TP Nov 19 - Varn Wood Products

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David Abbott Senior Associate Editor


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ee, ain’t it funny how time slips away,” Willie Nelson sings in what is probably one of the great American songwriter’s less well remembered gems. Willie is getting on up there— 86 this year; he released a new song in 2018 with the lyrics: “I Woke Up Still Not Dead Again Today.” But even the Red Headed Stranger has a long road ahead before he’ll have anything on George Varn, Sr. of Varn Wood Products in Hoboken, Ga. Mr. Varn will turn 99 in December. Varn Wood Products was first featured in a Timber Processing article 40 years ago. That June 1979 article focused on the mill’s use of a Chip-N-Saw to process small di2005 1979 ameter, low-grade 2019 pulpwood. Another article on the Varn operation followed 26 years later, in 2005. The news then was that the Chip-N-Saw had now become the large log side while a Cone small log processor handled even smaller stems. Now, 14 years after that, Timber Processing has returned to Varn. The Cone SLP is still working on the small log side, but the Chip-N-Saw from the ’79 article has been replaced by a Cone Omega profiling canter. George Varn, Sr. has been on hand for all three articles, just as he was closely involved with the mill’s startup 51 years ago. The word “naval” had a big role in his life. During World War II, Varn, who had graduated in 1942 from Harvard (yes, Harvard), had served in Naval intelligence during World War II. When he came back home in 1945, he joined the family’s naval stores business. In ’68, he and his cousins, responding to declining domestic turpentine markets, decided to put in a chip mill that quickly evolved into a sawmill. Varn has helped guide that evolution for five decades. On a personal note, I see a number of parallels. Mr. Varn was born in 1920; my grandfather, Elzie Crace, was born in 1920; and like Mr. Varn, he was a World War II veteran. I was less than a year-old when the first article on Varn came out. The year the second article came out, 2005, I came to work here. When the Varn wood products operation hit its 50th anniversary last year, I hit my 40th birthday. George Varn was 84 when our editor-in-chief, Rich Donnell, wrote the article in ’05. He had been closely involved with Cone Machinery in developing the small log processor for stems of 6.5 in. diameter or less for the 2x4 market. Though he says he hasn’t done anything directly in the mill in 10 years, he still takes part in weekly management meetings every Friday, usually via skype from his office in Jacksonville, an hour and a half drive from the mill, and he still visits the mill in person every few weeks; he was there for my visit in September. George Varn, Jr. says it took a while to convince his dad to stop driving, and I don’t doubt it. I was struck by how physically robust he is, and even more impressed by his intellectual vitality. Does George, Sr. know the secret to longevity? “I can’t tell you,” he admits. “If I knew what it was, I believe I could sell it. I just have approached each day and they have added up. I just kept going and TP I’m still here.” Contact David Abbott, ph: 334-834-1170; fax 334-834-4525; e-mail: TIMBER PROCESSING



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UPWARD By David Abbott

Back-to-back big upgrades have been the norm at Varn Wood Products for the last three years.


HOBOKEN, Ga. here should have been a day—just one day would have sufficed—at some point in 2018, a day when Varn Wood Products would have perhaps thrown a party, or maybe even just taken a long lunch, but done something, in recognition of its 50th anniversary. Unfortunately, there was no time for celebration. As Manager George Varn, Jr. says, “We were so busy we didn’t have time to think about it. Well,

maybe there was time enough for a long lunch, but ever since my great grandfather and his brother started the turpentine still in 1926, we have spent more time looking through the windshield than the rear view mirror.” It’s worth mentioning that descendants of the two brothers still gather each Friday morning to meet with the various managers. “It’s been a fun three years,” says General Manager and longtime lumberman John Talbert with only a dash of sarcasm, alluding to the fact that, from

After a series of projects maybe now they can relax. Left to right, George Varn, Sr., GM John Talbert and George Varn, Jr. 12



