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SMALL SAWMILLING

Diversified Markets

BC’s Jackson Cedar has been successful at cutting for both the specialty market and the retail market.

By Paul MacDonald

Gary Jackson (bottom) and his small sawmilling operation in Powell River, BC. They produce everything from small pieces for lattice work to 16x16for timber frame homes.

As far as retail locations go, the site for Jackson Cedar’s small sawmill operation can’t be beat. If you are taking the main highway in—or out—of the town of Powell River on BC’s Sunshine Coast, you can’t help but drive past Jackson Cedar. “When you come up to Powell River by ferry from Vancouver, you have to drive past my mill,” explains owner Gary Jackson. “It’s a great location.” He expects that location to be a further advantage as he expands the retail side, having added a second small band saw to Jackson Cedar.

Jackson has taken a very studied approach to the market with his three-year-old business. Aside from the retail side, he has consciously focused on producing for the high end of the market—that’s his main business. Like other such operations, the central idea is to produce value, not volume. “You can’t expect to compete with high production mills or operations like that. Some of them are doing a million board feet a day. It would take me three years to produce that amount of wood.” Jackson Cedar, with its two Wood-Mizer band saws, specializes in supplying high value wood to local value-added companies and home builders.

The retail operation is presently a small part of the overall business, but it’s an area which Jackson intends to expand for the next season (see sidebar story). Jackson has no illusions—or intentions—about doing large exports of product to other parts of BC, let alone export to the United States. He is quite content to service the local market around Powell River and the Sunshine Coast. His formula is straightforward: work to establish business relationships with local users, and then deliver a good product on a consistent basis. It’s a simple approach, but then some of the most successful companies, big or small, do well because they are able to execute, day-in, day-out, and deliver the goods.

Jackson Cedar’s original Wood-Mizer, an LT 40HD model. “It’s been a great machine,” says Gary Jackson. “We haven’t had any problems with it.”

He initially operated from a smaller site—adjacent to where the business is now—but the opportunity came to purchase a three-acre site, with room for log and product storage, and allowing the bandsaw to be under cover. Jackson reports he has had good success with his Wood-Mizer—hence the decision to purchase another unit. “It’s been a great machine. We haven’t had any problems with it. You have to make sure you keep the blade on line, though. Your blades and guides have to be tinkered with once in a while.” Their original Wood-Mizer LT 40HD is a vintage machine, a 1992 model.

The engine required replacing six months after Jackson purchased the unit, but he doesn’t begrudge that. They were able to take it up to a total of 7,000 operating hours—“quite a high number of hours”. They are up to about 4,000 hours on the latest engine and Jackson, wanting to stay on top of things and practise some preventative maintenance, is thinking it’s getting time for another engine. In terms of maintenance, there is a daily routine for greasing and Jackson thoroughly goes over the unit every two to three weeks. One helpful change they’ve made on the unit was on the belt.

A B57 belt was being used, but it proved to be too big for the wheels. They were experiencing some greater than usual vibration and higher blade breakage. “So we went to a B56 belt,” says Jackson. The B56 is harder to get on because it’s one inch shorter. It might take two screwdrivers and a bit of oil to get it on, but then it’s on good and snug. “It’s impossible to get it off after that. We need to cut if off.” The belt change has delivered results. There is no longer any slack building up between the belt and the wheel, reducing vibration substantially. And he estimates that both blade life and belt life has doubled.

The basic Wood-Mizer unit is pretty much the same as the day it was fired up in 1992, but Jackson notes they have made some minor changes to the set-up. “I’ve put an extension on it so we can cut longer lengths of lumber.” Their product size varies tremendously, everything from 1.5 by 1/2 inch pieces for lattice work to 16x16 for timber frame homes. With the extension, he is able to cut pieces up to 27 feet long, a good four feet longer than many other suppliers. And that helps them truly cover the waterfront, in terms of customers. “We get orders from oyster farms, who are building their floats out of Douglas fir. And they need pieces up to 26 feet long.”

