Making it in Vermont: Super Thin Saws perfects efficient blades
Mar 20, 2023
By Anne Wallace Allen
Jan 19 2020January 19, 2020
WATERBURY – Working together, 25 people and six robots quietly turn out 12,000 carbide-tipped saw blades a year at this small specialty company.
Super Thin Saws makes and sharpens the circular saw blades used by the manufacturers of wood flooring, furniture, kitchen cabinets, windows and doors. The fact that the blades are thinner than the industry standard – down to 0.031 inches – appeals to large manufacturers who want as much of their wood as possible to end up as product and not as sawdust.
Super Thin Saws’ products cost four to five times more than the thicker competition, but for companies cutting up a large volume of wood, the extra cost is worth it, said founder John Schultz, who owns the company with two partners, former longtime employees Rob Bisbee and Dave Strom.
"They are probably putting 50 million boards through saw blades, and they have been spending $20,000 a year on blades," said Schultz of large wood products companies. "So if we triple or quadruple — or worse — the saw blade bill, it doesn't really matter as long as we’re giving them a good savings on their wood bill."
Super Thin Saws’ origin dates back to the 1970s, when Schultz, then a ski coach, and his wife started what is now the Green Mountain Valley School. Both were working at Bisbee's Hardware in Waitsfield to help make ends meet. The store did a brisk business in sharpening saw blades, and the pair saw an opportunity.
Schultz, who has a degree in abstract mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has always seen skiing as one of his top priorities. With continued residence near skiing in the Mad River Valley a must-have, he saw saw-sharpening as a good opportunity to moonlight.
Over the years, the company grew, its fortunes rising and falling with the housing economy. In 2008, Schultz and his then-partners sold the business to a Florida company, and in 2011 he bought it back with Bisbee and Strom.
Now Super Thin Saws occupies a former Ben & Jerry's industrial building. The company buys laser-cut, heat-treated steel saw blades from two suppliers, and then puts the blades through an array of processes to match customer specs, soldering very precisely shaped carbide tips to the saw teeth.
The company also does a brisk business sharpening saw blades for specialty manufacturers. Many of those saw-sharpening customers are large companies in Quebec, Maine and New York, though Super Thin Saws has a couple of Vermont customers, among them Appalachian Flooring, a Quebec-based company with a manufacturing facility in Troy.
For smaller outfits, such as most Vermont companies, the cost of shipping or trucking blades for sharpening just isn't worth it, said Schultz.
"The little one-man and five-man shops in Vermont turn out amazing product," said Schultz. "But the service they need is less expensive than what we offer. If transportation were free, it’d make more sense. But it's only worth it to pick up blades in Maine, Quebec and New York because instead of picking up one blade, we’re picking up 40."
Where Super Thin Saws excels is in packing stiffness into thin blades. Schultz uses a technology that was created in the 1950's by Charles Berolzheimer, then the owner of California Cedar Products, who wanted to make thinner blades for higher efficiency, said Schultz.
"He loved wood and didn't think you should waste it," he said.
Berolzheimer worked with a local saw manufacturer and with the mechanical engineering department at the University of California at Berkeley, who used mathematical modeling to analyze how thin a saw blade could go. The researchers held seminars on the product but never commercialized it, said Schultz.
Schultz adopted the technology in the late 1980s. He said the creators had held seminars about the thin saw blades, looking for someone to commercialize the process, but the technology didn't interest large saw companies because the market was so small.
"We started dabbling," he said. "Mostly all we had to do, with all the engineering pretty much done, was just tone it down so it would work on real-world quarter-million-dollar machines, instead of custom million-dollar machines."
Schultz and his wife, who were also running a ski lodge in Moretown village at the time, changed their company's name from Schultz Tool Sharpening to Super Thin Saws.
Most of the company's customers are in the U.S., but it also has relationships in Japan, Europe, South America, Australia, and China. The company was the U.S. Small Business Administration's 2014 Vermont Exporter of the Year.
"We don't actively look for customers in China," Schultz said. "But if they find us, we don't turn them down."
Creating a saw blade that won't flutter or vibrate when it's spinning — which results in a cut that isn't straight — is a complex mechanical task. Defects in the wood and minor misalignments in the machine itself can create sideways forces on the saw blades.
It's not just the stiffness of the circular blade that matters.
"It's really important to attach the right tooth," Schultz said. "If the customer is cutting maple with an 8% to 10% moisture content, you can customize and tailor the angles. Or we’ll say, ‘You might consider having a different blade for that oak.’"
It's very precise work. Yet the factory floor at Super Thin Saws looks like a machine shop, not a lab. The work of the robots, encased in steel cages, is limited to drudgery like picking up blades and moving them from one place to another.
"If we gave that to someone as a job, they’d quit in a month and a half," Schultz noted. "We have not yet even toyed with using robots for serious work."
The thinnest blades start out at around an eighth of an inch near the inside, and halfway out to the cutting teeth they start getting thinner, as thin as 0.031 inch where the carbide tips are attached with silver solder. Some of the tips are made of materials such as polycrystalline diamond or a ceramics/carbide mix.
The largest saw blade the company works on is about 32 inches in diameter; 99% of the saws the company sees are 25 inches or smaller. Super Thin Saws limits its sharpening work to industrial saw blades, sending its hardware store-type blades to a company called the Sharpening Shed in Newport that comes by once a week.
Super Thin Saws has worked with the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center, or VMEC, to learn value stream mapping, a system analogous to just-in-time processes that make the manufacturing floor more efficient. In the case of Super Thin Saws, that means coordinating the schedule so it doesn't take a blade 10 days to go through the necessary steps for sharpening when it could just as easily take five days.
"It's annoyingly expensive but well worth it," Schultz said of the VEMC training. "They do a good job." That cost was defrayed by a $40,000 grant in October from the state Department of Commerce's Vermont Training Program.
For the humans, the manufacturing runs on split shifts for 10 or 11 hours a day; for the robots, it's 24 hours a day.
Like many Vermont manufacturers, Schultz said it's not easy finding workers. There are only two women at the company.
"We get women to apply to work here, but they don't seem to like it and stay," said Schultz, who lets workers choose their hours as long as they stay with the same schedule. One of the women, and some of the men, have chosen a schedule that helps them manage childcare, he said.
"Long before it was the only way to get employees, we tried to make it a good place to work," he said.
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