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.