Ron Loe’s family has almost 1,000 years of history in the woodworking business, going back to his Norwegian ancestors. Still, when Ron earned a degree in Forestry from Oregon State University in the early 1970s, he had little idea his knowledge of wood and wood processing would one day lead to him establishing his own forest products business.
Raised on Wood
Growing up in a family Ron describes as having been, “very active in the primary lumber industry in the Northwest,” Ron originally thought his degree would lead to a traditional career in the forest products industry, although he says he had always dreamed of owning and operating his own business. In 1978, after several years with Georgia-Pacific, Ron took the leap and founded Wood Castle Fine Hardwood Furniture in Albany, Oregon.
In the ‘70s, furniture makers were abandoning solid wood and moving heavily into particleboard products or, as Ron puts it, “disposable furniture.” Ron decided his company’s mission would be to produce solid wood furniture that could still be fully functioning one hundred years or more into the future.
Today Ron says, Wood Castle depends on durable, and beautiful, woods like White Oak, Maple, Madrone, and Black Walnut, all species found in abundance near Albany, to manufacture dressers, chests, mirror frames, bed frames, night stands, and other furniture of equally high quality for hotels, banks, universities, and others wanting high quality furniture that will last.
About starting his own company, Ron explains, “Really, I had no idea about the number of challenges we would need to overcome to grow a successful business.” He adds that the need to face challenge is ongoing; in a world of rapid fire change, new challenges rear up even as old challenges are surmounted.
In recent times, Ron says, lumber supply has become a major issue for firms like his. In its early years, Wood Castle purchased raw material from corporate lumber companies. Because of the firm’s location in the central Oregon town of Albany, near dozens of sawmills, supply was seldom an issue. However, over the decades, as the forest products industry consolidated and the number of local sawmills dwindled, Ron says he became increasingly aware of the possibility that increased focus on softwoods by the few remaining local mills could potentially lead to a shortage of the quality hardwoods Wood Castle needs to manufacture product on a daily basis. As Ron says, “Like any business, in order to survive and prosper, we must be more efficient and creative in improving our business. Our competitors, worldwide, are getting better. If we stand still, they will surely pass us.” With that need in mind, Ron and his son Bjorn, set out to find a way to increase supply security for the times when lumber needs could not be met economically by traditional sources. The two were also interested in finding ways to bring niche products to specialty markets.
Ron and Bjorn decided that the only way to assure a reliable supply of very high quality lumber, ready when needed at an economically realistic price, was to control the processing of that lumber themselves. Weighing their needs against the options available, the two men looked for wood processing equipment that would allow them to process high quality lumber cut to furniture grades with enough volume to assure an uninterrupted supply of that lumber to the plant. Also important was an ability to easily adjust the processing machinery to allow small quantities of unusual dimensions to be milled so that niche products could be offered to specialty markets at reasonable prices.
Choosing a Mill
Ron decided a Wood-Mizer WM4000 band saw headrig equipped with a green chain and three-way conveyor would best suit Wood Castle’s needs. “The WM4000 allows us to cut for furniture grades including figured and quarter sawn woods versus lumber cut for production only by lumber companies.”
Ron also points out that a traditional circle saw mill typically has a kerf 1/4th of an inch or greater and produces lumber that often requires additional processing prior to use. Very thin kerf band saws remove as little as 1/10th of an inch to produce smooth and consistent lumber often useable without secondary processing with much less sawdust produced by the cut. More and higher grades of lumber are produced from each log processed, increasing productivity and profitability.
In order for Wood Castle to complete their in-house lumber production, the firm also installed kilns to dry the wood. Because Wood Castle uses a significant amount of Oak, particularly White Oak, the kilns had to be constructed with stainless steel to prevent the evaporated acids from destroying the kilns. The mill and kiln combination is efficient enough to keep up with production needs; the current production of around half a million board feet per year is a little less than 50% of the machine’s production capacity. This allows Wood Castle to save significantly on material costs for their business.
The second key to Ron’s strategy was to secure a reliable source of logs for the mill. The solution to that challenge was an arrangement with Starker Forests, a fourth generation family-run Oregon business that owns, grows, and manages more than 87,000 acres of forest near Albany, which contain a wide variety of species including Douglas-fir, grand fir, western red cedar, western hemlock, Sitka spruce, noble fir, ponderosa pine, Oregon ash, bigleaf maple, red alder, cherry, chinquapin, and cottonwood. Wood Castle is able to select the logs they would like to use and transport those logs on a company-owned logging truck. The close proximity of the Starker forest to Wood Castle is a big advantage because transportation miles are minimized, further reducing costs.
The move to in-house lumber production has proven to be a success for Wood Castle Furniture in several ways. First, Ron explains, “The Wood-Mizer gives us the ability to create new niche products and provides security for times when custom lumber needs are not available by current lumber vendors.”
Second, Ron notes, “The market requires successful companies to be more nimble and creative in our R&D designs and products, something the WM4000 supports nicely.” The versatility offered by the mill has allowed Wood Castle to introduce a new product line utilizing figured and quarter sawn lumber milled to exacting specifications.
Last, Ron says, “Our customers are becoming more aware of the supply line and efficient use of resources, rewarding companies who respond accordingly.” With the Starker Family log supply being so close to Wood Castle, and highly efficient in-house lumber production, Wood Castle arguably uses some of the most local, and sustainably produced, wood in the world. Wood Castle’s investment in on-site production has helped position the company for success today and well into the future.
A reliable and economical supply of specialty wood has become a problem for many manufacturers as the forest products industry has consolidated. As Wood Castle Fine Hardwood Furniture has demonstrated, on-site milling and partnerships with the owners of forested timberland, harvesting contractors, and other forest products participants allows “stump to finished product” relationships to be built and sustainably maintained over time to the benefit of everyone in the supply chain.
On the Cover
Starks Timber Processing out of Puyallup, Washington, operating
one of its Tigercat LS855Cs on steep slopes.
Cedarland Forest Resources helps
private landowners find their niche.
The Reality of Steep Slope Logging
Starks Timber Processing discusses the need for safety when it comes logging
on steep slopes.
Transitioning to the Next Generation
After 35 years, R. L. Smith Logging has
seen is all. The next challenge will be passing the torch.
Wood Castle Fine Hardwood Furniture mills wood to guarantee supply.
Three Questions to Ask Before Buying a Log Loader
How to make the most of your next purchase.
Climbing Steep Slopes with the ClimbMAX
B.C.’s Tolko Industries is the first operation in North America to use a winch-assist forestry machine—the ClimbMAX steep slope harvester.
A look at processing heads.