McDowell Lumber Builds Pallet Manufacturing Business on Rayco Nailing Machines: Recent Improvements Include Brewco Gangsaw Line and Copper Scragg Mill
McDowell Lumber nails its pallet on three Rayco Pallet Pro nailing systems. Expansion of pallet lumber manufacturing capacity includes a Brewco gang saw line and a brand new Cooper end dogging overhead scragg mill.
Date Posted: 9/1/2010
Asheboro, North Carolina—McDowell Lumber started in the 1974 by Tony McDowell as a hardwood mill, producing lumber for the grade market. He started by cutting trees and running a portable sawmill in the woods. Tony doesn’t just own the company; he is actively involved in day to day management activities. He added a planer operation to make lumber for the furniture industry and eventually built a permanent mill. Five years ago, Tony’s brother Doug joined the company after 25 years of working in the furniture industry and now serves as director of safety and manufacturing.
Wayne Furr, director of both pallet sales and pallet manufacturing, is an integral part of the management team and the source for most of the information included in this article. Greg White is the McDowell sawmill manager, and Jimmy Elliot handles sales of high grade hardwood lumber.
McDowell has about 75 employees. Unlike some pallet companies, Wayne indicates that they do not have a big employee turnover problem. Several people have been there for over 10 years. The employee benefit package includes health insurance, paid holidays and vacations, and a company-paid 401-k retirement program. The local market has 8-9% unemployment, so having a dependable stable work environment is an attractive option to potential employees and helps retain good people.
McDowell Lumber has a strong commitment to safety. It uses a consultant on OSHA issues to ensure the company is in compliance. Employees use safety glasses, earplugs, and all personal protective equipment that is necessary for their safety.
The same positive attitude that provides a good environment for employees applies to suppliers. When we discussed potential supplier related problems with Wayne, he consistently stated that it is just not an issue with them. He indicates that they have solid relationships with their suppliers. The company associates with good suppliers, buys good products, and develops solid relationships.
Interacting with others is a critical part of any successful business. McDowell is a member of the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), the North Carolina Forestry Association, and the Appalachian Hardwood Association.
Eight years ago McDowell Lumber, which had been supplying pallet stock to a pallet manufacturer, jumped at the chance to buy its pallet manufacturing customer. Its pallet operation now accounts for about 30% of the company’s revenues. Doug said, “It’s important to keep up with the marketplace. We started our own pallet plant so we could have some kind of control over our low-grade lumber.”
McDowell took a little different manufacturing approach than many pallet companies have taken. McDowell stayed with the Rayco Pallet Pro machines that the pallet company started with before McDowell purchased it.
Wayne said, “We have had excellent service out of our three Rayco nailers. Each machine produces about 850 stringer pallets on average with two operators on a nine hour shift. They are simple to operate. We have had excellent experience with our Raycos. There is very little maintenance. These three Pallet Pros were bought within a few years of each other in 1999, 2000, and 2001. There are very few proprietary parts. We can buy most working parts from an industrial supply house. Training is easy for new people. We can put a new operator to work on a Rayco nailer and very quickly be running full production.”
McDowell focuses on special pallet sizes more so than GMAs and other high volume runs. It is currently building about 40 different sizes in a typical week and some 100 different specifications throughout the year. McDowell has a diverse customer base, mostly within 150 mile radius of Asheboro, which is about 25 miles south of Greensboro, roughly half-way between Charlotte and Raleigh. It serves a region that is strong with technology and rich with timber resources.
McDowell uses large coils of 3000 nails each in its mounted Max Tool pneumatic Rayco nailers. McDowell uses Max Tool pneumatic nailers on its four nailing tables as well. The company has changed its nail supplier from Stanley Bostitch to Mid-Atlantic Fasteners. It has taken the route to maintain its own tools, handling maintenance in-house; Mid-Atlantic Fasteners supplies the needed tool parts at no charge. McDowell replaces the three 3000 nail coils all at the same time. When the first coil runs out, the other two are about gone as well. They can use the left-over ends of nail coils (often ten or fewer nails) in hand tools on nailing tables if there are enough nails to be useful. Changing all three coils at the same time provides manufacturing efficiency.
McDowell’s three Rayco Pallet Pros are the same basic machine; they can manufacturer either three stringer or four stringer pallets. A Pallet Pro system has five stages. In the first stage an operator places stringers into stringer hoppers that automatically feed stringers into the first nailing station.
