By Paul MacDonald
Lawrence Wheatley had somewhat of an indirect route—from working as a mechanic to operating an excavator on a silver mine in the Yukon—to getting into the sawmilling business.
But that said, he’s managed to survive the sometimes rollercoaster ride in the forest industry over the last several decades, with his company, Quinsam Reman. In fact, the company is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, which is a significant accomplishment considering the ups and downs of the business.
Quinsam Reman is a small sawmill and reman operation in Campbell River on B.C.’s Vancouver Island, cutting mostly for local customers in the region. But Wheatley actually started work as a heavy duty mechanic for B.C. Cat dealer, Finning, back in the 1970s.
After the stint with Finning, he set up his own shop in Campbell River, doing maintenance for local outfits, including Raven Lumber, which operated a major sawmill in the city. After an economic downturn hit in the 1980s, “I decided to go gold mining in the Yukon,” he says. Wheatley headed up to the Yukon with an excavator, and ended up doing exploration work, but it was on a silver mine.
Just as he arrived in the Yukon, though, he had a different, but good, feeling.
“I had this funny feeling, like I had been here before,” he says. “I was content—like I was home.”
Later, he learned his grandfather, one of 13 kids, had, in fact, worked in the Yukon, before settling with Lawrence’s Dad on Vancouver Island. So the adventure side comes honestly to Wheatley, as does the entrepreneurial side. One of his uncles, Noah Wheatley, moved to California as a teenager, and was instrumental in the growth of that state’s famous Mother’s Cookies, which at one point made 17 million cookies a day.
An entrepreneurial background has come in handy for Wheatley who can produce a little bit of everything from his mill, located on the highway leading from Campbell River to Gold River. Wheatley says it was time for a change when he bought the small mill operation.
“I always wanted to do something with wood, and I was tired of laying in the water and pulling wrenches, fixing equipment,” he says.
The business concept was to go mid-size, and employ as many as 20 people; but due to a tight timber supply and up and down markets, Wheatley has kept it smaller scale. “It’s a struggle to get wood,” he says. “There is a lot of wood around here, but it gets shipped down to the mills down around Vancouver.”
Generally, Wheatley says, the business is a tough challenge, but clearly one he is up to. “I still enjoy coming in to work every morning,” he says. “But it can be feast or famine for the business at times, that’s for sure.
“When it’s feast time, you try to put a little bit away so you can get through the down times.”
Focused on mostly local customers, they will cut wood for decking, siding, sheds, —and it’s mostly yellow cedar. “We’ve been moving customers to yellow cedar and people have been discovering that it is almost as good as red cedar. In term of longevity, it’s probably better because most of the red cedar these days is second growth, and it’s not as good as old growth.
“We can’t afford to buy Western Red Cedar,” he adds. “The price of yellow cedar is much less.” Or at least it has been, Wheatley says prices for yellow cedar logs have been heading steadily up, as it gets used more.
To get that yellow cedar, Quinsam Reman has to work around the logging schedules in the area. In the winter, logging can be shut down due to a deep snowpack, and in the summer, it can be shut down due to fire risk. “This last winter, there was a lot of snow, but the last few years it has been good because there hasn’t been a lot of snow.” Sometimes, they’ll have to purchase their logs for the winter as early as September.
At one point, the operation had a moulder, and they were doing more reman work, including some contract work in Ontario. They bought cedar shorts and made a number of products, including hand rails, spindle blanks, fencing and 2 x 6 tongue and groove.
They then switched to doing more work for the local market around Campbell River.
An exception to that involved a recent project cutting 35,000 board feet of salvage cedar for an operation out of California, Cascadia Forest Products. Cascadia produces everything from siding to beams from salvaged and reclaimed wood. “We had a hell of a time getting salvage cedar for them, but we finally got it,” says Wheatley. “We’re hoping to do more down in the States, but it’s hard to say what’s going to happen down there with the politics.”
After the moulder was not earning its keep, they sold it off, and invested in some other equipment, including some better resaws, and a Keystone Machinery automatic stake pointer. Quinsam produces a lot of tree planting stakes for forest companies on Vancouver Island, and planting companies, such as PRT, North America’s largest producer of container-grown forest seedlings.
“Getting the pointer made a big difference—doing the pointing used to be very labour intensive,” says Wheatley. With the new machine, they are now able to do 8,000 stakes a day. “It even packages the pointers and puts the package on a pallet.”
When Quinsam Reman first set up on the site, the business came with a large headrig. “It’s a big old beast,” says Wheatley, with a blade that is 13 inches wide and 39 feet long. In its heyday, it could probably produce upwards of 40,000 board feet a day, but towards the end of its life, it was operating in fits and starts, with production of about 2,000 board feet a day.
Wheatley replaced that behemoth with a mid-sized electric Forester band saw that he picked up at auction.
