Phil Stannard cuts a cookie off the end of a log during an inspection. The cut will provide him the only look he’ll get at the interior wood tissue, and help him determine whether the log will make the grade for veneer. Photo by Robbo Holleran
You’d think, in our high-tech world, there’d be some sort of sensor or detector or app that could electronically evaluate and instantly confirm that a log is truly veneer-worthy. But the only way to know for sure is at the veneer mill…after the log has been processed. Out in the field, it takes human senses, a lot of experience, and a little luck to tell which logs are going to make top-quality veneer.
It’s Phil Stannard Jr.’s job to make those difficult (and expensive) decisions. Stannard is a log buyer for Danzer Veneer, which owns two veneer mills in the U.S. One, which receives and produces a lot of walnut and white oak from the Midwest, is in Edinburgh, Indiana; the other, which receives maple, red oak, birch, and cherry from eastern states, is in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “My primary species is maple – I’m a maple buyer,” said Stannard. Most of the maple that Stannard buys ends up as a decorative skin covering wooden wall panels, furniture, and doors.
His job is to source logs from throughout New England and northern New York that will make good maple veneer. From his home in Fair Haven, Vermont, Stannard puts about 50,000 miles a year on his Ford pickup traveling that territory. “My kids are a little older, so I don’t have as many ball games now, so it’s a little easier,” he said. In the winter, he’s away from home a couple of nights a week. “The winter is my busiest time . . . that’s when most of the better wood is being logged,” he said. “It’s just a rat race for about three months.”
A Knack for Knowing
“I’ve been in the wood business my whole life, either in logging or forestry,” said Stannard, who graduated from Paul Smith’s College. But it may have been the business he operated when he was younger, cutting and splitting firewood, that best prepared him to become a veneer buyer. “My father claims that’s why I have a knack for knowing what’s inside a log,” he said. For a decade after college, Stannard bought and sold logs, sorting them and sending them to particular mills in order to get a premium for them. One of his customers for veneer logs was Danzer.
In 2008, the lumber market crashed, and Stannard began to look for new career paths. Danzer was eager to have someone with local knowledge of the New England forests, so they hired him. “I know the different areas and how the wood is from each area. That’s a very important thing to know, because you can’t see everything is a log, but if you know where it came from, you know the places that usually produce pretty well.”
Over the years, Stannard has built up a supplier base among foresters, loggers, sawmills, and log brokers. They sort out logs they think might meet the high standards of a veneer log and call him in to take a look. Given the large territory he covers and his exacting criteria, Stannard prefers to work with repeat sellers and tries to buy at least half a truckload at a time. “It can be difficult if a logger has only five logs,” he said. Especially in the summer, the logs can spoil quickly sitting outside, and it can be hard and expensive to arrange trucking for only a few logs. Still, for the right logs, he’ll do it. Which leads to the other aspect of Stannard’s job: he’s not just in quality control and purchasing, but also logistics. He has to figure out the best way to get the logs he buys to Pennsylvania. Stannard works primarily with a single trucker – Edmond Plante & Son in Derby, Vermont.
Stannard gets a fair number of cold calls from people convinced they have the perfect logs and wanting to sell them for veneer. “My regular suppliers, to a certain extent, know what I’m looking for. But sometimes a logger who hasn’t sold much veneer will call to tell me they have some amazing logs. But when I get there, they’re not. Still, I have to go,” he said. It’s a just a fact of the job that sometimes sellers will be disappointed that seemingly minor defects can make a log unsuitable for veneer. “The person selling the log sometimes thinks I’m crazy, because it might be the most beautiful looking log,” he said. For logs that do make the grade, the payoff can be large. Stannard says there’s no way to quote a general price for a veneer log, because every log is different, but he says that veneer logs can be worth several times more than even high-grade sawlogs.
Quality is Everything
“When I go to inspect a parcel of logs, it’s not like scaling a load of sawlogs, where you measure the diameter and the length and assign a grade to it,” Stannard explained. “I roll it and look closely for external defects – knots, scars. Then I fresh-clip the end with a chainsaw so that I can look for internal defects – the kind of things that people, if they don’t know what they’re looking for, might not even notice.”
Internal defects might include minerals in the wood tissue, which tend to make the wood darker, or worm tracks, which can be tricky to see when just looking at an end-cut on the log.
“But I can recognize it,” Stannard said. There are other internal characteristics that he looks for, like a consistent growth rate. If the tree was growing slowly in a forest, then a patch cut let sunlight flood in, and growth accelerated, the change will be reflected in the spacing of the growth rings. “You’ll actually end up with two different grains,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not a veneer log, but it means that the value of the veneer you’re going to produce from it is lower.” When it comes to the growth needed for veneer, “consistency is the most important thing, but slow growth that’s consistent is the best,” he said.
The internal examination also includes a look for “tension wood.” If a tree is growing at an angle, the tissue can build differently on one side versus the other to support the tree. “Then, when you relieve that tension and slice the veneer thin and dry it, the cells are ruptured, and it buckles,” Stannard explained. Like many internal defects, tension wood is difficult to see unless you have a trained eye; it might show up as just a slight difference in color or a fuzzy appearance when he makes a cookie with his chainsaw as the fibers tear rather than cutting cleanly. “Those logs, I reject them,” he said.
Primarily, Stannard looks for logs at least 13 inches in diameter. There’s no such thing as a log that’s too big, but he said that logs with a diameter between 15 and 20 inches tend to produce better veneer than larger logs, perhaps because there’s less wood where defects could be hidden.
Stannard buys between 300,000 and 400,000 feet of veneer logs a year. “This year, we’re looking to produce more maple than we did last year, so we need to be able to source more of it without sacrificing quality,” he said. “That’s the cardinal rule when you’re a veneer-log buyer: you can’t sacrifice quality for quantity. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’ll just buy those logs there to fill out a load.’ The production costs are so high after we buy the log that if you buy a log that’s going to produce poorly, you’re not only losing the money that you spent buying and trucking the log. You’re losing all the money it costs to put it through production.”
Once his logs reach Pennsylvania, Danzer employees examine them as they come off the truck to further evaluate whether they are worth putting through production. “If they’re not, I get a black mark on my report card,” he said. In fact, once he buys a log, he affixes a barcode to it and enters that information into a tablet; that tracking information then stays with the wood all the way through production, even after the veneer is made. He can access reports about the results to see how the logs he has purchased have turned out, which in turn helps to inform future decisions he makes regarding which logs to buy. “It’s very helpful to know what your results are from a certain area or a certain grade of log,” he said.
Even with years of experience and a knack for knowing what clues to look for, there’s only so much you can know from a visual examination of a log. In other words, not every log that a buyer purchases is going to make the grade once it reaches production. “You’re not always right, but you have to win more than you lose,” he said. There’s plenty of pressure in the profession, given the high prices involved. “But I really enjoy it,” Stannard said.
Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.