They also do a fair amount of decking. There’s a small planer on site that can finish three sides. Other changes made to the set-up included adding a trim saw, so the unit was more productive and would produce better quality wood. Much of the wood is delivered straight off the saw. But Jackson is a certified double A grader, which results in some extra business for those customers looking for grading. Their daily production varies depending on what their customers require. If they are cutting 1x4, edge grain, for example, they’ll produce 1,200 board feet a shift. But if it’s more straightforward 6x6, production could shoot up to as much as 5,000 board feet. “It’s really apples and oranges,” says Jackson. “It depends on the condition of the wood itself and what you are cutting. “It’s quite a process, putting a 48-inch cedar log up on the deck and thinking it through so you get the best cuts out of it.

Customers have paid up to $500 a cubic metre for that wood and we are focused on getting the most, and best, out of it for them.” And the same holds true for the cutting he does of Jackson Cedar’s own wood. “I want every piece out of that log, right down to the one by ones.” As the company name suggests, the mill cuts a great deal of the beautiful western red cedar native to the west coast, but it also handles Douglas fir, hemlock and some hardwood, such as alder and maple. While the business does a good amount of cutting of their customers’ wood, it has also built up its own supply of timber to meet orders.

When Jackson bought the operation, it had a very small supply of wood in inventory, about 30 cubic metres. Jackson has since built that up to 3,000 cubic metres. Timber supply in this part of BC continues to be a challenge. But Jackson feels the best way to approach that—at the moment—is to continue to source timber from those harvesting on private or Crown land, rather than setting up his own woods operation. “I think that would be spreading things too thin.” Getting involved with a timber sale, while it would provide them with fibre, would also mean a significantly larger financial commitment. “That may come, but it will be the next step on the ladder.”

Going retail pays off for Jackson
Garden products are pretty much the stock in trade for the retail side of Jackson Cedar. Products include lattice, picnic tables and fence panels. Besides offering a good sideline business to the main custom and market cutting that Jackson Cedar does, it helps to make best use of the wood itself. “A fence panel, for example, will use up all the two and three foot pieces that can sit around the yard forever,” says Gary Jackson.

There are usually two people working in the yard and drive-in customers receive good service, a priority with Jackson. So much so that if an employee is busy with one customer, “the minute there is another customer, the saw goes down and the sawyer takes care of that customer,” he says. Jackson believes that a high level of customer service and quality product, whether on the retail side or on the custom side, has to be there for his business to be a success. “I really appreciate the efforts of our employees. They make the difference.”

The company does little in the way of advertising, so the product that comes out of the Wood-Mizers has to speak for itself. Jackson notes that the garden business is very seasonal—spring and summer being the busiest times—and that they were a bit late this past year. “But this year we’ll be ready.” And even though it is seasonal, he is hoping it will help balance out the peaks and valleys of the custom cutting business. “It’s a good business, but it can be very sporadic.”

 

New mill will help handle order flow
Jackson Cedar took delivery of another Wood-Mizer saw this past fall, which Gary Jackson fully expects will help the company better handle its order flow. Sometimes his customers need wood immediately or as soon as possible, and this has meant doing some juggling with the single Wood-Mizer unit.

That juggling was especially necessary to keep the production process even and smooth—and meet the needs of all his customers. When the sawyer had to switch suddenly between orders, production sometimes suffered. “The second saw will come in very handy. We expect to use it to do the rush orders.”

Despite the purchase of another saw, Jackson has modest plans for growth. The operation currently has six employees—including Jackson himself—even though he wanted to keep it to four employees when he first established the business. “We will continue to build the business as we go along, but we want to keep close touch with what’s going on in the market.”

One big advantage of being a small mill operation is that they can be extremely flexible and keep very plugged in to the market. “There are so many directions you can go. If the cedar market is off, you can go to alder, you can go to fir. You can do basically anything.” Larger mill operations tend to be tied more into producing a set number of products for particular markets. While that can be fine when markets are good, when markets are mediocre, or bad, their options are limited, compared to smaller operators.

 

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