Blades of Steel

Precision is the name of the game here

by Will Lindner

saws1117John Schultz (right), the founder and president of Super Thin Saws in Waterbury, stands with the company’s co-owners, Dave Strom, treasurer, and Rob Bisbee, vice president.

In the wood-products industry there’s something called “kerf,” and the less of it a company produces, the better. George Campo, whose family-owned business, Sawyer Bentwood, has specialized since 1954 in steam-bending hardwood components primarily for furniture (think of the rockers on rocking chairs, or the thin bands that gracefully embrace the edges of a fine dining table), describes kerf this way: “It’s the amount of wood the saw removes.”

Sawyer Bentwood is based in Whitingham, on Vermont’s southern border. It was a little more than 20 years ago that Campo began purchasing the circular saw blades for his machinery from Super Thin Saws, up north in Waterbury. The thin, carbide-tipped blades, he explains, cut down on kerf.

“When I first switched [to Super Thin Saws] we were doing a lot of window bows,” says Campo. “Very narrow rips; we’d take a one-inch board and get five bows out of it. Now, instead of getting five out of a board, we’re getting six. Some thicker boards, instead of getting seven pieces we’re getting nine.”

More products per board translates into lower materials costs, not insignificant for a company that purchases hardwoods such as ash, oak, cherry, maple, and walnut. Campo also cites another advantage: “A really thin blade uses less horsepower,” which means less stress and lower operating costs for his equipment.

Dave Strom, nominally the treasurer at Super Thin Saws — in truth, founder and president John Schultz explains, he, Strom, and vice president Rob Bisbee share a fluid management style in which any of them might be doing anything at a given time— has another way of looking at kerf. “We’re turning the sawdust into product.”

Super Thin Saws, or S.T.S., has 32 employees and operates in a 7,000-square-foot shop plus 3,000 square feet of office on the south end of Waterbury Village. The shop is divided into sections where employees perform various functions, from cleaning and rehabilitating blades that customers have sent back for servicing to creating new products with carbide-tipped teeth, set and precisely angled on finely calibrated steel discs. In one area, computerized German machines rotate the discs, one tooth at a time, to a position where they are ground on both sides by an abrasive, amid a flow of cooling oil — all within a glass case illuminated by colored lighting.

Preparing a thin circular saw blade involves more than setting and sharpening its teeth — though sharpening itself is a complex procedure as the teeth are custom-designed for diverse applications. “Smithing” the blades involves straightening and tensioning — essentially, building strength into the blade so it can resist oppositional forces.

“Straightening puts it plane,” Schultz explains. “Tensioning keeps it that way in operation.”

Jennifer Fraser, of Appalachian Engineered Flooring in North Troy (a division of Appalachian Flooring in Cowansville, Quebec), explains what this precision means for her company.

“In the past, a lot of people in the flooring industry were using saws that didn’t provide precision and repeatability of the product,” she says. “Our sawmill in Canada was having an excessive amount of returns [of product], and changing our blades a lot. We heard about these guys in Vermont and contacted Rob.”

The North Troy subsidiary, which produces “engineered” flooring, built of a core of hardwood with hardwood veneer on the surface, opened five years ago.

“They came up before we started the machines, to check what we would need,” says Fraser, referring to S.T.S. “I’m the type of personality I’m going to ask plenty of questions, because I can’t be a specialist in everything. I was relying on those guys, and they gave me answers I could understand.

“You’re trying to match, essentially, the least amount of returns and the highest quality product. You don’t want to have unnecessary returns and an off-spec product. Your blade is an essential part of that.”

Flooring, doors and windows, cabinets, and furniture components are fairly predictable uses for a well-made industrial saw blade. The S.T.S. trio, however, can recite more-surprising customers they’ve had. These have included the former Milton Bradley — famous for its board game Scrabble with its classic wooden letters, production of which was based in Fairfax for 20 years. (By the time the plant closed in 1998, Milton Bradley had been purchased by Hasbro. One witty newspaper announced the event with the headline, “Hasbro’s Scrabble letter factory is C-L-O-S-E-D.”)

