By Paul MacDonald
There’s no doubt about it: fences are big business in the U.S. wood products market.
A recent report from research firm Freedonia notes that U.S. demand for fencing will be expanding seven per cent this year and next, and will rise to a hefty $9 billion by 2018, totaling 875 million linear feet. Growth, the report notes, will be boosted in high value fencing materials that improve the appearance and value of properties.
And as far as Darrol and Dale Nagel are concerned, fencing materials do not get any better than B.C.-produced western red cedar.
The two brothers run specialty operation Nagaard Sawmill in Port Alberni, on B.C.’s Vancouver Island, and these days they are very happy to have a small piece of that huge U.S. fencing market. That’s in addition to the regional retail markets they serve on Vancouver Island, and to customers as far afield as Alberta.
“There is a huge market for wood fencing in the U.S.,” says Darrol. “The amount of wood fencing that Home Depot alone sells down there blows me away. You’re talking about companies taking entire trainloads of lumber at a go.”
Even B.C.’s Lower Mainland fencing market is huge, he notes. “There is no way we could even supply the Vancouver market,” he says. “There are a lot of hammers nailing a lot of fencing every day in Vancouver—it can suck up a lot of wood.”
The brothers say they do just fine without getting into such huge markets, mostly selling on Vancouver Island, and doing sales into the U.S., and some into Europe.
Working from a site on the outskirts of Port Alberni, not too far off the Pacific Rim Highway leading to the west coast of Vancouver Island, Nagaard Sawmill produces everything customers need for fencing—and then some, too, with boards, timbers and some dimension lumber.
If it involves fencing—whether it be rails, boards or posts—it’s bound to be in the Nagaard cutting program. And customers really like the rich look and natural preservatives of western red cedar. “A lot of customers we get prefer cedar to treated wood,” says Darrol. “And in some areas with access to water, you can’t build with treated wood, because of the chemicals in the wood.”
The two brothers manage the mill and also take care of most things on the maintenance side. The ability to take care of the mechanicals of a sawmill, and its equipment, comes naturally to Darrol and Dale—and came naturally to their father, Donald, and their uncle, William, who founded Nagaard Sawmill. Before emigrating to B.C. in the 1960s, their Dad ran a dairy operation in Wisconsin, and did much of the monkey-wrenching that always seems to be required on a farm.
The family—Darrol was 11 years-old when they moved to B.C.—first moved to the B.C. Interior, around the Mackenzie area, and set up a sawmill there.
After operating there for several years, they moved to Vancouver Island, and ran several sawmills before setting up a mill operation on Great Central Lake, near Port Alberni. Great Central Lake is one of the deepest lakes on Vancouver Island, with a depth of over 290 metres. As its name implies, the lake lies pretty much in the centre of Vancouver Island and is, in fact, the gateway to Canada’s tallest waterfall, Della Falls, with a drop of 1,443 feet.
Starting in 1968 and for eight years, the mill processed floating logs from the 43 kilometre long lake.
“There was probably the equivalent of 200 acres of logs floating on the lake, and it took some time to clean that up,” says Darrol.
Water levels were raised by a dam built across the Stamp River in the 1950s for hydro power generation. It raised the existing shoreline of Great Central Lake, in the process putting a good amount of timber under water.
Nagaard Sawmill moved to its present location in 1976, and Darrol recalls that they used some of the equipment from the Great Central Lake mill. “It was a bit different set-up at the lake in that it was somewhat portable,” he says. “All in, it probably took a year to build the mill that we have now.”
Even after the mill was built, though, Darrol says it went through a lot of additions, much of them of the home-made variety. “A lot of it has been built in-house,” he says.
They added a Yates A66 planer, an Acme strapper, a small pony edger and a Nicholson chipper, with a good deal of this picked up used, at equipment auctions. “We worked to incorporate equipment into the mill over the years,” says Darrol. “And sometimes we’ve had to make changes in equipment and production because of changes in the market—necessity really can be the mother of invention.”
While it may not be 2016 cutting edge technology, Darrol noted that technology has moved ahead in the mill; they now have four PLCs, and computer controlled hydraulics.
