Forestry's Green Warrior
Processing Mill On-site: Unique Specialty Plant
Profile: A thriving BC operation has found a ready market for an unusual product - temple wood - used to build and repair religious structures, primarily in Japan.
By L. Ward Johnson
British Columbia is maxed out with large, high-production sawmills that process thousands of logs per shift and sell their products at market-driven prices to traditional consumers. But while mainstream industry pundits talk about maximizing value and recovery from every log, an operation on Vancouver Island is already doing it.
T.F. Specialty Sawmill Inc. at Courtenay, BC is a specialty custom-cut operation that produces sawn products for designated orders. Although the plant also turns out components for specialty applications such as wooden ships, curved bridges, blanks for wood carving, etc., their specialty is temple wood, which is used to repair and construct religious structures. While many of these buildings are in Japan, Taiwan and other Asian countries, one of the first complete orders T.F filled came from the Ukrainian Church in Victoria, BC.
The plant has the capability to cut almost any size product, from a piece 12'' long by 20'' wide, to a flitch 70' long by 8' wide. On occasion, usually in the case of replacement pieces, a customer will mail a paper template to ensure he gets exactly the shape and size needed.
Yellow cedar is the most common species T.F. specialty cuts, but they also process spruce, fir, hemlock, red cedar, etc. Recently, the company has been doing some experimenting with various hardwoods, including imported species from other countries.
The reason the Asian market likes BC yellow cedar is that it is closest to Hinoki wood, a kind of Taiwanese yellow cedar. Hinoki, like BC yellow cedar, is a light-coloured wood that originally was used to construct many Asian temples. Since only a limited number of Hinoki trees are cut each year, Hinoki is now very expensive and difficult to obtain. In response, the Asian market is substituting BC yellow cedar, which is readily available and comparatively inexpensive.
T.F. Specialty Sawmill is owned by Dali Lin, who emigrated from Taiwan and now lives in Comox, and partner Dr. Henry Fang, a forestry consultant who received his PhD from Oregon State University. Including time spent in Taiwan, Dali Lin has over 40 years of experience in the sawmill business.
The company was started four years ago when Dali Lin identified an opportunity to match Canadian technology and raw materials with Taiwanese demand. Together with some assistance from BC Economic Development, the partners built the mill in the early '90s and started producing for the custom-cut market. To help get the plant up and running, the company was awarded a 28,000-cubic-metre timber sale at Powell River, on the BC sunshine coast.
The mill utilizes what timber it can from the Powell River sale, then trades the rest for more desirable species and sizes. T.F. has a standing trade relationship with Field Sawmills at Courtenay, but it also trades with other operations in the area and purchases wood from the Vancouver log market. The objective is always to keep a good stock of yellow cedar, spruce and fir in the yard. The plant is happy to get oversize butts and pieces with sweep and crook, which can be utilized to produce products with particular profiles, such as boat ribs, curved bridge stringers, temple roofs, etc.
Recently, T.F. Specialty was called on to supply fir ribs, beams and decking for the Robson 11, an antique sailing ship that operates out of Victoria harbour. There was also a large order from the Taiwanese navy for ship decking.
Logs brought to the mill are first put into the storage yard. Each log is numbered, measured, re-graded and assessed for its specific characteristics. The information is stored in the company's databank. Logs with special characteristics, such as sweep and excessive butt flair, are set aside for a particular purpose and if a log isn't matched to an order right away, it is left in storage to wait for an order that suits its configuration and characteristics.
When an order comes in, the specific log or logs that will be used for the order are selected, bucked for length and debarked on a rosser head debarker. First step in the processing is to split the log in half, because the Taiwanese prefer cutting from the heart out, to display knots and grain.
If, once it is opened up, a log is deemed unsuitable for the order, it is put back into inventory and another log is selected. Logs with special characteristics are sealed with wax, polywrapped to prevent the wood from checking, and placed back in the yard to await an order that matches their particular features.
