Even though the W.F. Tompkins mill has wood allocations from three Crown licenses, about 75 per cent of their wood supply continues to come from privately owned woodlands.
New Brunswick’s Tompkins sawmill may be small, but it has managed to weather industry downturns—turning out high value hardwood lumber and bread and butter products, such as railroad ties—for three generations.
By George Fullerton
The Tompkins Family has been sawing lumber in northwest New Brunswick for three generations. While many sawmills across the province have shut down due to poor market conditions, the W.F. Tompkins operation continues to welcome loads of hardwood logs into their mill, located on the edge of the small village of Bath. From the mill, trailer loads of graded hardwood lumber and squared timber go down the road to secondary processors and other markets.
John Tompkins, the company's general manager and president, explains that survival in this extended, tough economic climate boils down to a few things: reacting and adapting quickly to changes in the market, maintaining positive business relationships, providing good service to customers and solid communications and business dealings with their wood suppliers.
"My quick estimate is that our business is down about 45 per cent," stated Tompkins. "As an example, before 2008 we would ship a trailer load of lumber to dealers here in New Brunswick and we would realize about $10,000 in revenue. In 2011, that same trailer load of hardwood lumber yielded us only $6,500.
"For a mill like ours, it means we pay a lot of attention to the business, we take care of our equipment and hold off on any new investments," he added.
John Tompkins (left), manager and head sawyer at W.F. Tompkins, notes that there is currently quite a lot of hardwood timber available from Crown land in New Brunswick, because a lot of mills have shut down. "But we have long term relations with our traditional private land suppliers, and we will honour that relationship and continue to do business with them."
While the Tompkins sawmill may be considered small by today's standards—producing 1.5 million board feet of hardwood lumber per year—it still plays a vital role in the region, creating direct employment for mill workers, and it is a vital market for high quality hardwood logs.
Even though the Tompkins mill has wood allocations from three Crown Licenses, about 75 per cent of their wood supply continues to come from privately owned woodlands.
"Private land wood producers are critical to our operation," says Tompkins. "We are buying logs year round, so producers can sell logs when they are fresh cut so we are able to saw them and get the best value lumber."
Producers are paid as soon as the wood is delivered, so they have a positive cash flow situation.
Many logging contractors that traditionally harvested private woodlots have parked their equipment. The Tompkins mill continues to receive loads directly from the few remaining producers and also has an arrangement with Crabbe Lumber, a nearby softwood sawmill, to receive some hardwood logs on their softwood loads. Crabbe Lumber identifies and piles the hardwood logs in their yard until there is a full load to ship to Tompkins.
Tompkins explained that harvesting operations in the bush generate a relatively small percentage of high value/high grade hardwood logs, so it may not make economic sense to sort a small amount of hardwood logs and ship it to the Tompkins mill. However, it does make economic sense to sort those quality logs if they are able to hitch a ride to the mill on a load of softwood logs.
Another important supplier for the Tompkins mill is the Carleton-Victoria Wood Producers Marketing Board which receives hardwood sawlogs into their merchandising yard, and delivers loads as they accumulate.
"Freshness is critically important when you are producing grade lumber for flooring or furniture manufacturing," says Tompkins. "If logs lay around and begin to stain, the lumber value drops dramatically. So it just makes sense to move logs when they are fresh, and in the most efficient way possible.
"Currently, there is quite a lot of hardwood timber available from Crown land, because a lot of mills have shut down. But we have long term relations with our traditional private land suppliers, and we will honour that relationship and continue to do business with them."
As Crown land sub-licensees, the Tompkins mill is responsible for harvesting their allocation. In years past, the mill crew went to the woods in winter to bring in the cut. However, over the years, mill workers became less inclined to handle a saw or a skidder. With increased regulations, it even became a challenge to engage a contractor to handle the Crown wood harvest. Tompkins explained that eventually he made a deal with Crabbe Lumber to handle the harvesting.
"We already had a good working relationship with Crabbe, purchasing hardwood logs from their freehold operations. And they had harvest operations going year 'round, so it was a nice fit to get them to harvest and deliver our Crown allocation. Crabbe Lumber are good to work with and they understand the challenges and they work well with us," said Tompkins.
The current Tompkins mill was built by John's father, William, in 1988. John grew up working in the mill and doing winter harvest operations. Following high school, John attended Maritime Forest Ranger School, graduating in 1976. He continued to work in the family business and assumed sawyer duties in 1988, after his father died suddenly.
"Up to that point, I had only sawed for about a day-and-a-half," he says. "For quite a while, I was on the phone a lot, talking to older mill hands, getting their advice on how my saw was operating and troubleshooting problems that came along. With good advice and some experience, it all came together over time."
