Before I buy wood, I take a ride through the country. And though I live in a beautiful part of the world, the ride I take has nothing to do with scenery. I am headed to my local sawmill.
There are thousands of mills in the country — even largely treeless Nebraska has sixteen — and they are by far the best places to buy wood, in my opinion. Mills are less expensive, the quality is better, and you’re face-to-face with the people who cut the log, people who get to know you and who have a reputation to maintain. The stuff they sell has got to be good.
Take walnut. The walnut you buy from a big producer has been steamed so that the color bleeds into the sapwood, making the lighter sapwood look — at least a little bit — like heartwood. But the color comes at the expense of the heartwood, leaving the entire board a muddy brown. The walnut you buy at a local mill never sees a steamer, and generally it is a rich, deep brown.
Take variety. At local mills, you’ll find native hardwoods in countless lengths and thicknesses. Cherry. Walnut. Bird’s-eye maple. Quartersawn red and white oak. Birch. Poplar boards 20" wide. Thick, wide slices — called flitches — cut from the top to the bottom of a log for use as tables, countertops and freeform furniture.
Take the boards. Take any board you like. Roam through the piles and cherry pick the boards for figure, length and width. As long as you’re neat about it, most mills don’t mind you going through the piles for the boards that best meet your needs. Try that at a lumberyard.
When you’re looking for a mill, there are basically three types you can choose from: Huge operations, local operations that cut and kiln dry their own wood, and mills that sell green lumber. It’s the latter two you want to deal with. The ones I know best are the Pennsylvania mills I buy from: Bailey Wood Products and Heacock Lumber.
Bailey sits in the mountains and farmland above Kempton, Pennsylvania, a town of about three thousand. The Appalachian Trail runs along the ridge behind the mill. Hawk Mountain, named for the huge migration of hawks that passes over it, is nearby. Heacock is about an hour’s drive north of Philadelphia. The suburbs are closing in to the south, but the mill still sits amongst the stone barns and farmhouses built by the Pennsylvania Germans some 200 years ago. When the Americans smuggled the Liberty Bell out of Philadelphia to keep the British from turning it into cannon balls during the Revolution, the bell traveled up a nearby road.
Both mills are family-run operations. Jeff Schucker, who runs the Bailey mill, started working there in fourth grade, pushing a broom in what was then his grandfather’s mill. Duval Denlinger started at Heacock shortly after college, and he co-owns the mill with his father-in-law, Duane Hunsberger, whose family bought the mill in 1974.
In the early years — Heacock began in 1919 and Bailey in 1928 — both mills were portable, traveling from farm to farm and woodlot to woodlot, cutting lumber for farmers. In the thirties, the Heacocks replaced the steam engine that powered the saw, using a tractor instead. The Bailey mill was powered by a car motor.
“The first transaction took place in the field right across from the office,” Schucker (which rhymes with sugar) says. “My great-uncle and great-grandfather got some oak logs out of the farm lot, dragged the logs out of the woods with horses, and hauled them to the roadside by wagon.” The logs, part of the oak forest that runs through the southern two-thirds of Pennsylvania, were destined to be firewood until a Model T sputtered up the dirt road. Three timber buyers, looking for support beams for the coal mines to the north, hopped out and offered to buy the logs. Bailey Lumber Company, the forerunner of Bailey Wood Products, was born.
If you follow the oak and the farms from Bailey some 50 miles to the south and east, you come to the Heacock mill, in Plumsteadville, Pennsylvania. Heacock cuts some 1.5 million board feet of wood per year. With a board foot measuring 12" x 12" x 1", the lumber would stretch nearly 300 miles if all the boards were 1" thick, 12" wide, and laid end to end.
Heacock sells most of its lumber while it is still green — some to timber framers, some as board and batten, some for kiln drying by larger mills. But somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of it gets set aside for local woodworkers. “We air dry our flitches, our oak and ash and poplar, some walnut, and a little bit of cherry,” Denlinger says. He rounds out the selection with kiln-dried maple and cherry that he buys from a mill in the northern part of the state.
