Arkansas Hardwood Producer Turns To High-Tech for Board Edging Solutions

01/22/2020


Timberline Magazine December 2019

HOLLY SPRINGS, Arkansas —

Chad Sorrells had been looking for a supplier to build an optimized edger for his family’s hardwood sawmill for a long time.

“For our size mill, I’d been looking for optimized edgers, but I felt they were too expensive for our production,” explained Chad. He had weighed the options for 10 years but was put off by the high capital cost.

He finally chose Cooper Machine for the project. The project for Sorrells Sawmill was Cooper Machine’s first optimized edger, which now is being offered to other sawmills. “This machine was designed for the mid-size sawmill market so more mills can afford an optimized edger,” said Frances Cooper, CEO of Cooper Machine. It is designed to edge 12 boards per minute although Sorrells Sawmill has reported doing up to 14 per minute,

Cooper Machine has a newer version that will edge closer to 20 boards per minute.

Sorrells Sawmill is in the community of Holly Springs although its mailing address, Sparkman, is about 10 miles north. Holly Springs is in south-central Arkansas, just over 80 miles southwest of Little Rock.

The sawmill was started by Chad’s father, Winfred, in 1972. At 74 and now retired, he still finds himself at the mill most days. Chad, 51, oversees the sawmill business with a brother, Mark, 44, who also oversees a cattle farm they have. Another brother, Rodney, 53, oversees logging operations. They all live within about a mile of the mill.

Sorrells Sawmill has 29 employees, a number that includes truck drivers and those who work on the logging crew. Thirteen employees work in the sawmill, 10 on the logging crew, and six are truck drivers. The company also contracts with two truckers to haul for the sawmill and another one to haul for the logging crew.

Chad and Mark share duties at the sawmill, although Chad tends to be in the office a lot managing the business and handling sales. He also can work on the sawmill machinery and takes turns as the sawyer. “Anything imaginable, basically,” he said.

The mill is in the same location as when Winfred launched it. All the other machine centers were built around the head saw, which was an old hand-set mill when Winfred began. The sawmill is housed in a building that Chad estimated is about 80 feet by 130 feet, and the grading shed is about 30 feet by 100 feet. The company also has a shop.

The mill cuts about 30-35,000 board feet of logs per day. All grade lumber production is rough-sawn 4/4 and sold green in random widths. The company’s customers for grade lumber include concentration yards, flooring mills, and millwork businesses. Customers range from 40-50 miles away to 200-250 miles.

“We cut towards the market,” explained Chad. If prices for grade lumber are strong, the company saws more grade material. If the market for railroad ties is better, the mill will saw more cross ties. “Right now, cross ties are a whole lot better than grade lumber,” noted Chad. When sawing grade, the company sometimes will cut the log down to a pallet cant.

When asked what the mill was sawing lately, Chad said, “Sadly, right now it’s red oak, which is kind of hard to sell.” Other common species are white oak, gum, hickory, mixed hardwoods.

Before starting the sawmill, Winfred had worked in a sawmill after graduating from high school, then worked for a company that constructed dry kilns, and finally ran a mill for another company before deciding to start his own.

Chad became involved in the family business after graduating with a business degree from Henderson State University, and his brothers joined not long after graduating from high school.

The company buys logs in multiples of 9-foot and down to a 12-inch top. Although the head rig can accommodate a 40-inch diameter log, the mill usually does not cut anything bigger than 36 inches.

Incoming logs are unloaded and stacked in the yard with a John Deere track loader. Two Volvo wheel loaders are used to move logs in the yard and stage them next to a stationary John Deere knuckleboom loader with a slasher saw that bucks the logs to length in multiples of 9-foot-6-inches.

After being bucked to length the logs are placed on an infeed to an HMC rosserhead debarker. Once the bark is removed, the logs are fed to a Hurdle Magnum series two-knee carriage with a Corley ‘shotgun’ feed that drives the carriage with two hydraulic cylinders. A Sering Sawmill Machinery log turner positions the log on the carriage.