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2017 through 2019, Varn has been steadily completing one upgrade project after another. “It’s always fun to build, but it is a lot of work,” Varn, Jr. adds. It started at the sawmill in June 2017, when they undertook the installation of a green end Baxley line shaft trimmer and Hermary scanner to replace a trimmer and outdated optimization, while also adding a MoCo stacker. At the same time the Varn team replaced the ninety degree chain from the trimmer and re-pitched rather than replaced a Morris Industrial Controls hydraulic bin sorter at the sawmill. At the planer mill they added a MoCo tilt hoist and stick catcher. Upgrades at the planer mill continued in March 2018 with the addition of a VAB Solutions automatic grader and a Timber Automation lug loader. The team also re-worked a MIC trimmer to allow 120 lugs per minute. VAB added a cutin-two feature and moisture meter as well. Varn, Jr. says that in his 30 years at the mill, the VAB installation was the best he’s been involved with. “They showed up three months before startup to make sure their updates didn’t get in the way, and prioritized what we needed at startup so that we didn’t miss a beat.” A few months later they put a BID Group board singulator in at the sawmill, replacing one that should have been replaced in the 2017 sawmill project. “One thing we’ve learned from all these upgrades is to more closely look at what other equipment around the project should be replaced,” Varn, Jr. adds. Another major project started in November 2018 and was completed in June 2019: replacing a jumbo CanCar Chip-N-Saw canter (with no saw section), installed in 1973, with a Cone

A t top, the new canter line, flowing right to left into the gang; above, outfeed of profiler

A nnual production is about 9 5 MMB F . TIMBER PROCESSING



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feed table and bridge for the planer. In all Varn spent $11 million in 2017-2019. “We had machines that needed replacing and we needed to improve our speed and yield,” Varn Jr. explains. “We’re always thinking of how to change and improve, but we had planned for this big one for at least two or three years.” His father, George Varn, Sr., who built the mill in 1968, is quick to praise Talbert’s contribution, citing his and his son’s confidence in the general manager. “We knew John was capable of steering us in the right direction,” he says.

TURPENTINE Varn reconfigured some lumber flow areas.

Omega canter with profiler and saw box. Varn Jr. says that last upgrade has increased feed speed by 25-35% and decreased timber usage by 15-20%. As for why they went with Cone, Talbert says, “Our people knew how to work on a chip-n-saw and they (Cone) are just down the road, so we were comfortable with them and we had faith in Cone. The project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground except for the profilers. Our edger just couldn’t handle the additional piece count.” The new profiler line features an auto rotation log turner and tilting double length infeed. The four sided canter section includes a dual profiler module that can profile one board on each side. The

shifting saw section is behind the profiler to saw off the boards. It also includes a spline remover, outfeed rollcase and floor chains and belts to take the profiled boards directly to the trimmer line. The existing VDA was the only piece of equipment in the line that was reused, while supplied with a new VDA sweep conveyor at the VDA outfeed. The project included replacement of the optimizer and controls with a new Nelson Brothers True Scan 3D system. They also added a new PLC, operators console and controls system with R & L Engineering doing the controls work. The final piece of the puzzle (for now) was done in September, when they installed a BID Group/Dennis Miller in-

As the Varn Wood Products sawmill ends its 51st year of operation, elder statesman George Varn, Sr. nears his 99th birthday in December (see editorial on page 5). It’s worth noting that the involvement of the Varn family in the forest products industry, and that of Varn, Sr., actually goes back much further. A 1979 Timber Processing article on Varn Wood Products said that the family’s activity in the forest products industry went back better than 100 years—and that article was written better than 40 years ago. Varn, Sr. recalls that his family first got in the naval stores (turpentine) business sometime in the 1850s when his triple great grandfather, Daniel, worked as a woods rider for one of the first stills in Georgia. That TP article stated “the family obtained the first government license on, and developed commercial-

Much of the byproducts production moves to the company’s adjacent pellet mill.

