By Paul MacDonald
Sawmiller Larry Simpson has a heckuva short commute to work.
From the family home to the sawmill he operates near Tete Jaune, B.C. is about a two minute walk.
Simpson has a spectacular view, too, from the cab of his Morbark sawmill, as the mill sits in the midst of the Rocky, Monashee, and Cariboo Mountains. Virtually around the corner, on the Yellowhead Highway, is Mt. Robson, the highest mountain in the Rockies.
It’s hard to beat, says Simpson, a veteran of almost four decades in the forest industry in the Robson Valley area of B.C.
Working with Douglas fir logs supplied, for the most part, by the Valemount Community Forest in nearby Valemount, B.C., Simpson Lumber Co. produces timbers, specialty and custom cuts. His production could be used in anything from timber homes to bridges, with the sidecuts used for dimensional lumber.
“We’re cutting some smaller logs today,” he says, taking a break from operating the mill. “But small or big logs, our customers are looking for wood, so we want to keep the wood moving to them.”
Simpson buys the occasional truckload of logs from local landowners, and sometimes from a larger mill operation in the area, Hauer Bros. Lumber. But more than 90 per cent of his logs come from the Valemount Community Forest, which with an area of 70,182 hectares, has an annual cut of 40,000 cubic metres. Simpson requires only a small fraction of that for the smooth running of his mill operation.
“It all depends on where they are cutting, but the community forest gives us pretty good logs,” he says. “They might be working in a patch of pine, but they will get three or four loads of fir that they will send to us. There is enough coming out of the community forest to meet our needs, and there is a good variety of logs there.”
Simpson notes that when the mill first got going, most of the wood came from local woodlots and Hauer Bros.
“We did not need a lot of wood when we first started,” he says. “But as we got going and we needed more logs, the community forest seemed to be the answer to our needs. We’ve worked with them fairly well.”
All of the timber comes to their yard tree length—usually either 49’6” or 57’, which gives them flexibility on what to do with the log.
“I don’t like buying cut to length,” says Simpson. “With cut to length, we could have a certain sized order, and the log might already be bucked—we could be looking for a 16 footer, and it’s already been bucked to 14 feet.”
He says this approach can involve a fair bit of log sorting, but this way they have a better chance of getting the best value—and maximum revenue—for the log.
Simpson uses a Morbark 48” circular saw set-up. The saw, powered by a 160 hp Dodge Cummins diesel engine, can cut up to 24’ long and up to a 36” diameter. It has a two saw vertical edger, and can edge from a 1 x 4 to a 4 x 12.
Following that is a two-saw trimmer and green chain. The trimmer is powered with a 13 hp Honda engine. Two smaller hydraulic systems run the chains and conveyors, and are powered by the Dodge Cummins, with a small Yamaha generator powering the hydraulic coils.
This is actually his second go at setting up a sawmill. His first set-up was mostly destroyed in a fire in 2013. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and the fire did not spread, even though the area had some dry, hot weather at the time. Neighbors spotted the fire, and were able to save some of the equipment.
“Some of what we have now was from the other mill that got hit by the fire,” he says. “We were able to salvage a bit, but it was mostly done.”
By and large, Simpson had to start pretty close from scratch in setting up the mill, after the fire.
He found the Morbark circular mill in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. “Basically, it was just iron that no one wanted,” he says, with a laugh. “We just picked up some pieces from around the Vernon area that I thought would work, and brought it home.
“I’ve just picked equipment up here and there, and put it together,” he says, modestly. It certainly helps with all this that Simpson is a certified millwright.
The fire hit the operation in August 2013. But thanks to the support and efforts of Larry’s wife, Linda, his son, Dean, and his brother-in-law, Toad (Brian) Tinsley, who has been with the mill since they started up, they were running again by that fall. “That following winter it was pretty tough—I set up things a few different ways, to try to make it work best. It took a bit of time. But we got there.”
