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My visit to Atlantic Veneer began outside the mill in the log yard, and the first impression is that this is a serious operation that processes an amazing amount of material. Several trucks a day unload logs of maple, cherry and white oak that are harvested in western Pennsylvania and upstate New York. These are the best logs from one of the best hardwood forests in the world. There is a lot of talk these days about going “green”, something that the hardwood lumber and veneer industry has been practicing for nearly a century.

My ancestors were loggers in Pennsylvania in the 1800s, and at the time the area was clear cut. Today the woodlots are well managed and selectively harvested. Hardwoods are probably the best example of a sustained use of a natural resource. The process of turning logs into veneer is also eco-friendly, much of the energy required to run the mill comes from burning the inevitable waste to generate steam. The logs are sorted and graded in the yard, then placed in piles beneath a continuous spray of water to keep them from drying out.

The first stop inside is the debarking machine. To give you an idea of the scale of the picture, the logs are between two and three feet in diameter. The operator can be seen in the background. He sits in an enclosed area that resembles the cockpit of a helicopter, controlling the loading of the logs and the machinery. As the logs rotate, a huge grinding head comes down and moves along the length of the log. The waste falls to a conveyor belt below and is used to fire the boilers.

The logs move forward and turn a ninety-degree corner where they land on the carriage of a large band saw. This picture isn’t the best, but you can see the upper wheel in the top center of the photo. The blue dot marks the center of the log which is being sliced. The blade is about six inches wide, and the log is sliced in half in a matter of seconds. Beyond the saw, workers drive dogs into the ends of the logs to keep the two halves together as they move through the vats and on to the slicing machine. The logs soak in hot water for a few days to thoroughly saturate them for slicing.

There are about a dozen of these slicing machines in the mill. This is a newer machine that holds the log section by vacuum. You can see the log half, now about six inches thick at the lower right. A large knife takes slices about half a millimeter thick from the log, every second or so taking another slice. The veneer leaves slide down a ramp where the workers stack the leaves.

This is a white oak log, and when it is reduced in thickness to about four inches, the log is removed from the slicer, and ripped in width before being returned to the slicer. This enables the mill to obtain clean quartersawn leaves from the center section of the log. The vacuum system that holds the log lets the mill get usable veneer from almost the entire log. The older style machines leave about half an inch of solid wood that is discarded. That half an inch of veneer is important, the process of making veneer is all about maximizing the yield and maintaining quality.

These are the quartersawn white oak leaves fresh off the slicer. They are still wet, and they have just started their trip though the mill. Next week I’ll look at the rest of the process as the leaves are dried, trimmed and sorted. We’ll also look at the knives and how they are maintained.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Atlantic Veneer and Veneer Tech for inviting me on this tour and letting me share these photographs.

–Robert W. Lang

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Showing 3 comments
  • W. G. Tucker

    Bob- interesting series; I’m looking forward to the next installment. About 40 years ago I spent some time in a (softwood) plywood mill in the Pacific Northwest and watched the rotary slicers in amazement. I had never seen pictures of hardwood veneer making.

  • Bob Lang

    One thing that struck me about the veneer mill is how much nicer it is than a lumber mill. The only noisy and scary parts were the debarker and band saw. After that it was rather quiet and pleasant in comparison to a lumber mill or a rotary cutting veneer mill.

  • Chris

    Thanks Robert for this article. It brings back memories of when I worked in a Georgia-Kraft lumber mill one summer during my college days. That is one hard and DANGEROUS place to work. I was hurt (minor stuff) 3 times that summer; smashed a finger, punched in the jaw by a 2×4 coming off a conveyor, and pulled a muscle. I remember talking to the cutoff operator one day (the guy that cut the logs to manageable lengths before they entered the mill). The saw he ran was a 6 foot diameter "chop" saw. He said one day, the saw hit something hard in a log and shattered. He said he saw pieces of metal falling 300 feet away (thankfully, he is in a protective cockpit). The thing that got me through that summer was knowing it was just a temporary job for me; my heart went out to the people that saw no end it.

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