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‘Grocery Store’ Approach Key to Success for Wagner Lumber: U•C Coatings Enables Hardwood Producer to Preserve Lumber Quality
Wagner Lumber: New York company’s ‘grocery store’ approach to doing business has been a key to its success; U·C Coatings products help Wagner Lumber ensure quality of its hardwood lumber.

By April Terreri
Date Posted: 6/1/2009

OWEGO, NEW YORK – Les Wagner had an electrical engineering career in mind when he was a student at Cornell in the late 1960s. Since IBM had a presence in the community, it seemed to be the perfect career for him, but fate stepped in with other plans for the young man.

            Les graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, but he decided to work for a few years with his father, who owned a GMC truck garage.

            “It was during this time, in 1973, that I bought a small mill as a hobby,” recalled Les. That small sawmill changed the course of his career.

            Today, Les, 58, is president of Wagner Lumber, which operates three sawmills in the southern tier of New York. Wagner Lumber employs 80 people at its Owego mill, 40 at another mill in Nineveh, and 120 at the Wagner Hardwoods mill in Cayuta.

            The company’s three sawmills produce about 50 million board feet of lumber annually – Owego and Cayuta each produce about 20 million board feet, and Nineveh produces about 10 million board feet.

            “Our operation is like a big grocery store,” explained Les. “We buy everything, and we want our loggers to bring everything they have. We saw about 95 percent of everything we buy.” About 1-2% of the logs are high-grade and are sold to veneer mills, and the low-grade logs are supplied to pallet mills.

            Wagner Lumber’s reputation for producing high quality lumber would not be possible without its relationship with U•C Coatings in Buffalo, New York, acknowledged Les. “We started using their products once we began our dry kiln operation in 1998. Once we started keeping an inventory of lumber, we began having problems like end-checking and degradation. We tried a few other companies, but in our opinion, U•C Coatings is the best in the industry.”

            U•C Coatings ANCHORSEAL wax emulsion prevents moisture coming out too quickly from the ends, noted Les. “Then once the lumber is dried, it does a great job of preventing moisture from going back into the lumber.”

            Before using ANCHORSEAL or GEMPAINT, the company experienced problems with cracking and degrade. “Say you are shipping a load to Canada on a very hot summer day,” said Les. “You can wind up with a 1-inch or 2-inch check at the end of the board, and it won’t meet grade. So these products preserve our board quality, assuring that we always produce quality products.”


Quarter Sawing, Heavy Stock

            Wagner Lumber is distinctive because it cuts and stocks a wide variety of heavy stock quarter-sawn lumber. “There are not a lot of facilities on the East Coast that develop as much heavy stock lumber as we do,” Les said. “A big part of our program is to cut 8/4, 10/4, 12/4, and 16/4 lumber to have it on hand if a customer needs it.”

            Manufacturing heavy stock lumber requires a lot of careful attention. Producing 16/4 is a two-year process, Les explained. “We have to air-dry it very slowly under controlled conditions.”

            “We have products that most other places can’t offer,” said Les. “In the old days, a customer would call and say they needed a load of 8/4 red oak FAS. He could call 10 other people who would have it. Now he might call for that as well as a bundle of 12/4 hard maple. Well, we have both of those in stock, so he will buy them both from us because in today’s market, most customers do not buy one grade or one thickness on a load anymore. They might buy six different grades and six different thicknesses, and the person who has that very hard-to-find thickness will get the order. And we have the ability to deliver from our huge grocery-store warehouse.”

            Wagner Lumber offers a wide range of quarter-sawn woods, including red and white oaks, hard maple, soft maple, ash, cherry, walnut, hickory, basswood and poplar.

            With three mills, Wagner Lumber stocks up to 20 million board feet of either air-dried or kiln-dried lumber. “So we have a huge grocery store that can offer customers thicknesses from 4/4 to 16/4 in pretty much every species,” said Les. “Our philosophy has always been to be a large grocery store in the way we buy logs and sell lumber.”


Young Entrepreneurs

            Back when he was working for his father at the garage and running the small sawmill in his free time, Les made softwood lumber, pine and hemlock, and sold it at retail. In 1975 he began working in the sawmill full-time with a cousin and friend. A college friend, Steve Schaeffer, came to work with him a year later; they became partners and started another company, American Log Homes. (American Log Homes closed in 1990.)

            The partners bought some used HMC equipment and set up a more modern sawmill in 1979, and they began sawing hardwoods, too. They continued to produce lumber for log homes in addition to hardwood and softwood lumber they sold at retail.

            “We did this into the late ’80s, when we were both in our mid-30s,” recalled Les. “We thought what we had going was a lot of fun, but we knew we didn’t want to be doing this when we were in our 50s. So we pushed to get bigger in the early ’90s, when we grew from four employees to about 20.”

            The best business move the partners made was their decision to delegate authority and hire three key personnel: Steve House­knecht, responsible for lumber sales; Bruce Richards, production manager; and Tom Gerow, supervisor of forestry operations.

            “At the time, I was head sawyer and I was also doing all the maintenance,” said Les. “My partner was selling lumber, buying logs and looking at timber. We were growing, and we decided we couldn’t do all of that work and that we needed to delegate. We were growing and making some real money for the first time. So we decided to invest in machinery and to pay good money for good people.”

            By the mid-90s the company grew to 55 employees. Les decided to bring on three other key people as the company expanded to three locations. Bruce Richards is what Les termed the “head coach” for all three mills. Dave Slusser is production manager at Owego, and Kevin Pudney is production manager for Cayuta and Nineveh.

