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April 2004

SMALL SAWMILLING

Specialty sawmiller

Sawmiller George Brinkman has carved a good business for his company, Boards by George Lumber, by specializing in different products, such as timbers produced from forest salvage wood.

By Paul MacDonald

George Brinkman with his latest Mobile Dimension mill, part of the mill equipment line-up that helps him meet a wide variety of interesting orders that keeps things lively at Boards by George Lumber.

Sawmiller George Brinkman has a simple, but solid, business philosophy: If a customer wants wood cut a certain size or way, and is willing to pay the cost for the extra work involved, he’ll find a way to produce it. The company’s motto sums it up: “Custom Anything.” It may sound straightforward, but it can get pretty complicated with one of their specialties, very high-end custom timber cutting for multi-million dollar homes.

For example, timber customers sometimes request last-minute changes. In the midst of the interview for this story, a customer phoned in, wanting the cuts for their Douglas fir changed from 8 x 8 to 12 x 12. That, in the scheme of things, is not enough to generate grief for Brinkman’s Boards by George Lumber Inc. “The worst thing is the changes can come in after you get the cut list and you’ve started cutting,” he explains. “A week later, they might want a different size and we might have to do some juggling to figure out how we can use the already cut pieces and cut new pieces from the wood we have in stock. Sometimes, we have to tell them that the cuts are done. But if we can, we’ll do the changes. It’s all about being flexible.”

Flexibility is something that small sawmill operations like Boards by George specialize in, and that large, high production, dimension lumber producers often steer clear of. The latter are looking to produce a lot of lumber, within a narrow range of sizes, quickly. “It has to be a small operation to make what we do work,” says Brinkman. While they’ll take on just about any project, select forest salvage timber is one of their major specialties.

A big production day for the operation is 3,000 board feet, but that’s usually high-value board feet. And, as Brinkman points out, the employment he is creating per thousand board feet is high, indeed. The business has five employees in the mill yard, and two office employees. Boards by George is in a pristine setting, about an hour north of Nelson, BC, nestled in the Selkirk Mountains. From this beautiful spot in the town of Meadow Creek, they produce wood for some pretty beautiful homes being built across North America. A recent project involved a $10 million house in Alberta.

 On the planing side, Boards by George has a Cantek Timber Sizer that can plane up to 12 x 18 inches, and a Woods 4 x 7 planer for flooring, tongue and groove paneling and moulding.

They work with half-a-dozen timber frame home builders, mostly Canadian, although in one recent year a single American company made up 20 per cent of their production. Brinkman notes that this particular customer is big on recycled wood, having upwards of two million board feet of recycled wood in stock at all times. “This customer advertises that he goes after forest salvage—that’s the term he has come up with for this wood. “And that’s kind of what we are doing with purchasing fallen, already dead wood,” he says. “It’s basically a ‘feel good’ wood in that it’s died a natural death.”

The wood sources for Boards by George can be as varied as the geography of the West Kootenays of BC. “There’s a lot of driving around, staying in touch with people—and trying to avoid the ditches when I’m looking at the trees,” he jokes. And after being in business for over 20 years, people in the area know what he is looking for “and they’ll let me know what they have available.” Brinkman has sourced wood a few times from the coast for special orders, but he generally works within a five-hour driving radius of Meadow Creek. With cutting a lot of timbers, he is primarily looking for big wood.

They also need big, fallen wood because there’s often an awful lot of rot. It can easily take a 12 x 14 dry log to make an 8 x 8 timber. On the equipment side, Boards by George has evolved over the years. A staple of the operation has been a number of Mobile Dimension portable sawmills. Manufactured in the small town of Troutdale, Oregon, Mobile Dimension mills have earned a solid following without a lot of fanfare and promotion. They certainly have a fan in Brinkman. “They’re awesome mills,” he says. “They’ll outperform just about any other mill on the market and they are very versatile.”

A John Deere loader moves logs around the yard. George Brinkman sources wood from within a five-hour driving radius of the mill’s location in Meadow Creek, BC.

Boards by George is currently on its fifth Mobile Dimension mill, a model 128 unit. Brinkman doesn’t mind that he’s gone through so many mills. “It’s not that they totally wear out, but over a period of time the maintenance starts to cut into production enough that we get a newer unit,” he explains. In addition to speaking highly of the mills on an operational basis, Brinkman says there’s also a healthy aftermarket for the used mills. To complement the Mobile Dimension equipment, they set up a home-styled headrig operation, which can comfortably cut smaller wood up to 16 inches and 30 feet long.

