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White Bear Lumber Weathers the Rough Economy to Start a Scragg Mill: Turns to Storti for Sawmill Machinery
White Bear Lumber started a scragg mill during a difficult economic time. By focusing on quality and efficiency, the company continues to grow and prosper. A Storti scragg mill has been its secret toward successfully replacing manpower with the right machinery.
By Dr. Ed Brindley, President
Date Posted: 11/1/2011
Polar, Wisconsin – Having grown up around the pallet industry, Don DuCharm, owner of White Bear Lumber in Polar, Wis., had sawdust in his blood. He grew up working with his father George DuCharm at Beau Industries in Northern Ill. Instead of taking over his father’s pallet business, Don decided to utilize his experience in a related sector.
Don’s story provides a blueprint of good ideas for anyone considering starting a scragg mill from scratch. When it came time to start White Bear Lumber in 2008, Don found a valuable partner in Storti Woodworking Machinery which is represented in the United States by Pallet Machinery Group to supply most of his scragg mill and lumber manufacturing machinery.
Spotting some key trends, Don hoped to put his knowledge of the industry to good use. He decided to turn toward running a sawmill for cutting pallet lumber, thus a scragg mill was a natural option for his decision. It seemed that each year it was getting more and more difficult to obtain good hardwood cants. The sawmill industry has changed a lot, but Don saw his potential if he focused on manufacturing pallet cut stock.
What makes this story so remarkable is that Don has built a successful scragg sawmill from scratch during one of the worst economic periods in the last 150 years.
Turning to Storti and Pallet Machinery Group
Don was familiar with Greg Wine and his company Pallet Machinery Group and turned to them as a supplier of sawmill machinery. Many of our readers are aware of Storti Machinery’s pallet nailing lines, but may not be as familiar with the Storti line of sawmill machinery. Don chose to work with Greg because he was sure he would get a fair deal from a person he respects. Don said, “Over 90% of our machinery is new. I chose Greg because there is not a better person working in the pallet machinery world. He and Lawrence Zavitz provide a great service. I enjoy working with them. Greg is not pushy, but he is very knowledgeable. I know I will get value for my dollars.”
Some people are concerned about working with European machinery suppliers, but Don looked at it a little differently. He stated, “I am not a normal sawmill guy. I don’t look at it as just putting it in and throwing people at it. Europe has a much higher cost per employee. So, European companies understand the importance of cutting down on the number of production employees. The United States is moving more in that direction.
“My biggest concern was parts. I have discovered that if you have an inventory plan and work the plan you can reduce both the cost of parts and any concern about importing parts from Europe. Lawrence anticipated the wear parts that we would need to have on hand. We started out with a package of spare parts based on his recommendations. Experience then helped us learn what we need on the shelf. We are located in an isolated rural area of Wisconsin, about an hour and a half northwest of Green Bay and an hour northeast of Wausau. Having parts is essential but has simply not been a big problem.”
Scragg Mill Decision
Don built his new sawmill, using an existing 16,000 sq.ft. building, and started sawing pallet stock in 2008. A 12,500 sq. ft. building houses the offices, lumber storage, parts, air compressor, etc. Everything is kept out of the sawdust.
Don had planned to start his own scragg mill, had the property to lease, and had made his equipment decisions just before 9/11. He was ready to go but put his plans on hold because of conditions at the time.
In 2007 Don again prepared to start his scragg mill. He ordered the Storti machinery in 2007, it arrived in July 2008, and he started sawing in November 2008. Once again it appeared that Don’s timing couldn’t have been much worse as the economy was slowing, but this time he was off and running. Polar, Wis. is isolated in the aspen and hardwood forests of northern Wisconsin. Don started cutting low-grade aspen and mixed hardwood logs into pallet stock. White Bear can cut pine to hedge against running out of aspen logs, but its focus is definitely on log-grade hardwoods.
Quality is a second issue. Don knew he could produce a higher grade of cut stock with circle blade saws. White Bear has focused on stringer manufacturing. Don has built a reputation around high quality cut stock, particularly stringers.
