An Experience to Remember

December 18, 2023
by Amanda Boutwell

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Amanda Boutwell, the Marketing Communications Manager at NHLA. I recently experienced the new “NHLA Hardwood Processing 101” workshop as a student. I wasn’t asked to write this. I want to write this because I want everyone to know you’re never too experienced to learn something new. 

When my supervisor signed me up for the workshop, I didn’t think there was much left for me to learn; after all, I’ve worked at NHLA for almost six years. I’ve attended every webinar and education session, toured sawmills, and interviewed countless industry professionals. I presumed I didn’t need to attend the Hardwood Processing 101 course.

I was wrong. So wrong. The class was sold out, with a myriad of students. Some students came to the workshop with several years of industry experience under their belts; some had almost no experience. The students worked in sales, chemicals, and nearly every supply chain sector, from timber to tables. The four-day event kicked off with a welcome dinner of Memphis BBQ at the NHLA Inspector Training School, where everyone got to know each other. Yum!

An Experience to Remember Memphis BBQ
Memphis BBQ

On the second day, the main event was a lecture about silviculture, forest management, and taking inventory of standing timber. This was my favorite lecture. I learned more than I could have ever imagined. Going into the workshop, I had never heard the word silviculture. Many of us hadn’t. Do you know what it means? If you don’t, sign up for the next class and visit our friend, Mr. Google, or click here for a quick explanation. The guest speaker was Dr. David Mercker, Ph.D., CF, Extension Forester at the UT School of Natural Resources. 

Dr. Mercker taught us how foresters decide which timber is ready to remove from a hardwood forest and how to value it. He took us around the NHLA campus and provided the tools we needed to inventory the trees on the property. Mercker provided insightful, new information in an easy-to-understand manner – even for the most inexperienced. 

We then learned about lumber grading and upgrading from Mr. Roman Matyushchenko, NHLA Instructor and Associate Dean of Education. Since I am not a lumber grader, much of what Roman explained brought different aspects of my job into better focus, and I realized how important it is to know how lumber is graded no matter what your role is at your company. Think of it as the base of the knowledge pyramid you need to know in the industry. 

An Experience to Remember Roman Grading 2
NHLA Instructor, Roman Matyushchenko, demonstrating grading hardwood lumber on a green chain.

Everything we learned on the second day played directly into the itinerary for day three. We all woke up early to be shuttled an hour away for a tour of Henning Sawmill in Henning, TN. Now, I’ve toured my fair share of sawmills, but I still walked away from this tour with new knowledge about how to grade logs, sawmill processes, and more.

After lunch, Mr. Dana Spessert, NHLA Chief Inspector, took the podium to explain everything we witnessed at the sawmill. He went into detail about how to optimize sawmill operations. There are so many factors that go into turning hardwood logs into lumber that we (the students) were able to understand its value more tangibly. Spessert’s knowledge really shined during his lecture, and I can proudly say I have expanded my vocabulary by at least 20 new terms.

An Experience to Remember Dana teaching 1
NHLA Chief Inspector, Mr. Dana Spessert teaching the class.

Day four was another early start as we were shuttled to our next tour at Classic American Hardwoods in Memphis. I can’t recommend Classic American Hardwoods enough if you want to see a well-organized, clean concentration yard. The yard had stacks upon stacks of lumber air-drying. We walked through the stacks and learned the importance of where the sticks are placed (and how). 

An Experience to Remember Stacks of Drying Lumber
Students view the rows of lumber air drying at Classic American Hardwoods.

Then, we went through the stacks of lumber that were already bundled and ready for delivery. All the stacks had signs labeling the type of lumber in that spot. We learned everything from why they use orange as the paint on the edge of their lumber to how each load had to be treated as it awaited shipment.

Next, we went to see kilns – every one of them was full. Classic American Hardwoods was kind enough to allow all the students to walk INTO a kiln and experience the heat, stacking, and more. During my adventure into the kiln, I discovered that different species of lumber smell like different things. The kiln we entered was drying red oak, and it smelled terrific: buttery, warm, with a hint of spice and fall leaves. It smelled like a cozy cabin in the fall. I’ll never forget it. Other woods have different smells. Chief Inspector Dana Spessert swears that white oak smells like watermelon.

An Experience to Remember Exit the Kiln 1
Students exiting a hot kiln.

The workshop wrapped up with a lecture from Mr. Geoff Webb, Dean of Inspector Training School, covering the basics of kiln drying, stickering, stacking, and more. Spessert followed up with Information about grading and tallying kiln-dried lumber and the Sales Code, which helps the industry remain self-regulated. 

The workshop was a great way to spend four days and allowed me to walk away with more confidence in my knowledge about the journey a hardwood tree takes as it is turned into lumber. I’ll have lasting memories of the smell of red oak, greater knowledge about forest management, a better understanding of why grading is so important, and the hundreds of ways you can ruin a board in the kiln drying process.

An Experience to Remember Dana Teaching 2
Instructing among the logs. Roman Matyushchenko and Mr. Dana Spessert explain log selection.

The next “Hardwood Processing 101” workshop will happen this spring (March 4-7). I strongly recommend sending employees from salespeople to buyers and more. The investment of 4 days of intense education will pay off when your staff returns to work with all the knowledge they pick up during the workshop.

To learn more about the next Hardwoods 101 workshop and register before it sells out, please click HERE.

by Amanda Boutwell


AGL Group AGL Group

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