They generally put larger timbers through the Mobile, taking clears off the side and the top, and then move the cant on to the headrig for further breakdown. The headrig has been an unqualified success—it more than doubled their production. A circular saw set-up, originally manufactured by Duncan Iron Works on Vancouver Island years ago and barely used, is the most recent addition. It can cut timbers up to 41 feet long. Other recent additions include a Cantek Timber Sizer. The Cantek can plane up to 12 x 18 inches and “any length provided you’ve got room on both sides of the planer” says Brinkman.

They also have a Woods 4 x 7 planer for flooring, tongue and groove paneling and moulding. The operation is facing increasing competition for salvaged wood to move through its processing equipment. When they first started in 1980, they were paying the equivalent of firewood prices for salvaged wood. A number of other operators have since climbed on the salvaged wood bandwagon in the area, driving prices up. That said, there seems to be no overall shortage of salvage wood, notably bug-killed wood.

The ideal time to get bug-killed timber is in the second year after it is killed because it is not yet too damaged from the elements, and it is so dry. The bugs essentially girdle the tree, leaving the trees no source of moisture except for its own sapwood. The trees essentially feed on themselves, drying out in the process. This means the operation can work with already dry timber much of the time. They also have a small wood-fired kiln for some custom drying jobs. Not having to dry the wood can make it more manageable. Brinkman notes that with the salvaged wood, the check in the wood has already started. “So if we are making an 8 x 10 timber, we’ll put the check on the eight-inch face. But if you had to put that piece in a kiln, it will more than likely crack on the wide face, rather than the narrow face, and you’re stuck with that.”

With these timbers, the smaller dimension face can often be faced against a wall, leaving the larger—and unchecked—side to be on display in the home. With wood being produced for timber homes, Brinkman has customers “asterisk” the major show timbers in the house, so he can cut them accordingly. “We’ll make sure that we cut free of the heart/centre of the wood and pick a really dry straight piece of wood for these special timbers,” he explains. Much as he would like to develop electronic business further, Boards by George does very little business over the Internet (their website: www.boardsbygeorge.ca). “About 90 per cent of the inquiries would be neat little orders,” he says. “We had a guy in Minnesota wanting a Douglas fir edge grain piece two feet by 16 feet long, but how do you get it to him? It will cost three times as much to get it there as the piece is worth.

The cost of the shipping is incredible compared to the cost of the wood.” While a large portion of the company’s work is for timber frame builders, Boards by George also does a fair bit of local business, such as using side cuts for tongue-in-groove pieces. He also supplies stock to some local door and window manufacturers. This business makes perfect sense because they are left with a fair bit of dimensional wood when they cut the timbers. “We can have a lot of 1 x 6 or 2 x 6 at any point in time,” says Brinkman. “The challenge is to market this wood beyond just commodity prices, so we try and do some different things with it.” Despite the challenges the industry faces, Brinkman clearly loves being in the business—it’s actually in the family, with brother Dirk Brinkman heading up Brinkman and Associates Reforestation Ltd, one of the leading reforestation companies in BC.

George himself did his share to reforest BC, working for 12 years as a treeplanter before starting the mill operation. “I figure I planted about one million trees and I figure I’ll never cut a million trees.” Each day in the business brings its own new challenges, which Brinkman relishes. He talks of one order for 10 x 10 timbers free of heart fir that he received from a Japanese customer. At that time, the Mobile Dimension mill he was working with had a capacity of only 8 x 12. “I didn’t have another sawmill to cut the wood, so I had to figure out how to cut 10-inch timber with an eight-inch blade. It took some doing, turning the logs end for end and matching the cuts, and doing a few other things, but I finally figured out how we could do it.” One of his favourite projects was producing 56,000 board feet of heritage wood, all different sizes, for the restoration of the passenger sternwheeler boat SS Moyie in the nearby community of Kaslo. “It was a real challenge to find the same quality of wood today, to match what was readily available in the 1890s. “These projects keep things lively,” he adds. “Sawing a million board feet of 2 x 4 every week is not what I’m looking to do. You have to challenge your mind. That’s why I like adding some equipment every year or two because it challenges you to work it in, and work with it, and make things happen.”

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