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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Art and Joy of Wood

Did you know that this is the International Year of the Forest? What that is about, I'm not really sure...after all, the forests have been around for a few years before this one. Having an international celebration of the forest brings to my mind images of fur-covered pagan folks dancing with joined hands around a big oak tree, just prior to convening to Stonehenge for the highlight of the party. Count me out for that one.

But around the world, other folks with broader minds are putting together events to celebrate the forest in different ways. We're even having one here at Penn State...I'll blog more about that in the future as our furry, er, enlightened forest fans here in State College formalize the details.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Survival of the Smartest

A couple of months I posted an article called "Survival of the Fittest", in which I focused on three key ingredients of success in difficult times: people, products, and process. My friend Sita Warren recently brought to my attention a great example of a project that combined these three elements to establish a whole new way of thinking about the future of lumber drying.

The essential technical problem facing the lumber industry is that in the evolution from air drying to kiln drying, driven by the need to offer a wider variation of lumber products in a more timely fashion, the energy cost component of the process increased significantly. So much so, that lumber drying efficiency has become a differentiating factor in the success of companies across the industry. And energy prices will continue to force more and more lumber companies to find alternative drying solutions, or get out of the business.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sawdust in the blood

 The last post set me to reminiscing about my own roots in sawmilling...they run pretty deep. The first two pictures at the right are the proud employees of the Ray & Ray sawmill near the town of Hughes Springs in East Texas, in 1904. You can see they had good hats and big logs, back in those days.

They also had a lot of use for oxen, mules, and boys around the mill. I think this was a little before OSHA and child labor laws...or if it wasn't, they didn't pay too much attention to them. That part of East Texas was so far back in the woods in 1904 that the law didn't mess with them.  I'm pretty sure there was a still out behind that building you're looking at.

My great, great grandfather was one of the Ray & Rays; his brother was the other.  My great grandfather, that handsome-looking blade with the horse, would have been a young teen-ager in the mill shots, although I don't know which one he is. Obviously, the mill was doing pretty well; for my great-grandfather Harvey Ray to have a fine-looking animal like that in 1908, at the age of 18, would be the equivalent to one of my kids driving around in a new Corvette, which they ain't.

The mill stayed in the family for another 50 years after these mill shots. Harvey, in fact, was the owner of the mill when it finally shut down. The story I was told was that he was so mad that the employees tried to unionize, that he went to the bank, sold the mill property, came back and locked the gate, and that was that. There was a lot of pride involved, and I imagine that great grandpa took the unionization movement personally. Politically correct, he wasn't...I knew him when I was a real young kid in the 1960's, and the next picture with his dog is just about how I remember him. Even remember the dog. They were both real worn out when I last saw him in 1967, a few weeks before he died. The dog died a couple of weeks after Papa did.

The man standing behind the brahman bull is my grandfather Clarence (Bud) Ray, whom I knew as Grandpa. He was Papa's son. The bull he was standing behind was one of Papa's. Grandpa Bud was pretty tall in those days, a little over six feet tall; that gives you an idea of how big that bull was. I remember them talking about that bull a lot; in fact, they talked a lot of bull, period. In my dim memories I remember that bull as being some kind of world champion, or at least it should have been, according to the Ray boys.

Grandpa also worked in the sawmill as a boy, and as a log truck driver for the mill when he got back from the war. After the mill closed, he became an OTR trucker, and spent the next thirty years driving his own rig over the highways of America. I used to think that was a great job.  And as I sit here and type, I still do. I've always liked the breeze of the open road.

One day before he died, Grandpa Bud took me out to the old mill site. It was back in the woods on what he called "Ray Mountain", although I don't think anyone else called it that by 1980. He stopped by the side of the gravel road in a forest so thick you couldn't see ten feet into it, pointed into it and said, "The mill was about two hundred yards back in there." I never was the brightest bulb in the pack, and I asked him "why was the mill way back in there?" He was kind with me and explained that it was a sawmill, and there were no trees anywhere around back in those days.

Well, my dad started the Ray family on the path to higher education, and got a semester of Texas A&M in before he decided he was cut out for better things, and went in the Marines. I think they gave him a deal he couldn't refuse...three meals a day. Dad said he was eating on couch change at A&M, and he was getting pretty thin. The Marines put a little meat on his bones...and allowed him to meet my Mom. They started having babies in Quantico, Virginia, and that's where I got my start in life.

After the service, my dad went into manufacturing and wound up in the oil business in Houston. I got a job in the plant my dad managed, went to college night classes, then eventually decided to try forestry school back in...you guessed it, East Texas.  One day, I came home from school and started telling my dad about cruising timber, using all the terms of the trade, and my words reminded my dad of his childhood growing up around the mill. As he reminisced, I realized that I was bringing the family back full circle, and felt pretty good about that.

One last thing...you might have thought it was pretty mean-spirited of Papa to shut down the mill the way he did. Well, when he died, my grandpa and his siblings were cleaning out Papa's house, and they found a cigar box up in his bedroom closet.  Inside the cigar box were dozens of IOU's from folks all over the area, amounting to thousands of dollars. Papa had been helping folks out for a long time, and had apparently been holding their IOU's until they could come and pay them.

