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Solid sawmilling success
Dean Christensen has built a solid small sawmill business, and is now looking at expanding his product line beyond white spruce into birch and tamarack.
By Tony Kryzanowski
There was a time when purchasing a couple of 2 X 4’s meant a quick trip to town. Now, with fewer lumber yards in smaller communities, it could mean a trip of an hour or more. That’s part of the reason why custom sawmilling businesses like Christiansen Lumber, located in smaller centres, have a solid future and strong growth potential.
Dean Christiansen established his custom sawmilling business four kilometres northeast of Big River, Saskatchewan in 1999, and built it around the high quality cutting performance of a bandsaw. After more than a decade producing rough sawn lumber, custom cut timbers, decking, mantles, log profile siding, drop siding, V-joint tongue and groove, and rounded edge boards for deck planking, he has worked hard to establish a regular clientele in this community located about an hour-and-a-half west of Prince Albert.
Christiansen says what really helped establish his business is demand from the local farming community for products such as corral boards, wind fence boards for shelters and bull rails. His business is ideally located—it’s close to the timber source and is within a short drive for many communities in northwestern Saskatchewan. Also, his ability to produce harder to find building materials has also attracted customers, and helps to keep the bandsaw turning when the cattle industry goes through a downturn.
“My niche is the ability to be flexible and manufacturing products that people need,” says Christiansen. “It was a struggle for the first few years when I went full time, but I’m finding that the past few years I’m starting to make some money at it. I have no regrets. I enjoy doing it, and I’m working at home.”
He recently added a Nyle L500 dry kiln and Logosol LAKS 300 gang saw to his production process. The dry kiln will give him the ability to manufacture more indoor appearance grade products such as paneling, mouldings and flooring.
Christiansen is also excited about the new 5,000 cubic metre timber allocation he has been granted by the Saskatchewan government. The allocation is in the area that was essentially the western segment of Weyerhaeuser’s massive Forest Management Area (FMA), tied to its pulp mill and sawmills prior to their closure. The old FMA is now managed by a forest industry partnership called Sakaw Askiy Forest Management Inc. The timber licence provides Christiansen with a wood source close to home, which will help to keep his log delivery costs reasonable. He hires local logging contractors to harvest and deliver the logs to him.
Now 44-years-old and raising a young family, Christiansen cut his teeth in the forest industry for 16 seasons from the seat of a feller buncher and skidder. His father was a long-time logging contractor for Weyerhaeuser. When his father retired, Dean took a job at Weyerhaeuser’s Big River sawmill and worked there for a year before it shut down. The relatively new dimension lumber sawmill was recently purchased by B.C.-based, Carrier Lumber.
While he worked with his father in logging, Dean felt a strong desire to try his hand at sawmilling. He purchased his bandsaw and operated it as a sideline to his day job. He became more serious about the business to support his family when the Weyerhaeuser sawmill closed its doors.
“When the Weyerhaeuser sawmill closed, I was forced to decide whether to go to Alberta and work in the oilpatch or try and do something here,” says Dean. “I decided to step up my sideline a little more into a full time job.”
The experience he gained working for his father, learning all aspects of what it takes to operate a business, including more management responsibilities as foreman, gave him a good understanding of how to deal with employees and manage his own business. Today, he has three employees working with him at Christiansen Lumber.
Dean Christiansen (above) produces rough boards on his bandsaw —his primary breakdown unit is a SVM bandsaw. Some boards with bark still on them will be processed through the Coutts edger.
The production process begins in the forest where Dean scouts out white spruce stands—with larger diameter logs—that are from 20 to 25 metres in height. He also prefers to work with logs that have fewer knots. His logging experience comes in handy with site and log selection.
“The ideal sawlog has about a seven inch top or larger, but you don’t always get that,” says Dean. “As I’m breaking my piles down in the yard and bringing wood up to the mill, I’ll be sorting them. Anything that’s not going to make six inch material, I’ll put it into one pile, and anything that’s monstrous, I’ll put into a separate pile for special orders. Everything in between that will produce six inch to ten inch material, I will run all at once.”
His primary breakdown unit is an SVM bandsaw, manufactured by Issac Ironworks Limited in Spirit River, Alberta, which he has modified over the years to help improve efficiency.
“The drag back fingers are a huge help,” says Dean. “At the end of each cut, I can drag back a slab or a board and that way the bandsaw deck is clear for me to either go into my next cut or load a new log.” Also, if he is working alone, he can pile the stick of lumber that has been dragged back to him once he engages the saw to start its next cut.
He adds that the original bandsaw had a good system for turning and clamping logs. It also came with a debarker or what is sometimes called a ‘mud saw’, which cuts the bark off just ahead of the bandsaw blade.
“If there is any dirt or grit in the bark, it gets taken out ahead of the blade,” says Dean. “That has really helped. I get a lot more overall blade life and longer run times between sharpening.” Parts are also readily available off the shelf from common equipment supply companies.
The bandsaw alone produces a number of marketable products for Christiansen Lumber, such as standard lumber from 2 X 4 to 2 X 10 up to 20’ long, as well as 1” thick material. It will also produce timbers, which can be as big as 16 X 16, based on customer demand.
Since they are produced with a bandsaw, the products have a smooth surface and precise thickness measurements.
The key to operating a successful custom sawmill business is to have a market for all of the log fibre. Beside the bandsaw, Christiansen has a five-blade, Coutts edger. This helps to maximize recovery as he is able to produce lumber from 1” or 2” thick, second cut boards from his bandsaw that may have a bit of bark still on them. Based on the preset gaps between the edger sawblades, Dean can recover anything from a 2 X 4 to a 2 X 10 on the edger. He bands up the initial slabs that come off the logs and sells them for firewood. He also produces firewood as part of Christiansen Lumber.
Christiansen Lumber has recently received a 5,000 cubic metre timber allocation from the Saskatchewan Government, as part of a large Forest Management Area re-allocation.
The material slated for planing is first dry piled so that it air dries to the proper moisture content. In the summer, it can take about two months. Once the Nyle L500 dehumidification kiln is installed, Christiansen will have much more precise control over the lumber’s final moisture content.
To fill orders for products such as drop siding and tongue and groove material, Christiansen Lumber acquired a Baker M412 planer/moulder about a year ago.
“We can use it to make pretty much anything,” he says. “We use it to make log siding, V-joint tongue and groove, four-sided planing, crown mouldings and brick mouldings. We can even make doweling on it.” Its biggest use so far has been for log profile siding and V-joint tongue and groove material.
“It’s a good machine,” he adds. “I think I might even buy another one just so that I don’t have to change my set-ups for different products because it takes quite a bit of time to change over and set everything up perfectly.”
The Logosol gang saw that Christiansen Lumber recently put into production results in even more recovery from each log. He uses it with his cants coming off the bandsaw mill and often runs it in tandem with his bandsaw.
“I can process a lot more wood that is shorter and smaller through that unit,” says Christiansen. “I’m running wood through it now that I would have sent to the firewood pile before simply because I can process it fast enough through that machine to make it economical.”
His highest volume item at the business is 1 X 6 wind break material for the cattle industry, and he says his highest value product is log profile siding. Production is based on both custom orders and producing inventory for high demand products.
“Any time I am not cutting an order, I just start producing material that I know will sell,” he says. “Usually the fall is prime time to sell the corral products so I try to prepare through the summer to have a good inventory to move out in the fall.”
While Christiansen says he will continue to offer quality service and products to his existing customers, he is looking to the future. As part of his product diversification strategy, he will also be investigating the use of other wood species such as birch and tamarack particularly for indoor building materials.