Kettle Moraine Hardwoods branches out

Hartford-based Kettle Moraine Hardwoods Inc. dries logs and cuts them down for cabinetmakers, furniture makers, contractors and hobbyists.

Its most popular product: rustic log fireplace mantels. The company has set up a national dealer network for the unique natural mantels, and it plans to continue expanding its reach, said Jim Wesp, vice president.

“We want to continue to build that dealer network. We believe there’s a lot more potential in that,” he said.

The company has also recently branched out to saving wood from urban trees that are dying or need to be removed, Wesp said.

“We’ve been working on trying to make the best use of that resource,” he said. “Instead of putting it into a landfill, we can make use of it.”

Those uses include lumber, mulch or biofuel. Even parts of trees infected with disease or infested with insects can be used.

Sometimes, urban trees are recycled back into buildings in the city.

Fix Development took this eco-friendly approach when constructing the Clock Shadow building in Walker’s Point. The wood used for the stairways was sourced from urban ash, which Kettle Moraine Hardwoods prepared for the project.

The company undertakes a long “pre-manufacturing” process of cutting, sanding, drying, carving and otherwise preparing hardwoods for all different uses at its multi-building, 28,000-square-foot facility, Wesp said.

A log can’t simply be sawed into boards and used right away.

“It has to get dried so the moisture content of the wood is similar to what the moisture content of a home would be,” he said.

The goal is to get lumber to a moisture level below 10 percent. Typically, Kettle Moraine Hardwoods places the lumber outside to air dry for up to eight months, then continues the process for another two to three weeks in its natural gas-fired dry kiln.

A lot of strategy and science goes into the drying process, depending on the size and type of the wood. The company draws up a schedule for bringing each type to its ideal dryness without cracking.

Wesp has been experimenting with drying very large boards that could be used for rustic tabletops, but they can be very sensitive to cracking in the drying process.

Each finished product is unique, with different bark, worm marks, grain patterns, knots and other elements of the log. Customers looking for a rustic tabletop or mantel often look through all of the available products to find just the right piece.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of what the log allows us to make,” Wesp said.

The company sources domestic woods locally for some of its lumber and mantels, but also sources pre-kiln dried species that don’t grow nearby.

“It’s kind of a constant balancing act to meet the needs of what our customers want and what our manufacturing facilities do,” Wesp said.

Kettle Moraine Hardwoods was opened in 1986. Jim Wesp runs it with his brother, Bob.

The company also has a second location in Caledonia. The 8,000-square-foot showroom opened in 1996 to serve southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

“A lot of our customer base is small users so we opened that because it was easier for them to get to,” Wesp said.

The company’s annual revenue is about $1.8 million, and Wesp expects the company to have a better year in 2013.

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