Their most recent major addition was an Albany twin band saw. They pretty much had to rebuild the saw, but it has since run extremely well. In terms of incorporating the twin into the sawmill, Darrol did not exactly figure it out on the back of an envelope—but all the details were worked out on a single piece of paper. The Nagel brothers believe in keeping things simple, wherever possible.
“We had to do some tweaking on the twin for two days after we installed it, but it hasn’t really stopped since then,” he says. “That was a big project for us—and we did it while the mill was still running.”
One of their projects involved re-doing the back end of the mill, installing a new-to-them Nicholson chipper. “We did the whole back end, and it works so much better now. We revamped the planer set up, too, to make the infeed longer.” And it was all done in-house, with Darrol and Dale, and their very capable crew. “Everything seemed to work afterwards,” said Dale, modestly.
Just as the upgrade was completed, the brothers had to leave for a family emergency. The new set-up had not even run a stick of lumber. But they walked their employees through how the mill should work before they left. “We’re lucky to have good people working for us. When we came back, it was all working fine—there were no snags at all.”
Even though they are focusing on the fencing market now, they’ve worked in other areas of production in the past. At one point they were putting together home packages, and finished siding. They also did some custom planing for Weyerhaeuser, which used to own mill operations in the area when the company purchased MacMillan Bloedel. The mill ran double shifts to do this, but both Darrol and Dale said this work was often more trouble than it was worth. “At one point, we had 55 guys working at the operation—now we have 15 people, and it’s a lot easier to manage.” The operation runs one shift, five days a week.
There’s no strict division of work between the two brothers. “We both pretty much do it all,” says Dale. “Buy the logs, do the maintenance in the mill, sell the lumber.” Pretty much all of the work on the mill and mobile equipment is done in-house, at a maintenance shop on site.
They have five Hyster H80 forklifts, a Clark 8,000 pound forklift and a Cat 15,000 pound forklift. For the heavy lifting in the yard, they have two 966C Cat log loaders and a 966C Cat bucket loader. Transporting the chips is a Kenworth truck.
These days, Nagaard pretty much cuts all western red cedar. “That has made it a lot easier to get and keep customers,” says Darrol. Since they’ve been able to access logs and produce western red cedar product, they’ve been able to establish a strong customer base, and built relationships with these customers.
Working with other species often meant shorter production runs, says Darrol. “With cutting other species, it can be short term. We might have been cutting a bit of Douglas fir, a bit of hemlock and yellow cedar, and it can be hard to find people to buy it, with the short runs.”
In addition to making sales to the U.S., and some sales to Europe, through a Vancouver broker, they have healthy retail sales in the region, and on Vancouver Island. They recently sold some product to a customer in Alberta, too.
Local sales are so good that several years back they built an 80 by 160 foot Quonset-style Diamond fabric building, purchased from Manitoba-based Dueck’s Mechanical Inc. Customers can now drive right into the building and select their wood. Assembly of the building was done by the brothers and their employees, with even their accountant, Al Schwenning, pitching in to pull the fabric over the building frame.
Nagaard has no forestry tenures, and buys its cedar in the log market, dealing with Western Forest Products, Island Timberlands and the log sales arm of the Probyn Group, among others. This year, they’ve found sourcing wood challenging, as Western Forest Products and one of its logging contractors have been locked in a contract dispute since December, reducing the amount of timber available.
“We usually have up to 2,000 cubic metres of wood in the yard, about three weeks’ supply,” says Darrol. “We produce about 25,000 board feet a day, and use about 150 cubic metres a day. But the log supply is a bit skinny right now in the yard, with the dispute.” They are having to source some cedar from alternate suppliers because of the dispute.
That said, the mill is humming along nicely these days. Dale reports that business in 2015 was “crazy” busy for them. “Sometimes it’s a bit quiet through the winter, but this past winter, there was little snow in the area, and we had a lot of people coming in the yard looking for wood,” he says.