He notes that they are now able to cut a bit larger log on the Morbark saw vs. their previous saw. “But the other saw was nice—it was all electric.”
Before he set up Simpson Lumber, he worked for local sawmilling outfit, Hauer Bros, a long-established family-run mill, for 35 years.
“Old Henry Hauer had a lot of iron in the yard down there at their mill, so I knew how to work with it.” It was good training for piecing things together with his own mill.
Most of the wood Simpson Lumber produces goes west, to Prince George, and southwest, to Vancouver. The nearby town of Valemount is fairly small, with a population of about 1,000 people, so local demand for wood is pretty limited. That could change, though. A massive ski hill/resort has been proposed for the area, which would result in significant growth for the town. The $175 million resort would be built in the Cariboo Mountains just west of Valemount, and has been approved by the B.C. government.
For now, though, Simpson is focused on their current markets. “Lately, we’ve had some six by six, and some two-inch product, for flooring, going to the coast,” says Simpson. A lot of their side lumber goes to a planer mill in Prince George, and they send some one-by-six to a reman operation on the coast, for markets in India.
The dimensions, he notes, are approximate, since they don’t have a resaw. “We produce the thick and the thin on the headrig,” he says.
“We pretty much focus on the timbers—with the side lumber, it’s been a bit of a challenge to market, but we’ve found places to sell it to.”
If you’ve ever been in a Montana’s Restaurant, you’ve likely seen some Simpson Lumber timbers. “We’ve cut the timbers for just about every one of the Montana’s Restaurants—they’ve been a steady customer for us.”
The CN Rail line runs adjacent to the mill site, but their lumber is shipped by truck from the mill. “Most of the brokers have their own trucks, and we also deal with a trucker who regularly hauls to Prince George.”
Most of the time, Simpson Lumber works through brokers. “I’d say that 95 per cent of the time, I go through three or four brokers in Prince George.” That helps to keep them busy, he says. “We’re never looking for orders—we always have orders. We have to turn away business because we can only produce so much.”
In fact, says Simpson, he is as busy as he wants to be. They operate the mill six hours a day, and he’s on the Morbark steady during that time. “It still involves some long hours—beyond running the mill, you have to tally the lumber, and do a bit of maintenance on the mill. You have to keep everything running.” They usually have a crew of three, including Larry’s son, Dean, and brother-in-law, Toad.
The Morbark mill, fortunately, does not require a lot of work. Some of the work, because of its age, involves some McGyver’ing work on Simpson’s part. “It’s mostly bearings, maybe some coils on the electrical side—we’ll fix it or, if we need to, we’ll phone the suppliers in Prince George, and the parts will be here the next day.
“When I go to Prince George, too, I’ll buy a few of this and that, so we have spares on hand. The equipment is pretty straightforward.”
The mill can take a bit of prodding to get going in wet or cold weather. In this part of B.C., it can get down to -20 or even -30.
“It can be tough to get it going some mornings if it’s cold, with all the hydraulics,” says Simpson. “I have some fairly long hydraulic lines on the Morbark, and it can take a while get to get things warmed up.”
But cold weather doesn’t deter them. “The guys buying our wood have a home for that wood, and they need it by a certain day. When we take an order, we want to deliver it on time. We want to get it done for our customers.”
On the mobile equipment side, they have a Bobcat A-300 and Cat 930 and 966 wheel loaders, which Simpson picked up used. Used equipment is the way to go for them, he says.
“The 966 loader is an older machine, and we were having some problems with the engine,” he explained. “We could buy a new loader, but the benefits are not going to be there for us, for what we are investing in a new piece of equipment.
“So I went online, and found this other 966 on the coast. I bought it, took the motor out and put it in our 966—and it works perfect. And we also have all these spare parts now.”
And it’s often easier dealing with more traditional equipment technology, he says.
“With the newer equipment, and the computerized parts it has, you might have to get someone from the dealership to look at it if you have problems. And we are not exactly close to a major centre, where the dealers are.”