Martin Guitars has used S.T.S. blades to make the precision braces glued to the soundboard, and piano manufacturers have found them useful for the delicate hammers that strike the strings. Venetian blinds and speaker cabinets have brought in business, and one of the few non-wood applications is for the foam-and-resin inner cores of wind-turbine blades.

“Flooring is our biggest market, though,” says Bisbee. And it’s complex enough to keep the company busy, especially for tongue-in-groove flooring in a variety of types of wood, all requiring different blades.

Not coincidentally, S.T.S. once stood for Schultz Tool Sharpening, an earlier enterprise that Schultz started in nearby Moretown. Schultz, raised in the New York City suburbs, attended MIT, where he earned an “SB” in mathematics in 1971. (The school reversed the customary initials for the degree, he quips, to avoid its unwanted implications.) He quickly followed his passion for skiing to Vermont, where he settled in the Mad River Valley and founded the Green Mountain Valley School for ski racers.

Restless after five years, and harking back to an earlier experience working in a hardware store, he opened his sharpening business, honing everything from kitchen knives to router bits to chain saws and circular saw blades.

Rob Bisbee, a 19-year-old local kid, was one of his first employees in 1978. Like Schultz, he was a skiing fanatic; unlike Schultz, he was not college educated. “I went to the Shelburne Craft School, and woodworking was what I really liked doing,” Bisbee says.

But Schultz perceived, and admires to this day, his now–vice president’s special talents. Hands-on learning and technical abilities aren’t valued as they should be, Schultz believes. Super Thin Saws provides field service to its customers, helping them troubleshoot problems that sometimes are not related to their saw blades but affect the products they’re manufacturing. Bisbee has journeyed as far as Finland and China on sales and service calls.

“Rob can walk onto a company floor, look at the equipment for a nanosecond, and say, ‘There’s your problem,’” says Schultz.

Strom, a graduate of Bennington High School, was born in 1970. He entered the Army Reserve, where he was trained in electrical work. Following his discharge, he became a licensed electrician. He found himself living in Moretown and working in Burlington, a lifestyle that wore on him, so he ventured down the road to the local saw shop, where he became another of Schultz’s early employees.

The business changed after Schultz attended a trade show in Atlanta, and heard another visitor asking at different booths for thin saw blades, but finding none that satisfied him. Schultz grew interested in this phenomenon, began purchasing equipment, and gradually changed his company’s direction, and its name in 1985.

“The name ‘Super Thin Saws’ started as a way to save on the marketing budget,” he says. “Everyone knew immediately what we did. In the years since it has almost become generic in the industry to mean any thin saw blade, no matter who made it. Many people just use the term to refer to anything that’s thinner than normal for that application.”

S.T.S. moved to Waterbury in 1997. The company won the prestigious Challenger’s Award at the 2008 International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta — the same event where Schultz had first begun thinking about thin saws. That same year, the company was purchased by an out-of-state corporation, but in 2011 Schultz, Bisbee, and Strom bought it back.

Schultz and his wife, Annette, live in Moretown in a house they formerly ran as a bed-and-breakfast. Their daughter Megan operates a local wedding-planning service, while their daughter Katie is a soil scientist, with a family in Montana.

Bisbee lives in Waitsfield with his son, Jesse, who’s in high school, and two very distinctive pulis (a breed of Hungarian sheep dogs) named Charlie and Rosie. The dogs, with their full-body dreadlocks, follow Bisbee around at the saw plant. (“That’s how we know he’s here,” quips Strom.) Jesse, adept with computers, provides IT service to his dad’s company in the summers.

Strom now lives in Duxbury and has two sons — David, 20, who works for a furniture company in Colchester, and Hunter, 16, a senior at Harwood Union High School. His business partners are still avid skiers, but Strom’s taste runs more to fishing on Lake Champlain.

Sawyer Bentwood and Appalachian Flooring are two of just a small number of customers S.T.S. has in Vermont. The company’s reach is now global, although mostly concentrated in North America. And those customers are playing for big stakes.

“Some of those companies are cutting $10 million to $20 million a year in product,” says Schultz. “If we can save them half a percent in the wood they’re cutting it saves them a lot of money. Then again, it might be a small 10-person company just making paint sticks or rulers or pencils.”

There are plenty of uses for a super thin saw. •