But Denlinger buys most of his lumber while it is still standing in the tree. He subcontracts out the logging, hauls the logs to the mill on his own trucks, and then stores them outside until they’re needed. When they are, a loader puts the logs in a debarker. The debarker turns the log while it’s cutter travels from one end to the other, grinding off the bark. The debarked log rolls onto a carriage, which feeds it into a 58" circular saw that slices off a board. A smaller saw, 35" in diameter, sits above the saw, allowing it to cut boards up to 20" wide. Once it’s cut, the board is fed by hand into a twin-blade circular saw, called an edger, which cuts the boards to width in a single pass. A 12'-long, 18"-wide tree goes from log to lumber in five minutes. The scraps are pushed sideways down one set of rollers, and good lumber is pushed forward on another set of rollers to be stacked.
Schucker once ran a similar operation, selling green lumber to barn builders, pattern shops and foundries. During World War II, the mill cut oak for the navy. At its peak, the mill was cutting between 10,000 and 20,000 board feet a day. But everything changed on December 30, 2005, when the mill caught fire. Firemen managed to keep the fire from spreading to the kilns, the lumber barn and a warehouse, but the mill building and saw were destroyed. The cause of the fire was never determined.
Faced with assuming an enormous debt to rebuild the mill, Schucker downsized, changing the focus to kiln-dried, cabinet-grade wood. Life became simpler. The smaller operation freed him from the pressures of a larger mill. He became a leader of his son’s Boy Scout Troop. He builds and places nest boxes for wood ducks, which nest in trees nearby. “The fire changed my life,” he says. “I never knew I had so many friends. It changed me as a person. My outlook is different. Everybody should have to do what I needed to do — look at themselves, and say ‘Really, do I need this in my life or can I get by with something simpler instead?’”
These days, Schucker buys much of his lumber green and sawn to size from mills like Heacock — in fact, Heacock is one of his suppliers. Special jobs — especially flitches — get cut on the 36"- wide horizontal band saw mill that Schucker bought after the fire. The log sits on a stationary bed while a 6"-wide band saw travels through the log.
The blade has teeth on both edges, so once it cuts through the log in one direction, the saw head is lowered, and the saw comes back in the other direction. (Thickness at all mills is measured in quarters of an inch — “quarters.” A four-quarter [4/4] board is 1"-thick. A six-quarter [6/4] board is 1-1⁄2"-thick, and so on.) Wherever the lumber comes from and whatever the thickness, it gets stacked on strips of wood, called stickers, and heads for one of Bailey’s five kilns, which are heated by burning mill scraps in a huge furnace.
“When you’re kiln-drying wood, every load is different, depending on where the timber grew and the time of year,” Schucker says. Thicker boards are harder to dry than thinner ones, and some species, like white oak, are difficult to dry without damage. As a result, every board in a load is the same thickness and from the same species of tree. Schucker adjusts the temperature of the air and the rate at which it flows over the wood to control the rate of drying. “You have to remove the moisture at the rate the wood will give it up, and not push it too much,” Schucker says. If not, the board may distort or check. It may case harden, developing an exterior harder than the interior, causing the kerf to pinch closed on the table saw. It may dry out until only the cell walls remain with voids inside, a defect called honeycombing. Proper drying avoids defects, and at the end of the process, Schucker conditions the wood by closing the kiln’s exhaust vent and leaving the wood in the kiln for a day. “It’s almost like a sauna,” he says, “It sweats the moisture from the center of the board, where it’s higher, to the outside, softening the surface so there is no tension in it.”
Four-quarter walnut and cherry take 18 to 22 days to dry. Poplar in the same thickness dries in seven to nine days. Four-quarter red oak takes an average of 28 to 30 days. Eight-quarter oak takes at least three times as long.
