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Bear Lumber owner Bob Jerke says that he and his employees pretty much built the mill equipment themselves. “If we needed something and we couldn’t do it, we’d go to a machine shop or hydraulics shop in Cranbrook and have them put it together for us.”

Bear Lumber, a small sawmill operation in the Kootenays region of BC, has developed a niche market for timbers that are produced from salvage wood, and some customers are promoting the timbers as being environmentally green.

By Paul MacDonald

The beautiful timber frame houses often profiled in the Homes sections of the weekend newspaper are sometimes built using timbers that are considered environmentally “green”—even though the logs that were used to produce those timbers really haven’t been green, in some cases, for years.

With a small mill operation just off the Crowsnest Pass Highway in southeastern British Columbia, Bear Lumber Ltd has developed a custom cutting business that, among other things, produces timbers for American home builders from salvage, or dead, wood that could have been in a forest for years. And while that business is currently seeing challenges, this market has proven to be successful for the company.

Bob Jerke, the owner of Bear Lumber, actually got his start in the forest industry behind the wheel of a logging truck. In the late 1970s, Bob and his brother Richard bought a logging truck with a self-loader—“one of the first in Cranbrook”—and started hauling logs to a number of small custom cutting mill operations in the East Kootenays.

Bear Lumber has no cut of its own, and the market for green wood is very competitive in this part of BC. “We figured why fight that?” explains company owner Bob Jerke (above). “Why not use something which is available, so we went to salvage wood.”

“I asked these mills how business was going, and after hearing what they were getting paid, Richard, another brother, Edwin, and I decided to get into the business ourselves.” The company name came not from the animal, but from the names of the brothers—BEAR stands for Bob, Edwin And Richard.

In some ways, it’s no surprise the brothers eventually got involved in sawmilling—their father ran bush mills for years. Richard and Edwin have since moved on to other things, but Bob has now been at it for more than 25 years.

When Bear Lumber first started out, while they had a canter, they were turning logs by hand and the setworks was done by hand. Now they have a headrig with log turner, and hydraulic setworks. Most of the equipment was developed by Bob and Bear Lumber employees.

“We pretty much built the mill equipment ourselves,” says Bob. “If we needed something and we couldn’t do it, we’d go to a machine shop or hydraulics shop in Cranbrook and have them put it together for us.”

From the start, they did specialized custom cutting, including timbers for the hundreds of wooden grain elevators that used to dot the prairies. These days, the focus is on timbers for homes. “We’ve done timbers from the start,” Bob explains. “It not the kind of cutting that a Canfor or a Tembec does.

“We were never interested in producing dimensional lumber—that’s a whole other business. Companies like Canfor and Tembec are high production. For every person the major companies have to produce 1,000 board feet, we probably have five to seven people. There’s a lot of labour in what we do.

“If I was to try to cut and compete in the same market with one of the big companies, I would not have a hope in hell.” But conversely, Bob adds, if one of the big companies tried to turn out what Bear Lumber produces, it would be equally unsuccessful, due to its high overheads and high production structures. “We’re no threat to each other,” he says.

The dead wood has checks and cracking, which would pose huge challenges for a company looking to produce dimension lumber in a high production mill. But with Bear Lumber’s focus on hands-on production and on timbers, there is time and the knowledge to handle the wood carefully and get the right cuts.

These days, about 50 per cent of Bear Lumber’s market is timbers for homes, primarily in the United States. Often, a customer will fax Bear Lumber a cut list—or what Bob calls a “grocery list”—of what they need.

A grocery list could include smaller pieces, 4x4s eight feet long, with the more common pieces being 8x10s and 10x10s. “And we get requests for 12x12s, 30 feet long. The largest we can do is 20x20, forty feet long.”