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FAMILY TREE The Varn family is now in its third generation at the sawmill…or is it the fourth? You see, there are actually two sides of the Varn family in Varn Wood Products. The two Georges are on the side descended from George, Sr.’s grandfather (also named George), who started with his brother, K.S., in 1926. K.S.’s descendants have also been in the mill since day one. While George, Sr. did most of the engineering, his cousin Jacob, K.S.’s son, handled timber procurement and was very active in working on the original chip mill and planer mill. Jacob’s nephew Will currently works in timber purchasing. That side of the family is now in its third generation at the mill. On George, Sr.’s side, there are four generations including George, Jr.’s son, Sam, who recently began work as a forester. ly, the Olustee distillation system some 40 years ago,” which would have been in 1939. The Olustee dramatically improved the value of rosin by straining pine straw out before stilling. “We actually commissioned the engineering of it,” Varn, Sr. recollects; he would have been 19 when this happened. “It was a government project, but they had not accomplished anything with it, until my grandfather sent an engineer and got it to work.” Varn, Sr.’s grandfather built the still here with his brother, K.S., and they collected gum and produced turpentine and resin. The Varn family was in the naval stores business and business was good for most of the next 30 years, until domestic turpentine markets started to dry up. “It had petered out by the late 1960s,” Varn, Sr. recalls. “We continued selling internationally but the U.S. market was dying.” Still a relatively young man then, he and his cousins knew they needed to try something else. They decided to start the mill as a replacement for turpentine in 1968, though the older generation wasn’t entirely on board. “Nobody in the family had ever been involved in a sawmill before; we were a naval stores family,” Varn, Sr. says. “My grandfather and my great uncle were turpentine people, not sawmillers. Granddaddy was dead by then but my great uncle got on to me. He said you didn’t cut trees down, you used them to make turpentine and rosin. If they fell down, then you could send them to a sawmill, but only then.” It didn’t actually start out as a sawmill, but as a chip mill. Even when they first appeared in TP in ’79, the emphasis was still on chips—back then they produced more chips than lumber by a 3 to 1 ratio. “We were financed by a paper mill to provide them with chips,” Varn, Sr. says. As the Varn who tackled most of the engineering for the mill in its first few decades, he continues, “The sawmill was in my planning but it was not primary to the planning. Now it has become the main thing.” In those days, the elder Varn says, the only sawmill within 70 miles of Hoboken was in Folkston. “Basically, when we started our chip mill we were the only thing using much timber except little peckerwood mills and paper mills. There was very little lumber production in the area. It was all old-growth timber and the paper mills had just begun planting, but for the first year all we had was the chipper so we did no sawing.” They still have the original chipper from 1968, one that can handle 30 in. diameter trees. Varn, Sr. says they never actually chipped anything that big—he thinks 18 in. was the max—but still, Varn, Jr. says, “They chipped some stuff that would break your heart now.” 16



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“We started it as a chip mill and later we added a sort of a sawmill,” Varn, Sr. says. “We started producing lumber, more or less. We had two pieces of equipment: a Vance canter and a Cook double arbor gang, and that was the entire floor. You cut two edges, flip it over and do the other two and then run it through the gang.” Very quickly they determined that setup wasn’t working out, so they acquired a Tom Bush canter, replacing it a few years later with a Chip-N-Saw jumbo canter. That Chip-N-Saw, which was the subject of the 1979 article, was in use here from 1973 until 2017, when it was replaced as part of the current spate of upgrades. The Varns say they like to get their money’s worth out of each machine. “By building it and doing it we learned, on the job,” Varn, Sr. says, though he stresses with a laugh, “That is not the most recommended way to get into the sawmill business.” With 50 years behind him now in chips and lumber and another 30 before that in turpentine, Varn, Sr. has no question about which he prefers. “My background was in naval stores; we are in lumber because the naval stores business went away. We got in the sawmill business reluctantly and I would go back to naval stores in a minute if I could. But, you have to be flexible, and we were.” Varn still produces four barrels of turpentine a year for the Georgia Museum of Agriculture in Tifton. Those four barrels allow the museum to run a charge in their still at their Folklife Festival each April.

