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Chester plywood plant 'a survivor' with plans to expand

The simplest economic indicator for Chester Wood Products is the number of trucks turning into the plant off S.C. 9.

If the fully loaded wood trucks are making the turn as early as 5:30 in the morning, it means the mill is accepting the pine, poplar, maple and sweet gum trees it has under contact.

The scale stays open until 6 in the evening, accepting wood from 11 S.C. counties including Chester, Lancaster and York.

Many of the acres now used to raise trees were once farmed for cotton.

If the trucks are leaving with semi-trailers, it means the orders of plywood and veneer are being shipped to buyers.

And according to recent data from Chester Wood Products, things are going well. The plant is averaging 100 incoming trucks a day, each truck loaded with 25 tons of wood that grown between 27 and 35 years.

Thirty trucks filled with sheets of 4-foot-by-8-foot plywood or veneer leave daily, and 12 to 15 boxcars full of plywood depart the plant weekly.

The plant makes on average 1 million board feet of plywood daily, according to the company.

Business is so good that expansion is planned. On Thursday, state officials were on hand to review the plant's air emissions permits. Chester Wood Products officials are hopeful the permits can be amended to allow them to run operations longer, producing even more plywood.

The expansion comes at a time when analysts predict a "moderately positive" outlook for the wood product industry in the coming years.

A small gain is predicted in the housing industry, but as Oregon-based consultant Bill Conerly, notes, "a small gain from a starting point of diddly squat leaves you only marginally above diddly squat."

Only 20 percent of Chester Wood Products' output goes to the residential housing industry, said Richard Baldwin, vice president and general manager of Southeast Operations for Wood Resources LLC, which operates the plant for owners Atlas Holdings LLC. His office is at the plant.

Most of the plant's output goes to consumer-specific markets such as remodelers, small contractors and the furniture industry, he said.

"They're a survivor," said Rick Meyers, south-central regional manager for the Forest Resources Association when told of Chester Wood Products' story. "Less competitive mills have closed."

Baldwin echoed Meyers' sentiments.

"Plywood has undergone a seismic shift in demand," he said. "Ten to 15 years ago, it went to the construction industry. Mills produced 20 billion board feet of plywood annually. Now it's 10 billion.

"At one time, there were 66 mills in the South. It started in 1963 and reached its zenith in the mid-1980s," he said.

That's when Boise Cascade began construction of a plant in South Carolina now called Chester Wood Products.

"Now, the industry is a ghost of its former self. Now there are 22 active plants in the South."

Chester's story

Chester Wood Products' story is similar to others in the region that have weathered tight economic times.

They understand their markets. They understand the capabilities and limits of their plant equipment. Most of all, they understand and value their employees.

Many of the employees at Chester Wood Products have been there for decades. James McKenzie has been there since plant opened in 1983.

Employees and supervisors work in close quarters on line. Just outside the plant is a small building housing the administration and sales staff. Most decisions are made locally.

"We work as a team," Baldwin said. "We all have an influence on the outcome. It's a powerful, competitive force."

Baldwin understands what it takes to make a team. He grew up in a mill town in western Oregon. His father worked in the mill to feed his wife and three children. Baldwin remembers "my father and mother sitting around the dinner table, trying to make ends meet."

Initially, he thought they were talking about some form of food.

"I have a special sensitivity to these families" at Chester Wood Products, Baldwin said.

The company has not had layoffs in the last six years, said spokesman Larry Stewart. That's good news for Chester County, where unemployment has been in double digits for several years and was at 14.1 percent in November.

Chester Wood Products employs 350 people directly with a payroll of about $15 million. The average hourly salary is about $15.75 - higher than the industry's national average of $15.02, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The company estimates that every job it creates supports five to eight jobs outside the plant, and that's a conservative estimate, Baldwin said.

At minimum then, Chester Wood Products operations yield income for 1,750 people.

Making plywood

The truck traffic is the easiest activity to see, but most of the plant's operations are hidden in a cavernous building that could hold six football fields.

Instead of Astroturf, there are long lines that move wood, giant furnaces that bake it, a line that glues the wood, a press and saws that trim it to the familiar 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets.

The noise of the machinery is constant. The only thing louder than the machinery is the beeping of forklifts as drivers scurry around the plant moving material. Some is stored in the "Rock Hill" room, or the "Richburg" room. The names are purely geographical. The "Rock Hill" room is on the north side of the building, the "Richburg" room on the south side.

Making plywood is a lot like baking a cake: You slice, layer and bake. Appearance is important.

After the wood is stripped of bark and cut to length, it goes into a steamer for eight hours at temperatures between 120 and 150 degrees. Several bays of the massive steamers are toasty inside, but outside, on a recent Wednesday, icicles hung from the doors.

The heated wood heads to a lathe, which operates like a giant apple peeler. As the log spins, thin strips of wood are peeled away. When the log is reduced to the size of a fence post, the cutting stops. The "core" as it called, will be sold as fence posts.

The strips of wood then begin the process of becoming plywood. It is a process of sorting, grading, heating, cooling, gluing, pressing and a final check, where it again is graded and sorted.

Some of the work uses sophisticated equipment. Lasers determine where to cut out imperfections and where to apply glue. A sonar sends sound waves through the glued panels - several different layers of wood - to make sure no voids exist in the final product.

As sophisticated as the equipment is, it doesn't replace the human eye. Constantly through the process, people look at the wood, sorting it into different bins.

"You have to have a good eye and rhythm. It looks easy, but it's not," said supervisor Joe Copeland. He has worked there for 16 years. He started, as most do, sweeping the floors.

Sweeping the floors is important. Every piece of the wood, from sheets to chips to saw dust, is used in one way or another. Even the ash produced by burning the wood is sold.

The trash that leaves the plant is what you would find in a household garbage can, Baldwin said.

Challenges

With the optimism of expansion comes challenges. Duke Energy wants to raise electricity rates. The plant spends $115,000 a month on electricity. The requested 18 percent increase would add $20,000 to the monthly bill.

There are discussions in Washington about changing air emission standards.

And then there is the economic uncertainty. While Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the veneer and plywood business as a growth industry, that growth is predicted to be slow through 2016.

Baldwin is more hopeful, though.

"We're through the worst of the industry downturn," he said. "We'll see daylight in 2012 and 2013."

So, Baldwin said, Chester Wood Products is "committed to full employment, full operations."

The company goal is the plant continues to be a place where people can work for 20 years - or longer.

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