The equipment is moving around the yard a bit easier these days. As part of the construction work for a nearby CN Rail overpass, his mill site was used for fill material. As part of this, he was able to arrange to get the CN equipment put in a couple of feet of gravel, from the small gravel pit he runs on the side. “They packed it all in for us,” says Simpson. “We’re able to get around better now in the wet weather.”
An issue for Simpson Lumber and other producers in the area is what to do with their wood waste. When things were booming in next door Alberta, the oil patch would take the sawdust off his hands; it was used as part of the mix for drilling fluids. “They paid for it, but the trucking costs ate up any money up we got for it—I was just happy to get rid of the wood waste,” he explained.
Now, local farmers take some of the sawdust, for spreading on their fields. “I’m kind of helping them out, and they’re helping me out.
“The biggest challenge for us now is dealing with the wood waste—the rest is all manageable,” says Simpson.
A very neat solution for the waste wood would be a pellet plant that has been proposed for Valemount.
Despite the long hours, Simpson clearly enjoys the work, and the independence. Before he left Hauer Bros. Lumber, he had already set up a small operation, using a sawmill, from D&L Doublecut Sawmills, of Lac la Hache, B.C.
“When I went out on my own, we just made that company a little bigger,” he says.
But in an era of big forest companies, and large sawmills, Simpson likes being small scale.
“When I got my millwright ticket, we had big mills in Valemount at the time, and some of my buddies worked there. But I enjoy what I am doing. I did not want the pressure of the big mills.”
Working for a modest sized operation like Hauer Bros was a good fit. “It was great—I really enjoyed working there. And old Henry Hauer was like a father to me. I learned a lot there.”
And now, Simpson is quite happy to climb into the cab of the Morbark of his own operation every morning. “Some people might say, why don’t you get someone else to saw. But I enjoy sitting there sawing. People ask how I can make something out of some of the logs we get. But I don’t even think about it—I put the log in the carriage, and I make the cuts.”
And then there are benefits of pretty much working from home. “I walk home for lunch,” he says, with a smile.
On the Cover:
The theme for the upcoming Council of Forest Industries (COFI) convention in April is “Forestry for the Planet. Forest Products for the World” which helps underline the renewable nature of wood and its suitability for green-conscious building construction. But a big topic of discussion is going to be what Canada can do to strike a new softwood lumber deal with the U.S. Read all about the convention beginning on page 10. (Cover photo courtesy of Resolute Forest Products)
A new beetle battle in B.C.
In the wake of the mountain pine beetle, spruce beetles have become a big concern in the B.C. Interior, prompting a two-day spruce beetle summit held recently in Prince George, to keep all the parties in the loop about this latest beetle battle.
COFI Conference Preview
The upcoming Council of Forest Industries (COFI) convention in April will be looking at the challenges now facing the industry, including how to get a new lumber deal with the U.S.—but these challenges are being tackled by an industry that’s resilient, creative and successful, says COFI President and CEO Susan Yurkovich.
Back on track… after The Beast
The growth plan at Fort McMurray’s Northland Forest Products is back on track, after being temporarily interrupted by the massive wildfire—called The Beast—that hit the city this past spring.
Milling for the movies
The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta, has developed a varied client list—including supplying wood products to the recent hit movie, The Revenant.
Alberta logging contractor Corey Stoneman finds that when it comes to choosing equipment for the stump-side processing he does for Spray Lakes Sawmills in the eastern slopes of the Rockies, bigger is definitely better.
New work standards for sawmill planers
New work standards for sawmill planers in B.C. are expected to make the work environment safer—and contribute to an increase in planer efficiency.
Cutting its own path
Simpson Lumber Co. has cut its own path to success in B.C.’s Robson Valley, focusing on Doug fir timbers, specialty and custom cuts—with the bonus being a very short commute for mill owner, Larry Simpson.
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.
The Last Word
Getting the B.C. forest industry to a bright future is going to take some doing, with a falling timber cut, says Jim Stirling.