Cutting edge
Logs wait their turn to go into the Cersosimo sawmill.

Cutting edge

Cersosimo employees give woodland owners a tour of their lumber mill

BRATTLEBORO — For some people traveling along Route 142 just a few miles south of downtown, the Cersosimo Lumber Company provides interesting scenery - look at those huge piles of logs! - strange noises, and a reminder that even in our modern plastic world, forests still play a big part in our local, rural economy.

On June 23, the Windham Regional Woodlands Association sponsored the employee-led guided tour of the company's headquarters, where about 50 attendees got an up-close view of a modern double-cut band sawmill in operation.

Throughout the tour, Woodlot Manager John Caveney, a member of the association, provided information about the company and its history.

Founded in 1947, “in the winter hills of Windham County,” the company started with just a portable sawmill that operators brought to the woods, Caveney said.

Now, Cersosimo has two sawmills in Brattleboro, one for pine and another for hardwood. The company runs another in Rumney, N.H., and two others in New York, west of Lake George.

“The total annual production varies,” Caveney said, but “is about 45-46 million board feet, and has gotten up to over 50 million board feet.”

The company produces boards, log cabin material, shop-type grades, and lumber for windows, doors, and moldings, he said.

The source area for the lumber company runs from the Adirondacks to the Long Island Sound to the East Coast to the northern New Hampshire counties, Caveney said. Windham County is a big supplier, he said, but quite a bit of wood also comes from Cheshire and Franklin counties in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, respectively.

Gate wood - logs delivered to Cersosimo by independent loggers - makes up a majority of the wood the company receives, he noted.

The company's real estate concern owns about 12,000 acres of forest in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York, Caveney said.

“Our lands are essentially open to recreational use,” he said, and are posted only “near occupied buildings or farm animals.”

All land owned by Cersosimo is registered in local Use Value Appraisal (UVA) or “current use” programs, under which the owners must operate their land for long-term forestry or agricultural purposes.

The company also operates drying kilns, a chipping plant supplying 75,000 tons of wood chips to pulp mills in the Northeast, and a bark mulch business.

Other Cersosimo-owned companies include a trucking firm, quarries, and the engineering firm SVE Associates.

Decisions, decisions

At about 5:30 p.m., the tour began with Cersosimo staff handing out ear- and eye protection to attendees. The large group progressed from the office parking area behind and around neat stacks of cut lumber and gigantic buildings until they arrived at their first stop: a narrow wooden staircase, which all 50 or so people climbed, single-file, to the top floor of the sawmill.

If time spent gazing at the goings-on is any measurement, the sawmill room was the most popular part of the tour. The visitors piled two-deep onto the observation catwalk, watching man and machine turn whole logs, bark and all, into cut lumber.

Many attendees seemed mesmerized by the routes the wood took through the many stations of production, the attentive labor of the operators, and the rhythmic sounds of the machines and saws, heard even through the protective foam of earplugs.

Each operator in the saw room has a cut list, explained Softwood Salesman Jeff Hardy.

A board makes its way to the operator, who looks it over and determines if it's appropriate for the order or if it needs to go back through the line to get cut further.

The operator ultimately decides when the board is finished and marks the end of the board with a fluorescent crayon.

“At the end of a shift, [operators are] more mentally tired than physically tired,” Hardy said, noting, “it's decision, decision, decision.”

The company says this mill can churn out 12 million board feet of predominantly hardwood lumber in a year.

The Brattleboro mills operate five days per week, with “four long nights,” Caveney said.

Sorting it out

The next stop was the machine shop, where the huge band saw blades are stored and sharpened.

Operations Manager Phil Mann told the tour that the blades are removed at the end of every shift, so they get about eight hours of use before coming into the shop for maintenance.

Hardy said each saw tooth gets sharpened individually, and the operator goes around the blade twice, flattening each tooth by hand with a hammer. The entire process takes about 40 minutes per blade.

Each blade costs about $13,000, he said.

As the members of the group made their way through the tour, they passed by a giant sorting mechanism, which is the exit ramp the lumber takes from the saw room.

Cut lumber of various lengths and widths traveled down a conveyor belt oriented at about a 45-degree angle, and the boards fell into different bins to rest with their similarly sized planks - seemingly of their own accord.

Timber Buyer and Forester John Randall explained how that happens: Computer-assisted scanners on the conveyor belt read the fluorescent marks the operators drew on the boards.

After sorting, the boards get conditioned, dried in the kiln to about 6- to 8-percent moisture, and graded.

The dry kilns' boilers are wood-fired and use about four to six boxes of wood per day, or about 50,000 tons per year, Caveney said, noting, “it takes a lot of fuel, but it's better than buying No. 6 [fuel oil].”

Points of pride

Caveney pointed out the importance to the industry of the company's dry kilns in Brattleboro and Hardwick, Mass. He told attendees that sawmills throughout the Northeast send their lumber there for drying, and the dry kiln capacity helps ensure the company's success and growth.

“If you can't dry lumber effectively and correctly, you're toast,” Caveney said.

The company also offers a 50,000 square-foot grading mill, constructed in 2001. According to the company's website, it can grade, sort, package, and tally up to 100,000 board feet in an eight-hour shift.

“The grading room made grading more efficient and easier to supervise,” Mann said, adding it also made the results more consistent.

Caveney said the room “changed the company,” allowing it to sell proprietary lumber - boards cut to specific sizes required by manufacturers - in addition to industry-standard sizes.

The technology and setup of the grading room also allow the company to know what kind of boards are available before they are finished. Hardwood Saleswoman Monica Hastings “sells it before the end paint has dried,” Caveney said.

To demonstrate how respected Cersosimo's lumber is worldwide, Hastings and Caveney told attendees a story illustrating an odd point of pride for a manufacturer: imitation as flattery.

When Cersosimo began sending representatives to China to establish distribution there, a rep told Hastings they already found boards with Cersosimo's famous “red hunter” logo stamped on it - but it wasn't Cersosimo lumber. It was painted with a bootlegged logo.

But, even “with the help of experienced people, technology, and our kilns, it's still about the people” who work at the mill, Caveney said.

“The machines don't operate themselves,” he said.

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