Throughout my life I’ve made many stops out at Hickman Lumber with Dad so he could check the kilns or to stop and talk to someone, but I’d never had a proper tour and full understanding of what goes on out there.
It is time I learned! The most amazing thing I learned was the amount of thought that goes into everything!
The whole sawmill process involves a lot of intentional decisions in order to create the ultimate goal: which is to utilize each log into making the best boards possible. The guys are working hard examining the wood every step of the way from the log to the finished lumber.
HERE IS WHAT HAPPENS
Logs are brought in from timber stands around the area and are scaled and separated by species. The logs from FSC certified managed stands are marked and will be tracked throughout the whole process. The high lift carries the logs to the debarker to get the log ready to be sawed.
After the bark is taken off the logs they are brought up to the head sawyer to turn them into cants.
Definition of a CANT, or (Flitch) – this is what the log is called after it is squared away and cut before it’s turned into a board.
The Head Sawyer does the initial decision making for each log to determine how the boards are going to be in the final product. He has to quickly and skillfully examine each log before it’s squared off.
Things he considers before it hits the circle saw:
- knots or defects on the log and tries to get those on the edges in order to have the least amount of defects in the boards
- Is this log good enough to be quarter sawn?
- The diameter of the log is crucial in how a log can be cut.
- ex. White oak should be 16” diameter in order to be quartered
The cant then moves up onto the band resaw. The sawyer looks over the cant and marks one face of the flitch to cut the board from.
Quarter Sawn: The head sawyer had initially cut the cant in half and then the band saw will cut that half again making it into quarters before the boards will be cut from them. We typically just do quarter sawn with white and red oak, but I’ve seen them quarter cherry, hickory and beech as well.
Sometimes a log will be cut and you will get live sawn, plain sawn and quarter sawn from one log. It’s not a complete science it really differs from log to log depending on quality and size.
Most sawmills produce very little, if any quarter sawn lumber. Many either do not know how to cut quarter sawn or cannot afford the expense of cutting and separating the lumber.
Once the boards are cut from the cant they go through to the edger to be cleaned up with a straight edge before going to the lumber grader to determine what the grade of each board is. (I have a whole blog on those details from when I went to a lumber grading short course.) It’s a lot of quick thinking and math involved. I have a ton of respect for the lumber grader after I realized the skills required in order to do his job well.
Before the boards are stacked it goes through the end trimmer which leaves all the boards at a uniform length. All of the “waste” from the boards is utilized so in essence THERE IS NO WASTE!
- Sawdust is used for energy for the dry kilns.
- Bark is sold to landscapers
- Scraps are put through the chipper and sent to paper mills.
Then the guys stack the boards in separate piles according to what the lumber grader marked them. Up to this point the lumber is all “green Lumber” because it has not been dried yet. A lot of mills are finished at this point and sell the lumber green, but we have kilns for the lumber to be dried.
Kiln drying is the most energy intensive process of the entire hardwood floor production; fortunately we are able to heat our kilns 100% from burning our sawdust. The drying of the lumber is also one of the most important parts of the quality of a hardwood floor. We’ve had our kilns since the early 80s and now have 7 kilns operating. We have always taken extra care to be sure that it’s dried properly. This involves constant tests and constant watch. Every species dries differently. The species and thickness and amount of time spent air drying are all factors in the total amount of kiln time required.
- 4/4 Quarter sawn white oak can take up to 2 months depending on how green it is to begin with.
- 4/4 Maple may only take 10 days to 2 weeks.
Once it’s been dried the lumber is re graded and resorted before being sold or sent to the flooring plant to be created into flooring.
It’s really interesting for me understanding more of this process. It’s taking a while too! There is a lot to learn and a lot of steps each with thought, consideration, and intention that goes into each and every board. That personal care and touch is what makes the difference in quality in our hardwood products.