Above: All of Buck Stove’s wood burning stoves are MIG welded by hand at its Spruce Pine, N.C., manufacturing plant.
Buck Stove looks to grow its fabrication department as demand for wood burning stoves keeps welders busy
January 2015 - Warm air probably flows from vents or emanates off a radiator in your house. And while infrequent, it is possible to walk into a newly built home these days and see a wood burning stove at its center. One company in North Carolina is growing its wood burning stove business, indicating it’s a good market for a heating appliance maker.
Buck Stove Corp., based in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, makes wood- and gas-fueled heating products for use indoors and outdoors, including pellet-fed stoves, fire pits and grills. Although wood burning stoves are usually built from cast iron or soapstone, Buck Stove fabricates them from hot rolled steel plate. The company employs 130 workers at its 300,000 sq. ft. plant about an hour northeast of Asheville.
Buck Stove has partnered with well-known furniture designers to bolster its profile, which has included contracts to install its furnishings in several Panera Bread restaurants. Aside from its marketing efforts and partnerships, the story of Buck Stove is one of a U.S. manufacturer determined to thrive amid cheaper overseas competition as well as the constant struggle to find qualified fabricators, a perennial challenge for a company that’s been around for four decades.
Owned by Robert Bailey, the company derived its name from Carol Buckner, an Asheville businessman who sought to produce wood burning stoves as an alternative to oil and gas heat during the energy crisis of the 1970s.
Heat is on
Fabrication is the heart of Buck Stove’s core business. The life of a stove begins as a prototype. It gets tested for strength, welds and optimal design. Once a design is approved, steel is pulled from inventory. Buck Stove sources hot-rolled pickled and oiled steel, which resists warping and rust.
Depending on design, workers laser- or plasma-cut steel ranging from 24 gauge to 3⁄8 in. thick. The wood stoves are mainly made from heavy-gauge plate and weigh in at 650 lbs. Buck Stove’s full fabrication operation, all performed under one roof, features the entire process from design, cutting, forming and welding to assembly, finishing and shipping.
“We have units that have 400 to 500 parts for which we need to cut each piece,” says Claudia Bailey Honeycutt, Buck Stove’s sales and marketing director. “We offer about 90 finished products. If we need something built, we just go bend it today as opposed to sending it out with a 30-day turnaround.”
The laser tables run about 22 hours a day, with breaks for loading and unloading. For smaller components, it uses CNC machines. After parts are cut, they’ll get formed with one of the many press brakes. Buck Stove is always looking for new press brakes, Honeycutt notes.
After forming, the steel stove shells go to the welding shop. Using a manpowered stove-flipper that Buck Stove built in-house, welders MIG weld the stoves upside down since most of the parts are located in the top. That makes it easier to get to the secondary air system for heat output, says Honeycutt. “And that way, you don’t have to work over your head.”
When welding is done, workers then grind down the welds. The stoves go through a paint booth, get their doors and glass added, as well as ceramic fire bricks that refract heat. The exhaust tubes, made from cold-rolled steel, are purchased from a third-party supplier.
“It’s become a passion of mine to see the process of how these are put together,” says Honeycutt.
After quality control ensures the stoves are perfect, they normally are sent to a warehouse. Around each March, Buck Stove builds up its inventory. It continues to ship units in spring and early summer but not at the same volumes as seen from August through February, its busiest period. But lately, order books have been full. The stoves go out the door as fast as they’re made.
“Now they go straight onto the back of a truck,” Honeycutt says. “There’s not even time to go the warehouse.”
According to statistics kept by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA)—an industry group advocating use of wood burning stoves—the Great Recession hit the hearth stove market hard, which includes wood burning stoves, pellet burning appliances and gas stoves. For wood burning units alone, there were 518,439 units shipped in 2006. By 2012, that figure dropped to 180,066, a net decrease of about 65 percent. But shipments picked up by 15 percent in 2013 to 206,409, an indication demand is gradually rebounding. Buck Stove declined to reveal revenue figures, but the company plans to increase its current production by 20 percent for 2015.
Buck Stove’s client list is growing, too. It is making decorative hardware and metal furnishings for Panera Bread and Disney Theme Parks, as well as picking up work for struggling competitors. In early 2014, Buck Stove began making wood pellet stoves for competitor St. Croix Genuine Stoves after it shuttered manufacturing operations in Nebraska (the company is still in business).
It has partnered with artist and furniture designer Bob Timberlake on some of its fire pit designs, giving Buck Stove a boost in the furnishings market. Plus, the company owns Tri-State Powder Coating, a custom powder coating and fabrication subsidiary.
Cutting steel and bending it can be readily learned but in the face of diversification and growth, Buck Stove struggles to find qualified, experienced welders and machine operators to foster expanded fabrication capacity. Part of that problem is out of the company’s control: The population of Spruce Pine is a mere 2,100 and surrounding Mitchell County’s population, is about 15,500. Buck Stove is the town’s remaining industrial employer. Furniture manufacturing, the county’s main industry, laid off 2,000 people before and during the Great Recession. Ethan Allen closed a plant there in 2006.
Buck Stove today has 10 to 15 workers in its fabrication department. Teaching new employees to run machines is easy, but programming and setting them up isn’t. In response, the company is preparing to move to two shifts so fabrication can keep up through the end of February, when production slows down for about five months.
The local high school and community college both cater to Buck Stove’s needs by training students and incorporating manufacturing into the curricula. “They’re teaching welding, fabrication, CAD, and lots of times they’ll use our plant as a training ground for internships. That’s a big deal for us and has helped us tremendously,” Honeycutt adds. Two college graduates with backgrounds in industrial design have been hired recently. “It’s great to have them because at their age, they’re young and right on the cutting edge of every aspect of design out there.”
Why wood burning?
What is it about wood burning stoves that keeps Buck Stove’s products in demand? According to the HPBA, more people are heating their homes with firewood over concerns about the high cost of other fuels. Wood is renewable, abundant and inexpensive. Wood burning stoves can keep a home warm when the power goes out as well.
No matter what machines Buck Stove uses to build its products, the people are what matter the most, says Honeycutt. “You need to be committed to stay in America and not go offshore. The challenge is to remain competitive and stay right here doing it.” FFJ