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Wood-Mizer Multi-Head Key to Indiana Sawmill Success
Terry and Chris Lemler Operate a Profitable Plant by Producing Pallet Stock

By Jack Petree
Date Posted: 9/3/2002

BOURBON, Indiana -- Terry Lemler and his brother are often encouraged to go into the grade lumber business. The response to that encouragement, Terry told Pallet Enterprise recently, is to express appreciation for the advice but then continue doing what he and his brother have done for years -- saw low-grade logs into first-rate lumber for the pallet industry.

At a time when many sawmills face serious challenges threatening the life of the business, Terry and Chris Lemler operate a profitable plant by producing lumber exclusively for shipping platforms. They use a carefully controlled process designed to get every square inch of good, usable lumber out of a third-rate log and skill in the breakdown process. The business relies on two Wood-Mizer Multi-Head band resaw rigs to achieve production, quality, and yield. Terry and Chris have learned how to take logs rejected by other sawmills and put them through a manufacturing process that converts them into 1.5-2 million board feet of pallet lumber annually.

Lemler Sawmill was established near its current home in the north central Indiana town of Bourbon in the late 1950s by Noah Lemler, who had purchased a saw from his uncle for $1,100. The mill operated for a number of years as a small, family-run operation doing custom sawing and producing for local markets.

In the 1970s the company began to offer pallets, building them by hand in an old chicken house. The pallet plant grew so much that the mill was expanded in the late 1970s to serve the increased need for pallet stock.

In the mid-1990s Terry and Chris Lemler purchased the mill from Noah and embarked on additional expansions designed to allow them to produce at the 2 million board foot level with only five full-time employees. The pallet plant was sold about the same time to another brother, Ron Lemler; Lemler Pallet Company Inc. is operated by Ron and his wife, Ronda.

When Terry and Chris expanded the mill they added a debarker and two Wood-Mizer Multi-Head resaws, a two-head and a four-head. The debarker made a huge difference in the filing room and dramatically reduced down time due to dull saw blades, said Terry. It also allowed Chris, the primary sawyer, to get a better look at a log before breaking it down, which improved the quality and quantity of wood that can be recovered.

The two-head Wood-Mizer resaw is used in Lemler's unique recovery line to resaw scraps of wood recovered from what would be waste in most other mills. The Wood-Mizer four-head line is the primary production machine in what has become the heart of the operation, the firm's resaw line.

The entire Lemler mill shows the care and attention that Chris and Terry have put into making sure that virtually every scrap of lumber is recovered as logs are processed. In many ways Lemler Sawmill could be considered to be a resource recovery effort in its entirety. The raw product for the plant consists exclusively of No. 3 logs, which are rejected by most sawmills. Without the capability of the Lemler plant, these logs would either be chipped or left in the woods to rot instead of being processed into a valuable product.

Incoming logs first are merchandised according to length. Many No. 3 logs come from the portion of the tree that is left after a grade log has been cut out, so there is no standard length to the logs delivered to Lemler's yard. On the day Pallet Enterprise visited, Noah Lemler, the firm's founder, who remains active despite having sold the mill, was separating logs according to 6-inch increments. That is the first step to optimizing production, he said. If an odd length of lumber has been ordered, he pointed out, they can use logs of the appropriate length to fill the order and minimize trim waste.

Logs that are ready for milling are moved to a Mellott debarker. Noah laughed as he pointed out that he had always resisted debarking when he owned the mill. He became a believer, though, when Terry and Chris installed the Mellott debarker and achieved huge reductions in down time and filing room time.

After debarking, logs are sawn on a Cleereman Industries head rig. Because the low-grade logs are knotted, pitted and sometimes contain rot pockets, Chris examines each one and decides how to break it down for maximum lumber recovery. The intent is to break the log down into a cant rather than individual boards since the Wood-Mizer resaw is the central unit in the mill. Sawing boards unnecessarily on the head rig wastes time and fiber; the Wood-Mizer Multi-Head has a thinner kerf and the ability to quickly resaw a cant into individual boards.