Well, Papa's little farm didn't amount to much by 1967, and the bull was gone...but I think his reputation was worth a fortune.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Starting a lumber business

This excellent hi-quality video was brought to my attention by Dr. Terry Conners at the University of Kentucky, who explains:
"Wood Mizer came to Kentucky to make a video of a custom sawmiller I helped get started. Granted, this fellow wants to do things the right way (retired Navy), but in the space of 2-3 years he’s gone from being a customer of another mill to buying a band mill for himself and progressed to a DH kiln with a sign at the end of his long driveway, then a retail display, then to a concrete-floored air-drying shed, then shade cloth on the shed walls, then a grinder for mulch – and he even held an Open House on a day filled with thunderstorms and heavy rain (about 100 cars showed up nonetheless!). I think he’s the only guy I know of who’s ever even tried that. In addition to sawing logs for customers (they bring to him), he’s working with a logger who brings him unusual species such as mulberry, basswood, sassafras, etc. along with the more usual redcedar and oak, maple and so on – the local woodworkers really like the different woods. He also came to a kiln drying workshop we held in Central Kentucky that Gene Wengert taught – it was useful to reinforce some of the basics about kiln management that he hadn’t really appreciated before, being relatively new to the art. Grading seems to be something else entirely for him and guys like him here – they sell everything all at the same price, don’t want to be bothered by sorting boards even into Good, Better, Best categories. This might be a growth opportunity for the future, though.

Anyway, I thought the video came out well and thought I’d share it. I showed it to our Forestry students at Summer Camp, and even they thought it was pretty interesting. It’s a good model for entrepreneurship that seems to be working, even in this economy. If any of your clients want to talk to Gary McInturf (the sawmiller) just let me know and I’ll hook them up."
Great look at the spirit it takes to make a sawmiller. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tough times for ethanol

The headlines say a lot about the problems facing the ethanol industry...


June 16...
Senate vote marks start of end for ethanol subsidies 
(Reuters) - The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to eliminate billions of dollars in support for the U.S. ethanol industry, sending a strong message that the era of big taxpayer support for biofuels is ending. 
The 73-27 vote may ultimately be symbolic since the White House has vowed not to repeal ethanol subsidies fully and the bill the repeal language is attached to is not expected to make it into law. But it underscores the growing desperation to find savings in a budget crisis that is forcing both sides of the aisle to consider sacrificing once-sacred government programs.
Today...
Clearfield ethanol plant to shut for summer 
Citing high corn prices, company plans to close facility temporarily
Read more: http://www.centredaily.com/2011/06/21/2788918/ethanol-plant-to-shut-for-summer.html#ixzz1Pvs85u5R



Wood-based, or otherwise cellulosic, ethanol is supposed to step into the gap created by market difficulties being experienced by corn-based ethanol. But with government participation drying up, that step is going to be a difficult one to take.


At the risk of sounding repetitive, this is another good reason why wood for heat, as a replacement for oil- and electric-based heating, continues to make more strategic sense than wood or biomass for liquid fuel replacement (ethanol).


As one (to remain anonymous) professional in the field emailed me just last week...
"Now if we can just get USDA off this cellulosic ethanol and torrefaction kick and focused on thermal and CHP we can move the ball down the field."
First and ten, biomass heating...


Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Tale of Two Projects

Continuing in the vein of recently reported biomass news...

There are a lot of biomass projects being approved/started in the last few months, and I thought it would be helpful to contrast a couple of them to identify key success factors and hurdles for biomass.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Biomass Power - Sometimes the Right Call, Sometimes Not

My email inbox was stuffed with biomass energy goodies this morning, of various and sundry topics. The overall tone of the various topics was positive for biomass...such as the April 1 announcement (slow email?) from Virginia that their governor Bob McDonnell announced that three coal-fired power plants will be converted to biomass power plants, each of 50 MW capacity, joining the 83 MW Pittsylvania, VA, biomass power plant in generating green energy for the citizens of that great state.



Governor McDonnell and David Christian, the CEO of Dominion Generation, did a nice job of elucidating the positive aspects of biomass energy, in general...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Wood Science 101(2) - Tung Oil

If you watched the first of the three videos on the Hanging Temple , you may have noticed a short snippet that also caught my attention. At the 6:38 mark, we learn that
"before processing, the hemlock wood would have been soaked in tung oil to make it resistant to termites and erosion."
What is this stuff that has produces such amazing results on the properties of wood?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVernicia_fordii4.jpg
Tung oil is produced from the nut of the tung tree, or 
"Vernicia fordii (Tung Tree; syn. Aleurites fordii Hemsl.) This tree is a species of Vernicia in the spurge family, native to southern China, Burma, and northern Vietnam." - Wikipedia
Woodworkers may be interested to know that tung oil, or China wood oil, was commonly used centuries before its use in the Hanging Temple...it was mentioned in the writings of Confucius nine hundred years earlier. Many today know of and appreciate tung oil as an excellent oil for finishing wood in a light and natural way:
"When applied in many fine coats over wood, tung oil slowly cures to a satin "wetted wood" look with slight golden tint. It resists liquid water better than any other pure oil finish, though it still provides little protection against water vapour exchange or scratches. Tung oil does not darken noticeably with age and is claimed to be less susceptible to mold than linseed oil." - Wikipedia

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Great Designs in Wood (14) - "A Light Dance of Wood"


So many of you indicated interest in the Sakyamuni temple piece I posted last month, that perhaps this structure, again brought to my attention by Mr. Jianwei Ren, will be of interest as well. The Hanging Temple of Mt. Heng is even more curious, in that it was built over 50 meters up the side of a sheer cliff...in 491 A.D.! How and why it got there, and the details of its construction from local hemlock forests, is told in these excellent videos made by CCTV, the Chinese State Television Company.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

PA Timber Show 2011

If you're in the mid-Atlantic region, and you feel like a drive this weekend, you may want to consider coming to State College for the PA Timber Show 2011
"Pennsylvania is home to more than 2,700 forest products companies and more than 500,000 forest landowners. PA Timber Show 2011 will offer exhibitors an affordable way to show the latest in forest product related machinery, equipment, and technological advancements."