By George Fullerton
Pierre Friolet says that 22 years of experience as a logging contractor in northeastern New Brunswick provided him with a lot of skills and insights to develop a new lumber value-added enterprise, deal with financial crisis—and then rebuild a value-add wood manufacturing business.
In the early 2000’s, Friolet had built a successful contracting business in northeastern New Brunswick, operating a Direct feller buncher and a Daewoo and Hyundai processor, each with Hornet heads. Friolet developed skills including welding, as a mechanic, in electronics, and in business management.
“When I was contracting, I had the idea that I wanted to build a business that added value to wood,” explained Friolet. “I always liked working with wood or in the woods, and I thought a wood fibre value-added process would be a rewarding enterprise.”
On a trip to Quebec to prospect new harvesting equipment, Friolet was by chance introduced to a thermally modified wood processing concept. He continued to study the technology and made contact with an equipment manufacturer in Finland, and eventually brought in business partners, purchased equipment and established the business in Bathurst, New Brunswick.
Thermally modified wood involves totally drying lumber, and then heating it to an extremely high temperature which forces natural sugars out of the wood and alters the structure of the cells. The process makes the lumber somewhat less dense, but more structurally stable and resistant to rot and other degrading effects.
The thermal treatment operation, offices and showroom were established in a 46,000 square foot building, in a building, which was formally a grocery distribution centre, in the Bathurst Industrial Park.
“We had our building, with equipment installed and working, in June 2008 and things looked promising,” said Friolet. “But by October 2008, the world economy went in the toilet and we went through four years of hell. We had contracts set up with retailers and they came to us one after another and cancelled the contracts.”
Despite a four year struggle to keep the fledgling business afloat, the extended downturn finally led the company to collapsing, and Friolet and his partners filed for bankruptcy.
That was not the end of the story, though. Friolet knew he had a unique and versatile product, and there was potential to build a significant market for thermal modified wood.
Rescue came through support from a variety of investors who helped revive the business as Thermalwood Canada. The partners revived the operation, found new customers and began treating lumber and filling contracts.
The knowledge of heat treating wood has been around a long time. Vikings used heat treated lumber to extend the life of their sailing ships, and for other wood construction and tools.
Scientific research into heat treating lumber, to extend its durability and useful life, has been ongoing since the 1930s.
Thermalwood Canada adheres to the heat treating guidelines outlined by the Finnish Thermowood Association. The thermal modification process uses a specially designed kiln, where the lumber is heated, following a precise schedule that effectively cooks the lumber.
The thermal modification process chemically transforms sugars in the wood, makes changes to the physical and chemical characteristics and gives the lumber a dark appearance, as well as making it resistant to decay and attack by wood degrading pests.
The process provides lumber with greater dimensional stability even in high humidity conditions, which makes it a great choice for outdoor or high humidity indoor applications.
Thermally modified wood has gained a good deal of consideration as a green alternative. Because there are no chemicals added during the process, it is enjoying significant popularity with many consumers in very diverse markets.
Thermalwood’s kiln is 26 feet long, eight feet high and eight feet wide, and it has a 30 cubic metre, or 12,000 to 14,000 board foot, capacity. Lumber is stickered at one-foot intervals with conventional ¾ inch lumber stickers. For 4/4 lumber, boards are double stacked between the stickers similar to conventional kilns. Charges are loaded into the kiln with a conventional truck and rail system.
One particular difference from conventional kiln construction, though, is that the entire interior is constructed with stainless steel.
“Our high heat cooking process results in a variety of compounds being released from the lumber which are highly corrosive, and stainless steel has been recognized as the most resistant to damage,” explained Friolet.
The Thermalwood process is divided into three main phases:
The first phase, after the lumber has been loaded and the doors secured, involves a high temperature lumber drying phase. Using steam and heat, the kiln temperature is quickly raised to 100 to 130 degrees Celsius, which reduces the lumber moisture content to zero per cent.
“It’s important to ensure all the moisture is removed from the wood because if there are any pockets of moisture, the intense heating process will cause the lumber to split,” explained Friolet.
