ORONO, Maine — Robert Rice is a University of Maine professor of wood science, but Tom Shafer thinks of him as a senior adviser.
Co-owner of Maine Heritage Timber Co., Shafer took back from Rice a load of 2-inch-thick planks on Wednesday that had been cut from logs submerged in Quakish Lake in Millinocket since the early 1800s. Shafer wanted to know whether the wood would be suitable for use as kitchen tables. After treating the water-soaked wood in a kiln behind Nutting Hall for 14 days, Rice had his answer: Yes.
Rice and the owner of the Millinocket furniture and floor-making business have worked together well since first meeting in 2010, Shafer said.
“He looks at this relationship from a scientific standpoint and I look at it from a marketing standpoint. The first time I met him, I brought him some wood,” Shafer said Wednesday. “He said, ‘I know what that is. That’s an inert bacteria that causes that blue color.’ And I said, ‘No. That’s patina.’”
Rice said he has done similar work with about 150 Maine businesses over the last several years. His goal: To increase the university’s utility to Maine businesses in exchange for opportunities to learn more about Maine’s ever-evolving forest products industry.
“It’s part of our service mission to the state,” Rice said of the university. “If we can help with Maine industry, we do so. Everybody in the department [School of Forestry Resources] does some of it. It’s our way of giving back.”
Rice’s work doesn’t come free and he doesn’t do it for just anybody. People who just show up at the door won’t get service, he said.
Shafer estimated that he has paid the university about $10,000 since 2011 for Rice’s work testing his wood’s density, strength and moisture content. Used to produce high-end flooring and furniture, the wood demands careful treatment in its journey from lakebed to showroom, Shafer said.
Rice also has devised for Shafer drying schedules that professional kiln operators can use to prep the wood for manufacturing.
Wherever possible, Rice seeks to provide services to businesses that are unique to the university or of educational value to himself or his students. That’s why Shafer has lectured Rice’s students about creating business during the university’s Entrepreneurship Week annually since 2010.
Small kilns such as UMaine’s, which is rated to handle 1,500 board feet, allow Shafer to do small test batches at the school before committing to larger industrial machines, which can handle up to 25,000 board feet, he said.
Wednesday’s batch of wood, which initially was rated as containing 40 percent moisture, was prepared for manufacturing use in the kiln beginning at 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 83 percent humidity. Rice gradually raised the temperature to 169 degrees Fahrenheit and lowered the kiln’s steam content to 69 percent to produce boards with a moisture content of 9 percent — low enough to be acceptable as kitchen tabling, Shafer said.
“If you do the schedule too fast, the wood blows apart,” said Shafer, whose architectural millwork — typically wainscoting, trim and flooring — was ranked 97th for its “unique pickled patina” in This Old House magazine’s Top 100 products listing in its November-December issue.
The process is about 70 percent science and 30 percent touch, Rice said.
He recalled taking a load of about $750,000 of wood to a New Hampshire kiln for processing. The kiln operator there didn’t seem to take seriously the drying schedule Shafer provided.
“I told him, ‘If you want to turn it into firewood, go ahead, but you are going to write me a check,’” Shafer said. “He said, ‘Oh yeah? Who did your schedule for you?’”
When Shafer told him, the man said, “Bob Rice? Great! Give it to me!’” Shafer said.
“Professor Rice,” he said, “gives us and our products instant credibility.”