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Sawmill Expands Services During Recession
Johnson Lumber saw an opportunity to expand their services during the recession. The family-owned sawmill capitalized on lower machinery prices to add new value-added services to their offerings.
By DeAnna Stephens Baker
Date Posted: 5/1/2012
Carthage, New York— During a time when sawmills around the country were struggling, downsizing, and even closing, Johnson Lumber saw the chance to install new machinery and expand its services.
The family-owned white pine sawmill is located in Carthage, N.Y., a small town in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, not far from the Canadian border. The company was started by brothers Ronald and Robert Johnson in 1977 with the purchase of an old sawmill. Thirty-five years later, the company is still run by the Johnson brothers, but has grown and expanded far beyond its modest beginnings.
In the early days, the Johnson brothers and one employee produced around 3,000 board feet of green lumber per day using a circular saw in addition to making some pallets and hay wagons. Now, the company employs about 20 employees and services over 200 retail yards around the state. In addition, it provides log home components for its sister company, Johnson Log Homes, which was started in 1984. Johnson Lumber’s sawmill primarily produces locally grown white pine lumber, but it also produces a little red pine. It focuses on many types of products for retail lumber yards, including six grades and 12 patterns of in-stock lumber. The products it produces for its log homes division include items such as “D” logs, log siding, and tongue and groove WP-4 paneling. Johnson Lumber also offers kiln drying and pre-finishing of many of these products.
Over the past several years, the sawmill has continued to add new machinery and expand the types of products it offers. Instead of taking the route that many other sawmills around the country did during the recession and suspending purchases of machinery and other big dollar items, the staff at Johnson Lumber decided to use the recession to their advantage by purchasing machinery while the prices were low.
“The downturn created an opportunity for us because those machines were at a much lower price with the downturn,” said George LaBarr, Johnson’s sales manager. “So we strategically added some value-added services.”
Since the start of the economic recession, Johnson Lumber has added four significant pieces of machinery, all of which have helped increase its services and its customer base. This machinery added between 2009 and 2011 was strategically chosen to allow Johnson Lumber’s sawmill to expand on existing product lines and offer customers new value-added services. LaBarr said they researched different ideas, both online and by seeing what mills in other areas were doing.
“We knew some other mills were out there offering some pre-finished products and we thought it would be very good for our territory because we didn’t know of anyone doing it,” explained LaBarr. “They were a natural fit for us. To add value to the products we were already manufacturing the next step was to pre-finish them. That’s really why we did it.”
The first new machine was an end matcher, installed in 2009, which tongue and grooves the ends of multiple products, including log siding. That addition was followed by two more pieces being installed in 2010, an ultraviolet clearcoat machine and an infrared staining machine. The clearcoat machine sands, vacuums, applies clear coat to all sides, and then dries the clearcoat, all in one pass. It is used on products such as end matched 1×6 tongue and groove. With the infrared staining machine, boards are fed into the machine. As boards go down the belt they are sanded, vacuumed, have a coat of stain applied, then are run through the oven under an infrared light, coming out dry to the touch on the other end, and are ready to be stacked.
With the addition of these three machines, Johnson Lumber started to offer pre-finished products. The company had previously offered all of the products that are put through the new machines. They simply did not offer them pre-finished as they are now able to do. The result is a time and money saving option for customers. Installation of these improved products is much faster, which has created an increase in demand and the number of customers.
“We’re offering products that are able to just be installed,” LaBarr said. “Nail them in place, and you’re done.”
The most recent machine the company has installed is a Newman SS-30 shavings mill, installed last year, which has allowed Johnson Lumber to increase the volume of animal bedding the company produces. The machine has a 30 inch diameter cutter head with 16-knife rows, carbide knives, and a variable feed speed.
This was an expansion of an existing product line as they were already bagging the shavings that came from planning kiln dried lumber and selling most of it as animal bedding through wholesalers. Most of this material eventually went to horse and dairy farms.
“We knew the demand was there, we had a good demand, so we put the shavings mill in to increase the production,” said LaBarr.
Johnson Lumber has long been concerned with ensuring that it fully utilizes all its raw materials. Previously, all of the company’s scrap lumber, both green and dried, was run through a West Salem Machinery Co. grinder to produce fiber or mulch. LaBarr said that Johnson Lumber still uses the grinder for green scrap lumber, but the addition of the shavings mill has allowed for a significant increase in shavings production. Together, the grinder and shavings mill allow Johnson Lumber to maximize profits by producing a higher-value end product with kiln dried lumber scraps, such as slabs, edgings, cut-off blocks, and trimmings, while still utilizing green lumber scraps as well.
“The shavings mill has allowed us to take scrap lumber, trim pieces and so on, and make it into shavings,” LaBarr said. “It’s another value-added product really, because the shavings are worth a little bit more money than the fiber.”
In the past, the company ran a larger scale mulch operation, including manufacturing and coloring. However, they sold that equipment several years ago because they felt it detracted from the company’s primary focus. Johnson Lumber now sells the grindings produced by the West Salem machine to the company that bought its mulch operation equipment. Johnson Lumber also ran its own logging operation for several years to supply the sawmill. But, like the mulch operation, the Johnsons felt that it kept them from focusing on the sawmill and chose to discontinue it.
The company’s sawmill line starts with an HMC V-2110 debarker. From there, logs are sent to an HMC AC40 Board Dog carriage with an IESCO 125 hp carriage drive and a McDonough 6-foot double-cut band mill. The company uses a Cardinal 6-inch gangsaw for resawing and a Paul optimized edger for edging. Boards are conveyed from the edger by an HMC rollcase to an HMC MDS50 trimmer. Finished lumber then goes onto an HMC green chain and the log home timbers are routed to an HMC band resaw. Out of the four dry kilns, two are Cathild kilns and two are Irvington-Moore (now USNR) kilns. Between all four kilns, the company has a total kiln capacity of 300,000 board feet. The planer mill consists of a Yates A2012 six-head planer and an HMC MDS0 drop saw trimmer with a bin sorter.
Johnson Lumber has been working with HMC Corporation to source machinery since the early 1990s and bought much of its machinery from them over the years. “Our experience with them has always been positive,” said LaBarr. “They always do what they say they’re going to do.” In addition to its machinery line, HMC also offers layout design and installation services, which benefited the Johnsons after a fire destroyed their sawmill in 1994. HMC helped draw up plans and get the sawmill back up and running again.
The Johnson brothers believe in being involved in their local community. This mindset has led them to regularly give tours of their sawmill to local schools and clubs as they strive to educate the public about forestry management programs. The company is also a member of the Northeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association (NELMA) and the North American Wholesale Lumber Association (NAWLA).