Rex Lumber started out as strictly a rough lumber wholesaler, and gradually expanded its value-added capabilities to serve its customers. The most recent addition is a new priming line for mouldings in its Englishtown, N.J., operation.

Although the company may be known mostly as a wholesaler, mill manager Larry Reitsma says that the new priming line and other services were added at the request of customers. "We make what our customers want," Reitsma says.

Tom Murray, sales manager, says Rex Lumber primarily is known for three things: depth of inventory, its service to the architectural millwork market; and the quality of its mouldings.

Rex president Ben Forester states it plainly: "We service our customers well, and we have a huge inventory."

Value-added hurdles

"Manufacturers are ordering as much of a pre-manufactured item as they can to cut down on their labor," Murray says. "They're relying on their suppliers to move into their realm to a certain extent, and to supply them with quality that they can turn into a finished product."

Reitsma says that in the past, customers may have ordered a thousand feet of lumber, but now they want it cut to length or want a profile made. So priming is a logical next step.

But there were hurdles when, for example, the moulders were first added. "At first, the industry looked askance at suppliers getting into their realm," Murray says. "But over the course of years it has changed."

Then there's the issue of inventory. Customers don't want to carry any, so Rex is keeping inventory in a large number of species.

Rex Lumber is the largest wholesale hardwood distributor in the east and employs 350 (60 in New Jersey). In addition to Englishtown, the company has plants in Acton, Mass. (the headquarters), South Windsor, Conn. (the largest mill, with five moulders and a computerized crosscut and ripsaw), and Doswell, Va. (rough mill).

The 60-year-old company serves stairmakers, cabinet manufacturers, furniture producers, flooring retailers, architectural millwork and store fixture manufacturers, and retail lumber yards.

Shiploads of mahogany

Hardwood is 97 percent of the company's business. Overall, the company has some 9 million feet of kiln-dried inventory, 3 to 4 million feet of it air dried.

Rex is bringing in more tropical species than in the past. "We've seen a shift toward tropicals," Murray says. "We're very strong in genuine mahogany, and we have a lot of good contacts in Central and South America. "We have one of the largest inventories of certified mahogany in the world."

Also important are Spanish cedar, jatoba from South America, and sapele and utile from Africa. Domestically, walnut is hot, along with white oak, especially rift and quartersawn. Most primed material is poplar, with some cypress. Rex also runs 3-1/2 or 4 inch wide flooring.

"Our main competition for quality timber is veneer manufacturing," Murray says. The best logs are the most expensive, and they typically go to veneer manufacturers."

Reitsma says that lumber is received, dried and regraded. It may go out as lumber or to the mill, where it might be planed, ripped, moulded or profiled. From there it can be sanded and primed. In New Jersey, Rex has two Weinig moulders, three Weinig Rondamat tooling machines, a Progressive gang rip saw, and Newman Whitney planers.

Rex serves customers mostly east of the Mississippi, but it also has national accounts on the west coast, and has its own fleet of 30 trucks. Inventory among the four sites is liquid and can be moved on a daily basis.

This year, Murray says that the retail lumber business has been slow due to housing, but store fixture and commercial construction have been strong.

"Our niche is high end," he says. "And the high-end market is kind of bulletproof, or recession-proof."

Prime time

Rex purchased a Makor USA Inc. vacuum line and is using it for priming poplar. The line is up and running offsite, in rented space in nearby Howell Township. Reitsma says they wanted to test the system offsite before building new space in Englishtown.

Reitsma says the process starts with Rex making its own custom profiles. They are taken to Howell and placed on an infeed line, which goes to a conveyor into the vacuum line. After priming is applied, mouldings go through an infrared oven, and then to an outfeed line with two conveyors, so it has time to dry, and then an off-feed table.

The profiles go through a template that is slightly larger than the profile, then into a chamber, where paint is pumped in. Paint is applied around the whole profile, then the vacuum sucks the excess paint off, so the profile is painted on all four sides.

Reitsma says the advantage of the vacuum process is that the back of the baseboard is covered. If a spray line is used, Rex would have to go back and spray a second time to cover the back side. Rex is using Sherwin Williams and Westfield finishes on this line.

In addition, Rex is planning to purchase an additional Makor line that would go to another conveyor and lead to a denibbing machine, so Rex can offer the buffing that customers may do themselves.

Reitsma says that on the second line the piece will come through, and the water-based paint raises the grain. The denibber knocks that grain down, which some customers want. Then the moulding could be fed though again for another coat, or sent to the customer for a topcoat to be applied. Rex could offer a prime-buff-prime, or a prime-buff, or just prime routine.

The new priming line can do 200 feet per minute, and Reitsma says that Rex recently did 20,000 feet of mouldings for an Atlantic City hotel.

"We've been very happy with this equipment," Reitsma says. "From day one when we turned the key, it worked."

Makor has a test line in Atlanta, which Rex Lumber used to test different finishes and wood species. "We sent down a number of samples, with different types of paint," Reitsma says. "They tested the paint with their oven and made adjustments. So now, any project we have can go down there and test different types of finishes and paints.

UV finish was considered, but Reitsma says it didn't meet the customer's needs because it was too smooth, and it was difficult to add a topcoat. So they determined that a water-based system, run through an infrared oven, was best.

"We talked to our architectural customers and that's the kind of finish they were looking for."

"We're high volume, but we're really custom," he says. "A customer sends in a print, we cut that knife, we run that job and may put that knife on the shelf and never run it again. The architectural business is unique."

Rex also has a priming line in Connecticut, and offers profile sanding, cut-to-length, embossing, custom gluing and matching for flooring, and flat sanding, even manufacturing PVC mouldings.

"We have focused on value-added services over the last several years, and have continuously added things that we felt the market was ready for," Murray says.

"We're always looking for that next value-added service, and our intention is to keep adding."

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