            Les decided to add and expand lumber drying operations in 1998, and he began the process constructing dry kilns or upgrading kiln equipment.

            The Owego mill has eight dry kilns: three American Wood Dryer kilns with an AFS oil-fired boiler and five SII kilns.

            The Cayuta facility had 18 kilns when the partners bought it. “We put in a new Hurst boiler in 2003 and removed the two antiquated boilers that had been there,” Les said. The Hurst boiler burns all Wagner’s wood waste, and the steam it generates is used to heat the buildings.

            “We decided to upgrade our kilns,” said Les, “so we had SII come in and help us re-do all the controls. Since then we installed 14 more SII dry kilns for a total of 32 dry kilns.” Ten of the kilns, supplied by Irvington, are over 70 years old and will be taken out of service in the near future because the remaining kilns are more efficient to operate.


Sawmill Operations

            At the sawmills, logs are pressure washed, trimmed and then debarked. Each mill is equipped with a metal detector, too. The head rig at each mill is optimized and features Lewis controls and 120-degree 3-D scanners. Primary breakdown at the Nineveh mill is done with a McDonough 62-inch double-cut band mill, and the Cayuta mill uses a McDonough 6-foot McDonough band mill. The Owego mill has two machine centers for primary breakdown: a circle mill using a Simonds 52-inch blade and a McDonough 62-inch double-cut band mill. Each mill has a resaw behind the primary breakdown center; at Nineveh it is a Stenner, at Cayuta, a McDonough 6-foot band mill, and Owego, a McDonough 62-inch band mill.

            When the cant is about 6x6 or 6x8, it is moved to a smaller resaw to be finished. “We don’t want to tie up that big machine,” noted Les, “so the cants move to a smaller machine, what we call a hospital resaw (a Timber Harvester) to finish the cant.”

            The mills are equipped with Cornell (now Pendu) or Corley edgers, Mellot decks and HMC or Corley double-end trimmers. Finished lumber moves to a long grading chain where graders pull lumber based on grade marks, length, and thickness.

            The Nineveh mill has no drying operations. About half of the Nineveh lumber production is sold green and shipped to furniture manufacturers from the Carolinas to Montreal and distribution yards and wholesalers. The other half is transported to the other two mills to be kiln-dried.

            The Owego mill has operations to prepare lumber for export shipment. A two-way PHL Industries line comes in from the sawmill and can do one of two things at a time: either put lumber up on stickers or take lumber off stickers.

            “Any lumber coming in from the sawmill is put on the line, and it’s loaded into a PHL hoist that tips the bundle so a layer at a time slides off,” explained Les. Two employees put stickers down quickly as each layer slides off. The load comes off the line as a stickered bundle, is bar coded and put in the yard to air-dry.

            “We determine what our air-dry inventory is, and all of that information is computerized through the bar code system,” Les explained. “Once the load comes from the kilns as kiln-dried wood, we put it across that same PHL line, and it takes off the stickers automatically.”

            Then it automatically creates 42-inch-wide courses, is bar-coded and ready to sell. “When the lumber comes across the line kiln-dried, we sort out the different grades and accumulate a load and put it into our grocery store warehouse and hold it, based on our orders.”

            At the Cayuta mill, about 15% of the lumber production is sold green to the company’s markets. The remainder of the lumber is kiln-dried. The Cayuta facility has about 100 acres. “So we had the room to build a lot of storage buildings where we store our air-dried lumber and our kiln-dried lumber,” Les said. The Owego plant has about 40 acres, and the Nineveh mill, 25 acres.

            The Cayuta plant uses a unique tally system called Picture Tally. “We set the lumber down in a rack, and a series of cameras photograph the end of the bundle,” explained Les. “That image is fed into a computer, which computes the number of boards in the bundle and the exact width of every board. When our customer wants a bundle of lumber, we can just send him a photo of it. From there, the bundle goes into our kiln-dried storage area.”



            Wager Lumber buys U·C Coatings ANCHORSEAL in large quantities — industrial totes that contain 275 gallons. “Working with them is a dream,” reported Les. “We deal with Peter Duerden. Norm Murray is the owner there, and he is a big supporter of the industry. Even though he is not a sawmill owner, he does as much to support the sawmill industry as anyone.”

            ANCHORSEAL, a water-based product, creates a wax barrier that protects against end checking and costly degrade in freshly sawn logs and lumber. When applied immediately after sawing, ANCHORSEAL prevents up to 90% or more of end checking, according to the manufacturer.

            Similar in viscosity to latex paint, ANCHORSEAL is easily brushed or sprayed on. One gallon covers approximately 100 square feet or three bundles of lumber (15 to 20 logs) on both ends, depending upon application method. It is available in clear or color and also in winterized formulations to protect against freeze damage.

            Les and his managers are active participants in a number of trade associations, including the National Hardwood Lumber Association, Hardwood Manufacturers Association, American Hardwood Export Council, Northeastern Loggers Association, Wood Component Manufacturers Association, PennYork Lumbermen’s Association and Indiana Lumber Association.

            At Cornell, Les was on the crew team, and he continued rowing through the early 1990s. For relaxation and sport, he now enjoys shooting sporting clays. “I set up a foundation here in Owego by building a boat house for the State University of New York at Binghamton,” he said. “We sponsor their crew team, and they row out of this facility, which is right on the Susquehanna River.”

            Les and Steve are still partners. They complement each other, according to Les. “We still share the same office after all these years. This is unusual in business. We even share the same business card.

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