In instances where only part of the log is suitable (or unsuitable) that part is processed, then the remainder is taken out of the plant and put back into storage. This is the antithesis of conventional sawmill operations, where logs or portions of logs are neither assessed for their suitability for an order, nor removed from the mill because they are unsuitable.
Next step in the breakdown process is the split saw. The log is placed on hydraulic jacks positioned top and butt, which enable the sawyer to compensate for log taper and, in specific instances, sweep. The split saw is a horizontal chain saw that moves back and forth on a track while the log remains stationary. If the log is large, several cuts may be made at this breakdown station.
Cants from the split saw are transported over to the head saw for the third stage of breakdown. Pieces are passed through the head saw, a large single-cut 60'' bandsaw, via a carriage. The head saw can produce finished material, if the order calls for large-dimension cants.
Next breakdown stage is the edger, which does the usual job of removing the irregular edges to produce boards. All the breakdown equipment in the plant is fitted with special saws that produce a smooth cut.
If further breakdown is required, the boards are sent to the table saw, which is equivalent to a resaw station in a conventional mill. Here large dimension material from previous breakdown stations are resawn to smaller dimensions and undesirable characteristics, such as wane, are removed.
Resawing is also done to produce boards with characteristics such as vertical grain. If needed, boards can be sent to one of two trim saw stations where they can be further cleaned up and cut to length.
To complete the process, the lumber is face graded. Clear faces are drawn graphically on the end of each piece. The product is hand packaged by two people who poly wrap them and place them in the storage yard in readiness for shipping.
Yard Foreman at T.F. Specialty Sawmill is Chris Nikolaisen, who lives in Courtenay. Nikolaisen says orders can vary greatly in size and content. "Orders can be anywhere from just a few pieces to hundreds of pieces. We had one order that had over 3,000 pieces in it. Big orders like that or specific orders for pieces with special characteristic can take months to fill. We had one order that took the better part of six months to complete," he says.
Nikolaisen explains that in the temple wood business, not only are pieces cut to finished standard, but every piece can have a different name and a different application. There can be 200 or 300 specifications in a large temple cut order, he says, with 20 or 30 pieces in each specification. This means each piece must be manufactured individually to fulfill the exact requirements of the specification. High-production plants can't accommodate such rigorous preconditions.
Nikolaisen says when they are buying logs, they will take almost anything. "If you look in our yard, you will see some pretty ugly-looking logs. The advantage we have is that we treat every piece on an individual basis. By doing things that way, it's surprising what we can get out of an ugly old slab or a shaky butt. There's always good wood in every piece; it's just a matter of getting it out.
"We cut a lot of temple wood," explains Nikolaisen, "because there is good demand for it. Our success in this area is due largely to Dali Lin, who has a lot of contacts in Asia. But now that we're established, we get orders from everywhere."
Nikolaisen explains that under normal circumstances, they process between 10 and 15 cubic meters a day. "That's our normal production when we're on temple cut," Nikolaisen says, "but we have cut up to 40 cubic meters in a day. Over the course of a year, we probably process around 11,000 cubic metres of logs here," he says.
"Including office staff, there are 30 full-time employees in this operation," he says.
"We've cut wood for a lot of different uses," says Nikolaisen, "including blocks for wood carvers, wood for a Ukrainian church, stringers for curved applications such as special curved roofs, and even logs for veneer slicing - the specialized stuff. We sell to both buyers and consumers, including a number of mills in Taiwan who want to saw their own products out of our cants. It's surprising how many customers you can find when you start digging," he says.
"When we are shipping something specialized like temple wood, each package is assembled individually and the contents are listed right on the package. Along with the contents, the package also gets its own number, which follows it through to destination."
"My background is in the logging industry," says Nikolaisen. "I made the transition a few years ago and it has certainly proven to be an interesting career change. When I worked in the woods, we always used to talk about how one day we would assess each log individually and cut it according to its best value and product returns. It was all talk then, but now I'm doing it.
There's going to be more and more operations like this as wood gets more expensive and less available. It's a good feeling to come here every day knowing we're doing it right this time."
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