Have Mill, Will Travel
Vaagen Brothers Lumber Takes Its New HewSaw Portable Sawmill on the Road
By Barbara Coyner
When Duane and Russ Vaagen tackle the challenges of inland Northwest forestry and sawmilling, they don’t want their options limited. In the fall of ’06, Vaagens solidified some of those options, purchasing the Ponderay Valley Fiber stud mill at Usk, Wash. That gave Colville-based Vaagen Brothers Lumber two small-diameter sawmills, located just fifty miles apart. Yet there was one more option the company wanted for the timber toolbox a mobile sawmill. With a HewSaw R200 SE mobile mill now parked at Colville, Vaagens stand ready to take the show on the road.
Taking the Mill to the Tree
Vaagen routinely mingles with other lumber mill owners and knows there is stiff competition for the limited supply of logs off private, tribal, and government lands. But Duane also knows that hundreds of sawmills have shut down in the West, and that some areas no longer have mills or infrastructure to deal with the glut of small logs now being thinned. Why not take the mill to the forest like they did in the old days?
“We have had an idea about this for years,” explains Russ, Duane’s son, and vice president of the company. “But understand that once you get started, reality kicks in and things change. We initially thought of using our first HewSaw and building a portable, but this machine became available so we decided to buy rather than build. The mill’s main function and selling point is to take advantage of underutilized areas of smalldiameter timber, without having to take the leap of faith to build a more expensive stationary facility. It will also provide evidence of whether a location can actually support a mill longer term.”
Vaagen anticipates that the portable mill might sometimes get to the woods faster than the wood can get to a stationary mill, and because time is a key factor in overall log recovery, that mobility is a plus. As a crew gets more adept at unit set-up, the mobile mill will likely require three days to dismantle and five days to set up. And this flexible approach is an attractive option, especially in the wildland urban interface. “We have been contacted by a few different groups from many areas New Mexico, Colorado, Wisconsin, Eastern Oregon, Western Montana, and others,” Russ says. “We would like to keep it relatively close, to get started, while we learn the process of running the mill. We also have the capacity for drying and planing lumber in Colville, which will be helpful, especially in the beginning. Once we get the model running and proven, we will look for opportunities rather than distances. Many of the underutilized smalldiameter timber supplies are far away, but most are likely in the West.”
Rolling the Dice
Another issue is finding contractors to do the necessary logging to keep supply at around 20 loads per day. “If an area has lost its mill, it’s also lost its contractors,” Duane points out. And because the mill is strictly a sawmill, drying and planing are separate issues to be resolved, as well. In New Mexico, air-drying could work well, he says, adding, “These are all logistics we don’t know. But when a community wants us, we’ll be there.”
Optimistic Risk Taking
“People said we’d go broke, milling small logs,” Russ says. But the high speed and efficiency of that first HewSaw kept the Colville facility humming with dimensional lumber and good quality chips. The company bought a second HewSaw, an R200, in 1995 and overlapped it with the first saw, retiring the first saw in 1997. The Usk mill, complete with what Russ terms a “monster lumber sorter,” boasts a HewSaw R200 PLUS, a speed demon in the world of hew wood sawing technology.
“The saw is similar in technology to our machines at Colville and Usk,” Russ says. “The machine does not scan and set for size, so sorting will be important. We plan on running logs from 4.5” top to 7” top. We can go larger, but we will probably choose not to, due to log costs and competition. The capacity of the machine is somewhere between 50 and 70 million board feet in lumber from two shifts annually. The most critical issues will be feeding the proper logs to the machine and handling lumber on the outfeed.”
New Zealand Purchase
Convinced that this mobile concept has a huge opportunity to work in North America, he made a deal to purchase this unit from the New Zealand company. Once delivered, Vaagen Brothers set up the unit for testing and showcasing at their Colville sawmill site.”
Mayer says that HewSaw was originally known for portability, having operated mobile hewing machines throughout Finland early in its existence.
“This was their main business until sawmillers got keen on the machine technology and requested to buy just the machines,” Mayer says. “The machine evolved over forty plus years to be more of a high production breakdown machine to be installed in a sawmill. Nevertheless, the single pass design still lends itself to be a perfect mobile unit that can be easily dismantled, transported and set up again from site to site to process small logs very efficiently.”
Bringing it All Together