Making Their MARK
Townsend Lumber has made its mark in the hardwood market with its sawmill and associated kiln stick manufacturing business.
By Paul MacDonald
For eastern Canadian hardwood producers such as Townsend Lumber Inc of Tillsonburg, Ontario, the spillover effects of a healthy American economy in recent years have meant good times and good markets for the wide range of products they turn out. "Over the last few years, the United States has been one big construction zone, from one end to the other," notes company president David Townsend. "It's been about the best anybody could imagine. There's been a lot of wood sold at good prices so the landowners who own the timber have done well.
The mills have been working to meet the additional demand, so they've also done well and have been able to pay those prices." A healthy construction market in the US has meant reasonably good prices for softwood lumber, last year being the exception. However, for hardwood producers like Townsend Lumber, it also means a healthy US appetite for wood to produce everything from furniture to flooring to cabinets. "Our wood is used in those areas and more. It's all business and it all brings in revenue," Townsend says. The mill is centrally located to the American market, being only a couple of hours' drive from major border crossings at Windsor and Niagara Falls.
In recent years, Townsend Lumber purchased another sawmill in nearby Kitchener, which brought total production capacity for the company up to 20 million board feet in a wide variety of species. Presently Kitchener Forest Products employs 35 people, and produces mostly hardwoods to supply the dry kilns at the Tillsonburg plant, as well as rail ties and pallet stock. The company has come a long way from its founding in the late 1950s, when Robert Townsend-Dave's father-started supplying local farmers in southwestern Ontario with firewood for their tobacco kilns.
Robert and his partner were anxious to make better use of the wood and secured a contract to supply timbers for the construction of the subway system in Toronto. From there, they also started supplying local furniture manufacturers with stock and before long had built their first mill. "Our first operation was pretty much all used equipment, a used debarker, a used bandmill, a used edger, but we did have a new carriage system." David Townsend explains. In 1971, he attended the National Hardwood Lumber Association's grading school in Memphis, Tennessee for four months. As soon as he graduated, David began working at his father's mill.
He took over the operation with a partner in 1978 and has been heading up the operation solo since his partner chose to move into the wholesale lumber business in 1987. The original mill is now history, having burned to the ground in 1984. It was replaced by a new mill in 1985. The present operation consists of a six-foot double cut bandmill with a six-foot linebar band resaw, along with nine computerized kilns and one steam kiln with a total drying capacity of 450,000 board feet. Despite its growth, the company faces significant challenges in obtaining timber, Townsend notes. "We deal primarily with private landowners.
We buy very little from the government since there's hardly any Crown land in our area." The company's harvesting and hauling radius extends east as far as Toronto and Niagara Falls and west as far as Sarnia. This past summer, Townsend Lumber was running only one shift due to a couple of factors affecting timber supply, including some unusually wet weather in Ontario. They also have to work around what the major suppliers of their wood- farmers-are doing. "Most of our access to timber is dependent upon the schedules of the farmers because, in most cases, the timber they want us to harvest is behind some kind of crop." With little Crown timber to rely on, Townsend fully realizes that the future of the company relies on private timber, a good portion of it in its own Norfolk County. Thus, the company has been an active participant in "raising the bar" on harvesting standards in the county.
Example: Until recently, stands of old growth timber, provided all the trees were larger than 19 inches in diameter at the stump, could be completely clearcut. Under new legislation, 25 per cent of the canopy in such a stand now has to be left standing. Clear cutting is normally not the way things are done in this part of the country anyway, Townsend explains. "When we go into a stand, in most circumstances we only remove 10 to 15 per cent of the trees. Sixty per cent of the trees are too small.
The remaining trees are of prime growing age where they are going to go from a $100 tree to a $300 tree because they may have veneer potential, for example. "Some people have the view that sawmills are the enemy of the forest. I disagree with that, though. Most of the sawmillers I know think of the forest as a brother because that is where our livelihood comes from." As the saying goes, Townsend Lumber walks the talk, and has invested in 16 of their own tree farms, amounting to about 2,000 acres. "Over three quarters of that is in timber now. Some of it we had to replant from farmland, and it's only six or eight feet tall now, but it's a start." Unlike other operations, Townsend Lumber deals with a large number of species-20 to be exact-though many of these are in small quantities.
