So, you think that kiln operators are dull, humorless and uninspired. Maybe the following insight into what kiln operators are really like will change your mind.

What if you were accused of burning up lumber in a kiln, creating checks, honeycomb, splits, cupping, stain, stress, warp, knots, hangnails and 98% of the world’s problems? Is it any wonder that kiln operators become those vapid, paranoid individuals, fighting to save the world from a “bad lumber conspiracy”?

Even the terminology used in kiln-drying suggests sinister wrongdoings. The word “kiln” sounds like “kill,” as in murder. Are kiln operators viewed as lumber killers? Ask any rough mill manager! Kiln operators routinely use the word “depression,” suggesting clinical depression as a result of the many stresses induced by the very nature of the job. Even the title “kiln operator” may be abbreviated “K.O.,” a boxing term for knockout. T. K. O. (Technical Knockout) then stands for “The Kiln Operator” as in “The Kiln Operator ruined this lumber and you expect me to make furniture out of it?”

Kiln operators often contend with four-letter words like “dry?” (the “?” is considered a letter when used by plant managers as they ask the ubiquitous rhetorical question, “you call this lumber dry?”). The “F” word rears its ugly head… “The steam is free since it is generated by free wood waste so why are we having to pay so much to dry the lumber?” “What do you mean you want us to fire the boilers over Christmas (July 4th) holidays so you can meet cutting schedules? Fuel is expensive!” And how many of us have heard “We cannot find that pack of lumber, so you must not have shipped it to us! Send us a pack to replace it, fast!”

What about some credit? A kiln operator routinely receives memos describing in minute detail the various defects found in the most recent batch of lumber sent to the plant (with copies to corporate management, of course!). Does he ever receive a complimentary memo when an especially good load of lumber is cut? A recent incident involving a kiln operator who fainted and was whisked to the emergency room proved to be just such a memo. As the doctor revived him, he noticed a piece of paper held tightly in the patient’s balled-up fist. Not able to resist the temptation, the doctor read the following:

“Memo to U. R. Kilninus

Dear Mr. Kilninus, Plant #1 just finishing cutting 50,000 board feet of 4/4 red oak that your records show was pulled from kiln #8 on December 24. Are you some kind of a slave driver who requires his people to work on Christmas Eve? (You did know it was Christmas, didn’t you?)

The lumber was excellent, by comparison. It had only 18% honeycomb and 22% severe surface checking (compared to our standard of 25% honeycomb and 35% severe surface checking). Our actual yield was 21.4% and we finished the cutting almost on time. Customer complaints on this cutting dropped dramatically, with only one irate phone call to my office that included the words “death and/or dismemberment”. Although we still failed to make a profit on the cutting, our loss decreased by almost half and the remaining pieces in the finished goods warehouse are projected to be sold in the next 1.8 years.

Please accept this congratulatory memo on a job well done. If there were a medal for kiln operators, I would nail it (I mean pin it – old habits are hard to break) to your chest. This company is certainly fortunate to have a man with your knowledge and abilities watching over our most expensive commodity with such great care.

As a way of expressing my gratitude, you will once again be allowed to visit our plant. If you have forgotten the location, I included a map with simple drawings and no words. Please limit your visit to the daylight hours between 9:00 AM and 2:00 PM (your normal working hours) for your own safety and call ahead so I can arrange a personal guard. There are still some people in the rough mill who remember that load of 4/4 Junkwood that you sent us under the guise of FAS cherry. Oh, and stay clear of the hog, since it was voted the most appropriate punishment for your continued dedication to supplying us with the lowest quality lumber in the industry. Our production people reasoned that your fate should be the same as that of the $*&#! that you laughingly refer to as lumber.

With all due respect, I salute you!

I. M. Hardheart, Plant Manager”

Known as “The Kiln Consultant,” Dennis Clay has more than 20 years of hands-on experience drying lumber and managing the drying operations for a large furniture company. As a consultant, he conducts analysis of current lumber handling and drying practices as well as on-site kiln operator training. For information, contact him at

Read Dennis Clay's three-part series: Is Your Dry Kiln Wasting Energy?

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