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Thin-Kerf Mill Operation Utilizes Old Mill Building
By C. Clayton
In Yreka, a few miles south of the California/Oregon border, Siskiyou Custom Milling has been milling standard and custom products from cedar for nearly a decade. Siskiyou owner manager Curt Judkins Jr. comments, “Cedar is easier to get in this area because the big mills in the area concentrate on other species so my little operation is not stepping on any of the big processors’ toes.”
The mill has created a niche, providing contractors and individuals throughout Northern California with beams and columns for custom homes, decking material, fence kits, and general or custom lumber milled to any dimension a customer may require. Raised garden bed kits have been a fast moving product for them, even with the slower economy.
Adapting to Change
Siskiyou Custom Milling is a good allegory about how change has influenced the lumber industry in the Pacific region. Years ago large sawmills dominated the landscapes of many of the timber towns in the region. In Yreka, a part of one such mill — which Curt used to work for — operated on a rise overlooking the town. When the mill closed, it left behind a number of what might have been, under other circumstances, derelict buildings.
Curt purchased the dry kiln site from the mill, and ten years later, he operates an entire sawmilling operation in a building using three pieces of Wood-Mizer equipment — an LT40 Super Hydraulic thin kerf sawmill for log processing, an edger, and a Lathe-Mizer for specialty products.
It was the ideal location, with an outdoor staging area allowing Siskiyou to accept full log loads trucked in by area loggers. A certified lumber grader, Curt is able to assess the quality of the logs he is accepting and pay accordingly.
Logs are scaled and bucked up then loaded, when needed, aboard a transfer complete with a stop and load to avoid two logs loading onto the band saw bed at once.
Curt says the automated in-feed system is important because it allows for easy operation of the mill by a single person, with little time wasted staging logs.
On demand, logs are loaded onto the bed of the LT40 and milled into lumber. The LT40 is over 10 years old, and Curt recently installed an electric driver motor.
“We’ve run millions of board feet through this sawmill over the years, and it is still producing quality lumber,” Curt says. “With the economy as uncertain as it is and the mill in as good shape as it is, despite its age, we decided to replace the old engine rather than invest in a new machine. It’s more affordable, and that’s important right now.”
Once a log is milled, a wipe off pushes boards to an incline belt that transports the lumber to a landing table while slabs drop out to another belt. The lumber is then processed through the Edger equipped with laser lights for accuracy.
The edger is used to quickly cut a production run. Curt says, “I can’t imagine sawing without an edger, I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t have one – it saves me so much time.”
From the edger, both finished lumber and edgings travel along an out-feed belt. Edgings fall into a rack that can be emptied when full, while the lumber continues to a roll case and transfers from there to a green chain. From the green chain, the lumber can be sorted, stickered, and stacked on kiln carts recycled from the old kiln and still running on the original kiln track.
The weather near Yreka, combined with plenty of storage capacity, allows Siskiyou Custom Milling to rely on air drying the lumber. Curt uses a moisture meter to determine when the wood is ready to be sold.
Curt had originally used a homemade kiln to dry lumber but decided the kiln was too inefficient and costly to run compared with letting nature do the drying.
Other than large timbers typically used for open beam ceilings, Siskiyou doesn’t sell green wood product. In today’s world, Curt says, customers are not familiar with green lumber and will almost always be much happier with dried product that does not shrink or warp after installation. Wood cut in the winter is stickered and stored in a shed to be dried during other seasons.
Another unusual product Siskiyou offers is round columns and other shaped lumber (e.g. squares, octagons). Columns are turned on the lathe, which Curt says turned out to be a good addition to the operation. One of his recent orders was for 10” round by 10’ columns. “That one order paid for the machine’s entire cost to purchase.”
Curt is a strong believer in the narrow blade thin-kerf band technology. A thin blade requires less power, and thus less investment in power to mill lumber even as the saw blades allow Siskiyou to remove less material on a cut than conventional approaches remove. He says that means less sawdust and more product.
Curt estimates at least 30 percent of Siskiyou’s production is custom milling. The other 70 percent is made up of high quality decking material, fence kits, siding, and larger orders of standard sized materials.
Curt has discovered most potential customers want to see what his mill has to offer so Siskiyou keeps significant inventory to demonstrate what is available to potential customers. Curt says this has worked well. “The inventory makes a huge difference. Customers are willing to wait a short time for me to cut their order, because they see what they will be getting ahead of time.”
Curt obtains his trees from a variety of sources including two large companies with access to land, ranchers, and independent loggers. Because he is concerned with environmental sustainability, Curt says it’s important to know where his logs come from so he only buys logs from suppliers who operate under a Timber Harvest Plan.
A Timber Harvest Plan, he says, ensures that logging is done in a manner that will preserve and protect fish, wildlife, forests, and streams and, further, assures the logs he receives are not stolen.
The forest products industry has changed in the past and will continue to change in the future. Mills like Siskiyou Custom Milling are a part of that future as entrepreneurial mill owners bring environmental and economic enhancements to their communities by establishing mills to serve niche markets that traditional mills don’t serve.
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