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Making Old ‘New’ and the New Look Old: Virginia Company Remanufacturing Antique Lumber into Flooring Adds Kiln-Direct Dry Kilns
Kiln-direct Aids Virginia Company
By Peter Hildebrandt
Date Posted: 7/1/2008
BERRYVILLE, Virginia – In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Cochran’s Lumber and Millwork recycles lumber from old buildings and makes it ‘new’ again. The recent addition of Kiln-direct dry kilns is helping the company.
Cochran’s has been providing a full line of products and services for the historic restoration and custom home markets for about 30 years. From its location at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the company offers custom flooring, mouldings, cabinets and other custom millwork.
The company’s specialty is Shenandoah Plank™, a line of wide plank flooring. It is offered in antique wood as well as ‘rustic’ grades of new wood that replicate the look and feel of early American styles at a fraction of the cost of antique wood.
Cochran’s flooring and other products are used in authentic, historic log cabins and similar buildings as well as new construction in modern homes and remodeling. It can replicate any profile of moulding, an invaluable resource for the most demanding jobs, and supply staircase components and other accessories to complement its plank flooring.
Larry Cochran, president of the company, and Mark, his brother and company vice president, grew up on a dairy farm in nearby Loudoun County. After graduating from high school, Larry tinkered around with woodworking, following in the footsteps of his father. He went to work for a woodworking business and soon after decided to start his own company in 1978. When Mark graduated from high school, the two brothers began working together.
A third partner, Hunter Kelley, joined Cochran’s Lumber and Millwork in 1981. The company was in the business of making custom cabinets and other products. Soon after Hunter joined the business, they began to buy reclaimed lumber. Cochran’s has been manufacturing flooring, moulding, cabinets, doors, windows and other custom millwork since.
Five years ago they moved from Bluemont to their current location, located about 10 miles west to the town of Berryville. The move enabled them to expand to 60,000 square feet on 10 acres. Cochran’s employs 40 people and has annual sales in the range of $6 million.
Cochran’s works primarily with re-claimed lumber, a lot of heart pine and other pine that was used in houses and other buildings. The old nails are removed by hand, and the wood is then remanufactured. A Baker Products bandsaw is used for resawing antique beams.
Other lumber remanufacturing equipment includes three gang-rip saws, three double-sided planers, a Grecon Ditmer optimizing saw, three Weinig moulders and a Leader-Mac moulder, an end-matcher, belt sander, multiple shapers and table saws. A Carter-Day blower system collects shavings, sawdust and other scrap material.
Besides the two new 20,000-board-foot kilns from Kiln-direct, the company has one other dry kiln.
“Most of our lumber comes from small salvage companies, and our new materials come from people like Alleghany Wood Products in West Virginia, Wood Products in Oakland, Maryland, Blue Ridge Lumber in Fishersville, Virginia and other local distributors and manufacturers,” said Jay Smith, operations manager.
“Taking reclaimed materials and manufacturing high-end custom millwork is a very labor-intensive process,” he noted. “Unfinished solid wood flooring makes up 60 percent of our business while 30 percent comes from custom cabinets, built-ins, libraries and other custom millwork. The residual revenue is generated from buy-sell sales and moulding sales.”
Nearly three-quarters of Cochran’s 40 employees work in the shop and the others in administrative or office positions. Cochran’s provides an extensive benefits package to employees, said Jay Smith, operations manager. “We even keep a chaplain to run monthly Bible studies and offer counseling to any employee that desires his time and attention. We have American employees from all walks of life, including Hispanics, of which most speak enough English to communicate well enough for production purposes.”
“Our sales primarily come via the relationships we have built with all sales channels, including wholesale, contractor, and retail,” said Jay. “Referrals, striking up good personal relationships and great service are what have kept this company in business for 30 years.”
The company’s strong point is the production of high quality products. “It is the primary background of the company and what the focus of the owners has been since day one,” said Jay.
Cochran’s added the dry kilns – two kilns with combined capacity of about 40,000 board feet — from Kiln-Direct when it expanded last year into wholesale lumber and distribution operations, which it later discontinued. Since it had the kilns, it began using them to dry antique lumber. “We still put them to good use,” noted Jay, “but it just happens that we’re not using them for the original purpose for which we bought them.”
The Kiln-Direct kilns are used regularly to dry antique wood, which usually has an initial moisture content of 12% to 17%. Even though antique lumber and timbers is quite old, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the right moisture content. Often the wood has been out in the rain, uncovered. In addition, the lumber probably was green when it was used in construction.