It got busy one day this July, too, but for another reason. The mill had a small celebration, to mark its 50th anniversary. The brothers hosted a party, and invited all present—and former—employees, for hot dogs and hamburgers. It was a low key affair, but then, again, the brothers like to keep things simple.
The Nagel brothers have been there for a lot of that five decades. Both Darrol and Dale started working at the mill basically out of high school.
Having gone through some rough patches over that time, they know that there are no certainties in the sawmill business—and that things can change on a dime. They’re pretty satisfied with the current mill set-up, but are always looking for ways to tweak things.
“The mill is working pretty good right now,” says Darrol. “I don’t think there’s a need to spend a lot on additional mill equipment. But it’s good to improve on what you have, and make changes so nothing is hanging you up, equipment-wise.”
He added that when it comes to mill machinery, they need to be resourceful. And it’s clear they like the challenge of working with equipment.
So much so, that the challenge continues after they leave the sawmill. At his home shop, Dale has rebuilt tractors and a Model A Ford over the years. A recent project involved rebuilding a 1936 Lincoln Zephyr, believed to be the last Canadian-built model. “Eleven years and 45 pounds of welding wire later, it’s a brand new car,” jokes Dale.
“It’s kind of how we grew up, fixing things—and I guess we just don’t get enough of that during the day,” says Darrol, with a laugh, whose own home project was rebuilding a 1969 Camaro.
On the Cover:
The Weyerhaeuser sawmill in Princeton, B.C. has added two new Volvo wheel loaders, a Volvo L350F and a Volvo L150H, from B.C. Volvo dealer Great West Equipment to help manage log operations. Read about how the equipment is helping make the operation more efficient beginning on page 10. (Photo by Paul MacDonald).
Tapping into the growing bio-economy at Alberta’s Bio-Mile
A new $11 million Clean Energy Technology Centre recently opened in Alberta and among its goals is supporting greater product diversification within the forestry sector, and encouraging more participation by the industry in the bio-economy.
Volvos delivering volume
Some new Volvo wheel loaders are helping the Weyerhaeuser sawmill in Princeton, B.C. deliver efficiencies in the millyard, in feeding logs into the high production, two-line sawmill, and handling chips and hog fuel.
“Big Data” already being utilized by forest industry
Although “Big Data” has become a buzz term in business circles in recent years, the forest industry is already well on its way to using Big Data in a number of areas, from machine centres at the sawmill, to woodlands operations.
Hard work = successful sawmill
Though it requires a lot of hard work, Alberta sawmiller Colin Ruxton says that small sawmilling can pay off—and he’s proven it with both a band and circular sawmill.
Going from logger—to lumber producer
New Brunswick’s Pierre Friolet has used skills developed as a logging contractor to set up an added-value operation that produces thermally modified wood, finding customers from architects to guitar makers for the unique wood product.
Lean log handling
B.C.’s coastal forest industry and the provincial government are working on streamlining the log handling process through making changes based on the “Lean” philosophy that is practiced in other industries—and it’s already showing results.
Family fencing operation
B.C. specialty mill operation Nagaard Sawmill, run by brothers Darrol and Dale Nagel, has found its niche—and it’s in producing fence components from western red cedar for a growing market, with a mill that features a fair bit of home-made equipment, and lots of ingenuity.
Liking the Log Max/Doosan combo
New Brunswick harvesting contractor Remi Doucet is a fan of the Doosan/Log Max harvesting combination, and recently upgraded his equipment with a new Log Max 7000 head.
BUILDER of business relationships
B.C. logger Shane Garner says a successful harvesting contracting operation is all about business relationships, from his employees to his John Deere-heavy logging equipment fleet.
A life in logging: from horses—to Tigercats
Long time logger Alan Costain may have started with yarding horses, but these days the horsepower in Costain Lumbering is of a very different sort, with equipment such as a Tigercat 822.
The frontier community of Colville Lake, 50 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories, has acquired a new portable sawmill which will produce building materials to help address the community’s need for improved housing.
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
The Fort McMurray fire of earlier this year could have ripple effect on the cost of insurance for the forest industry, says Jim Stirling.