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April 2004

SMALL SAWMILLING2

Unlocking the potential

Alberta small sawmill owner Perry Shwetz is working to unlock the potential of an under-utilized resource—tamarack—for products such as flooring and outdoor decking.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Alberta Tamarack’s Perry Shwetz: “I think the product has a lot of potential. But you’ve got to invest the time to do the marketing.”

Alberta sawmill owner Perry Shwetz believes he has discovered the formula for economically and efficiently transforming tamarack logs into durable and attractive flooring. The only remaining task is finding the right market for his product. Right now, he says American larch flooring, which is closely related to tamarack, is selling for $8.00 US a square foot. “If I could do 200,000 feet a year even at $3.50 a square foot, I’d be laughing,” he says.

Shwetz owns Alberta Tamarack near the town of Waskatenau, and also manages a 100-head bison operation on 3.5 quarter sections of farmland. Although his tamarack flooring business is currently in hiatus, with Shwetz working three out of every six weeks for a company that is operating a gas and power plant in Cuba, he has every intention of revitalizing the business. “I think the product has a lot of potential and I will still get back into it once I get things organized again,” he says. “I know the marketing end is where it fell short. A guy has to invest the time to do the marketing.

Tamarack flooring should be sold as an exotic wood because that is what it is. I’ll do a lot of things differently next time.” It was essentially a few bad sales deals that made it impossible for Shwetz to continue pursuing the tamarack project. He says he didn’t have problems with availability of logs, manufacturing the product or drying the flooring. Over the space of 18 months, Shwetz acquired the knowledge needed to unlock the value of this softwood species, which over the years has developed a reputation as being a difficult wood. After 24 months, however, he had run out of money. Tamarack’s unique qualities, such as its high density and resistance to rot, give it a value unmatched by more common conifers such as spruce, pine and fir.

Given recent public concerns over the potential environmental impact of pressure-treated lumber, tamarack could be marketed as a substitute for pressure-treated lumber in outdoor applications. It can also be marketed as flooring because of its natural beauty and density. It seems that Shwetz is not alone in his belief that this under-utilized and plentiful softwood species is a resource with considerable market potential. “I believe that if people look at tamarack a little bit differently and find a niche market, they could definitely get a premium,” says Toso Bosio, sustainable woodlot specialist with Alberta’s Sustainable Development Department. “The resource is relatively scattered, but if you have a 100,000 to 200,000 board foot operation, there is definitely enough.”

Its resistance to rot is renowned, he adds. “If you asked any farmer in Alberta what kind of fence post they would like to have, every single one of them is going to say tamarack,” he says. “It can last 50 to 60 years.” Yet in his travels, he has heard of no forest company or sawmill in the province adding value to tamarack beyond fence posts and rough lumber. Tamarack is also known as eastern larch. According to Forintek Wood Quality Specialist Les Josza, it is a common boreal forest deciduous softwood species that grows in generally wet environments, often with black spruce, and is distributed widely in forests across the country. Yet, it is not well known by the public.

Shwetz says tamarack are often mistaken for dead spruce because of their appearance. Josza adds that tamarack generally reach 30 to 70 feet tall, achieving on average 12 to 24 inches in diameter. Like black spruce, it reaches maturity in 80 to 100 years. He says that tamarack is about 20 per cent denser than lodgepole pine and jackpine, and is significantly more dense then spruce and fir. Its resistance to rot is one reason why it is widely used for railway ties and fence posts. He agrees that because of tamarack’s durability, it has a natural market for a variety of outdoor uses such as decking, in landscaping and in gardening. Because of its high density, he adds that it also has a lot of potential as flooring. “The problem, though, is that because these trees don’t grow very big, getting clears without the branches could be a challenge,” he adds. However, Shwetz says that tamarack’s knotty appearance is one of its visual attributes. “It is an interesting flooring because of the knots,” he says, “and because it is so dense, the knots won’t pop out. It’s not like a piece of oak where every piece is the same. Every piece of tamarack is different. And the hardness of the wood is just shy of oak.”

His venture into tamarack began four years ago when he was sawing rough spruce lumber for local farmers using an Enercraft bandsaw on his farm. A trucker who delivered logs to him asked if he’d be interested in accepting a few loads of tamarack. He accepted the offer, and thus began his education in working with what he calls a mysterious—because so little was known about it—wood species. The first thing he learned is that truck transportation rates have to be adjusted to take tamarack’s extra weight into account. While he normally received enough spruce logs from a single load to saw 10,000 board feet, he says he was only getting about 7,000 to 7,500 board feet of tamarack from a single load, because truckers had to transport fewer logs to stay within the legal haul weight. While there are good sources of quality tamarack logs available, he stresses the importance of inspecting the logs before delivery.

Some over-mature logs have centre rot that can run 25 to 30 feet, which makes the log almost impossible to cut for flooring. The next nugget of knowledge he acquired as part of his tamarack research and development venture was the importance of understanding how to saw lumber with consistent thickness on his bandsaw. During the course of his investigation, he replaced his Enercraft bandsaw with a hydraulic dogging Wood-Mizer LT40 bandsaw. “Bandsaws need an education in themselves and before anyone gets into a bandsaw, they really have to decide whether they want to spend the time to learn it,” says Shwetz. “A bandsaw is a phenomenal piece of equipment, but if you don’t know how to sharpen your blades, how to get them sharpened properly, and how to properly line the bandsaw up, you’ll be ready to throw the thing in the bush.

I was at that point.” He finally found someone in Nova Scotia who provided him with the right advice, which allowed him to increase production from 1,000 board feet per bandsaw blade up to 6,000 feet per blade, before it needed to be sharpened. Sawing the tamarack itself was no major feat, except that he found that it was easier to saw frozen logs. Even after he learned how to operate his bandsaw properly, there still was the potential to manufacture wavy lumber when sawing through the knots because they are so hard. He found that slicing the cant into boards was a critical phase in the manufacturing process, because size consistency is a key component to avoid board twisting during the drying phase. Consistently-sawn lumber also results in a better feed rate through the flooring moulder.

Achieving the type of consistency required by tamarack is difficult with a smaller bandsaw, so he says it is worthwhile to consider outsourcing the slicing to someone who can send the cants through something like a Baker resaw. In terms of drying, Shwetz says using a dehumidification kiln is the best approach, especially if the objective is to manufacture flooring. Also, the boards should be dried as soon as possible after sawing to avoid case hardening on the outside of the boards. While natural drying is possible, this can take up to a year and could impact on the quality of the boards.

It is also important to carefully sticker the pile and weigh down the top before it enters the kiln to avoid twisting of boards placed near the top of the stack. He discovered all this with Forintek’s technical assistance by drying his first batch of lumber using the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s new high tech kiln in Edmonton. He then dried a second batch using a commercial kiln to further nail down drying rates and procedures. It took six days in the kiln to dry the tamarack down to six per cent. Shwetz has a definite plan of what he will do better the next time around. In addition to adjusting his haul rates and inspecting logs before transport, he says he will only manufacture cants on his bandsaw and will contract out the slicing, drying, and moulding.

He will also make sure he deals with more reputable buyers to make sure he gets paid. The key to marketing the wood is to market it as a high-end product as well as an exotic wood. In terms of the manufacturing process, “yield and quality control is everything,” he says. “You’ve got to pay attention to detail and that’s from the selection of logs down to the different flooring profiles.”

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