In the next part of our occasional series on the timber and forest products industry – from seedlings to final products, we reach our first final product: hardwood flooring. Independent producer Jean Snedegar visited Armstrong Flooring in Beverly, Randolph County, and spoke with plant manager, Blaine Emery.
“This is the largest pre-finished hardwood flooring plant in the United States,” Emery said. “People don’t understand how big of an investment this is, and how many lives this touches, and the financial impact that this plant has on the state.”
Armstrong’s Beverly facility is 17 acres under roof. Roughly 650 employees from seven counties work here. About 40 truckloads of raw lumber arrive at the plant every day. It comes from eight Appalachian states, and about half – worth $25 million a year – comes from West Virginia sawmills. The new lumber is still 70-80 percent water by weight, just like it was out in the woods, so it has to go through a lengthy drying process.
“We allow Mother Nature to help us. We take that wood and we put sticks between each layer,” Emery said. “We then put it out in our air yard behind the plant, which is what everybody sees when they drive by, because there’s so much wood out there, and we let that sit out there for 100 to 120 days. What Mother Nature is doing for us is it’s taking the moisture out of the wood.”
In the air yard are acres of lumber drying “on stick” as they say, with Rich Mountain rising high above them.
“This is one of my favorite views – this is the prettiest plant I’ve ever worked in. You’re looking at about 23 million feet of lumber here – this is where the process starts,” Emery said.
During its three-month drying period outside, the moisture in the wood will drop from 70-80 percent, down to about 38 percent. Next, it goes to the dry kilns – the largest kilns system east of the Mississippi River.
“So here you get to see what the inside of a dry kiln looks like – that one alone can hold 100,000 feet of lumber,” Emery said. “How they load the kiln is very important, because you want to get good air flow equally through all of the lumber. The lumber packs are actually staggered in there to force the air to go between the wood, instead of going through the packs of lumber.”
During two weeks in the dry kiln – using steam and fans – the moisture content in the lumber will drop from 38 percent down to 7.5 percent.
“So that lifecycle for us of a board that’s coming from a sawmill is almost 3.5 months before it’s ever made into a piece of flooring,” Emery said.
Once the lumber is dried it goes into a large storage area, and from there, into the mill itself.
“This is where the process of turning the lumber into flooring actually begins. The first thing we have to do is get those sticks back out, to go back to the yard,” Emery said. “Then, the next machine is going look at how wide a board is, and it’s going to say, ‘How can I get the most flooring out of that board?’ ”
The board then goes through a ripsaw and out the other end are pieces of different widths from 2 to 5 inches. We then come to a team of people who cut out the defects – knots and other imperfections.
“So now it’s starting to look like a piece of hardwood flooring,” Emery said. “That’s a piece of 5-inch maple. At this point it’s got the tongue and the groove down the sides, after it’s gone through the ‘side-matcher’. From there it’s going to get the tongue-and-groove put on the ends, and then it’s ready to go down the finish line.”
At this facility, they manufacture flooring in four widths – 2 inch, 3 inch, 4 inch and 5 inch and in four species – red oak, white oak, hickory and maple. Currently, red oak is the most popular species, but tastes in widths and species aren’t the only choices consumers have. Flooring has different “looks” – like a refined, elegant look, or a rustic, rough look. To get that style, the flooring goes through a process in the center of the mill – “the feature cell”.
“This is where we’ll give wood a hand-scraped look, or a wire-brush look – we’re adding defect to the wood here,” Emery said. “They like that distressed look. It can be anywhere from a pristine floor, with no defects in it whatsoever, to looking like it came off the side of a barn, or somewhere in between.”
Also in the center of the mill is an enclosed room with a huge sample of finished flooring. Armstrong’s vision is to be the world’s best and most trusted flooring company.
“We have what we call our Diamond Standard of Quality. We’ve turned this into a program which includes everyone who works here. Over the course of the year all 650 of us will come through here at least three times a year,” Emery said. “We change this floor out every week, so they come in and do a checklist – ‘What do you see?’ ‘What do you like?’ ‘What do you not like?’ ‘Is this a floor you would have in your home?’ And so we take that then, and we learn from it.”
Only a little over half of each board that comes into the mill becomes a piece of flooring. The saws and planes turn a lot of the lumber into sawdust, but nothing is wasted.
“We burn that sawdust in our biomass boilers to make the steam to dry the wood in our kilns. We actually have more sawdust than we need for those boilers, so then that sawdust gets sold to pellet mills, to be turned into wood pellets for heating homes,” Emery said. “And then there are some pieces in the middle that don’t get made into sawdust, but they are too small for a piece of flooring, so that’s what we use to make our ‘sticks’ for putting the lumber ‘on stick’ in the yard.”
Finally, the cut flooring moves on to two extremely long conveyor belts called the “Finish Line”. The line is nearly 200 yards long, you can barely see the end of it. Here the flooring will get its final sanding, stain and finish coats.
“So here you see we’ve applied a stain,” Emery said. “And now it’s going into an oven. And that stain will be dry when it comes out on the other end.”
Next, the flooring goes through a roll applicator to give it its first finish coat. Then it passes under ultraviolet lights to dry that coating, before going through the same process a few more times. While it takes days to produce a finish like this at home, here it takes about 8 to 12 minutes.
“So, this flooring is finished. Feel it – it’s still warm. It’s ready to go in your house. If you look on down the line, you’ll see the final graders,” Emery Said. “They’ve got markers in their hands. They are staring at that wood. Anything they see that doesn’t fit the quality that this is supposed to be, they’re taking that board out. It may get recycled completely, or it may just need to go through the line again to get something cut out of it.”
From the final graders, packers put the wood into boxes.
“They know exactly how to pack that box. There is what they call ‘box fill.’ We say there’s so many feet in a carton. There is also a length distribution in each carton – so many long pieces, medium pieces, short pieces,” Emery said. “What you’re looking at here is about 2.5 million feet of finished flooring that’s ready to be loaded on trucks and shipped out of here. You’ve seen it all, from the trucks rolling in, through the kilns, through the mill, through the finish line…pretty amazing process.”
Every month, Armstrong Flooring’s Beverly facility ships out 500 truckloads of hardwood flooring, which is sold in Lowe’s, Home Depot, Lumber Liquidators and independent retailers from coast to coast across the United States and Canada.
The company announced that it plans to build a distribution center next to the mill in October. It’s a public-private partnership that, by 2019, will add 85,000 square feet to the Beverly plant and 50 jobs during the next decade.
The West Virginia Timber Series is made possible with support from the Myles Family Foundation.