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Grading Boards at the Lumber Mill 

click to enlarge Chan Bullard - JIM DESHLER
  • Jim Deshler
  • Chan Bullard

Name: Chan Bullard
Town: Johnson
Job: Lumber grader, Manchester Lumber

At the family-owned Manchester Lumber Company in Johnson, rough-cut wood moves along a massive machinery line to pass inspection and receive a grade. Chan Bullard can rate a board of birch in less than five seconds. Sitting above the machinery in his small office built of plywood, Plexiglas and exposed insulation, he watches the line of hardwood boards to assess their square footage and condition. It is uncomfortably loud here, so Bullard wears neon-colored earplugs. The machinery's movement is mesmerizing.

Bullard, 43, who lives in Eden, grades the boards based on the "cutting unit" of the wood — that is, the surface area of clear wood between the defects, knots or splits, for example. Grades are not subjective; they're assigned based on a standard set of formulas that Bullard learned at wood-grading school in Tennessee. As a load of white ash comes down the line, he quickly notes the square footage, looks at the face of the board and flips it with his "prodder" — which resembles a cant hook with a grease pencil attached. He inspects the other side, then marks its grade with the black grease pencil: "S" for select, a top grade. If a board looks rough but has potential, he sends it back to be re-edged and trimmed for a better cut and a higher grade.

Bullard took time to talk with Seven Days about how trees become boards.

SEVEN DAYS: Can you explain the process of how a tree trunk gets turned into boards at the sawmill?

CHAN BULLARD: We get lumber from Lamoille and surrounding counties and work with only hardwood. We work in green, rough-cut wood and sell it wholesale. Other companies take the wood and kiln-dry it for their own uses.

We use all parts of the log. First, it goes through the de-barker. That bark is used for biofuel — Burlington Electric takes some. Then the log goes to the head saw, which squares the log. Then it goes to the resaw [a large band saw]. A square log is called a "cant." This process helps us get the nicest boards. Then the boards go through the edger to saw off the live edge — the parts with the bark still attached.

Outside, the wood is separated for lengths and grades. The inside of the tree is called the heart — every tree has a heart. You just work around the heart to get the best grade lumber. Heart wood usually has more flaws, so it will likely be used for pallets or unexposed wood in furniture. Farms buy the sawdust, and the chips are used for paper.

click to enlarge Chan Bullard - JIM DESHLER
  • Jim Deshler
  • Chan Bullard

SD: What do you notice about wood that most people can't see?

CB: Each board is different — the grain is different, the defects different. Kind of like a snowflake, they all have different character. I can tell the species of wood we're on before I see it by its smell, once it hits the saw. Birch has a nice aroma, almost like wintergreen. Oak has a terrible smell, makes me sick. Figured maple looks almost like a tiger stripe. Personally, I like the defects in wood — they give it more character and can sometimes tell a story. Like the tap holes on maple. They used to have larger holes, but now they use the health spouts that use a smaller diameter than 40, 50 years ago. It raises your curiosity of where it came from, the history behind it. You can find a nail that was hand-forged 50, 60 years ago sometimes.

SD: Are the nails dangerous for workers cutting the logs?

CB: They would be, so we have a metal detector that all the logs go through for that very reason.

SD: How did you get into the lumber business?

CB: My family has long been in the wood-products business. My grandfather and uncle Bullard had a sawmill in North Hyde Park. Then they started making wood toys when I was a kid. They were loggers, too. Both of my parents worked at my grandparents' mill. I still log and tap maples on my family land. I've brought some of my logs here to the sawmill.

A lot of the guys who work here I knew growing up, and I knew their families. I knew Henry [Manchester, manager and son of sawmill owner Alan Manchester] in high school. After I got out of the Army, Alan hired me, in '93. I went to lumber-grading school in Memphis for 11 months and have been here ever since. I started out stacking lumber, then ran the log loader, ran the edger, head saw.

SD: What do you think about the logging industry?

CB: I'm part conservationist. [Sustainable logging] is like weeding a garden. It's a renewable resource. The majority of the wood we get is selectively harvested under the management of a forester. The blue marks on the logs over there mean that they were marked by a forester. Selective harvesting allows light to hit the forest floor.

We're Vermonters — you've got to take care of your natural resources. We don't want to devastate the land like it used to be. I think about my kids and future generations, and I'm at least a fifth-generation Vermonter. I started taking classes at [Community College of Vermont] in environmental science. I'm in my own woods a lot, between cutting for firewood and sugaring.

Sawmills used to be a part of the culture — every town had one. Kind of like dairy farms — not a lot of them left anymore. In 2007-2008, the recession caused a big dip in the housing construction market, which put out a lot of mills, especially the newer ones that had a lot of debt and overhead. Being a family business is helpful, but it's still a tough business.

SD: I heard that things get pretty quiet around the mill about the start of turkey-hunting season.

CB: Oh, yeah. People take their vacation then. Deer season, too. I hunt with rifle and bow.

The original print version of this article was headlined "On Board"

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