They deal with a variety of timber coming to the mill. Tompkins notes that they get logs from a full range of producers and contractors. Some of those producers are good at putting up a load of logs, and some are not so particular, he says.
"We buy about 50 per cent of our supply by weight scale from contractors that put up a good product. For the balance, we pile down the loads and twice a week we contract a local licensed scaler, Gerald Girvan, to come in and stick scale those logs."
John's wife, Gail, tallies the log scaling and makes up cheques for the producers and truckers. John recognizes Gail as a critical part of the business, managing the office and handling most of the administrative work.
W.F. Tompkins keeps in weekly contact with customers, to determine where prices are on various products and what inventory the mill can supply to them. If customers are getting overstocked, the mill will make changes to production and put lumber into alternative markets, if needed.
The mill has two key pieces of yard equipment, a John Deere 544H wheel loader and a Prentice 180 loader mounted on an International truck, both operated by John's brother, Jason. The Prentice unloads trucks, and also loads logs on the mill's infeed deck.
Logs are debarked with an HMC Rosser debarker. The Carriage is an HMC unit with an HMC log turner. The head saw is a 48 inch circular saw, with mountings for a 36 inch top saw.
"In general, our piece size has been continually getting smaller and there is not much call for the top saw," explains John. "Since it obstructs my view from the sawyer cab, we leave it off until we have an inventory of big logs."
Grade boards are fed into a HMC edger and then on to a trim saw, and eventually on to the manual green chain. Squared stock is carried to the trim saw on a series of live rollers.
Slabs and trimmings are cut to sixteen inch lengths and conveyored to trucks and delivered to customers for home heating. The hardwood sawdust is also sold to customers using sawdust burners for home heating.
There is no better place to experience a hardwood sawmill than from the sawyers cab, and Tompkins is a congenial host and patient with explanations about sawing strategy.
The Tompkins sawmill has a strong focus on a limited number of products, so they are able to make up the bundles quickly and ship the load sooner. They can use the income to manage cash flow, rather than be concerned about inventory of certain grades that build up slowly.
"I try to keep the opening face at least four inches wide, so we can get a grade board with a four inch face. We can sell narrower grade boards, but the price is really low right now, so we are making four inch our minimum, and we make better money on the boards."
Each log that goes on the carriage is scrutinized for physical defects and the size of the heartwood. Once one or two grade boards are off the first face, he turns the log for further breakdown.
"I might make another good grade board, but chances are that I will hit some heartwood and colour, and that would dramatically lower the grade, and of course the value of the board." explains Tompkins.
"Right now, we receive a pretty good dollar for select and common lumber, but the value of grade 2 and 3 is so low that it makes sense to leave the low grade as squared stock. Yellow birch is also really low priced these days, so it makes sense to minimize birch lumber inventory, but at the same time birch works great for railroad ties, guard rail posts or for timbers for the pressure treating market."
Tompkins' major markets include Maritime Lumber in Woodstock, New Brunswick for grade lumber, Marwood in Tracy for square timber stock and Stella Jones in Montreal for railroad ties.
"I keep in weekly contact with my customers, to know where prices are on various products and what inventory I can supply to them. I want to know if they are getting overstocked and I will make changes here in our production and put lumber into alternative markets, if need be," he says.
"We rely on selling squared stock into the railroad tie markets, timbers and pallet stock, so whenever a log gets on the carriage, I am sizing it up for the piece of square that I am going to be left with."
Since they are a small mill with a relatively small output, it does not make sense to saw every sort of product. "For example, it would take a long time for us to make a bundle of Select hard maple. We might even see staining issues if it requires a long time to make up that bundle. Rather than try to make a Select bundle, it makes more sense for us to put Select lumber into a Grade 1 bundle and sell it sooner, rather than risk stain and degrading the product."
They focus on their own limited number of products, so they are able to make up the bundles quickly and ship the load sooner. They can use the income to manage cash flow, rather than be concerned about inventory of certain grades that build up slowly, Tompkins added.
Tompkins has seen relative stability in the demand for railroad ties, guardrail posts and pressure treated timbers, while graded lumber fluctuates up and down, depending more on new home construction and renovation activity.
"We can get better value selling 7 x 9's for a tie, but we don't get enough logs that will make 7 x 9's, so we saw a lot of 8 x 8 and 6 x 8 ties. With my wood supply, I know I can saw and sell the smaller sizes and make decent money, and keep that customer happy."
And keeping customers happy is what it is all about. Tompkins emphasizes that no matter what they are sawing, it is critically important to keep in close contact with customers and build positive relationships and continue to be a reliable supplier. "When we have that solid relationship, those customers will work with us and handle a little extra if need be."