Propane gas fuels burners that heat oil, which is the heat transfer conductor. It is pumped through a heat dissipation unit (radiator), and the heat is circulated by fans in the kiln. Steam moderates the drying process and eliminates the possibility of combustion during the treatment processes.
In the second phase, the temperature in the kiln is increased to between 185 degrees and 215 degrees, and held at the specifically targeted temperature for two to three hours. The specific cooking temperature and cooking duration is determined by a combination of lumber species and its particular characteristics, and by the specific end use of the thermally modified lumber.
“This extreme high temperature phase alters the wood’s cell structure and forces the sugars out of the wood, in the process producing a completely transformed wood product,” stated Friolet.
The high temperature cooking process begins to thermically degrade the hemicelluloses in the wood, beginning at 150 degrees, and continues as the temperature is increased. As a result, the wood becomes denser, and the wood’s natural tendency for swelling and shrinkage due to moisture is significantly decreased.
The third phase of the process is the cooling and moisture conditioning period. The heat is turned off and the internal temperature of the kiln is lowered using a water spray system. A re-moisturizing process brings the wood moisture content to between 4 and 7 per cent. The entire drying and heat treatment process takes 48 to 60 hours, depending on the wood species.
The kiln processes are computer controlled and the controls can be remotely monitored on Friolet’s home computer. In the event that there is a malfunction with the kiln process, he receives an alarm message on his cell phone.
Because of its rot and decay resistance and physical dimension stability, thermally modified lumber is finding applications for window and door manufacturing, as well as exterior cladding. Thermally modified lumber is also finding applications for exterior decking.
The strength of thermally modified wood has a strong correlation with density, and since heat-treated wood has a slightly lower density after the treatment, it is not recommended for use in load bearing applications.
In addition to marketing modified wood for decking and cladding applications, Thermalwood also markets a unique plastic clip decking and cladding installation system called ClipJuAn. The deck or cladding boards have a pair of slots machined into the unexposed side of the boards which engage with the plastic clips, which are securely screwed to the deck or wall framing. The plastic clips allow for quick and accurate installation, even for do-it-yourselfers. It reduces installation time by up to 50 per cent, and requires no drilling for nails or screws, eliminating the potential for splinters. The decking or cladding maintains its pristine appearance because there are no exposed nail or screw heads.
Friolet explained that while thermally modified lumber takes on a dark appearance, it will gray to varying degrees when it is exposed to sunlight. He added that thermally modified wood readily accepts a wide variety of finishes which stabilizes changes due to sun exposure.
While controlling colour deterioration due to exposure to sunlight is necessary for most applications, Friolet and the Thermalwood Canada team have done some product development where they employ sunlight degradation to develop a unique paneling product.
“I was experimenting with some native tamarack in our process and ended up with a weathered texture which reminded me of weathered boards on an old barn. We were not very impressed with it at first, but we thought maybe if it was allowed to turn gray, it might have more appeal.
“We put a pile of it outdoors and after a couple months it took on a mellow grey shade, and it sold. One of our local customers used it to panel the walls and ceiling in their pool house and it did a spectacular job.”
There has also been some testing with the cooking duration and the results have provided subtle shade characteristics, while still maintaining stability and decay resistance features. Friolet explained the different shades appeal to customers’ unique tastes, especially for panelling or accent trim.
Thermalwood’s machining tools include three molders, a frame saw for splitting lumber into thin panels, and a sander which has an additional mechanism with a wire brush head which can add a texture to the lumber. Several decking customers who require a certain degree of texture for traction (decks around swimming pools and saunas) and often request the wire brush-treated decking boards.
Friolet is currently marketing product primarily in eastern Canada and the United States, including a good deal of Thermalwood that is wholesaled to businesses that provide the product through Internet shopping. He added that the thermally modified wood is being used by architects to create unique visual effects in a variety of high end homes and buildings.
In addition to uses in housing and construction applications, Thermalwood has seen increasing interest from a number of guitar makers who have used the modified wood and claim it provides a mature and mellow sound. compared to natural soundboard woods.
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.