By Tony Kryzanowski
Alberta sawmill owner Guido Unger is attempting to accomplish something extremely rare in the Canadian forest industry. He is taking the quantum leap from operating a fairly small, low-tech sawmill with essentially a headrig, carriage and board edger to a large, high production, high performance, USNR canter line.
The refurbished USNR canter line (below), circa 1994, formerly worked at Weyerhaeuser’s sawmill in Okanagan Falls, B.C.
It’s a bit like driving a Volkswagen while rebuilding a Porsche in the garage.
The opportunity to invest $1.5 million to both purchase and refurbish the 1993 vintage USNR line fell into Unger’s lap about two years ago when Weyerhaeuser Canada transported the line from its mothballed plant in Okanagan Falls, B.C. to Drayton Valley, Alberta. Its intention was to put the equipment to work at its Drayton Valley sawmill.
However, Weyerhaeuser changed its plans and decided instead to spend $23 million on a new line, which made the USNR line surplus. It was sitting in pieces in Weyerhaeuser’s yard. It consisted of a double-length infeed, canter heads, a horizontal double arbor for pulling sideboards, a transfer for separating sideboards from the centre cant, and a vertical double arbor edger.
Unger, owner of Unger’s Lumber & Posts, is a regular customer for Weyerhaeuser’s oversized logs. During one visit, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse—to purchase the old USNR line. It was the chance of a lifetime for a sawmill owner with enough guts to take on such a project.
Since then, it’s been two years of sweat and working with a group of dedicated trades people, but Unger hopes to run his first log through his refurbished USNR line by August. Unger says what made the plan feasible was that Weyerhaeuser had already shipped the USNR line to Drayton Valley, and that they were willing to work with him to make the deal a reality. So it was just a matter of building proper concrete pilings and transporting the pieces to his business, located about 15 minutes southwest of Drayton Valley, and reassembling the components.
Luckily, he has found the right technical people familiar with the technology to help him bring this monster USNR line back to life. With a little help from his friends, the puzzle is slowly coming together. Other components such as transfer decks and incline conveyors have been purchased from bone yards and auction sales to make the sawmill completely functional.
Helping him are: Scott Hudson from Hudson Holdings in Lillooet, B.C. with PLC, machine centre control, and human-machine interface set up; Malcolm Cameron, also from Lillooet, for electrical engineering assistance; Surrey, B.C.-based, MPM Engineering, which provided the original programming for the sawmill line; fabricator and assembly lead Ben Karlstrom, owner of Karlstrom Industrial in Drayton Valley; Stan Hood from Wel-Mil Industries in Wainwright, Alberta; Bob Patterson with BOS Energy Management from Drayton Valley; and Tim Pollard from TJP Welding in Drayton Valley. Crane services were provided by TBWL and Hayduk Picker Service, both from Drayton Valley.
“If it wasn’t for people like Ben and Stan, there is no way that I could have taken on this project,” says Unger, adding that he wanted to hire as many local contractors as possible since they support his business.
Karlstrom says he has been working many long hours over the past two years so that Unger can put the new line into production by August. Production from Unger’s current sawmill line is between 15,000 and 18,000 board feet per shift. The goal is to ramp up production to about 50,000 board feet per shift with the refurbished USNR line.
The son of German immigrants, 39-year-old Guido Unger took over ownership of the sawmill from his father, John. The business began as a post manufacturer, in 1975. As farmers and ranchers purchased posts from John, they wanted to know if he could also provide them with corral and fencing material. Given the demand, he found a partner with a portable sawmill and they expanded their product line. Eventually, John became sole owner of the business, with his son, Guido, taking over the helm nine years ago. As he grew up, Guido worked a lot with his dad in the business.
“I was kind of my dad’s swamper, so wherever he went, I went,” says Guido. “I was riding in the loader at three years old. I started working at the sawmill when I was 11-years-old, piling posts and tying lumber.” When he finished high school, he began working at the sawmill full time.
Today, the sawmill operates a modified headrig, that John installed in 1994, as the main breakdown unit and the business has evolved into making specialty wood products anywhere from 1” X 4” to 12” X 12”, primarily for the agriculture and oil and gas industries. They manufacture products based on customer orders, and they get calls almost every day for smaller orders—specialty items that local lumber yards don’t stock.
“Whatever we are selling that day, that’s what we are making that day,” says Guido, although they do stockpile some popular items to ensure they can fill orders when they come in. Although relatively quiet these days, the oil industry is a big part of the Drayton Valley and area economy, and Unger’s Lumber & Posts is a major supplier of 3” X 12” timbers to the industry.
“They use them in this area by laying them underneath production vessels and shacks to keep the steel out of the mud, so that if they have to move them, they aren’t frozen into the ground,” says Guido.
As the oil industry in the area grew over the past 30 years, so did the Unger operation, starting out sawmilling a couple hundred thousand board feet annually to about 2.5 million board feet last year. In fact, business has grown to such an extent that by the mid-1980s, the Ungers shut down their cattle business to focus exclusively on their sawmill.
“You were up all night calving and then up all day sawing,” says Guido. “So one of them had to give.”
Production at Unger’s Lumber & Posts is expected to jump from about 15,000 board feet per shift to 50,000 board feet per shift when the refurbished USNR line is fired up this August.
