W.Va. Timber: From Tree To Boards, in Less Than an Hour

Nov 7, 2017

In the next part of our occasional series on the timber and forest products industry – from seedlings to final products, we follow cut logs to one of West Virginia’s most sophisticated sawmills.  Independent producer Jean Snedegar spent some time at Allegheny Wood Products’ Kingwood Sawmill and Pellet Mill, with plant manager, Mark Wilson.

“It takes about 35 log truckloads of logs per day just to sustain our inventory. Everything in each log is utilized – either here at Kingwood or at another facility. All of our bark, which comes off at the debarker, is reground and used as the fuel for the dryer system for the pellet mill operation next door,” Wilson said. “The chips and dust are used as the primary material for the pellet mill operation. So our goal here at Kingwood is for nothing to leave here that’s not had some kind of added value.”

A log truck drives into the lumber yard at Allegheny Wood Products' Kingwood facility.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

After the logs come off the trucks, a log-scaler grades them and sorts them according to species. To make sure this sawmill gets the most lumber out of each log, computer technology and sophisticated machinery helps the 135 employees extract every millimeter of useable wood. It’s called “optimization”, and it starts at the ring debarker.

“[The] ring debarker is very good at taking just the bark off and leaving a smooth surface. So the debarker is an integral part of our optimizing system,” Wilson said. “We want a true reading of what that log is – we don’t want to waste any wood.”

Only one species of wood goes through the mill each day. From the debarker, the logs go to the bandmills – the first saws that cut through the log. Inside an enclosed cab, the operator uses computer technology to show him exactly where to cut the log.

Mark Wilson, Allegheny Wood Products' Kingwood plant manager.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“All the information the computer generates appears on a screen in front of the operator. It shows where his cut is going to be, what slab, and a projection of what that log will make as it goes downstream to other machines here at the mill,” Wilson said. “It’s basically taking laser scans along that log, so when he starts cutting, the saw will get the optimal amount of material and the least amount of waste.”

These laser-guided bandsaws turn a log into either “flitches” -- that is, un-edged boards, or “cants” – a bigger chunk of wood 7 inches high.

Boards come out of multi-bladed saw at the plant.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The cant goes through a gang-saw, which uses several thin, lubricated blades to cut it into eight or nine boards during one pass.

Housing Downturn Hit Timber Hard

Since the computer optimization equipment was installed in this mill, the yield of each log has increased by 20 percent, according to Wilson. Yet even all this sophisticated equipment didn’t shield the sawmill from the housing downturn in 2007 and 2008.

Workers check and sort boards coming out of the mill.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It had a dramatic effect on us. We went from running two shifts.  We also had six dry kilns at this operation, and we basically said our dry kilns are inefficient, so our dry kilns were shut down first. It was more economical to send that material to one of our more efficient locations,” Wilson said. “Then it progressed and we dropped back to one shift. That was probably a little more than half of our workforce that we had to cut back. And that’s the first time in our company’s history that there’s ever been an actual lay-off like that.  It was very difficult.”

Boards make their way into the mills sorting area.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Even at this stage, the thousands of boards moving along the conveyor belts look more like slices of a tree than lumber. Later, they’ll get square edges. Next, workers sort through the rough boards to remove any considered unusable. They drop them down a shoot to a chipper. The wood chips will go across the lumber yard to the pellet mill.

The remaining boards pass by a timber grader. Using a fluorescent crayon, he or she marks the timber for whichever grade it is – a system set up by the National Hardwood Lumber Association. Then, inside a computer room, a “grade-mark-reader” reads the grade and the computer optimizes how to best trim the board for the grade.

A grader marks boards near the end of the board-production process.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“There’s a screen showing the grade-mark-reader what it’s reading. As it goes through the system, the next computer is showing where it’s going to trim it. And the third computer is where all that information comes together, and it’s going to our sorter system,” Wilson said.  “There are 55 bays – it’s called a sling-sorter, so the lumber can go into 55 bays according to the grade, thickness, and length of that board.”

Outside the computer room, the boards move along the conveyor belt to the optimizing edgers – the machines that cut the boards square and turn them into lumber.

The cut lumber moves along a 220-foot long sorting system conveyor belt that drops the lumber into 55 different bays.

“After the lumber is dropped in the sorter system, it’s conveyed down to this automatic stacker. The operator runs the stacker and puts a layer of lumber out at a time, makes a standard width and height according to what we set,” Wilson said. “When the stacking is completed, it then goes on a conveyor system to a machine that puts side and top compression on it, and bands it. The operator then puts a tag on it that came from the computer room that corresponds to the bay and bundle number, and then from that point it’s ready to go out to our shipping area.”

The log’s journey through the sawmill has taken less than an hour.

“This is the final part of our lumber operation,” Wilson said, standing in the lumber yard. “The people who work in our lumber yard are going to take that lumber, put it in loads to go on tractor-trailers to go out. We’ll run 200,000 board feet of lumber, which is approximately 20 truckloads of lumber per day.”

Allegheny Wood Products' Kingwood facility lumber yard.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Wilson said in addition to the lumber, 10 loads of chips, dust and bark can go out. There is also a pellet mill beside the lumber mill. They can ship 35-40 loads of wood pellets to consumers every day.

Allegheny Wood Products Kingwood Sawmill returned to two shifts a day in 2015. Today, it is the largest of the company’s eight sawmills and produces 42 million board feet of lumber per year – the most ever – 6 percent of the entire state’s production of 700 million board feet per year.  

About half the company’s kiln-dried lumber is exported. Domestically, it may end up as wood pallets, or railroad ties, or furniture or hardwood flooring. That process we’ll see next, at the largest pre-finished hardwood flooring facility in North America.

This series is made possible by support from the Myles Family Foundation. Jean Snedegar is an independent producer.