Solar Kilns... Jim's Way!

(The images in this article are used with permission from Jom Birkemeier and Timbergreen Farms.)

Meet a Wisconsin tree farmer with a passion for doing the right thing.

Nobody will ever accuse Jim Birkemeier of being lazy. The day we visited him, Jim was busy managing his 200 acre forest, harvesting and milling logs, installing the trim in his new house, creating hardwood flooring, selling boards to woodworkers, operating his own three solar kilns, and being a very big part of a local forest owners' co-op - a group which owns and operates a massive solar kiln near Spring Green, Wisconsin. I'm amazed that he still found time to give us the royal tour.


Jim Birkemeier

Jim is an exceptionally amiable and very bright guy who has created a complete lifestyle - job, family, home and hobby - out of harvesting and processing his own timber - and doing so in an environmentally responsible fashion. From the trees outside his windows, he sells everything from whole logs to turned writing pens. Here's Jim on forest management:

"We re-learned the business of forestry from the forest owner's point of view. I had a strong gut feeling that I must do the opposite of what our first attempts at forest management produced. We now must select the good big trees, and let them grow - cutting just the low value trees to give the good ones more room to grow."

To be able to harvest the "worthless" trees, he had to develop markets for this less-than-desirable wood. It didn't take him long to realize that kiln drying was the key to adding value.

The Solar Revolution
In 1988, Jim and his family bought a new WoodMizer sawmill and built the first of three solar kilns. After that, their lumber business began to expand. The other two kilns soon followed. Woodworkers began to comment that the lumber was the best quality wood they had ever worked with - flatter, less damaged, less stressed, more natural colored - "brighter", and easier to work than wood from other commercial sources.
"These solar heated kilns have been our claim to fame and made us different from other suppliers," says Jim. "In addition, they have attracted many magazine and newspaper stories that have brought us a lot of new business. Our new designs (shown below) are ten times more efficient than our first kiln, as we have learned to capture and use the most energy possible from the available sunshine."

Plans for this newest kiln are available: just send Jim an e-mail (see below). There's a small fee to offset the cost. The day we visited was typical Wisconsin spring weather - overcast one minute, sunny the next (see the sky in the photo below of the super kiln). We were absolutely amazed at the temperatures being reached. Jim's Wisconsin location gets winter temperatures down to -40F/C (72F below freezing), so a kiln is probably viable in almost any geographical location. Others are now in Russia, South America, England, Alaska and Canada. If you're interested, talk to the man: he has a lot of answers.

Plans for this solar kiln are available
Photo by Jim Birkemeier

Super Kiln
Jim belongs to a group called the Sustainable Woods Cooperative, Inc. of Spring Green, Wisconsin. On December 4th, 1999, the co-op began construction of their Super Solar Cycle kiln - believed to be the largest solar kiln in the U.S.
  "We are still learning about this Super kiln, but it is now far exceeding even our best hopes for drying lumber. Daily operating temperatures have been above 160 F and the kiln is now drying about 10,000 board feet each week. Estimated annual production from this building is now 250,000 board feet. We may also add wood waste heat to boost production in the winter."

Contact Info:

Jim Birkemeier
S11478 Soeldner Rd
Spring Green, WI 53588
(608) 588-7342

Visit Jim online

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