Maximizing Products from Beetle Kill Timber
Colorado-based Keeper Enterprises turns to portable sawmills
By Clay Clayton
At 8000 feet above sea level, on the continental divide near Buena Vista, Col., Keeper Enterprises demonstrates that a forest products firm doesn’t have to be an industry giant to set high standards for innovation and environmental enhancement. Keeper utilizes thin kerf sawmill technology in unique ways, to both extend the forest resource, and to broaden potential markets for the log home industry. The company’s work is not only environmentally sound, but is also making log homes more affordable and, thus, more available to the public.
In 1974, Larry Banning was working for wages. Seeing opportunity in a rising demand for natural log products, Larry founded a log furniture business Keeper Enterprises. Larry’s son, Chris, then a high school student, worked with him peeling bark from logs, assembling, and performing other chores.
After high school, Chris went off to college and then on to a sales job in Boston. But in 1989, Colorado called, and he returned to take his turn at the family business, along with his sister, Judy. The increased effort eventually led the firm into the housing construction industry through the crafting and installation of residential log products including trusses, railings, roof systems, siding, and stairs.
Initially, logs were custom processed through a hired Wood-Mizer LT30 band saw to produce the natural log products for which the company was becoming known. By 1996, increased demand, and a need for flexibility in production, justified purchasing the LT30. In 1999, after many hours of productive use, the Bannings sold that machine and purchased a new Wood-Mizer LT40 with a hydraulic log handling package. The upgrade was designed to meet production demands and eliminate much of the heavy lifting involved in milling logs without the aid of hydraulics. Today, Keeper Enterprises utilizes their thin kerf band saw mill to produce a variety of custom-designed, natural log siding products primarily from dead or dying Englewood Spruce, Lodge Pole Pine, and Ponderosa Pine trees afflicted with pine beetles in Colorado.
Chris says owning a sawmill has become essential to staying in business. Many of Keeper’s products are unique and cannot be purchased anywhere else. He comments that as production increases, it is important to be able to process to a timeline without relying on someone else, or working around another’s schedule.
Chris further asserts the thin-kerf band mill is the key to creating the company’s unique products. “We have developed ways of making precise cuts to produce one-piece dovetail siding and full round siding that the flexibility of the bandsaw enables us to do. A circle saw mill simply would not work.”
One of Keeper’s signature offerings is a half log siding with full log tails that, when installed onto conventionally framed houses, creates a look indistinguishable from a whole-log home. Keeper is also becoming well known in their market area for a siding line including a 3/4” tapered, natural edge siding and a unique one-piece 11/2” hewn log siding featuring a 6”x10”dovetail that, as far as Chris knows, no one else is producing. The company also produces log railings, stair treads, fireplace mantels, roof structures, and other natural wood products.
The Bannings operate their Wood-Mizer as a stationary sawmill. The bed of the mill has been extended to 40 feet, to enable the firm to cut very long pieces of lumber. Chris explains, “We cut extra long lengths of siding for customers who are willing to pay a premium for the installation of ‘seamless siding’ on their homes.”
Chris says Keeper’s products are installed on homes that otherwise use conventional construction. And he sees several financial and environmental advantages the technology can provide over whole-log homes. “Conventional homes have no settling issues, no air infiltration problems, are easier to wire and plumb, and they offer more choices for contractors and fewer conflicts with building inspectors. When half log or log siding products are installed over a conventional framework, you get the best of both worlds.” The techniques, he points out, provide the beauty and nostalgia of a log home without sacrificing the efficiencies of conventional construction. Chris’s own 2400 square foot home stands as a showcase for Keeper’s products and construction practices. A twostory engineered structural panel house, the home features dovetail log siding, a round log roof and truss system, log entry trusses, and half log gutters. The structure is actually an energy-efficient, modern home constructed at less cost, and with fewer hassles, than log homes typically entail.
Chris sees a future and growing market for his company’s siding products and looks forward to expanding production in the near future. “Dad and I have put our heads together and, after about four variations, we have figured out how to produce the most lumber from each log and be most efficient in our sawing operation, so we are ready for expansion.” As an example, he points to the process developed for producing their dove tail siding. From logs smaller than 13 inches in diameter, the Banning’s produce, at a minimum, four separate products, including a one inch thick natural edge piece of lumber, a 1 1/2 inch piece of natural edge siding, and two dovetail siding pieces. Generally, a three-inch piece can also be taken out of the middle of the log to be used either for siding or for a 3x10 timber. From bigger logs, the thin kerf band saw yields four high-value dovetail siding pieces in addition to numerous other boards.
Chris anticipates that increases in production will mean a number of changes for Keeper Enterprises. The company is in the process of constructing a building for lumber storage and installing a solar powered kiln that will be used to heat storage buildings and dry lumber. And with Larry semi-retired, employees will be needed. Chris also wants to upgrade his operation to include a Wood-Mizer LT70 driven by a powerful 62 HP Cat diesel engine. “We’ve been happy with Wood- Mizer service and saws so the LT70 is the logical choice, as we look to increase production,” he offers.
Keeper Enterprises is producing quality natural wood products, while retaining all the environmental benefits modern home building offers. By processing beetle kill logs and utilizing thin kerf band saw technology to produce siding for conventionally constructed homes, the company offers customers the opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds, while making positive environmental contributions.