In many sawmills, a significant amount of slabs, side cuts and other material removed by the head rig would go directly to a chipper or grinder. Lemler, however, dedicated to total recovery of every usable piece of lumber, takes an additional step. Slabs are routed via a conveyor system to a chop saw, and any piece that could make lumber is sawn out and stacked on a cart for later processing. Once a sufficient number of these slabs have been accumulated, they are run through the first of the company's two Wood-Mizer Multi-Head resaw systems to be processed into finished lumber. The reclaimed slabs provide several hundred thousand board feet per year of mostly ˝-inch or 3/8-inch deck boards. At other mills these kind of slabs might have been processed as waste material.

Terry chose the Wood-Mizer Multi-Head because it was a compact yet heavy-duty machine capable of high production while still providing the yield benefits of thin kerf sawing.

Once off the head rig, cants move to a trim station where they are examined for best appearance and then sawn to length. They are forwarded, set up for the best cut, to the Wood-Mizer four-head Multi-Head, which saws on a continuous basis through most of the day.

The Wood-Mizer Multi-Heads have revolutionized his milling process, said Terry. The speed, accuracy, and yield characteristics of the Wood-Mizer Multi-Heads have allowed him to significantly improve production processes. "We ran gang saws for many years," he said. "Going to the Wood-Mizer Multi-Heads made all the difference in the world for us, especially in the yield and the consistency of the quality we get."

Wood-Mizer was selected as the supplier for a variety of reasons, including the heavy- duty nature of the machines, their compact size, and the production speeds they can achieve. "We've been very pleased with our decision to go with Wood-Mizer," said Terry.

The increased yield and quality provided by band saws is extremely important to profitability, Terry pointed out. Even a few extra boards per hour or day can make the difference between profit and loss in challenging times, and lumber quality directly impacts sales.

The importance of quality was noted by Ron, too. Although he and Terry are brothers, their family ties are not the primary factor when it comes to buying pallet stock. "Ron's a business person and a good one," added Terry. "That means he buys wherever he can get the best quality at the best price. I have to give him that or he'll go elsewhere."

"I have to be competitive," Ron explained, "and I have to give my customers the best quality pallet I can build. I buy from Terry because, when I buy from him, the price might be slightly higher on some items, but there aren't any culls. I've priced lumber elsewhere, and as part of discussing the price, I'll be asked whether I want 95% usable or 75% usable. The answer to that question impacts the price. My answer is that I want 100% usable lumber! Why should I pay shipping on junk? Terry gives me the quality I need, and that's why I buy from him. Once in a while we'll find a bad board, but that's unusual. He is giving me what I need to be competitive."

At Lemler, like other mills, the manufacturing process produces residues. Bark, scraps of wood that cannot be turned profitably into lumber, and other material are processed and sold as a by-product. Lemler uses a Montgomery wood hog and conveyor system, and the resulting wood fiber is sold to a company that regrinds it for sale to landscapers and horticulturalists.

While Lemler Sawmill is a small operation in a remote area, the plant serves as a striking example of how careful attention to detail in a niche market can lead to significant success in business and benefit society.

From an environmental standpoint, processing the poorest logs from the northern Indiana forests provides a significant service to its community. Without the capability of Lemler Sawmill, many of the logs would be cut into firewood or simply left in the woods to rot, with all implications that brings of greenhouse gasses. Instead, sawn into pallet stock, the same logs provide jobs and products for one of America's important industries and extend the use of timber resources. In the process, carbon is sequestered rather than released to the environment.

These benefits are made possible by the simple yet efficient process the Lemlers have developed to maximize yield from low-grade logs. They use a raw material considered by some sawmills to be no more than a necessary evil. Using the head rig mostly to convert logs into cants, making an intense effort to recover lumber from waste material, and resawing with the high-production Wood-Mizer Multi-Head, the Lemlers achieve enviable production levels with only four employees in the plant -- and one maintenance worker who keeps everything running smoothly.

As to the future? Terry and Chris will probably continue to thank people for their suggestions that they go into the grade business. And they will continue to do what they do best, profitably ‘recycling’ wood that few others want into quality products for the niche market they have served all of their business lives.

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