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Riephoff Sawmill Firmly Established in Northeast Industrial Lumber Market: New Jersey Hardwood Mill Specializes in Custom Work, Industrial Products
Riephoff Sawmill: New Jersey hardwood mill specializes in custom work and industrial lumber products for markets in the Northeast; crane mats account for half the company’s volume.
By April Terreri
Date Posted: 9/1/2007
ALLENTOWN, New Jersey – If there is one outstanding characteristic that defines Riephoff Sawmill Inc., it has to be its deft adeptness.
“Our forte is custom mill work, and we are known as a company that people count on to stop what we are doing in mid-stream if they need us to take on an emergency job,” said John Falconio, president and owner. “This is really our niche. Every day brings new challenges to us.”
About 50 percent of Riephoff’s business is focused on manufacturing a variety of crane mats. The rest of the company’s business is devoted to manufacturing other hardwood industrial lumber products, such as tree stakes, trailer floor decking, side boards, ramps, shoring, dunnage and more. The company also cuts timbers for fireplace mantels and beams.
In the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings in terrorist attacks in 2001, John supplied 110 trailer-loads of crane mats to Ground Zero for use in cleanup, rescue, and recovery operations. “You can’t put a crane in Manhattan without a mat under it,” John explained.
It was not the first time the company has supplied industrial lumber products in response to some type of disaster. “Whenever there is some kind of tragedy, we get involved,” John noted.
The company is frequently called on after industrial accidents, such as an explosion at an oil refinery or other incident. For example, after the bombing of the World Trace Center in 1993, Riephoff Sawmill supplied timbers to shore up the damage so rescue workers could begin their work. In response to a tire fire in Philadelphia that closed a bridge for eight months, John’s company supplied crane mats, heavy blocking, timbers, trailer floor decking, tapered ramps, and “all the 20-foot 12-by-12s they needed.”
A broken sewer line can get out of hand quickly unless utility workers have the proper shoring material so they can work on the break, John noted. “Whenever they need the shoring in two hours, we switch our schedule around to accommodate them – and stay until the job is done,” John said. “Responses like these are some of the reasons why we are still in business.”
When it was time for the WW II Battleship Intrepid to go into dry dock in Bayonne, New Jersey, John’s business supplied all the blocking needed to hold it securely in dry dock. The Discovery Channel will broadcast a story on this project sometime in 2009.
From the time he was old enough to walk, John was in the sawmill, helping and learning from his grandfather, Frank Riephoff, who started the mill in 1957. Frank had three daughters, but none of them wanted to own the family business; Frank waited another generation for John.
One of Frank’s daughters, Linda, is the business manager. “Everybody should have an efficient Aunt Linda,” said John of his mother’s sister.
Frank started the business with a small Frick sawmill; he manufactured lumber from cedar telephone poles. He sawed some grade lumber, but most of the production was custom sawing to make trailer floor decking, fencing
Frank installed a Frick sawmill with automated setworks when he began to make crane mats in 1964. “It was the most modern mill east of the Mississippi River at the time,” John remarked.
John began working at the mill as a boy. “When I was eight, he let me drive the loader around the mill. Then, after high school, I was thrown right into the hot seat because he wanted to retire. He groomed me as a young boy so I could eventually take over the business.” By the time he was 20, John was the mill’s sawyer.
In the early 1980s, John decided to take the company in another direction. “Businesses all over the country were suffering, and we had to lay off some guys for the first time,” he recalled. “At the time we were producing grade lumber, but that market is controlled, and the market tells you what they will pay. I decided to focus more on custom work so we could have more control over what we were paid by giving our customers quality products.”
The move brought the company increasingly back into the business of cutting industrial lumber products. “About 15 years ago I decided to sell pallet wood to pallet manufacturers because we were doing so much custom work,” said John.
The company also manufactured pallets for a few years. “Two guys would nail them by hand until we switched to using automatic nailers,” said John. “Now, we make only two specialty pallets for hauling insulation for high-rises.” Riephoff Sawmill also manufactures pallets for shipping its lumber products.
John hired a good friend in 1986 who had been helping with maintenance on weekends. “Ever since then, Joe (Marzocca) has been in charge of maintenance, and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in business today.” Joe is a veritable genius when it comes to machinery, he added.
Joe has upgraded machines and built numerous pieces of equipment, including a drill press for boring holes in blocks. “He invents things only we would need in our operations,” John said.
John will ask Joe to build a custom machine for one job if it will be profitable. “We also make machines for repetitive jobs we get on an ongoing basis so we can improve the time it takes to manufacture the product.”
Joe developed a drill press that makes holes in lumber for crane mats. “He had the prototype working when we needed to expedite crane mats to Ground Zero, and then he finalized the machine.”
