Local company provides solid foundation for gigantic construction equipment pieces

Jason Kleppe of Canton stands beside a stack of crane mats ready for shipment. CHARLIE WARNER/NEWS LEADER
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Have you ever seen a mammoth construction crane setting a tall power line tower into place along a soggy highway right-of-way and wondered what keeps that massive piece of equipment from sinking into the muck? The crane and the towering steel pole probably weigh hundreds of tons. What provides the footing to keep the crane from tipping?

The answer is a series of very thick, heavy-duty mats made of eight-inch thick timbers called crane mats. A crane mat is made of a number of eight- by eight-inch hardwood timbers bolted together. They measure 48 inches wide by either 16 or 18 feet long.

A job like the Excel Energy line that was recently completed along Highway 52 north of Rochester required thousands of crane mats. It takes a lot of four-foot wide mats, situated side by side, to get the cranes into place. Sometimes, it might require a half-mile of mats to move a crane to the proper location. That’s 660 crane mats.

With all the power line construction going on right now, there is a definite need for crane mats. A local company, Kleppe Lumber of Canton, is helping fill this need. Jason Kleppe, who has been in the lumber business for many years, got interested in crane mats about a year ago. While he was keeping three area Amish saw mills quite busy cutting railroad ties, pallet wood and finished wood, Kleppe was searching for another use for the wood he was harvesting.

“Things got very slow following the big recession about 10 years ago,” Kleppe observed. He said he was looking for something else to help him work through another possible downturn in the economy. Kleppe heard about crane mats about a year ago. There is a company, Atwood Forest Products of Cedar Springs, Mich., that sends crane mats all over the country. They were looking for someone to produce the mats on this side of the Mississippi River, as trucking costs are quite substantial.

“I contacted Atwood Forest Products and visited their facility last year,” Kleppe said. “I was quite impressed with their operation. I spent a day learning how the mats are made, was shown how to operate the large drill that bores the holes for the bolts that hold the timbers together and how to grade the timbers for the mats.”

Kleppe noted there was a substantial learning curve to crane mat building. And there was one major technical obstacle to clear. The Amish sawmill he was leasing to build the crane mats did not have electricity. Everything was done with belt-driven motors. The massive drilling machine that was perfected by Ron Atwood was operated by a large electric motor. It had to be converted over to hydraulic pressure. It took quite a bit of experimenting, trial and error, before Kleppe was able to get the right drill bit rpms.

“The drill speed has to be just right,” Kleppe explained. “If it’s too fast, the bit gets too hot. If it’s too slow, the bit won’t move through the wood just right. Once we got that part figured out, we were able to start making mats.”

It took about a month before the mat making operation was perfected. Now Kleppe and the crew of eight Amish workers produce between six and ten mats per day. The logs are cut down to size, they must be eight inches tall and can be four, six or eight inches wide, depending on how many pieces can be cut out of a log.

“As long as the pieces are eight inches tall, we cut them four, six or eight inches wide,” Kleppe explained. “That way we can use whatever combination we have to make a 48-inch wide mat. Some mats are 16 feet long, some are 18. Because they are so heavy, we can only put 20 16-footers on a truck or 18 18-footers.”

Once the timbers are cut, they are laid out 48 inches wide and placed in the drill press. There, the timbers are squeezed tightly together and a 60-inch drill bit bores a 1 and 1/8-inch hole through the wood about every four feet. Large bolts are then threaded through the holes and a large washer and nut secures the timbers together. The hole is counter sunk on the backside so the washer and nut are flush with the side of the timber.

“The outside timbers have to be eight inches wide to accommodate for the countersinking,” Kleppe added.

Kleppe added that the crane mats are a good way to use up some of the poorer lumber. Any type of hardwood can be used. But mats made out of ash can only be shipped to quarantined counties due to the emerald ash bore issue. Kleppe said, at times, it has been hard to find long enough timbers for the mats. Right now, he’s working with 15 to 20 different loggers to keep enough inventory on hand.

Will there continue to be a demand for the crane mats being produced right here in Fillmore County? Kleppe figures there will be. He pointed out that one job in West Virginia is calling for 60,000 mats. A power line project between Tomah and Madison, Wis., is also gearing up, which will be requiring a large number of mats as well.

“We just sent a load out to a project in Wyoming. There are plenty of projects out there to keep us busy,” Kleppe concluded.