The wood species that the sawmill processes are spruce, pine, aspen and black poplar, with about 60 per cent conifer and 40 per cent deciduous. The deciduous wood is processed primarily to timber dimensions from 4” X 4” to 6” X 6”, and used as pallet stock and dunnage. In addition to purchasing oversize logs from Weyerhaeuser, Unger also harvests logs from a provincial Community Coniferous Timber Permit (CCTP) that provides him with 1,400 cubic metres, or a month of production at the sawmill. Other sources are industrial salvage from oilfield work and private timber purchases.
In terms of the average diameter of the logs and given the company’s current headrig set up, “it’s the bigger the better,” says Guido. For example, the logs he purchases from Weyerhaeuser are 24” diameter and larger, but Guido adds that once the new USNR sawmill is up and running, they will be able to process a wider variety of log diameters.
The company’s highest volume products are industrial timbers. Unger’s Lumber & Posts markets its products through both wholesalers and directly to customers, with 70 per cent sold into the wholesale market. All their wood products are sold green and generally picked up by customers in the yard. They currently employ four workers.
In terms of current production, a log loader loads logs onto the infeed deck and individual logs are fed by the sawyer through their hydraulically-controlled carriage, first using a Helle vertical edger to remove slabs. Then the sawyer uses both the vertical edger and custom-built headrig to manufacture whatever wood product is on order that day.
After the headrig, the timbers proceed to a custom-built, manually-operated, trim saw, or if smaller dimensions are required, the cants are processed through a Coutts bull edger. Transfer of the cant to the bull edger conveyor is controlled on the fly by the sawyer, and then through the trim saw. Two manual lumber pilers stack the timbers and lumber according to their dimensions.
The sawmill has two wheel loaders, a 2001 Cat IT28G which Guido describes as “bulletproof” and a 2015 Cat 938K. Karlstrom manufactured the grapple for the newer loader.
Production is steady at the sawmill, taking place four days a week on 10 hour shifts, and then a five hour maintenance shift on Friday.
Guido won’t operate the USNR line anywhere near the speed typically used by high production dimension sawmills, and intends to maintain the same product line. There is no plan to compete with commodity-driven and high production dimension lumber mills.
“Our main goal is just to increase production and keep up because the last couple of years we have been turning away more work than we have been able to produce,” says Guido. “The opportunity arose to buy this mill at a reasonable price, so I thought it would be a good fit, especially with the components already in town.”
In addition to volume, he expects that they will be able to produce more accurate wood products, as the tolerances on the canter line will be a lot tighter than on their current headrig set up. One issue will be increased power consumption, as Unger’s current line works at 500 horsepower. The new line is capable of running at about 2000 horsepower.
With a planned start up in August, Guido says there will definitely be a steep learning curve for staff since the current line has no PLCs and all sawing decisions are made by the sawyer. However, he says it appears that the USNR canter line is not too complicated and he hopes staff can have a good understanding of its operation fairly quickly. The line has no optimization except scanning for diameter, but the sky is the limit.
“It was a good entry level model,” says Guido. “We’re starting with baby steps and as we learn and have money to pay for it, then we can update the line.”
The next priority is to house the new sawmill, and possibly consider a dry kiln, debarker, and planer mill.
On the Cover:
On the B.C. Coast, it’s about getting the wood to the water, but before it hits the water, it needs to be harvested in the woods. And this September will see the full range of harvesting equipment working at the DEMO 2016 show being held in Maple Ridge, B.C. Please see the preview story on DEMO, beginning on page 28 of this issue. (Photo of B.C. dryland sort by Paul MacDonald).
Beetle attack: but this time it’s the spruce beetle
As if the B.C. Interior has not been hit hard enough by the mountain pine beetle, there have been recent increases in the spruce beetle population in the Central Interior of B.C. Details on what is being done to fight/contain the latest scourge in the forests.
EACOM Timber partnered with equipment supplier Autolog to optimize the company’s Val D’Or and Timmins sawmills, achieving value uplift at both operations, strengthening them and giving them more market resilience.
Logging partners in profit
An award-winning logging partnership between the Quatsino First Nation and Western Forest Products on the B.C. Coast is delivering efficiencies—and profits—to the two partners.
A (sawmill) offer you can’t refuse
Weyerhaeuser Canada made Alberta sawmill owner Guido Unger a (good) offer he couldn’t refuse: the purchase of a used USNR line that will allow his sawmill to ramp up production considerably.
Coming in September: DEMO 2016
Full details on the upcoming largest logging equipment show in Canada this year: DEMO 2016, being held in Maple Ridge, B.C. from Sept. 22-24, with all of the major logging equipment manufacturers represented.
Hands-on harvesting approach
Nova Scotia logger John Dorey has been recognized by the Canadian Woodlands Forum for his hands-on approach to meeting the needs of woodlands clients, and excelling at partial harvesting.
Getting more control over log hauling
Weyerhaeuser’s Grande Prairie, Alberta timberlands operation is phasing in more tire pressure-controlled equipped log haul trucks, allowing them to increase their access on steep logging roads, even in bad weather.
More chips to go...
New Brunswick’s Billy and Ronnie Gillespie are innovators when it comes to their chipping operation
Urban logging in Alberta
Alberta’s Shawn Moore has moved beyond the oil patch, and his tree removal business has now morphed into doing urban logging—and they’re diverting trees from the landfill.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and Alberta Innovates - Bio Solutions.
The Last Word
Winters aren’t what they used to be, and that simple fact is impacting the forest industry, says Jim Stirling.