The Hurdle carriage was added 13 years ago. “It really helps our production,” said Chad. The saw husk, which the Sorrells built years ago, runs Simonds solid tooth circular saw blades.
Finished board exits Cooper Machine edger at right. Cants or cross ties are kicked off at left after coming off the head rig, which is visible in far background. Material handling equipment was supplied by Mellott Manufacturing when new Cooper edger was installed.

The head rig has been upgraded a couple times with a scanning system and optimization. At the recommendation of Hurdle, the company initially added a photo cell scanning system. “That really opened up our eyes to a scanner and what we could do with optimization,” said Chad. “You don’t know you need it until you get it.” They upgraded later to a 3D scanner and optimizer from Automation & Electronics.

The mill is not equipped with a resaw, so the entire log is cut on the head rig. The slabs are caught by a conveyor and routed to a Precision chipper. Flitches and boards coming off the log are conveyed to one of three destinations by a Mellott rollcase and offbearing system. A flitch that needs edging is routed to the edger, boards go to the green chain, and an electronic eye detects cross ties that go to another green chain.

The Mellott material handling system was installed last summer when Cooper installed the new edger. Mellott personnel still had drawings of the mill dimensions and layout from when they supplied material handling equipment in 1990.

The Cooper optimized edger replaced a Crosby edger that was installed in 1992. The Crosby edger required an operator to manually move the saws, following a laser line as a guide. “The idea with the optimized edger is for the computer to determine the wane, not the man,” observed Chad. “The man usually cuts off too much board.”

“The name of the game is getting the human judgment out of where the saw needs to cut,” he added.

Optimization certainly improves yield, he acknowledged, although there is no way to gauge how much yield has increased.

The company chose Automation & Electronics for a scanner and optimization system for the new edger based on A&E’s experience upgrading the head rig. “We had good luck with the head rig scanner, and we wanted to go with them on the edger also,” said Chad. The system can scan both the top and bottom of the board.
The head rig includes a Hurdle Magnum series two-knee carriage with a Corley ‘shotgun’ feed that drives the carriage with two hydraulic cylinders. A Sering Sawmill Machinery log turner positions the log on the carriage.

Automation & Electronics USA is an engineering company that specializes in sawmill controls and optimization. It utilizes the latest technology in PLC controls and scanner hardware to provide customers with a high end and cost effective solution. The company has offices in Asheville, N.C., and New Zealand, which allows for 24/7 support with engineers in offices up to 18 hours between time zones. (For more information, call the company’s North Carolina office at (318) 548-5138, email joe@automationelecusa.com, or visit the website at www.automationelecusa.com.)

When it came to considering a company to build an edger, Chad was inclined to go with a company — Cooper — that would integrate with Automation & Electronics. He discussed the project with Cooper representatives. Chad and Mark attended the Richmond Expo (the East Coast Sawmill and Equipment Exposition) in Richmond, Va., in 2017 and continued to discuss the project with the Cooper team, which exhibited at the trade show.

Chad was attracted to Cooper in part because the company has a long history as a supplier of quality machinery and equipment for the sawmill industry. “I felt like they could do it,” he said.

“They had one that wouldn’t quit fit,” noted Chad. “We had a certain footprint to work in, and a lot of edgers are stretched out pretty long.” Cooper was willing to design and build one to fit the mill’s requirements, and Chad and Mark made a final decision after the trade show and selected Cooper to build the new edger.

Cooper Machine now offers optimized linear or transverse edgers. For sawmills with very tight space limitations, Cooper can provide a combination while edging up to 15 boards per minute. Cooper optimized edgers can be either a two or three-saw machine, able to feed from one or both sides.

Cooper partners with Automation & Electronics for its IRIS advanced 3-D optimizing software. The optimization system is paired with JoeScan 25MX scanners — one of the fastest and most accurate — configured in a triangulated position that has the capability to scan from the top or both top and bottom. The operating system is user friendly. Cooper optimized edgers currently are available for logs from 6-20 feet.