“There’s really no guarantee of what the moisture content will be,” said Jay. “For any air-dried lumber from this area of the country, you still must place it in the kiln before use, especially if it’s going to be used for flooring. There’s no telling where the wood has come from. Getting it up to 160 degrees in our Kiln-direct equipment dries it out and kills any organisms that might be lingering in the wood beforehand.”
“I would highly recommend Kiln-direct equipment to anybody,” said Jay. “We really like the cost and the ease of use of the kilns.”
Construction and set-up of the kilns was handled by Kiln-Direct. “All we had to do was make sure the concrete pad was ready for them,” said Jay.
The Kiln-Direct dry kilns are computer controlled and can be operated by wireless remote control. “The guy who runs the kilns can check them on the evenings and weekends from home through the Internet with remote log-in,” said Jay. “He lives some 20 miles from here. That ability made Kiln-Direct very enticing for us.”
Niels Jorgensen, owner of Kiln-direct, has become a major supplier of pallet heat-treating kilns. Now he has returned his focus to providing small to mid-size lumber companies with economical solutions to kiln drying, either complete or modular lumber kiln designs. Kiln-direct has basically taken a larger, modern kiln and scaled it down to smaller sizes without compromising on design, building specification, equipment performance and control system.
“By implementing our expertise developed for delivering large, complete heat-treating kilns to the pallet industry, we are able to offer a lumber kiln that is five to 10 times smaller than a large kiln installation but with the same overall economies – both in initial investment and long-term operating costs,” said Niels.
Kiln-direct’s small and modular kiln designs enable companies such as Cochran’s to start with one kiln economically and then expand drying operations incrementally while obtaining the same economics as large operations. This means lumber companies can add drying operations gradually instead of betting everything at once, noted Niels.
Kiln-direct kilns come standard with a direct gas heating system, but they can be modified for wood waste heating if a customer desires. Other features include heat recovery on the power venting — using the warm, humid vented air to pre-heat the incoming air – plus a very well insulated building structure. These kind of energy-efficient features reduce energy and operating costs significantly.
A moisture meter measures the lumber as it is being dried in real time, and the data is integrated into the control system.
Cochran’s buys antique lumber and timbers from various sources in the East and Midwest, from New York to Alabama and states in between. It has a great many vendors and established relationships with many people. “When it comes to obtaining wood, it usually comes down to someone calling us with a lead, and we will follow up…,” said Jay.
Flooring and other products are shipped to all of the lower 48 states and Canada. “We ship a lot of our products to Colorado and California,” said Jay. The company has a staff of six sales representatives who deal with wholesalers, contractors and other customers.
“Cochran’s Lumber doesn’t have to do a whole lot on the marketing end of things,” said Jay. “We’ve built our sales work on more of a relationship basis. We are one of the few on the East Coast in this line of reclaiming work.” There are about 20-30 companies around the U.S. that reclaim and recycle antique lumber on the same scale as Cochran’s, he estimated.
Because Cochran’s products are used in relatively high end markets, the company has avoided most of the impact of sluggish housing industry and the economic downturn. “The formula we’ve been using has served us well so far,” said Jay. “This has actually been one of the most profitable of times for us lately.”
Randy Facemire is production supervisor. “When I make a floor,” he said, “my entire focus is quality control. That is why the millwork on our floors is so precise and exceeds industry standards by so much. Our dedication to giving the customer the highest quality finished product is further demonstrated by a careful production schedule, ensuring minimal effects from moisture and warehouse damage. When storage is required, the product will be cared for in a climate-controlled environment.”
Cochran’s has been manufacturing wood flooring for 25 years. It registered its Shenandoah Plank flooring brand in 2002. The company offers a number of antique wood styles in this brand under such names as Tobaccowood Pine, Horse Country Oak, Antique Chestnut, Antique Oak and Antique Heartwood Pine. The Tobaccowood Pine lines come from wood that has been reclaimed from old tobacco barns, and Horse Country Oak comes from wood in old barns and other buildings. It also offers ‘rustic’ flooring styles made of new wood.
“No one else in the industry can match our attention to detail and quality,” added Mark. Cochran’s uses the same type of precision woodworking machinery that other companies use to make furniture, he noted. “The owners and employees of Cochran’s Lumber come to work every day and work side-by-side to hand-craft the highest quality, precision milled wood products available. Cochran’s Lumber brings quality craftsmanship and attention to detail in a package that can now be affordable to anyone.”