Watch Hancock Lumber Co.'s white pine sawmill in action

Casco, Maine

Maneuvering over, around, and even through the machinery at Hancock Lumber's sawmill in Casco is tricky business. Making a profit from sawyering is forcing Hancock COO Kevin Hynes to be just as nimble.

During his decade with this 160-year-old LBM operation-one of the few in America that still cuts wood as well as sells it-Hynes has worked relentlessly to increase productivity and expand the market for the company's Eastern White Pine flooring, siding, paneling and trim. Hancock's three mills are turning out four times as much wood per worker than they were a generation ago. The company has long sent its goods into Canada (it provides all the white pine in Lowe's stores from Toronto to Newfoundland) and now is shipping to places like Pakistan, Dubai and Puerto Rico. "Our objective is to have 15% to20% of what we make exported," Hynes says.

His next target: Vietnam's furniture makers. He's traveling to there this fall.

Like most mills, Hancock's greatest achievement over the past 20 years has been its ability to get more out of each tree. It's a revolution driven by computers, in particular by what's popularly called the optimizer-technology that measures a log as it's coming down the line, automatically figures out the optimum number of pieces of wood it can get from the log and then instructs the saws on where and how to cut. Today, optimizers are standard equipment at most regular mills, run by men who manipulate the system's hand controls as deftly as their kids play computer video games.

Hancock also is like other mills in that it tries to market what it used to throw away. (One timber company says it uses "every part of the tree but its shadow.") At Hancock, chips and shavings are bagged and sold at the company's stores. Sawdust is trucked to a company in Corinth, Maine, to be converted into pellets for wood stoves. Other mills sell sawdust to makers of composite decking or to firms that use the sawdust in myriad ways, from powering boilers to bedding horses.

"In the old days, mills used to have sawdust nobody wanted," Hynes said. "No you get two to three calls a day asking for it. If we couldn't sell our sawdust, chips and shavings, we couldn't operate. They offset our costs."

The sawmill operations already generate $50 million in sales per year for Hancock, but Hynes is pushing for more. One project under way is to bring in equipment that will cut out the sections of boards that have knots in them and then finger-join the knot-free sections together. Knot-free wood can sell for eight times the price of wood with knots in it, he notes. With that price differential, he figures he'll pay off his investment in two years.

–Craig Webb