Have Mill, Will Travel

Vaagen Brothers Lumber Takes Its New HewSaw Portable Sawmill on the Road

By Barbara Coyner

Russ and Duane Vaagen of Vaagen Brothers Lumber.

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
“Fixed sawmills are like frame houses,” says Duane, CEO of Vaagen Brothers. “If you don’t like the neighborhood, you’re stuck. But portable sawmills are like travel trailers, and there’s a new opportunity around every bend.”                       

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.”

Thinking Big
The single-pass HewSaw R200 SE (SE stands for separate edging module) mobile sawmill is no lightweight portable mill that hitches up to a pickup truck. The unit requires two to three trailer loads and a heavier axle situation. Plan on it taking up to a week to move, but when it arrives it has enough capacity to process 8,000 to 9,000 acres of timber per year. Vaagens figure any proposed site has to have a three-to-six-month supply of wood to make the project worthwhile. “The portable could be used in burnt stands and places with ESA and NEPA problems, instead of hauling with trucks,” Duane says. “We can take it to areas where they’ve lost infrastructure, and we already see opportunities in California and Montana. It’s an expensive startup, but it has a small footprint and minimum impact.”                                   

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
Duane concedes that labor, log storage, and electric rates all create challenges and make cost estimates dicey. “The labor issue is key, and ideally it would be good to have five to seven people on a shift, with trained operators available to move with the mill.” He calculates that electricity costs compare to a large grinder operation. “The potential is there, but there is risk as well as reward,” he adds.                                   

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
Although the future remains to be seen, the family-owned company has traveled over uncertain paths before. In 1989, the Colville mill came on-line with the first HewSaw in the Northwest. It was risky then, and it is risky now, according to Russ, the fourth generation to get involved since Vaagen Brothers started in the 50’s.                                   

“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
Ed Mayer of Veisto Group, which markets the HewSaw brand internationally, has watched Vaagens progress, noting, “Duane Vaagen was one of the first companies to bring the HewSaw technology into North America in the 1980’s. Over the years, Vaagen Brothers really made their HewSaw perform well and set worldwide small log processing standards. Being lasting, successful HewSaw customers, they kept up with HewSaw news from around the world. Duane learned about the mobile HewSaw unit in the 1990’s, and that one had been sent to New Zealand, but was shut down and sitting idle.                                   

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
Once the mobile mill is retrofitted to American measurement standards, Vaagens can compete in the wood products game much more flexibly. With the arsenal of HewSaws, the company processes timber from about 25,000 acres apiece, annually, in the Usk and Colville plants, with the Colville planer accepting half the green studs from Usk, and the rest going to Merritt Brothers Lumber in Athol. The Colville mill, known for its mammoth portal crane, can sort huge amounts of small-diameter logs, and features a co-generation plant, as well. While the new portable mill can’t keep quite the pace of the two fixed mills, it has its advantages. “The best feature is obvious — it’s portable,” Russ says. “We can move it relatively easily from one area to another when resources and opportunity dictate those movements. We see it as an R&D machine that will allow us to see if the log supply and infrastructure could support a stationary sawmill longer term. The limitations are that the machine is not as efficient as a stationary sawmill, and it also doesn’t have the flexibility of many mills. We think these limitations are dwarfed by the opportunity of its mobility.”   


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