Technology Updates the Craftsman's Eye at Baird

CANFIELD, Ohio -- Lathes turn at a rapid clip as noisy router machines, miter saws, shapers and every other tool of the lumber trade are busy at work at Baird Brothers Fine Hardwood Inc.

While this 54-year-old Canfield business is steeped in tradition, its operations are far from traditional. The Baird Brothers of today barely resembles the company founded as a sawmill in 1960. It represents how technology and innovation have combined to transform the business into a sleek, competitive force in the industry.

“If we did business the same way we did 15 years ago, we wouldn’t be in business,” observes Matt Baird, plant manager and a member of the second generation of the Baird family to operate the mill. “Technology has had a lot to do with that.”

The business still requires the craftsman’s eye and expertise to ensure that the final product is perfect, Baird says. In this case, these products are custom wooden doors, mouldings, baseboards, newel posts and flooring made from wood harvested from forests across Appalachia.

“We’re not so much a sawmill anymore as we are an architectural millwork company,” Baird says.

Today, Baird ships products to all 50 states and Canada as it retains a strong business in the Mahoning Valley and outlying region.

“When we do our demographics, Youngstown, Poland, Cortland, Columbiana County and into Portage County still stands on its own,” reports Steve Stack, sales manager at Baird. Many of the new- build projects today come from out-of-state, but the company remains very busy with remodeling jobs throughout the area.

It’s this segment of the market – the small remodeling jobs or the do-it-yourselfers – that are critical to Baird’s success, Stack relates. “It’s still very important to the business,” he says. “Years ago, Matt’s father and his uncle realized there was a time when we were slow, and it was Mr. and Mrs. Smith coming through the door remodeling that basement that kept us afloat. Our philosophy hasn’t changed.”

Nor has the company’s attention to its product, Stack says, no matter what grade of wood the customer orders or price he pays. “The same craftsmanship and the same production go into either one of those pieces,” he says.

What’s changed are the dynamics of the industry and the market, Baird notes. Twenty years ago, it was common to run 15,000 linear feet with the same pattern on a single moulding machine. “Now, that moulder gets changed over between three and eight times a day,” he says. Those orders, usually for new building projects, today typically are bound for other geographical markets.

Drawings for custom doors, he continues, are now designed elsewhere and then emailed directly to CNC routers at Baird Brothers’ sprawling plant on Crory Road, Baird relates. The complex in Canfield consists of at 10 buildings that encompass offices, a showroom, warehouses, storage, utility sheds, and production operations. Recently, the company expanded its warehouse capacity.

At any given time, Baird says, his company has in stock 1.5 million board feet of green lumber, 2.5 million feet of dry kiln lumber, and another 2.5 million feet of finished millwork.

Among the most innovative aspects of the operation is Baird Brothers’ self-contained utility system. A small electrical power plant is fueled by the company’s 13 privately owned natural gas wells on a 700-acre farm next to the business. The electricity produced serves only the buildings on the site, Baird says.

Some eight years ago, the company developed a wood waste-to-heat system capable of fueling Baird Brothers’ boiler room. “We need to heat all our buildings because we need to maintain moisture content on our kiln-dried lumber. It’s very important that when you buy hardwood that it comes out of heated facilities,” Baird says.

Sawdust, wood chips, pallet grindings and other wood waste are continuously vacuumed from shop floors in all of the buildings and stored in a large silo on the property. The wood waste is then fed into a boiler house for fuel that continuously heats the complex.

“We’re pretty proud of that,” Baird says. “Other than the telephone, we’re 100% self-sufficient.”

Baird emphasizes there’s no better of example of a “green” industry than his. “All of the product we use is renewable,” he points out, and hardwood trees are growing at a faster rate than any other.

Lumber is shipped to the company in a “green” state before it’s dried in 10 kilns heated somewhere between 90 and 140 degrees, depending on the species of wood. The process burns any infestation out of the wood before further processing. It takes anywhere from two to five weeks to completely dry the lumber, Baird says.

Once kiln dried, the lumber is prepared for various methods of processing and manufacturing. In this case, dry kiln stock is fed through a compressor line that manufactures finger-jointed poplar flooring planks.

“It’s native to this region, made by American workers, grown in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia,” Baird says. “It’s an excellent, solid wood product.”

Other products are formed through the company’s seven moulding lines, routers, assortment of lathes and its finishing department. It’s tooling room, for example, is stocked with nearly 2,000 distinct profiles.

“We spend a lot of time on the sander to get it right [during the finishing process],” Baird says. Doors, wood planks, trim, and decorative mouldings are all processed to silk-smooth surfaces before any stain or finish is applied.

Baird Brothers’ Stack says it’s especially important to have the eye and expertise of a craftsman when it comes to inspecting the final product as he points to the grooves and nuances of a newly made custom hardwood door.

“We use all the machinery, but it still takes that craftsman to understand it and make the connection, which we are very fortunate to have,” he says.

Baird reports business is steady and going strong, even though new construction in the area is still well below pre-recession levels. “We just hired five new people,” he notes, bringing the number of employees at the company to 135.

“There’s tons of remodeling going on,” he adds.

Baird Brothers has four delivery trucks that will ship its products to a distance of up to 100 miles. The company also has contracts with four freight carriers that transport Baird Brothers’ products throughout the country.

“Where we fit into a key niche market is our ability to change quickly and do custom products,” Baird says, noting that his company is hosting an open house Sept. 27 – a “Red, White and True,” party – to celebrate its American-made product line and business.

“We’re really proud of what we do here.”

Pictured: Steve Stack, sales manager, and Matt Baird, plant manager, say technology transformed how Baird Brothers operates.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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