A future in furniture
The forest industry’s future may lie in small to medium value-added operations like Country Woodworkers, a small furniture manufacturing company in the former boom town of Powell River, BC.
By Paul MacDonald
In the 1960s, the town of Powell River, BC was booming, with literally thousands of people employed at the local pulp and paper mill, and associated logging operations. At one point, Powell River had the highest per capita income of any community—regardless of size—in Canada. Those glory days are long behind the town, however. A downsized paper mill employs less than a thousand people, and the local talk is about the people who have been lucky enough to get rich buyout packages—worth $75,000—from the mill.
The challenge now for Powell River, and for other forestry dependent towns across Canada, is how to keep their economy healthy. The business emphasis of the last provincial government in BC seemed to be on mega-projects. Great efforts were made to try and lure giant industrial ventures—such as aluminium smelters—to BC towns, such as Powell River.
But the real solution for these communities may lie in creating an economic environment for a large number of small- and medium-sized businesses—many of these companies could be forestry-related—rather than betting the farm on attracting huge industries, projects which may or may not come to pass.
That’s the way Rick Hopper, a local businessman who has started up a modest furniture manufacturing operation in Powell River, sees things. “Small secondary wood manufacturing outfits, those employing five or 10 people, could keep an economy healthy in a town this size, if there are enough of them,” he says. “It could be a big part of the solution.” Lack of fibre is not the issue, at least in Powell River. “We have fibre coming out of our ears here,” he says. “We have some of the best second growth fir probably in North America, if not the world. And we have only two small companies using that wood, and they employ a total of four people.”
Raw logs are shipped south to sorts and sawmills, or chipped in the local paper mill, rather than used in any local sawmills. Hopper comes to the furniture business via a circuitous route. He studied furniture making years ago in Ontario, before starting out on a different career, coaching hockey teams in the Western Hockey League. He used his woodworking skills even there, however, leaving a trail of nicely rebuilt wood dressing rooms and offices in his wake with the teams that he coached.
In the early 1990s, Hopper wrapped things up with coaching. He returned to the woodworking business, although in a humble way. “We had a condo in Victoria and, while my wife was studying for her university exams in one room, I was working on a jigsaw and router in the living room. I literally started out with $100 and a jigsaw.” Moving up the coast to Powell River, he started a kitchen cabinet company, R Hopper Cabinet Making. The new furniture business—called Country Woodworkers—dovetails nicely with the cabinet operation in some ways. “There is a good connection between the two sides of the business, with the old-fashioned country style look of the kitchens and the similar look of the furniture. “Building furniture was a passion for me. I always had the idea of doing furniture in the back of my head,” adds Hopper. “The furniture side sort of came in bits and pieces and we started to focus on it more in the business.”
What initially spurred him on was the availability of western white pine, which is salvaged locally. Around Powell River, the forest companies are after the big and extremely valuable old growth species, such as Douglas fir and western red cedar. Western white pine is often left behind or, if it is harvested, is considered low value. The timber he is currently working with was culled from Texada Island, just off the coast of Powell River.
The logs came from a BC Ministry of Forests stand where studies are being carried out on pine rust. This type of rust has been impacting other forests in North America. Typically, the rust creates an open blister and it kills the tree. On Texada, however, the trees get blisters, but for some reason—hence the research—it does not affect the health of the tree or the quality of the wood from the tree. There is no shortage of second growth white pine in the area—more than enough for Hopper’s operation. He describes Country Woodworkers as a “nickle and dime” wood user in terms of volume.
But he would obviously like to change that. “As we increase production, we could look at going after a timber sale to get the volumes we need. Traditionally in this area, white pine has not been a species that people have been interested in, anyway. Over on Texada, some people use the pine for low value uses like concrete forming and other people even use it for firewood.” Even so, supply may prove to be a challenge. Country Woodworkers had been setting up to do a small timber sale, through the Ministry of Forests. With such sales, preference had been given to those companies with a value-added component, usually meaning the creation of local jobs.
But a new provincial government has plans for sales to be wide open, ending such preferences. “It’s going to hurt the value-added and secondary wood manufacturing.” Even now, Hopper notes, there are only about four companies doing remanufacturing work in the area. “That’s a shame considering the fibre we have around here.” It was generally thought that western white pine was too soft a wood for furniture manufacturing. But Country Woodworkers has been turning that theory on its ear.
The pine that they are working with is not, Hopper emphasizes, anything close to the traditional fine woods of the west coast, such as Douglas fir. “But for our purposes, it does not have to be. After it is cut and dried, ideally doing that right away, there is a lot of discolouration. When we get the wood, it looks pretty rough. With the rustic kind of furniture we are doing, and with the paints and stains, it works out very nicely.”
Both the furniture and the kitchen cabinets, while nicely hand-sanded and coated with three coats of lacquer, have the “distressed” look that is in high demand in furniture markets. White pine may not be considered high value timber but Hopper emphasizes he still has to be able to get the wood at a reasonable cost. It can be tough to buy logs, especially in small quantities, from some of the large forest companies at good prices. “And that’s really how you make money with value-added products,” he says. “If I can land wood in my shop at 60 or 70 cents a board foot, you’re making money. But if it’s costing me two dollars a board foot, it quickly cuts into the bottom line.”
Hopper notes there is a very high value-added component to their products, whether they are armoires or kitchen cabinets. “We are taking a wood that some people think has zero value and by the time it leaves our shop has tremendous value added to it.” The shop has conventional woodworking equipment. The most recent addition was a Timesaver wide belt sander, which is helping in remanning wood panels. Production is—by design—high on added value in terms of labour. The rough pine lumber is machined to the necessary thicknesses and dimensions and hand crafted.
The operation is also modest in size. “I don’t want to get to the point where we have 20 or 30 people and we are trying to produce X thousand number of pieces a year, a volume operation,” says Hopper. “I like the idea of doing bench-made furniture. We do small runs of maybe five pieces at a time, but that’s about as high production as it gets. “Most of what we do is build one piece at a time and people seem to appreciate that. Shops can fall into producing huge numbers of the same thing, over and over again. I’d rather put the work into it and use all solid wood construction, rather than just push product out there and have a low price point.”
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