Forestry's Green Warrior
Slicing Back In Vogue
Summary: BC's Paul Creek Slicing Ltd. has found growth potential producing veneer from lower-quality fibre, primarily white pine.
By L. Ward Johnson
Whenever the topic of log breakdown arises, most industry people think about the usual three methods: sawing, chipping and peeling. Not yet common in the industry is a fourth method, slicing, which, when used to produce facing stock for lumber and panel products, brings a whole new meaning to the term "value added".
With log quality dwindling for most sawmills, top grades of lumber and panel products are becoming difficult and expensive to obtain. As a result, secondary manufacturers that require a high-quality product for such items as furniture, door and window stock, decorative panel products, etc. are looking to slicing as a means of upgrading lower-quality lumber for production of high-value items.
Slicing is not a new process; the concept dates back at least half a century in Canada and perhaps more. During that time, interest from the large forest companies has waxed and waned, but because of the nature of this specialized function, it has remained the domain of small, value-added operators who seem more able to maximize productivity and return from the rough furnish that normally makes up the raw material for a slicing operation.
About 60 to 70 per cent of the Canadian slicing production comes from British Columbia, where one of the most prominent operators is Paul Creek Slicing Ltd. Paul Creek is the largest producer of white pine, fir, hemlock and cedar sliced veneer in the province. This company currently has three slicing plants in operation: two in Kamloops in the BC South Interior, and one in Surrey in the Lower Mainland. Company principals are presently attempting to set up a fourth operation at Kaslo, in the West Kootenays, but that is contingent on whether they can get a reliable supply of timber. Owned by Bob Fraser and Ronald Rhodes, Paul Creek Slicing has been in operation for just over three years. Last year, the firm was awarded a timber licence by the B.C. Ministry of Forests for 43,000 cubic meters of 'category two' wood, which enabled them to build their second plant in Kamloops. This plant came on stream in January, 1996. The company hopes to utilize some of the wood themselves and trade with other operators in the area for white pine, which is the most desirable species for a slicing operation.
The first Kamloops mill, which employs a workforce of 24, produces about 2,000 square meters of white pine veneer per day. The second Kamloops plant is similar in size and productivity. When added to the Surrey production, total combined output of the three plants is approximately 100,000 square meters of veneer per day. Most of the company's production goes to Quebec and to Michigan in the US. The appeal of a plant in Kaslo, which is also expected to be similar in size to the two Kamloops mills, is the proximity to a supply of white pine that is abundant in that area.
The Surrey plant is a typical slicing operation, except that it utilizes large coastal oversize logs for its raw material. At the Surrey operation, a splitter saw is a necessary additional requirement for breaking down the large butt logs that form most of the raw material supply for the plant. Normally, output from the oversize butts at the Surrey plant is 80 per cent cant material and 20 per cent lumber.
Once the oversize butts are split, the chunks are converted into blocks 8'6" long by 10" wide on a headrig bandsaw. Special effort is made to produce vertical grain blocks, since they are best for slicing. Slabs and other parts of the log that don't make it to a slicing block are sawn into lumber. In a slicing operation, almost all of a log is utilized.
The blocks go from the headrig to a steam kiln where they are steamed at 200° farenheit for 24 hours to ensure the wood is well saturated. When the charge is removed from the steam kilns, the blocks go into the plant, where they are first cleaned up with an air planer, then manually loaded onto the slicer, the heart of the operation. The blocks are mounted on the splitter at a 10° angle, which ensures the slice is removed progressively as the block passes across the knife. On most slicers, the the block travels up and down across the knife. Once a cycle is complete, the slice drops down onto a discharge conveyor.
To make another slice, the knife is advanced 1/36'' in the case of fir, cedar, hemlock and spruce, or 1/26'' for white pine, and the process is repeated. The block is sliced to within 1/2'' of the center, then flipped to expose the opposite side and again sliced down to within 1/2'' of the center. Slices, now called a flitch stack, are kept in sequence to book match the pattern when they are applied to veneer. A flitch block is fully processed when all that remains is a 1'' centre board.
The slicer at the Surrey plant can produce up to 90 slices per minute, but the crew normally runs it at 60 slices per minute. Slices are sent to a dryer where they are dried to 10 per cent moisture content, then to a clipper line where they are clipped for length, graded and plastic wrapped in a flitch stack. With the operation complete, the slices are ready for shipment to the customer.
The most common use for sliced white pine is facing for furniture and joinery stock. Any wooden member can be faced with split material to produce a clear, smooth surface that has a high-quality appearance. The Surrey plant is also planning to experiment with local hardwoods such as maple and alder. Tests already conducted on several exotic hardwood species indicate there is good potential for increasing the product base.
An additional operation currently being upgraded at the Surrey plant is an edge-gluing centre for producing 4'x8' sheets of face veneer, that can be applied directly to a core stock panel. Producing facing for core stock can double the value of sliced material.
Co-owner Bob Fraser, who runs the Surrey plant, believes slicing is just coming into its own: "I think we're going to see a big new demand for sliced products in the not-to-distant future," he says. "Regular sawmills are not able to get the quality logs needed for producing clear lumber.
That means the customer must either pay a big price for clear lumber - if he can get it at all - or settle for lesser quality material to do the job. "We can take lower quality lumber, which is perfectly adequate for our application, put a clear, fine-textured veneer strip on it, and give the customer a board with a high quality, clear face - all at a reasonable price. What's not to like about that?"
Fraser says there's more to slicing than just producing a high-quality product; there's also the value-added aspect: "I can't think of any other forest industry operation that can take a cubic metre of fir and turn it into a product that is 2,000 per cent the value of finished lumber - that's what we do every day. In terms of a value-added product, nothing beats sliced wood," he says.
Not only is this type of value-added manufacturing more profitable than processing finished lumber, it also means more jobs. According to Fraser, the average conventional sawmill employs one person for every 50 cubic metres of wood processed. "On our operations," he says, "we create one job for every single cubic metre of wood we process per day. Quite a difference, wouldn't you say?"
Another significant consideration in a slicing operation is the environmental impact: No toxic chemicals are used in producing sliced material, and the operation is quiet. What little waste is generated, such as bark and trimmings, can be ground up with a tub grinder for use in mulch and top soil operations. Burning waste is not required.
"If you put it all into perspective," says Fraser, "we take logs through a labour-intensive process that generates jobs and produces local economic activity, and we convert them to a high-value product that is sold outside the province, bringing in new money. There is little or no environmental impact during manufacture, and since we are producing a finished product, we are maximizing the benefit from our wood resource. How can you beat that?"
According to Fraser, one of the difficulties has been developing expertise among his workforce. "Because of the uniqueness of this operation, you can't hire experienced people off the street. We brought in Stacey Bruce (production manager) from Quebec to look after production and grading; his expertise has made a considerable difference for us. He was involved with slicing operations in the east and had just the experience we needed. You can't get by without that."
Fraser believes there is a big demand for sliced product, but he says such operations need better access to more wood. At present, only about four per cent of BC's total allowable annual cut is allocated to independent and small business value-added licences, he says. If the industry is to grow and proliferate, there needs to be more wood available.
"Government in this province is always touting its commitment to value-added processing and manufacturing, and to small entrepreneurs such as ourselves," he says. "Yet they send out an entirely different message through their timber allocation policies. If they are really serious in their commitment to value-added manufacturing, easier access to a raw material supply would go a long way toward promoting it."
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