The custom drill press saved a lot of time. “When we did them by hand, one timber at a time, we could manufacture a lot more timbers than we could mats,” John noted. “Now we make more mats than we can generate timbers.” The mill produces about 40 of the 20-foot crane mats a day; without the custom machine, it was only able to produce about 10 per day.
Joe and another employee rebuilt a CAT high-track wide dozer and grapple. “This is a great machine that helps us immensely when we need to get timber out of wet areas,” said John. Joe also refurbished a Frick carriage, adding a block and giving it bigger cylinders in order to saw 35-foot logs.
Another key employee is David Eder, who received an associate’s degree in wood products from Haywood Community College in Clyde, N.C., where his course of study included sawing, saw sharpening and filing, log grading, scaling lumber, grading lumber and kiln drying. “He is my right-hand man,” John said.
John buys standing timber and logs from landowners and farmers within a 60-mile radius of Allentown. When he purchases timber he contracts for
The mill sits on over three acres of land, adjacent to a seven-acre log yard. John has about one and a half acres covered with asphalt for storing clean mulch. The mill itself comprises 15,000 square feet of space, which includes a shop that was added in 2003.
“This shop is well-lit and purchased with a 800,000 BTU wood-burning stove that provides radiant floor heating,” said John. “We keep all our equipment in here during the winter, so when we need to use it, it starts right up. We used to use block heaters to keep the engines warm.” The forklifts and other material handling machines include three Pettibones, two John Deeres and a Case forklifts. Area in the shop also is used to assemble crane mats.
The mill cuts all hardwoods, including oak, maple, gum, poplar, sycamore, sassafras, black locust, beech, and birch. “We unload and scale the logs and segregate them into piles,” John said. “If a log is long enough to make a straight timber, it goes in one pile, mixed hardwood in another, oak in another. If logs are crooked and have to be cut short, they go into another pile.”
A Pettibone Super 15, Super 20 and a John Deere TC54H tractor are used to unload logs that are trucked to the mill. “The reason we go with these big machines is because we are handling tree-length logs that can exceed 70 feet,” explained John. “Most mills cut logs that are 16 feet or shorter.”
Logs are bucked to length with a chain saw. When they are ready to be processed, the tractors put them on the infeed deck of the Frick head rig. The circular head saw runs 56-inch blades that are supplied by B.H. Payne and Co. The 20-foot-long carriage originally was four blocks. Joe added another block and beefed up the carriage with heavier cylinders and axles, which he custom made.
The Frick head rig is the original sawmill installed by Frank in 1964, but it has been continually modified and upgraded over the years. “We have a Sawmill Systems computerized setworks on it now, which Joe had to modify to make it work for our operation,” said John.
“Joe makes all the wear plates for the inside, so if one wears out, we just take another one off the shelf and install it,” John explained.
Slabs coming off the head rig are conveyed to a Frick 6-inch gang-edger. “It’s a good, heavy, two-saw edger with a set of gangsaws we can adjust from 1.5 inches to whatever width you want so you can put through a cant. Since we make a lot of 2x2 tree stakes with points, we just send in a 2x10 or 2x12 and have a bunch of 2x2s.” Lumber exiting the Frick gang-edger is sorted and stacked.
Riephoff Sawmill also is equipped with a Holtec package saw that is used for trimming bundles of lumber or multiple pieces of material at one time and three cut-off saws, including a Northfield and a Frick. A heavy Oliver planer is used for surfacing some products, such as oak flooring for trailers.
John added that he gets expert technical assistance from Jim Kline at Kline’s Mill Supply in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania.
Riephoff Sawmill makes a considerable volume of blocking and dunnage used for moving or handling industrial equipment. “We make a lot of tapered ramps and wedges like we did for the Intrepid,” said John. “We take a 19x20 that’s five or six feet long, then we split it from corner to corner on the Frick Timber Tiger carriage. We make a jig to hold the timber on an angle and we dog it with one dog.” High-grade logs are processed into material such as flooring for trailers while low-grade logs are processed into lumber for crane mats, dunnage, blocking and other products.
Slabs and other scrap wood are processed by a Bandit Beast Recycler horizontal grinder, which turns the wood into mulch. “Any big, nasty stuff we burn in our 800,000 BTU wood-burning stove,” John added. All the sawdust
Riephoff Sawmill employees receive several benefits. The company offers a 401k retirement savings program, profit-sharing and health insurance.
The mill runs five days a week, and John and his crew do preventative maintenance on Saturdays. “We rarely break down during the week because of the regular maintenance we do,” said John. “You can’t make money unless you are running and you can’t keep your customers happy unless you are sawing the wood.”