May 2005 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
Taking on birch
Ontario mill Precut Hardwood is taking on the Rodney Dangerfield of timber—birch, a tree that gets little respect among sawmillers—and is making success of it by making sure as much of the tree as possible becomes a money-making commodity.
By Ray Ford
hardened loggers can’t deny white birch is a pretty tree. Beavers love it,
and its bark was long esteemed by canoe-makers. But the tree with the
striking white bark has never won much respect in the sawmill industry. It
floats a canoe, but all that twisting, spindly wood can sink a mill.
The secret lies in
keeping the business simple: bigger-diameter wood is cut for pallets in
two sizes: 7/8x4 and 7/8x6, typically in 40-inch lengths. Most of the
production is sold for high-quality reusable pallets. The tops and the
small stuff—usually about five inches and smaller—is cut, split, and
bagged for the kind of firewood that ends up in provincial parks and urban
After a lengthy recovery—the crushed ribs had just grazed Carl’s heart—the family returned to North Bay. Holtz taught in the machine shop at North Bay’s Canadore College, did some cutting and skidding, and continued to muse about making a buck from birch. “The birch thing still stuck in my mind,” he recalls. “Down here, birch was available again. The big companies didn’t want it.”
Using a homemade
portable bandmill and with Sue’s help, Holtz began experimenting with
sawing short, twisty hardwood. Eventually they began hiring help, first
setting up a small mill near Tilden Lake, north of North Bay, and then
moving further south to the site of the former Hampel-Gibson sawmill. For
Holtz, things had almost come full circle. As a 13-year-old he’d stacked
slab wood at the Gibson mill. “Now I’m back here, still doing the same
job,” he jokes.
“This mill is totally
specialized,” Holtz adds. “If we need a board that’s six feet long, we
have to go to RONA and buy it.”
Selling the tops for
pulpwood is little better than a loss leader. The spindly, twisted wood
stubbornly resists efficient loading, stacking, or handling. “We were
selling it for almost the same price as we bought it for. I was telling my
accountant you don’t even need to put the batteries in your calculator to
figure that out.”
Demand for the wood has
grown as Holtz has expanded sales to the provincial park system. “We
started out with 10,000 bags a year, then 25,000. Last year we sold
130,000 bags,” Holtz says, adding firewood deliveries keep the mill’s
Western Star tractor-trailer running seven days a week through the camping
Most of the lumber produced is No 1 pallet stock for Thomco Pallet and Box in Tweed, Ontario. Thomco, in turn, supplies reusable pallets to manufacturers and large retailers including grocers, hardware dealers, and big-box stores such as Home Depot and Canadian Tire.
The lumber begins as logs drawn mostly from Crown land as far afield as Pembroke and Mattawa in the east and Verner to the west. The tree-length wood is piled in the yard with a Hood 24000 loader/slasher (the slasher itself is no longer used.) Birch is so variable there’s really no such thing as a typical log, but a common diameter is in the range of seven inches, with lengths of 35 feet. Wood that’s bigger than 14 inches is set aside and canted by a Norwood portable mill.
The wood is ferried to the mill by a John Deere 5440 loader equipped with a Bateman quick connect grapple, and fed into the slasher by an older Caterpillar 302L that has its original clamshell. Once in the slasher, “We cut our logs in 40-inch lengths. It takes a pretty crooked tree to throw us off,” Holtz says.
Inside the mill a scragg slabs off the two sides. The slabs are run through a Morgan edger to produce four or six-inch boards, and the remaining two-sided cant is either split or has the third side slabbed off to produce a three-sided cant. The wood flows through Brewer and Baker resaws to produce 7/8ths boards, and then packaged for shipment. No 1 wood is stored inside, or in one of the SLH vans outside for transport, while the No 2 is stored outside.
The tops are processed
for firewood by a Finnish-built Hakki Pilke processor. The tractor-driven
machine bucks and splits the wood, and keeps two men busy loading the tops
and retrieving the firewood.
One example is the
slasher unit at the front of the mill. Holtz shopped around, and opted for
a $50,000 slasher from Louisiana-based Morgan. “We ran it for three months
and rebuilt it for tree-length—added a 20-foot trough, made it wider,
boosted hydraulic power. It’s basically a new machine,” says Wyatt.
Wyatt is also musing
about a home-built processor to replace the Hakki Pilke units. Wyatt plans
to convert the tractor-driven firewood processor to electrical power, and
is considering building a heavier, more powerful unit that can better
withstand constant use.
“I don’t mind the
labour. I kind of believe in labour myself. We’ve worked hard on
management, training, and health and safety.”
Since Precut Hardwood got into the business it has been joined by another birch mill, Temagami Forest Products. Temagami draws from Crown land to the north, forcing Precut to consider more southerly areas and private lands to augment its supply.
One option is to start a logging subsidiary that will secure more birch from privately-owned land. Another concept—already in operation—involves running a Norwood Industries Inc portable bandmill mill to produce cants on the landing. “It’s an experiment, but I can afford to pay more on the landing, and that helps me compete with Tembec and Domtar for wood they’d buy for pulp. It also gives me access to an alternative wood supply.”
Precut Hardwood is
definitely a family affair. While Holtz looks after the big picture (and
cuts out of the office to shovel sawdust, unload logs, stack lumber and
any other job that needs doing), Wyatt concentrates on mill design and
operation. Wyatt’s wife Karen (an environmental biologist by training)
works part time on health and safety and environmental planning. Daughter
Nancy works in accounts and payroll, and her husband Paul is supervising
in the mill, looking after issues including training and quality control.
stresses a team approach, where workers change jobs as the need arises.
“When we hire people we tell them, ‘You don’t have one single task here.
Your job is to make this run, and everybody has to help with that.’”
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