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April 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

HARDWOOD SAWMILLING

Striking a strategic alliance

An aspen remanufacturer in northern Alberta is benefiting from a strategic alliance with a local sawmill, and delivering its cut stock to hungry fruit and vegetable markets in California.

By Tony Kryzanowsk

Johnny and Joyce Wieler set up the business to reman locally milled aspen in 1999. Aspen Valley Lumber now produces about six million feet annually of green and kiln-dried stock.

The produce that we receive on a regular basis from sunny California has a connection to Canada that most of us may not be aware of. That produce may, in fact, have been shipped back to us on aspen wood pallets whose components originated in Western Canada.

When La Crete, Alberta resident Johnny Wieler decided to establish his aspen remanufacturing business, he didn’t give up his day job. In fact, starting his reman business added value to it. Wieler’s foray into remanufacturing began when he took a job as a bookkeeper and sales representative for an area aspen sawmill, Ridgeview Mills.

“We were sending all the raw material out in squares,” he says. “I felt there was something that we could do with it here to keep jobs in the community.”

Aspen Valley has acquired the equipment to provide a number of value-added processes to its aspen, including planing. The company has the capability of producing kiln dried lumber using a Nyle dehumidification kiln.

He did some research into the potential of remanufacturing the aspen locally, and in 1999 Johnny and his wife Joyce established Aspen Valley Lumber. Today, the business produces about six million board feet annually of green and kiln dried cut stock, and employs six people. However, Wieler continues his close association with Ridgeview Mills, and still works as the company bookkeeper and sales representative. However, he also takes time to market product for his own business, still working out of the Ridgeview Mills office.

Management at Ridgeview Mills supports this arrangement because the more remanufactured material Wieler can sell, the more raw material they sell to Aspen Valley Lumber, and the more the sawmill saves in transportation costs. Situated eight hours north of Edmonton, transportation from La Crete is a major expense.

The ready-to-assemble components produced by Aspen Valley Lumber are sold through Vandermeer Forest Products Canada Ltd into the western United States, often ending up as pallet material for the fruit and vegetable industry.

While the majority of the cut stock material from Aspen Valley is used for pallets, a small amount is used in wall paneling, furniture and framing. In addition to aspen, the company has experimented with manufacturing tamarack flooring, a project that brings its own challenges considering tamarack is a tricky wood to work with

Wieler says he acquired the knowledge to succeed in his business through a lot of field investigation and trial and error using his equipment. Well-known equipment supplier Baker Products has been a major equipment supplier to Aspen Valley Lumber. “I took a lot of tours to quite a few mills in Canada and the US and to different end users to see what product they wanted and what they didn’t want,” Weiler says.

He says the aspen cut stock market isn’t a gold mine, but delivers a reasonable return. “I wouldn’t say that there are big margins,” says Wieler. “I guess it’s the same as every other business. The trick is volume. We also maintain high standards of quality at all times in our pallet products, quickly resolving any problems that may come up.”

While he describes the market for aspen cut stock as stable, it is hard to predict when demand will occur. For example, last winter he was stockpiling aspen cants from Ridgeview Mills in the yard. By summer, the yard was empty. Demand had remained brisk much longer than the usual busy spring season for no obvious reason.

“It’s definitely not a primary pallet market,” he says. “Our biggest competitors are probably alder, softwoods, and oak. Aspen is considered a hardwood, but it is a soft hardwood.”

While Aspen Valley Lumber has equipped its business with notable brand name remanufacturing equipment like Baker Products, Wieler is not afraid to experiment. For example, he teamed up with a local fabricator to develop a new trim saw system to give the company the capability of producing cut stock in a wider range of sizes in a more efficient manner.

“We’re continually building different equipment to get the process smoother and easier for us to do specialty cuts,” says Wieler.

Typically, the majority of green aspen cants are delivered to Aspen Valley Lumber’s yard from Ridgeview Mills by van in 3.5 by six-inch and 5.5 by six-inch dimensions. Depending on what orders Aspen Valley Lumber has to fill, the cants proceed through a multi-head trim saw to be chopped to specific lengths, then through a bandsaw as the primary breakdown unit to produce cut stock in proper sizes. While the majority of the cut stock material is used for pallets, a small amount, about 10 per cent, is used in wall paneling, furniture, and framing.

Aspen Valley Lumber has the capability of producing kiln dried lumber using its Nyle Corporation dehumidification kiln. It is specially designed for hardwoods, employing a slower drying process aimed at producing more consistent end results. It takes about one week in summer to dry the aspen cut stock down to between six and eight per cent but takes twice as long in winter.

After drying, Aspen Valley Lumber also has the ability to plane the lumber, if required. The cut stock is then packaged and shipped to market by truck.

Wieler says maintaining good communication with Ridgeview Mills and Vandermeer Forest Products has been an important part of the success story behind his remanufacturing business. “Because we work as a team, we communicate on a daily basis,” says Wieler. “We know what products are on order and what’s coming in from the forest. So we can work together.”

In addition to aspen, Aspen Valley Lumber has also experimented with manufacturing tamarack flooring, with about five floors having been installed locally. One is in the Wielers’ living room. Johnny says he decided to experiment with tamarack because he liked the look of it. He also had the opportunity to purchase some tamarack logs locally. “I guess I’d like to hopefully get more into it down the road,” he says. “You don’t seem to hear a lot about it, but it is a beautiful flooring material and extremely hard.”

There is no doubt, he adds, that it is a tricky wood to work with and that it has its own character. For example, if the wood grain has a twist in it, it is just about impossible to straighten it out. “There is a trick to cutting it the right way, drying it the right way, and processing it so that you get a good piece of end product,” he says. “However, there is always some that comes out that you basically throw in the garbage because it isn’t usable.” The advantage of manufacturing flooring from tamarack is that it can be marketed in short, high-value pieces with the downgrade material chopped out.

For the moment, Wieler is satisfied with the growth his business has achieved through his main line of aspen cut stock products. Volume continues to grow steadily. He says that Aspen Valley Lumber, Ridgeview Mills, and Vandermeer Forest Products make an excellent team, working on a cooperative basis to reach the required goals of all participants.

While there is considerable discussion about huge demand for high-end aspen lumber in Japan, he has taken a wait-and-see attitude on that subject. Given his experience, he is unsure if there are enough high-end aspen logs to support that demand. Even if there is, he wonders how they will be sorted out, given the forest industry’s primary focus currently on using aspen to manufacture OSB and hardwood pulp.

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