After the first pallet assembly begins, the two nailing stations hold two different pallets at different stages of assembly. In this second assembly stage, the operators place bottom deck boards on the new set of stringers that are now in position in one nailing station and top deck boards on the half completed pallet in the other nailing station.
The nailing gantry, the third stage of a Rayco Pallet Pro nailer, passes over the new laid out pallet bottom and half-finished pallet top, nailing both as it moves. The gantry pushes the completed pallet into the stacker (the fourth stage of the process), while the half completed pallet is flipped from the second nailing station into the first. After the decking is hand placed, the gantry passes over both pallets to perform its nailing function and the whole process is started over again.
In the fifth stage, a 10 foot outfeed roll table takes stacks of pallets from the stacker and stages them to be moved into pallet storage.
A Pallet Pro is designed to build pallets from 24x24 through 60x60. It runs on air without any hydraulics. Options available on this nailing system include: a programmable nail placement package that handles up to 15 different pallet specifications, additional 10’ outfeed roll tables, a quick changeover package, an oversized pallet package, a pallet brander package, a four stringer package to convert a three stringer system into a four stringer system, and an air supply dryer.
Procuring and manufacturing low-grade lumber to manufacture pallets can be one of the biggest challenges a pallet manufacturer faces. Wayne stated, “Finding enough raw material to satisfy our needs is certainly one of our biggest challenges today. We mostly cut cants (over 90% of our pallet material is hardwood cants) but buy a few tractor trailers of precut per week from Hopkins Lumber Contractors. Our customers want hardwood pallets. If our hardwood supply gets tight enough, at this point we do not consider softwood to be an acceptable option.”
McDowell has become actively involved in heat treating pallets for customers who request it, particularly for exporting needs. It now heat treats about 60% of its pallets. It has been using a Converta Kiln heat treatment chamber since 2005. It heat treats about 1200-1300 pallets a day out of its 11,000-12,000 weekly pallet production. Wayne said, “Our heat treatment service has been good for us. We use Carolina Inspection Services, Inc. out of Marshville, North Carolina to certify our heat treating production. Carolina Inspection has been good to work with; they have served us well.”
A West Plains double head notcher and Newman chamfering machine provide specialized machining processes for McDowell. McDowell also uses a Baker single head resaw and Whirlwind chop saw for reclaiming lumber. It buys its carbide inserts from Precision Saw Works.
Pallet Recycling Is Growing
McDowell has a small pallet recycling operation which involves about ten employees. Recycling pallet cores is a small part of its operation. Instead it has a custom repair and return program with a few customers who want this kind of service. A growing number of companies that manufacture new pallets hold their customers’ hands and supply recycling and repair services for those who need them.
McDowell’s recycled pallet program is mostly for new pallet customers. In addition to selected pallet repairs for customers, it has some 10-12 drop trailers to collect scrap pallets to dismantle. It sells recycled stringers and deck boards and builds custom pallet sizes using recycled parts.
All of McDowell’s recycling machinery is manufactured by Smart Products. McDowell has a new Smart Products band dismantling machine; it now has two single-operator Smart Products dismantlers and a Smart double-end-trim saw to cut recycled lumber to length. It has been actively involved in pallet recycling for about three years and anticipates becoming more involved in the future but plans to work into it as customers need these services. Wayne deals mostly with Tom Waechter at Smart and happily states, “We have had zero problems with our Smart machinery. It is just not an issue.”
Doug said, “Our new and reconditioned pallets are built to meet uniform standards utilized by various distributing companies, such as grocery stores, big-box chain stores, home improvement retailers, and other.”
The company does not grind pallets and lumber pieces on site. It sells bark and recycled pallets to be ground into mulch or used for fuel. Savings are used for chicken litter, most sawdust is used for fuel, and chips go to paper companies.
Sawmilling for Grade and Pallet Lumber
McDowell works with landowners who have a minimum of ten acres of hardwood forestland, using contract loggers to harvest the trees. Tree length logs are sorted in the log yard by species (about 40% poplar, 25% red oak, 25% white oak, and the rest a mixture of gum, hickory, ash, sycamore, maple, and beech).
McDowell uses a Progress Industries log crane to unload the trucks and feed them into the mill. Logs pass through a Nicholson ring debarker and MDI metal detector and are then bucked to lengths from 8 through 16 feet.
In the mill, logs go to one of two head rigs, depending on size. One head rig has a McDonough band mill, Corley carriage, and Lewis Controls 3-D scanning and optimization system. The other is equipped with an Edminston circular headsaw.