Don said, “Our product is not the cheapest up front, but it is the best buy in the long run. Customers say we produce some of the best stringers and deckboards that they buy.”
White Bear serves the pallet manufacturing and recycling industries in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. Thirty-five percent of its production is decking, and sixty-five percent is stringers. White Bear manufactures notched 1-1/8” and 1-1/4” stringers and 1/2”, 9/16”, and 5/8” decking, from mixed hardwoods and aspen. Its cut stock is sorted into either #1 or #2 grades. In 2010 production about doubled over what it was in 2009. So far it is up another 30% this year and will be up again next year.
Don makes sure he has enough logs for more growth. Don said, “When things are going well, it is easy to hide inefficiencies. It takes good planning to prepare properly for the future.”
Even though White Bear is on a growth tract, its model for success calls for incremental improvement. Don explained, “I just want to improve a little more each week. We do not yet have everything tweaked exactly as I know it can be. We are still picking up $10 bills, we are not down to retrieving $1 bills yet.”
As part of his growth plans, Don is in the process of putting in a second sawmill, a used Cleereman circle sawmill. Don’s current sawmill capability has prevented him from processing some large logs into pallet stock, so he decided to add a large log mill capability to his efficient scragg mill. The Cleereman mill will allow White Bear to process logs that used to go to other mills. Wanting to keep strong relationships with his loggers, Don will now be able to run odd balled sizes at night after the main shift. The new mill will be able to saw and end trim cants for processing into pallet stock. Don said, “We need good logs and have to work with our loggers. If you do not have something good to start with, you will not have something good at the end. We need to keep our supply of good logs flowing.”
The small logs bought by White Bear come in eight foot lengths, the standard log length for lower grade logs in Wisconsin. The paper mills are dominant in the state. The log centers are made into cants and sawn into high quality stringers. He cuts the log slabs into decking (35% of his lumber production). He has not been debarking his logs but is in the process of putting in a used A6 Nicholson debarker to make cleaner logs.
The eight foot slabs are cut in half by a Storti chop saw. The operator instructs the Storti RM400 edger to make each slab into either a 3-1/2” width, a 5-1/2” width, or two 3-1/2” widths.
A double end-trim TP2 trims three sided slabs to the desired length. The edgings go directly into a Precision Chipper. The slabs are sawed on a Storti R 16 horizontal slab saw. Two different decking widths are hand stacked. By selecting between 3-1/2” and 5-1/2” widths and sorting according to #1 and #2 grades, White Bear can optimize production of pallet decking for selected applications and markets. Automated stackers would not work effectively at this stage in the resaw system. White Bear uses Kent turntable racks for neat packs.
Two sided eight foot long cants from the scragg are cut to length on an automatic Storti two saw chop saw which cuts the cants to the desired length; these cants go to the RM 500 optimizing edger. The optimizing edger is programmed for saw kerf and the thickness of stringer that he wants. The two-sided cants are measured automatically and are perfectly edged for full optimization to leave no scrap on the gang saw. Everything runs better, reducing operator error.
Don decided he wanted to get away from band saws because of the hard winters they have. His circle saws eliminate the sawdust issue so often associated with thin-kerf bandsaws and provides more control over lumber uniformity. White Bear runs its’ cants through a B18 Storti gang saw using a .125 kerf. White Bear runs its own saw shop and takes care of its own blades. They retip, sharpen, and hammer - do everything but make the blanks. One of the keys is to have sharp blades and to have the right blades. It is necessary for quality lumber. One and a half people run their saw shop.
Stringers are notched after coming out of the gang saw. The notching heads are lowered if stringers are not to be notched. These finished stringers are automatically stacked on a M2L stacker manufactured in Virginia by AIT and sold by Pallet Machinery Group. A typical pallet notch is a 0.5” radius. The notcher at White Bear notches 1-1/2” radius notches. It was the prototype notcher that Greg had at the 2008 Richmond Show. This notcher, designed and manufactured by AIT, has worked well for Don and White Bear. Notch quality is important since he has made much of his reputation on the quality of his stringers.
