On Its Way
A small Alberta company is onits way to establishing a market with birch and aspen product.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Like the comedian Rodney Dangerfield and his famous line, Canada’s Prairie region hardwoods “don’t get no respect” as higher value lumber products. However, that situation is changing. If western Canadian hardwood sawmill pioneers like Peace River, Alberta’s Joe Brunham and Larry Giesbrecht have their way, aspen and western birch will become as common for flooring and wall panel shelves as oak, cherry, maple and eastern birch.
Brunham is majority owner of Alberta Birch and Aspen Wood Products. Started from scratch, the business has existed for two years and continues to survive during the current general business downturn thanks to the careful management practices employed by Brunham and partner Giesbrecht. Brunham feels that the company is just one regular customer away from securing its future, but he realizes that there is still plenty of work to be done on the marketing side of the business. “I think there is potential for birch and aspen wood products, but it’s tough to get going,” he says. “People fear change. The big companies love the look of it, but it’s new. People like their oak and eastern birch.”
Incidents like the September 11 attacks in the United States also hurt, as they set back American sales by almost six months. However, at age 21, Brunham has time to ride out the inevitable hills and valleys of the business, and wait for western Canadian hardwoods to gain more respect with the buying public. Start-up companies like Alberta Birch and Aspen Wood Products are not the only ones beginning to realize that Prairie hardwoods have uses beyond just feedstock for pulp and oriented strand board.
For example, Ainsworth Lumber has announced plans to eventually build a 10 million board foot hardwood dimension sawmill near Valleyview, Alberta. Furthermore, another Alberta company called ABCoR Forest Industries plans to construct a hardwood sawmill/chipping facility in Wabasca, a sawmill/chipping facility in Janvier, and a remanufacturing plant in Prosvita. All told, this represents a potential investment of over $100 million and over 400 jobs. All projects were slated for construction in 2001 but were delayed for a variety of reasons.
What intrigued Brunham and Giesbrecht about the potential of aspen and birch as a higher value lumber product was the woods’ aesthetic appearance. They began investigating its potential by manufacturing samples on a small band saw and evaluating the woods’ appearance. They then perfected their drying technique. It’s been a learning experience every step of the way.
For example, it became apparent to them that aspen is more suited for wall paneling and mouldings than flooring because it is a less dense hardwood. Birch, however, turned out to be an outstanding flooring product. Ultimately, they decided to take a chance on the business venture, but took steps to minimize risk. Giesbrecht already owned an aspen and birch woodlot, so the company began on a solid foundation. The partners have invested considerable sweat equity into the business and saved a lot of money during the initial stages by using their own 2x6 hardwood lumber to construct a building that houses their edger, planer and inventory.
They also designed and built their own dry kiln. All sawmilling equipment, except for the planer, was purchased second-hand and reconditioned. The company burns waste wood to generate heat for its kilns and main building, thus saving on expensive natural gas heating costs. Giesbrecht also owns a successful logging company, so harvesting and transporting logs to the mill site was easy to organize. “We thought we’d give it a try because there wasn’t a whole lot we could lose,” says Brunham. “As long as we could pay for the planer every month, then we’d be happy.”
From a production standpoint, the company has come a long way in two years, considering that both Brunham and Giesbrecht had no sawmilling experience. At present, they manufacture between 100,000 and 125,000 board feet annually. Their aspen logs average 12 to 18 inches in diameter, but can come as large as 32 inches. Scarcer and more valuable birch logs average 12 to 16 inches.
The timber is harvested and cut to 16-foot lengths in the bush. Up until now, it has been transported to the sawmill and then sawn into one-inch thick boards, but Brunham says they have discovered that it is much more efficient to saw the logs in the bush, then transport boards to the existing sawmill site for drying and finishing. This practice also helps them deal with any potential waste wood accumulation problem.
While the company’s sawmilling practices are about to change direction, its initial sawmill technology shows just what can be accomplished when people put their minds and efforts together. Giesbrecht had a friend approach him about an old gang saw located on his acreage. Alberta Birch and Aspen purchased the 1942, German-built, low-tech sawmill and completely reconditioned it back to working order, remanufacturing steel components as needed as well as saw blades. It had originally been used to manufacture rifle stocks during the Second World War.
Logs are rolled through the vertical saw blades to manufacture slabs of one-inch thick boards. “What we like about the saw is that there’s nothing fancy about it,” says Brunham. “There were no computer controls, no dials, nothing. We do all our measuring between the blades with a tape measure, and that’s it.” Despite its low-tech design, Brunham adds that the sawmill is incredibly accurate and fast.
It is powered using a Power Take Off on a tractor. While it will remain operational, the company has decided to shift slab manufacturing to the bush using a separate portable sawmill. After the slabs are sawn, they are stacked in preparation for drying. The kiln is a wood frame building, designed, constructed and insulated by the owners and has a 12,000 board foot capacity.
It uses a combination of wood-fired heat, seven pig barn fans, a computerized moisture monitoring system and a sound understanding of heat transfer principles, taking the lumber from over 35 per cent moisture down to six per cent. It takes 10 to 12 days to dry one-inch stock, and about 20 days for two-inch lumber. During the drying cycle, the fire has to be stoked every five hours. After drying, the slabs are cut to size on the edger, with the intent of achieving maximum recovery. Powered by a 100-hp motor, the edger operates at 78 board feet per minute. The edger blades are adjustable.
After edging, the boards are planed on the company’s Weinig Profimat 23E planer, which they purchased from a distributor in Vancouver. “It’s a very good planer,” says Brunham. “We visited a few other sawmills and looked at a couple of different planer styles. We’re not disappointed in our planer. It’s been good.” The planer gives them the ability to put a tongue and groove along the sides of each board so that they interlock, enabling them to manufacture flooring, wall paneling, baseboards and sauna panels. They can plane up to 8,000 board feet per day.
After planing, Brunham grades the wood according to the company’s own grading system into either clear, knotty or rustic grade. Because he is not a qualified hardwood lumber grader, the company essentially manufactures mill run product, but the intent is that Burnham will eventually earn his hardwood grading certificate and they will produce hardwood to national standards.
However, the cost factor and the fact that hardwood training is offered a long distance away in South Carolina means that it’s part of the company’s future growth strategy. “When that happens, it will be easier to sell our products into the US and it will also be easier to market it with major companies,” says Brunham. Another future business investment that will help open doors to potential customers is a machine that will give the company the ability to produce end tongue and groove products as well.
Alberta Birch and Aspen Wood Products uses 100 per cent of its wood fibre. About 83 per cent of each log is transformed into lumber. The remaining 17 per cent is used to generate heat or is sold to Shell Canada as sawdust for use in its in-situ oil extraction environmental treatment process. At present, Brunham says the company is generating significant local sales.
His objective is to sign a long term, steady contract with a hardwood distributor in a major urban centre to improve the company’s balance sheet and the products’ profile among Canadian homeowners. He takes a lot of personal pride in the accolades the company’s products have received to date. “I like to maintain contact with people who buy our products because they are so happy with it,” he says. “It makes the free hours that I put in stoking the kiln stoves worthwhile just to see the happiness that people get from using the wood.”
If the growth trend toward manufacturing and marketing more western Canadian hardwood lumber continues, there may be many more homes in North America admiring the company’s aspen or birch floors and paneling in future.
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