All pallet plants and sawmills have to pay attention to their saw blades and sawing processes because they are at the heart of their production. McDowell uses Precision Saw Works out of Polkton, North Carolina to handle all of its saw blade maintenance and sharpening requirements. Frank Curren of Precision Saw Works has a close working relationship with McDowell.
New Brewco Gang Saw and Cooper Scragg Mill
Just about every year McDowell makes changes in its physical plant to upgrade and improve production, particularly with an eye toward efficiency. In the last couple of years, it purchased a used G-Tek (now Brewco) circle gang saw to cut pallet cants into pallet stock.
McDowell still uses its Pendu cutoff saw to cut cants to length and feeds them to a Brewer gang.
When it decided to increase its pallet stock production, McDowell bought this used G-Tek (Brewco) gangsaw system. Wayne said, “A good friend has several Brewco lines. I was impressed with his quality and production numbers. My own personal experience has been good. The Brewco people have been good to work with. When we have had a need to consult with them, we have worked with Darren Grogan. Our Brewco is built heavier than a standard gang, therefore allows us to run more feet per minute and still produce good quality pallet stock. We get close to twice the footage out of it.
The Brewco line uses a twin select cutoff saw to cut cants to length and a Brewco gang to resaw cants into pallet lumber.
While this article is being written, McDowell is literally in the process of installing of a new Cooper scragg mill. The company buys its own tracks of timber. It had often sold off pallet logs and brought grade logs into its own sawmill. With the current tight cant situation, McDowell decided it would be wise to use 100% of the hardwood logs from its tracks. Thus, it has turned toward a scragg mill to process low-grade hardwood logs into pallet cants.
Wayne said, “We decided on a Cooper mill because we believe it is the best one available on the market. Our good options were limited. Cooper has a good reputation. Several mills we do business with operate Cooper scraggs and have been pleased with them.” McDowell is currently preparing the site for its Cooper scragg mill.
Robert Cooper came to Asheboro and sold McDowell on his mill. McDowell, which currently manufactures about 18 million bd.ft. of lumber products a year, hopes to increase its production to better than 20 million bd.ft. It has been running its existing mills six days a week. It currently cuts 30 truck loads of cants per week.
You do not have to look very hard to find a hardwood sawmill that is not happy with the level of today’s business activity; McDowell is an exception to this rule. Wayne said, “Our business has been pretty good. Local business is not that outstanding. But we have stayed diverse and tried to expand our markets. We have focused heavily on building pallets, selling some precut lumber and industrial dunnage, and doing export work. In an effort to stay busy and be more diverse, we also build custom boxes and crates.”
McDowell chose to buy a new Cooper Machine overhead end-dogging scragg mill with 56” diameter circular saw blades and a rollcase. All Cooper Machine equipment is custom designed and built to meet each customer’s needs. The scragg being installed at McDowell is for logs 6’ to 16’ and has an ultrasonic eye measuring computer system which analyzes each log and makes the cutting decisions for the operator. Cooper Machine also offers a short log overhead as well as a vertical edger option, which McDowell did not select. All Cooper Machine equipment is built heavy to last longer and require less maintenance. McDowell’s scragg has the latest computer upgrade which includes a memory stick as well as log, board, and volume tallies. The ultrasonic eye sees what each log looks like, and then the computer analyzes each log and adjusts the blades and controls the feed speeds to maximize each log’s value. This overhead scragg can two-side or four-side a log. Several compute options are available. Available options can be viewed on Cooper’s newly updated website, which can be found at www.coopermachine.com.
Companies buying a Cooper scragg mill can choose between a manual, operator controlled mill, the ultrasonic measuring system chosen here, and a Lewis Controls 3D scanning system.
Chips, bark, shavings, and sawdust are collected and sold. About 70% of the bark is sold to fuel markets; the other 30% is sold to be processed into landscape mulch. Most sawdust is sold for fuel. Chips are used by paper companies, and shavings are sold for animal bedding, fuel markets, or particleboard feedstock.
When it comes to trucking issues, McDowell runs seven tractors with full time drivers that make about 75% of the deliveries and pickups. They contract out about 25% of these needs. They have their own maintenance garage with three full-time mechanics.
In the eight years it has been involved in the pallet business, McDowell has established itself as a major supplier of pallets by building good quality products and having good personal relationships with its suppliers, workers, and customers.
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