By Tony Kryzanowski
There is no lack of people attracted to entering the wood products industry, given the volume of entry level band and circular sawmills sold every year. However, the million dollar question is whether it can pay as a business.
Alberta sawmill owner Colin Ruxton says it absolutely can—and he’s proven it with both a band and circular sawmill.
“If we had the timber supply, I could be ten times larger,” says Ruxton, referring to his current set up.
That is the biggest issue threatening Ruxton’s business today: timber supply, thanks to the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the lodgepole pine forest surrounding Grande Prairie, Alberta, where his sawmill is located.
Big changes are on the horizon for the local softwood lumber industry over the coming decade, and Ruxton’s sawmill business, JC Ruxton Ventures, is feeling the timber supply pressure, just like the big players. Like the infestation that devastated lodgepole pine forests in the B.C. Interior, the beetle outbreak around Grande Prairie created a sudden abundance of merchantable timber early on. But the bubble has now burst, and a lot of the remaining standing wood has decayed beyond merchantability.
The timber supply issue has raised questions in Ruxton’s mind as he approaches three years to full retirement: whether the time has come to cash in his chips and walk away from a business that he still loves. However, when it comes to operating a successful sawmill business, there’s no questioning what he has achieved since he started out in the industry 42 years ago, in 1974.
When Ruxton first started out, it was with a bandsaw mill with a focus on servicing the local market with products like fencing and 2” X 6” planks for farmers, and specialty wood products for the oilpatch. What it didn’t provide was a lot of volume.
From there, he invested in a Finnish-built Kara circular sawmill, which he operated for eight years and still owns, but has placed in mothballs. While it was a circular saw and provided more volume, it was tough sledding to operate it profitably. With more timber becoming available, he decided to invest about $700,000 in a new building and sawmill line featuring a Helle circular saw. He designed production flow exactly as he wanted it, based on his 30 years in the business to that point, and daily production at the sawmill grew substantially. Average production per day with the old bandsaw was about 2,000 board feet. It grew to 7,000 board feet per day with the Kara circular saw, and is now about 20,000 board feet per day with the Helle sawmill. Ruxton’s philosophy all along has been to manufacture wood products that don’t compete with the large, dimension lumber producers.
JC Ruxton Ventures is located about 20 minutes west of Grande Prairie on Hwy. 43, near a town called Wembley. Being located along a four-lane highway that connects Alberta with B.C. provides the business with great visibility.
Many large, high volume and commodity-driven sawmills could learn from the precise layout, cleanliness, and drainage of his sawmill yard. It’s obvious from the driveway that this wood products business is well-managed and making money.
They consume about 18,000 cubic metres of both softwood and hardwood annually, with 5,600 cubic metres harvested from Ruxton’s own government-issued, commercial timber permit area, supplemented by a small portion from Weyerhaeuser’s Forest Management Area (FMA) set aside for small sawmill owners, purchase of oversized logs directly from Weyerhaeuser, and private wood purchases. Their logs average between 12” and 14” in diameter, but they can process anything from 6” to 48” in diameter.
While economical sources of merchantable timber are now harder to find, the initial beetle-infected wood bubble—which provided the sawmill with eight straight years of salvaged beetle-killed wood—encouraged Ruxton to invest in his Helle circular saw line to deliver the production he wanted.
But with greater production, it became essential to find new markets for all his wood products. That’s when Ruxton made a second important decision about 20 years ago: to market some of his products through a broker. That has made a huge difference to his business as about 90 per cent of his product is now sold that way. The majority is sold to pressure treaters and secondary manufacturers as 1” X 6” by 6’ rough fencing material and five-quarter dimension lumber used in decking.
Ruxton leaves it up to his broker to find buyers for whatever wood product they require, while he handles local sales. He simply provides a material supply and sawing service. The broker also handles all the transportation of product to non-local customers.
Ruxton purchased his nearly new Helle circular saw line directly from the Farmington, Illinois-based company in 2006, when it became available from a bankruptcy sale. Although he purchased the unit second-hand, he says he continues to receive excellent service support from Helle.
“There are no manufacturers in Canada to buy a mill of that size,” says Ruxton. “Here, they are either a little bandsaw or a super mill. There’s nothing in the middle. But in the American Midwest, there are all kinds of mill suppliers down there.”
Because the Helle unit is a circular sawmill designed for the hardwood forests of the American Midwest, it has very robust construction. Ruxton adds that he has experienced very few breakdowns of the unit, short of a few hydraulic hoses here and there. It also produces the type of fence board quality his broker’s fencing customers like.
“The guys in Edmonton can’t get enough of our fencing because just about everywhere else they buy them, the boards are resawn with a bandsaw,” says Ruxton. “The boards still have dust sticking on them and they aren’t clean. The fencing companies like to paint before they use the fence, and having to get rid of the dust before they paint is just a big hassle for them. Our boards come out clean.”
Logs arriving in the yard are decked tree length. A Hood slasher bucks the logs primarily to 12’ lengths, as needed, and a John Deere 544K loader delivers the logs to the sawmill infeed.
Ruxton saws the logs on the Helle carriage, capturing as many 1” X 6” sideboards as possible from each cant; because the carriage is equipped with a vertical edger, there is no further edging required on them. He aims to saw down to a 6” cant.
A conveyor transports the 1” X 6” sideboard material directly to the trimmer operator, while the cants are manually directed and processed through a Cornell gang edger, with individual boards conveyed to the Helle trimmer line from the edger outfeed. The cants can also be processed through the gang edger into five-quarter material or they can bypass the gang edger altogether if the sawmill has to fill an order for timbers.
Any slightly thick sideboards or smaller pieces from the carriage can be manually directed and processed through a Baker resaw before it is conveyed to the trimmer. After trimming, the material proceeds down the green chain to the manual sorting and stacking line. It is here that the line has been equipped with a chopsaw to cut 12’ boards into 6’ fence boards before stacking.
While he does produce some pipeline skid and rig mat material for the oilpatch, Ruxton feels fortunate that he didn’t hitch his wagon too deeply to that industry, given how much of a downturn it is currently experiencing. The biggest impact it has had on his business is disposal of his wood waste pile—he had a good market within the oil industry prior to the downturn. As an alternative, Ruxton is working on a potential bioenergy market for this material.
In addition to working as the sawyer, Ruxton operates a delimber in his mechanical logging operations in the winter, which lasts from about November to mid-February. During that time, his daughter, Tamara, leaves her office job in the business and works as the sawyer. His son, Seth, is the loader operator. Both children are long time employees of the business, which in total has seven employees. Some have worked with Ruxton for 30 years.
Logging is not something Ruxton particularly enjoys, but it became necessary about three years ago as he couldn’t find anyone locally to log for him. Their logging fleet is also second-hand, consisting of a Timberjack 850 feller buncher, a Tigercat 630B skidder, and a Komatsu carrier equipped with a Risley Lim-mit 2000 delimber.
When not sawing wood or logging, Ruxton spends a couple of evenings per week doing preventative maintenance on the saw line. So his own work schedule is a good indicator of the type of commitment required to operate a successful sawmill.
Ruxton asks two questions of anyone interested in establishing a successful sawmill business: do they have a reliable wood supply… and how hard are they prepared to work to succeed because, he says, “it’s a lot of hard work.”
Ruxton also suggests that sawmill owners try to focus on higher volumes of products in steady demand. Fence boards, for example, have worked out well for him. In good times or bad, there always seems to be a demand for them and prices are stable.
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.