Once dried, the lumber goes into what was a barn on the family farm. It’s a cabinetmaker’s delight: oak, walnut, poplar, catalpa, bird’s-eye, basswood, flame birch, ash and sycamore, to name a few. A shipment of cherry, rejected from a veneer mill because of minor defects, sits stacked in the back of the barn. Wenge, bubinga, ironwood and mahogany, bought in the log from importers, round out the bins.
Air drying at Heacock is far less technical — the general rule is that you stack the boards on stickers, seal the ends with a paint-like wax emulsion to reduce checking, cover the stack, and let it dry a year for every inch of thickness. Kiln-dried lumber is initially drier than air-dried — around six to eight percent moisture content, versus 12 to 15 percent for air-dried. For wood used in heated areas, the USDA Forest Product Laboratory recommends using kiln-dried lumber, but says letting air-dried wood acclimate in the heated area can be equally effective.
Harvesting wood responsibly is a key issue for small mills. Denlinger participates in the industry’s voluntary Forest Stewardship Council program (FSC) that requires cutting trees selectively so as not to ruin the surrounding woods. Schucker buys his wood from loggers in the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a comparable set of standards.
For both mills, harvesting sustainably is a matter of survival. “Let’s face it,” Denlinger says, “if we go in and level a woodlot, that lot is never going to be a woodlot again. Eventually we would work ourselves out of business. We’re trying to log in such a way that wood is going to be there five years from now, 10 years from now, 100 years from now.”
The harvestable wood on a 10-acre lot probably yields some 40 to 50,000 board feet, he says, and it is usually sold at auction. A forester prepares an inventory of the wood; the buyer examines it and places a bid. At Heacock, it will take the mill one-and-a-half to two weeks to harvest that much wood, and about the same amount of time to turn it into lumber.
Running the log through the saw at the mill is a matter of experience. “The first cut pretty much determines where everything else is going to fall, Schucker says. “You look where the knots and defects are and try to line them up on the outside corners of your cut so they don’t end up smack-dab in the middle of the face of the board.
“If I open up a board on the saw, and I’ve got a nice clean face, I’m just going to cut four-quarter. If I need 8/4, I’ll try by opening with a 4/4 cut, and if I don’t see any signs of defects that will show up further down, then I’ll cut my 8/4. You have to learn how to read the log.”
Both companies use every scrap of lumber that comes through the mill. At Heacock, boards that aren’t good enough to ship are made into surveyor’s stakes in a separate building. Others become side or floorboards for trucks. Still others go to swimming pool contractors, who use them for the forms they pour their concrete in. Bark is ground up for playground mulch; scraps are ground up and sold as horse bedding. (Because horses eat walnut shavings, which cause lameness, walnut is kept out of the bedding by cutting it separately.)
Bailey also sells its sawdust as bedding, but since Schucker buys topgrade wood, most of what he has is too good to be strictly utilitarian. It’s cabinet-grade, and he markets it relentlessly. A shaper turns out custom molding and flooring. A lathe turns ash and maple blanks for baseball bats. Butcher-block countertops are made on a rack of hydraulic clamps. Cases of wood plugs used to cap off conduit in building projects sit next to the copy lathe that churns them out. Schucker even sells Adirondack chairs, made from thermo-treated wood (bought elsewhere) that is baked to modify the sugars and prevent rot.
In the end, most woodworkers go to both mills. A cabinetmaker sorting through kiln-dried cherry at Heacock says that Bailey is the only mill that can provide him with the 20-foot boards he sometimes needs. My trips through the country took me to Haycock when I needed beams to renovate a barn and to Bailey when I needed oak for cabinets.
To find a mill in your area, search the web for “custom sawmills.” To see what stock Bailey has on hand, or to order one of Schucker’s Adirondack chairs, go to http://www.baileywp.com. Visit Heacock Lumber at http://www.heacocklumber.com.