after college,” he said.

      He knew the Hancock family well, and when an opportunity came to join Hancock Lumber, he took it.

      Mike is very happy with the experience he has had in the sawmill and lumber business. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said.

      Watching the changes in the industry, particularly in the machinery, is fascinating, said Mike. “It’s so automated,” he noted. As automated as the industry is already, Mike believes this is just the leading edge. He expects even more amazing integration of technology in the future.

      Outside of his job, Mike enjoys building things around his home. He also enjoys recreational activities with his family. “We do a lot of camping,” he said.








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