On average the Storti scragg mill at White Bear processes 3.6 eight-foot logs per minute, an average of 4500 board feet of pallet stock an hour. These production numbers are actual and include down time. Don stated, “We have a narrow focus on what we do, but we do it extremely well. Proper planning helps you avoid downtime. You can do it; you just have to plan for it. We have less than 22 minutes of downtime per day, and we continue to improve on our average as we keep working on our management control.”
Certainly one of the major reasons that Don chose a Storti scragg mill was because so many things are done automatically without having to be touched by human hands. The complete Storti scragg mill and cutup operation requires only eight people, which is much less than required by a typical scragg mill combined with a cutup operation. The eight people at White Bear include one operator to feed logs through the double arbor scragg, four people to man the reclaim line making deck boards, and three people to run the cant line that produces stringers (which makes up about 65% of the mill’s production). Additionally, a floater person fills in for a missing employee when needed and cuts #2 material down to shorter lengths when he is not filling in. This extra work pays the floater’s wage.
Don has determined that it is important to focus on how to get rid of waste, not on just how fast to run the mill. One of his biggest nightmares and concerns is the potential of his chipper going down and problems with his dust collection system. He knows that if you cannot pull out the dust, you cannot manufacture lumber. He focuses on keeping both wood fiber systems running. Don said, “You have X number of minutes a day to produce lumber. We cannot afford to waste any of these if we want to run an efficient and profitable company.”
The People at White Bear
Don believes that your products are only as good as the people who stand behind them. That’s why he strives to treat employees and even suppliers the way that he wants to be treated. Don said, “Without logs I don’t have a business. We have to work together. Focusing on who owns the bat is no way to run a business. We try to instill in our employees a mentality that they want to reach their numbers. You climb a ladder one step at a time. Reach one step and then set your goal on the next.”
When it comes to White Bear personnel, Don has developed a team of people with the experience to get the job done right. Charlie Rusell, the plant manager, is the guy in the mill who makes it all happen. Charlie’s experience and drive to make things better and more efficient are his greatest attributes.
White Bear has about 20 employees, including a maintenance person, a log buyer, a log scaler and log yard supervisor, a saw filer, a salesman, a plant manager, and 1.5 office personnel. Curtis Klement and Gene Strasser both share the saw filing duties. Michelle Mireault works full time in the office with a part-time employee, Peg Fassbender who has been with Don from the start. Don said he doesn’t know what he would have done without their help.
Don made it a point to thank Jeff Booher of B&B Lumber outside of Syracuse, N.Y. who was extremely helpful to Don during his planning and learning process. B&B is a well known and recognized manufacturer of pallets and cut stock.
Like most entrepreneurial family run companies, White Bear depends heavily on its owner. Don’s family sets the tone. He feels blessed to have such an amazing family. He has been married to his wife Alison for the past 14 years. They have three beautiful daughters, 4 year old Lilah, 7 year old Amelia, and 10 year old Georgana. Don said, “All my girls are independent, capable, and love the outdoors.”
White Bear recently started offering health insurance. After 60 days, a new employee is eligible for coverage. Each employee pays a percentage of the premium; the company pays the rest. As Don put it, “If you don’t have some skin in the game, you often take things for granted. It is important for employees to pay some of their own insurance premiums. If somebody feels he is owed, he is likely to develop an entitlement mentality.”
White Bear has the usual paid holidays. After one year, employees have paid vacation time. Monthly attendance bonuses are paid for not missing work and being on time. An additional bonus is paid after three consecutive attendance bonuses. You can’t run just half the mill. As Don said, “We need the right people to run.
Don and Kevin Marten handle most of White Bear’s sales. Kevin is a personable man with a lumber business background. Don said, “Kevin is great to work with.”
White Bear has in a short period of time developed a reputation as a quality pallet lumber supplier serving the Upper Midwest region. A big part of its succcess is the Storti scragg system, which has helped White Bear reduce labor costs and develop into an efficient operation. If you would like to learn more about White Bear Lumber please visit their website at www.whitebearlumber.com.