Due to quirks of geography and land mass, this area of Ontario is in the Carolinian Forest Zone. As a result, it contains some species, such as tulipwood and yellow poplar, that are more common in areas such as Kentucky and Tennessee, much farther to the south. "I guess you could say we're unique that way," notes Townsend. "We're not like a mill in British Columbia that just hammers out two by fours in spruce and pine all day long. We usually have a full yard of logs, with a variety of species." Main species for the operation are white ash, red oak, white oak, hard and soft maple, cherry, basswood, beech and hickory. He adds that they have to be careful when drying the wide variety of species in their 10 kilns as each species requires an individual drying schedule. What goes on in the kilns led directly to another business for Townsend: manufacturing its patented Breeze Dried sticks for more efficient drying of lumber.
The development of the sticks dates back to the early 1990s when Townsend was unhappy with the persistent problem of sticker stain from traditional kiln sticks. He began to experiment with several designs and finally hit on a stick design based on diagonal ridges. The first sticks were produced by the mill's maintenance crew. Breeze Dried Inc, which has a manufacturing facility adjacent to the Townsend mill, was set up in 1995 to focus on marketing the unique sticks for lumber kilns throughout North America. Five years later, some 20 million sticks have been sold. The product is now also being used by mills in Germany, Holland and Denmark. With their grooves and ridges, air can flow more freely between the stacked pieces of lumber.
The estimated 80 per cent increase in airflow with these sticks reduces both sticker stain and kiln drying costs. The Breeze Dried stick is currently patented in Canada and the United States and is awaiting approval for a European patent.
Not one to sit still in business, David Townsend's most recent venture is Breeze Wood Forest Products, an added value operation, which manufactures mouldings, trim and flooring. Breeze Wood was doing some direct sales to European customers, but it's been a tough go because they got caught in a squeeze between rising wood costs- only a small amount of the wood they use comes from the Townsend mill-and resistance to price increases in Europe. They have since shifted to working with local wholesalers to do the exporting. "They are shipping to Europe all the time and are moving millions of board feet every week," Townsend says. "Our understanding with them is that we know how they want the lumber and how they want it packaged. So often times they never reinspect the lumber. It might go directly to a port like Toronto, and be put in a container."
The next venture for Townsend Lumber looks to be a small log sawmill. Site prep has already started for this new operation, with a construction start as soon as this year. Such an operation would have production of up to seven million board feet, says Townsend, and be able to utilize the large amount of small timber now available. "We'd specialize in cut stock, pallet stock and dunnage type of lumber. There's a lot of aspen and a fair bit of small Scotch pine and jack pine that needs to be harvested. It would take a few years just to get caught up on that alone. After that, we'd look to get more into small hardwood thinning ." This mill will support the goal of sustainable forest management, create new employment opportunities and complement their existing mill facilities.
Moving into such smaller wood may prompt a shift into mechanized harvesting. Townsend notes that they would be happy to use mechanized equipment such as the feller bunchers turned out by Tigercat in nearby Paris, Ontario and equip these machines with simple processing heads to handle this small wood. But the majority of wood they currently work with is in the 20 to 24 inch diameter range, so cut and skid operations have been the way to go. "This kind of work is best done with a chainsaw and a small to medium sized skidder." Townsend Lumber used to run its own harvesting operations, with six skidders. This is now done on a contract basis, by solid operators they know and trust.
About 90 per cent of the trucking, from transporting logs to moving residual products such as bark and sawdust, is done by company trucks. They have a total of 10 trucks, including six dedicated to the logging side. The trucks, and all of the mill's mobile equipment, which includes five Volvo loaders, 12 TCM forklifts and three four wheel drive Blue Chip forklifts, are serviced on site and kept in good condition. "We don't have one piece of machinery that isn't in good to better condition," says Townsend. That way, they don't have a lot of parts sitting around and the aggravation of doing a lot of monkey wrenching on equipment. There simply isn't the time for downtime. "We're like any other business these days," says Townsend. "We have to run every day and our equipment has to run every day and every night."
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