Cooper manufactures two, three, or four saw edgers that are able to edge boards, slabs, or cants. The most popular 6-inch edger features two moveable saws that can process material from 3-18 inches wide. Custom configurations are available as well as various options. Cooper now offers an all-electric version of its most popular edger.

Georgia-based Cooper Machine Co. manufactures a wide range of equipment for sawmills and for the pallet and railroad tie industries in order to process logs to finished wood products, including scraggs, band saws, carriages, gang saws, and much more. The company also manufactures material handling machinery and equipment.

Cooper is focused on building machinery designed to maximize efficiency in wood processing operations. The company uses the latest in computer and laser technology to design and manufacture machines that will get the most from every log, slab and board.

Grade material is collected at the green chain by a Volvo wheel loader and moved to the grading shed and loaded onto an unscrambler. After the lumber is graded and pulled and stacked, it is dipped in a tank with chemicals from Buckman Laboratories to protect the wood from staining and to ensure brightness.

A paper mill operated by Georgia Pacific in Crossett recently closed after the shutdown was announced earlier this year. The mill had been buying chips from Sorrells Sawmill. “We’re trying to find other markets,” said Chad.

In the past the mill has had markets for bark and sawdust, but now it is being supplied to paper mills for boiler fuel at little to no revenue. “The mills are paying the freight, that’s about all,” said Chad. Nevertheless, he is glad he has a ‘home’ for his residuals. “We feel fortunate to get that,” he added. “We’re not complaining.” He is more concerned that in the future the mill may not have a way to dispose of bark and sawdust.

The Great Recession inaugurated by the collapse of the housing industry in 2009-2010 “was a pretty tough time,” acknowledged Chad. “We laid off some people and got as lean as we could,” recalled Chad. “We’re pretty lean anyway…Everybody has a job to do.”

As bad as that period was, he is afraid the coming months and next summer could be even worse for hardwood lumber producers. The reason: the impact of tariffs on Chinese imports of hardwood lumber. As much as half of U.S. grade lumber production was being shipped to China, noted Chad. Even though not much of the Sorrells’ production ended up being exported to China, the country’s tariffs on lumber from the U.S. and the resulting cutback in the volume of lumber it is importing has been creating an oversupply of hardwood in the U.S, — notably red oak.

“There’s a huge supply of lumber on the market right now,” noted Chad, and the market for red oak is down about 35 percent from previous highs, he indicated.

“Tariffs are a good thing,” he added. “We’re just hoping something can be worked out and we can go back to some kind of market.”

“We’ve always had our own logging crew,” said Chad, even though it does not harvest timber for the sawmill. The logging crew harvests pine. In the past Georgia-
Pacific operated a plywood plant in the region, and the companies bought timber together; the logging unit harvested the timber and supplied the pine logs to George-Pacific and the hardwood logs to Sorrells Sawmill. After the plywood mill closed, the loggers supply pine logs to other sawmills.

The logging crew is equipped with a John Deere feller buncher, a John Deere track harvester paired with a Waratah processor attachment, two John Deere grapple skidders, and a John Deere knuckleboom loader. “We have pretty good luck with the machines,” said Chad, and have relied on Stribling Equipment, a John Deere dealer with locations in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

Sorrells Sawmill buys timber and contracts with loggers to cut it; in addition, it buys some logs from other logging contractors. Their region of Arkansas has about the highest log prices of anywhere in the state, according to Chad.

Chad is president of the Westside Hardwood Club, an affiliation of hardwood lumber manufacturers located on the west side of the Mississippi River. He has served as president of the group for a few years. Members meet about eight times annually, he said. The company also participates in the Railway Tie Association.

The mill recently has been operating 45 hours a week, and Chad works on the same schedule. In his free time he enjoys hunting for squirrels, deer, and ducks.

(For more information about Cooper Machine, visit www.coopermachine.com or call (478) 252-5885.)