Following the Forester at the mill, they have an Esser 100 hp bull edger, with three shifting saws and one fixed saw, that can cut eight inches by 32 inches.
“We can do about 3,000 board feet a day with two people on the mill,” says Wheatley. “The Forester works pretty well for us.”
The Forester needed a fair bit of work when they bought it, he notes. The wiring had been stripped out. “But we put it all back together, and it works pretty well now.” Wheatley says his experience as a heavy duty mechanic, and with equipment over the years, has definitely helped in keeping things working around the mill.
They usually use all the sidecuts from the Forester for making the planting stakes, and their knotty wood goes into fence boards.
They pretty much cut to order, says Wheatley, having little inventory. “If someone came in today wanting some decking, we would cut the decking, and the sideboards would go into the stakes or some fenceboards—we try to utilize it all.”
They work to make the sideboards as thin as possible, to cut into firewood, as well. Trim ends also go into firewood. There’s a steady market. “The firewood always seems to go,” says Wheatley. “We don’t have a chipper because we could never find a home for the chips.”
Being a small sawmill means by definition being resourceful, and Wheatley does exactly that when things are a bit quiet, with the firewood sales. They made storage bins that take an honest half-a-cord, and people back up their pick-ups to the bins.
On the maintenance side of the mill, Wheatley and employee Jeff Thomas take care of most of what is required. They usually keep a stock of some parts, such as belts and bearings, on hand, he says. It has sometimes been difficult to get these parts locally with the shutdown of the two major sawmills in the area, Raven Lumber and the Elk Falls sawmill. When those mills closed, the local supplier base was reduced.
The fall tends to be a bit quieter for the operation—at least until the orders for the planting stakes start to come in, with forest companies looking to get ready for the upcoming planting season. “We usually try to get the guys to send in their orders, and start work on doing tree stakes in December,” he says. This past December, for example, they had two orders, for 30,000 and 34,000 stakes.
The five acre site for the mill—“perfect for our size”, says Wheatley—sits on a mostly industrial section along the highway, with lots of gravel operations. In fact, part of their site had a bit of a hole, where the previous owner had sold off some gravel. Last summer, construction work was being done on the highway and the contractor needed to get rid of some broken-up asphalt—and the hole proved to be the perfect place for it.
“Every night, they would bring us six truckloads of material,” says Wheatley. “And we backfilled the hole up.” A friend with an old Cat D8 came in, and worked over the material, and flattened it out. When the road construction was complete, the contractor had some excess pit run material, which was placed on top of the now-filled hole. “It’s really nice now,” says Wheatley. “You can drive anywhere over it with a forklift—and it did not cost us anything.”
With their operation working pretty well now, Wheatley does not head out to the equipment auctions too often these days—he used to be a regular. “I still go once in a while,” he says. Inevitably, he finds something they can use, such as electric motors. But at major auctions, he notes, and with online bidding, you can be bidding against Americans, with their higher value dollar, or anyone in the world. The super good deals, he says, aren’t there anymore.
On the Cover:
Producing wood chips for manufacturing pulp is an important part of the forest industry in Canada, but producing forestry biomass for energy facilities is also of growing importance. Industry research organization FPInnovations has some solid tips on achieving the standards expected of biomass in a story on page 45 of this issue of Logging and Sawmilling Journal (Photo of B.C. Interior chipping operation by Paul MacDonald)
Keeping lumber on track
The rail system is an essential link in the supply chain for Canadian lumber producers, and industry associations are stressing that the system needs to be maintained and reviewed to get the best service—especially as the industry seeks to develop overseas markets, and get lumber to ports.
Maxing out value from logs
B.C.’s Skeena Sawmills has launched a broad-based effort to improve log utilization, and that effort includes the installation of a new small log canter line—and it’s also looking at a new log scanner, to maximize the value from each log.
New planer mill technology delivers
A new planer mill at IdaPine in Idaho is helping Evergreen Forest Products meet growing market needs—and standards for the company’s appearance grade products have been greatly enhanced by innovative Finnish scanning technology created by FinScan.
The right stuff—all the way ‘round
Nova Scotia logger Peter Archibald understands full well that he needs the right gear to deliver the right wood to the right mill, and he now has some new equipment—and some newly-trained operators—to deliver that wood.
Rolling uphill with logging changes
The B.C.-based Clusko Group is used to adapting to new environments and making changes, and the latest is a move to higher ground and steep slope equipment, with the Remote Operated Bulldozer (ROB) winch assist system.
Vancouver Island sawmiller Lawrence Wheatley has weathered two decades of the ups and downs of the sometimes unpredictable wood products market by being extremely resourceful, and having a strong focus on local customers.
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, Alberta Innovates, Alberta Agriculture and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
The forest industry must lead on developing a national carbon credit trading system, says Tony Kryzanowski.