OPERATIONS As the years went by, Varn Wood Products continued to grow. The mill sold all its lumber rough and green or air dried until 1978, when they put in a dry kiln from Harvey Engineering. They installed a Yates American planer, which was in use until the planer burned down in 2007, in Talbert’s first week on the job. “Welcome to Varn,” he says, laughing in hindsight. “It was not a fire, it was THE fire,” the general manager recalls; the entire planer section burned down. A Newman 990 planer, which replaced the lost Yates American, now works with the new Timber Automation automatic grader, lug loader, the modified MIC trimmer, and a Harvey Engineering & Manufacturing Co. (HEMCO/USNR) unstacker and tilt hoist. Varn also now has two 140MBF capacity dry kilns. The newer one

Lumber handling in the planer mill

Product is heavy to 2x4s but there’s plenty of product mix capability.

Log scanning on the profiler line TIMBER PROCESSING



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came from Irvington-Moore (USNR). On the green end, Caterpillar frontend loaders transport logs to the infeed deck, where material passes through a series of cutup machines feeding two 24 in. Cambio debarkers, and the main chipper, the 75 in. Bush chipper that has been here since 1968. From there, the sawmill divides into two lines, a large log side and a small log side. The new Cone canter, which replaced the old ’73 Chip-N-Saw last year, is for the bigger diameter logs, which flow from there to a 12 in.

McGehee vertical double arbor gang. Meanwhile a Cone Machinery small log machine (installed in 2004 and the subject of a 2005 Timber Processing article) still handles the smaller ones. It produces only 4 in. cants. The lines merge at a Timber Automation optimized trimmer, followed by the new 90 degree chain, re-pitched sorter and new MoCo stacker. The mill uses all circle saws and sends them off to be filed. Sawdust, chips and planer shavings go to the company’s nearby pellet mill and three pellet presses from Italian company

La Meccanica, installed in 2013. “The export market for pellets is just another revenue stream and a way to monetize residuals,” Varn, Jr. says, not to mention that it allows Varn to achieve a greater degree of independence: “We are not as tightly tied to the paper mills as we were in the past.” Of Varn’s overall product mix, 2x4s account for a full 75%. The sawmill turns out about 95MMBF a year, all pine, and the pellet mill has a capacity of 100,000 tons. Talbert says all of their pellets are hauled by truck to the Brunswick port, bound for European power plants.

MARKET OUTLOOK Reflecting on how the business has evolved over the years, Varn, Jr., who joined the business in 1980, says, “Nobody cared a whit about yield when we started. But over time, yield and flexibility regarding markets have become much more important.” In choosing to do the upgrades now, with the goal of maximizing yield, one consideration was certainly the market. Based on where it looks like the lumber market is going, Talbert says, these projects were well-timed. “With all the capacity coming online, it is going to be a tough couple of years,” Varn, Jr. fears. His dad concurs: “There will be more lumber available than appears to be needed at this point.” Once more, the elder Varn praises Talbert for his instrumental role in improving the mill’s product mix: “John has been largely responsible for the product mix improvement. With the old canter we were limited to whatever the log would make, but with the profiler and saw box we’re able to follow the market. We’ve never had the capability before.” The sales picture is much more dynamic now than when the mill started, Varn, Sr. says. “All of our lumber was sold to the Thomas mill in Folkston, and it was sold on gross board footage; it had nothing to do with what size the lumber was. It was all contract sales to one company, but since we didn’t know a thing about the sawmill business, it permitted us to learn it gradually.” Varn Wood Products has its own timber base and buys standing timber. Will Varn, who manages this part of the operation, says, “This is one of the most competitive timber markets in the U.S.” That is another reason why improving yield was critical: “It makes a big difference in our raw material cost.” Varn Wood Products has 75 employees, including forestry and office staff. TP 18