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April 2004


North to Alaska

Spotted owl concerns caused sawmilling family the Dahlstroms to move north to Alaska, where they have a large/small log mill that has thrived.

By Alan Froome

The islands along the coast of Alaska are famous for high rainfall and big trees. At the very severe end of the weather spectrum, however, snow and extremely cold weather can shut the Viking Lumber mill down at times in the winter months.

When forest conservation restrictions due to the spotted owl started to affect logging in the old growth forests of Washington state, the Dahlstrom family of sawmillers started to look further north for a more secure log supply. Dahlstrom Lumber had operated a sawmill in Hoquiam, Washington since 1978, but their log supply looked threatened in the late 1990s. The Dahlstroms decided to take a look at Alaska, where the spotted owl is not a factor. They found an older existing mill near the town of Craig—on Prince of Wales Island at the southern tip of Alaska, 75 miles west of Ketchikan—and subsequently purchased the shut-down operation in June 1994. After relocating some key personnel from Hoquiam, the Alaska mill was back in production by November of the same year. Since then, Viking Lumber has added a small log mill and made many improvements.

Today, they specialize in producing vertical grain lumber without knots for the US door industry. Viking is unusual in several other ways compared to most lumber producers:
• Everything is shipped by barge, bothlogs in and lumber out;
• Unusually large diameter logs are processed in the large log mill;
• There is no end trimming after log bucking in the small log mill;
• There are no millwrights on site; theoperating staff do all the maintenance and construction for mill improvements.

 Kirk (left) and Bryce Dahlstrom of Viking Lumber. Starting out with production of seven million board feet of lumber in its first year of operation, Viking expects to produce 28 million board feet in 2004.

Kirk Dahlstrom describes himself as the business manager of Viking Lumber, which he—with his three brothers and a partner—started up in 1994. “We have reworked practically everything in the mill since we bought it,” Kirk explains. “We added a small log mill in 2001, which started cutting lumber on the first day of January 2002, and we built a new filing room later in 2002.” The log mix at Viking is 60 per cent hemlock, 30 per cent spruce, and 10 per cent red cedar. The mill produces a mix of rail ties, timbers and dimension lumber in lengths from eight to 20 feet. Being located on an island, all logs arrive by barge and all the lumber and chips produced are transported south the same way. “All the hemlock goes to US door plants and some of the other lumber goes to Japan and South Korea,” says Kirk. “We ship a total of around 100 barge loads a year, which includes bark and chips.” This translates to production in 2003 of 26 million board feet of lumber, which was barged to the Hoquiam area for distribution.

Most lumber is shipped rough green, but the company has a division (Little River Inc) near Hoquiam for kiln drying and dressing lumber if it is required. Chips go to the Norske pulp mill in Campbell River, BC or to the Georgia-Pacific mill in Wauna, Oregon, near the mouth of the Columbia River. The islands along the coast of Alaska are famous for high rainfall and big trees. However, snow and extremely cold weather can shut the mill down at times in the winter months. Talking about the log sizes they handle, Kirk said their big log mill is designed to handle logs up to a 68-inch diameter and they split about 60 logs a year which exceed that. Big logs indeed. What Viking calls small logs are, in fact, bigger than many mills see these days. Their “small” log side handles logs from four to 15 inches in diameter and up to a 24-inch butt. All logging is carried out by outside contractors and Viking usually buys its logs up to a maximum of 42 feet long.

The log mix at Viking is 60 per cent hemlock, 30 per cent spruce and 10 per cent red cedar. The mill produces a mix of rail ties, timbers and dimension lumber in lengths from eight to 20 feet.

There are two log yards, to separate the large (over 24-inch butt) and small logs (under 24-inch butt) respectively. Kirk is particularly proud of the log bucking system they designed in-house and built themselves. This feeds logs to the large log mill at one end of the system and the small log mill at the other end. Large logs are bucked using a long arm chain saw, cutting across a roll conveyor, while the small logs are processed by a unique bucking system Viking built themselves. The main feature of the design is a moving carriage which straddles the log infeed belt conveyor and has three paddles four feet apart, which drop down to act as log stops. The carriage can be set up to 47 inches using stacked hydraulic cylinders under Allen-Bradley PLC controls.

This positions the tree length logs for bucking by an 84-inch diameter circular saw. “We can accurately cut any log length from six to 17 feet in one-inch increments,” notes Kirk. The log lengths are marked on the end of each incoming tree length log and the back wall of the bucking zone is also marked with the required log lengths to help the bucking operator make decisions. “We rely completely on our precision bucking system for length control in the small log mill as there is no end-trimming downstream.”

Reviewing equipment on the large log mill, Kirk said they have no scanner at the headrig because the operator is principally looking for grade and cutting vertical grain cants for breakdown at the gang into 1”, 2” and so on. “We also turn the logs more than most. We may turn a big log nine or 10 times to get the best out of it.” The large log mill comprises:
• Nicholson A1 50-inch debarker with bypass for larger logs;
• Prescott nine-foot headrig band mill;
• Salem three-knee carriage with 60-inchopening and Inovec setworks;
• Albany five foot quad resaw bandmill with Digitron setworks and runaround;
• Schurman (now USNR) 9 x 60 combo 16-saw gang/four-saw shifting edger with Digitron setworks;
• Salem six-foot single reman band mill with moving linebar;
• Prescott 26-foot trimmer, converted to 20-foot with 14 saws;
• Green chain for lumber sorting.

The small log mill includes:
• Nicholson A5 24-inch debarker;
• Cooper overhead end-dogging feed twin scragg saw, with diameter scanner;
• Schurman 6 x 72 combo 12-sawgang/three-shifting saw edger with
Digitron setworks;
• Green chain for lumber sorting.

The A5 debarker and the Cooper end-dogger scragg saw system are new, but many of the other machines are used and have been rebuilt. In addition to the main machine centres listed, a common waste system serves both mills. This includes two Morbark 75-inch chippers and a Morbark 96-inch whole log chipper. Cants can also be sent from the small log mill to the large log gang edger and reman bandmill. The recently-built filing room serves both mills and is set up for 100 per cent stellite teeth saws. It is newly equipped with Wright machines and a Simonds automatic saw leveller. Viking Lumber employs a total of 42 people presently on a single nine-hour shift basis, five days a week.

All mill maintenance and construction is normally carried out on Saturdays by the operating personnel, since there are no millwrights. Most employees were hired locally, but five key people moved north from Hoquiam. Besides Kirk, his son Bryce also works at the mill. Partner Bob Bell is the head maintenance engineer, Don Howard is mill manager and Donna Oldfield handles the financials. Despite their island location, Kirk does not consider the mill to be isolated, explaining that there is regular float plane service up and down the coast. When asked about future prospects for the mill, Kirk replied that the first year Viking was in business, they produced seven million board feet of lumber.

Since then, it has increased steadily each year and they expect to produce 28 million board feet in 2004. With strong demand, he sees the upward trend for their lumber continuing, confirming that the decision to go north to Alaska was a sound move.

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