Bear Lumber has some customers that promote the fact that the timbers are “green,” in that they are made from trees that die naturally, rather than trees that are logged. “We’ve got a timber home customer in Texas that advertises that his timbers are environmentally friendly,” notes Bob.
All of the timbers are produced from dead wood, from trees that have been killed by bugs, rot or plain old age. Local forest companies, such as Tembec and J H Huscroft, will set aside the dead trees when they are carrying out logging operations for their own mills and sell them to Bear Lumber. They also buy salvage wood from logging contractors.

“We get wood from a variety of sources,” Bob says. “If an operation is logging 10 truckloads a day, around 500 cubic metres, there may be 20 cubic metres of salvage wood out of that.”

Dealing with salvage wood was really a necessity for Bear Lumber. The company has no cut of its own, and the market for green wood is very competitive in this part of the province. “We figured why fight that?” explains Bob. “Why not use something which is available, so we went to salvage wood.”

The big production mills are not interested in processing dead wood—it’s the green wood they are after. The dead wood has checks and cracking, which poses huge challenges if you’re trying to produce dimension lumber in a high production mill. If a log doesn’t go through milling equipment right, the lumber produced from dead wood will just fall apart. “But if you leave it in an 8x10 or a 10x10, it will hold together,” says Bob.

With Bear Lumber’s focus on hands-on production, there is time and the knowledge to handle the wood carefully, and get the right cuts.

There’s no lack of dead wood in the central Interior of BC, as a result of the devastation by the mountain pine beetle. But they have—fortunately—seen little of that in the southeast of the province, Bob notes. From time to time, they even have problems getting salvage wood, when pulp operations in the area are looking for wood chips.

The actual cost of the raw material is quite reasonable, but Bob points out that you have to factor in a lot of a dead tree going to waste material. “What we pay, per thousand board feet, may be as high or higher than what the major companies pay for wood.” Mind you, timbers also fetch a premium over your standard 2X4s.

Clean chips from the waste wood go to area pulp mills, while the rest of the waste material goes to a nearby co-gen plant.

The salvage wood, since it’s been dead for some time, is already dry. The finished timbers end up with a moisture content about the same as kiln dried wood, though there is some variation. “The moisture content may vary, but the timbers are far more stable than timbers from a green tree,” Bob notes.

They work mostly with spruce, pine and balsam. The spruce and pine go into the timbers, while the balsam will go into dunnage and lower grade products. Balsam is used as pipe racking, wood pieces that support steel sections of pipeline on a truck or railcar. “It’s light and it does the job,” says Bob. The piping wood is usually shipped to customers in 6x6, ten-foot pieces, with the customers then doing the necessary notching to fit the pipe.

The main CP Rail line goes right through nearby Cranbrook, which works great for big lumber shippers like Tembec and its sawmill operations in the region. But Bear Lumber’s orders can be less than a single rail car load.

“It’s better sending the orders by truck,” Bob says. “With trucking, we can have an eight- or ten-day turnaround from the time customers order the timbers to when they receive them. Shipping by rail, it could take six weeks.”

With challenges in the US home market, Bear Lumber is looking to diversify. They are looking at putting in another resaw to service a new, and growing, market: supplying wood blocks for use in drilling mats and for roads in the Alberta oilpatch. The mats and roads allow drilling equipment access during warmer months. These are 4x6, 5x6 or 6x6, and 38 or 43 inches long.

“The wood has to fit in between steel pieces and has to be within 1/16 of an inch tolerance, so I would have to put a chopping station in to produce pieces in the right lengths and get that tolerance.” They’ve also started producing pipe skids, wood that is used for blocking and positioning large sections of steel pipe as it is welded.

While this additional business from a very healthy oil industry is welcome—as is the industry’s tendency not to quibble too much about price—there is a price that companies have to pay for being located next to Canada’s top performing province, Alberta. The nearby coalfields in southeastern BC are also doing well.

“I think everybody in the forest industry is seeing this—it can be tough getting people to work in the forest industry when things are booming in the energy industry,” says Bob.