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February 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


A sawmill icon

It’s been more than 40 years since the development of the Chip-N-Saw, but this machine—considered an industry icon—has played a central role in the development of efficient high-speed production equipment in the sawmill.

By Alan Froome

The first Chip-N-Saw machine in CanCar’s old shop. Looking on in the photo is Len Mitten, CanCar’s chief engineer. Inset photo is of Bob Chapman, the driving force behind the installation of the first Chip-N-Saw.

The Chip-N-Saw story started in Shelton, Washington in 1960 when an electrician working for Simpson Timber, Ernie Runyon, had an idea. Runyon’s big idea was a machine which could accurately chip four faces on a log and split it into two-inch boards, all this being done in a single pass on one machine, instead of on several machines. Runyon’s basic concept was to first chip a two-inch spline, or key, on the bottom of the log and use that to guide the log through the entire machine. This spline would be sawn off last as saleable lumber after it had done its job. The general concept was to turn logs directly into lumber and pulp quality chips without any waste wood or slabs left over to handle elsewhere in the mill. Runyon was unable to get Simpson Timber interested in building a prototype, so he went ahead and built one himself and was eventually awarded a patent for the concept.

He then set out to talk to all the well-known sawmill machinery makers in the Pacific Northwest. It seems amazing now, but no one at the time was very interested, at least not in the US. During his travels up and down the coast, Runyon met fellow electrician Bill Johns at Canfor’s Eburne sawmill (recently demolished) near Vancouver airport. Johns immediately liked the concept. Meanwhile, across town at Canadian Car Pacific, a division of Hawker Siddeley Canada (generally known as CanCar), engineer Bob Chapman also heard about Runyon’s big idea, and got really excited about the manufacturing possibilities. “At that time CanCar was a general engineering machine shop, not just building sawmill machinery,” explains Bob’s brother, Fred Chapman. The technical group basically consisted of Bob Chapman, Fred Chapman, Ernie Buchacher, Art Halliday and chief engineer Len Mitten. Bob, Len and Art wasted no time and drove down to Shelton to see Runyon’s prototype machine.

Bob Chapman

They liked what they saw and soon made a deal with Runyon for worldwide rights to build and market what became known as the Chip-N-Saw. The deal gave the inventor a royalty for every machine built. Back in Vancouver, another agreement was made with Bill Johns to install a machine at the Eburne mill. This was installed off-line for testing and demonstrations at Eburne, before it was eventually sold in 1964 to Ernst Lumber in Quesnel, BC (now part of the Tolko group). John Ernst of Ernst Lumber was one of the independent innovators in the BC sawmill industry and was the first mill owner prepared to invest money in the radical new concept.

At the time, Ernie Buchacher was one of the Chip-N-Saw design engineers at CanCar. “Bob Chapman was really the driving force behind the entire project,” says Buchacher. “He decided to give this first production machine serial #130, instead of 001, to give people more confidence in buying the next one.” Buchacher says they redesigned some aspects of Runyon’s original machine and ran it on real logs in the CanCar shop before it went to Eburne. He chuckles, noting that the Ernst Lumber machine ran at 50 fpm. “We thought that was pretty good back then, but you can contrast that with the latest canter lines today which go up to 700 fpm.”

Recovery wasn’t that good on the first machine, according to Buchacher, but it proved to be a real production machine as logs could be fed through in a continuous stream, end to end. The Chip-N-Saw idea soon took off in a really big way, and CanCar’s parent company went back to Runyon to buy out the patent, rather than continue to pay him a percentage royalty on each machine built. Runyon’s big idea had really paid off, and he became a rich man. The history of the Chip-N-Saw and CanCar are inextricably entwined. Over the next 20 years, CanCar grew rapidly through a series of mergers from around 120 employees at the time the first Chip-N-Saw was sold to 500 employees.

Popularity of the Chip-N-Saw machine soared in later years as demand dramatically increased. “A total of something over 500 Chip-N-Saws were sold in many versions over the years,” says Fred Chapman. Many went to the southern states, where their basic simplicity and rugged construction got the brand a great reputation cutting rough grade pine. The machines made such an impact down south that a whole classification of southern pine logs is still known today as “Chip-N-Saw” logs. In the early days, the machines built for the US were sold by dealer Irvington Machine Works, which later merged with Moore Dry Kiln Company in 1970 to become Irvington-Moore (a division of USNR).

Jim Gregoire was sales manager at the time until around 1972, when he left to form Chip-N-Saw Inc with Bob Chapman. “Bob Chapman and myself formed Chip-N-Saw Inc to market and support the machines in the US,” says Gregoire. “It was a fantastic time as companies like Weyerhaeuser would order six machines at a time. Later Chip-N-Saw Inc also did some of the secondary manufacturing at our plant in Eugene, Oregon.” The original machine sold to Ernst Lumber in 1964 became known as the Mark I. This first model had chipping heads, a fixed bed and horizontal arbor splitter saws. It had five set positions, and could handle logs up to a 14-inch butt diameter to produce two-inch boards from four inches up to 12 inches wide.

Logs were held down and driven through the machine by a heavy overhead “alligator” chain, profiled to fit the top surface of the logs. Later machines in the series could also produce a mix of one-inch and two-inch boards and run a little faster. The next version built in 1967 by CanCar, and probably the most popular, was the Mark II. This was built in separate modules comprising the alligator infeed, bottom head, side head, top head, and horizontal double arbor saw section. A log turner was also added under operator control (later automated using a scanner). The Mark II was designed to process logs up to a 20-inch butt diameter and used a four-inch wide spline, instead of two-inch, to guide the logs. This produced a 2x4 later in the process. The machine could produce cants from four inches to 16 inches square, and the saw box now became a vertical double arbor unit with horizontal saws.

The Mark II was built in many versions, initially with feed speeds up to 200 fpm. Later faster models used CanCar-designed twin and quad bandmills to cut bigger logs and improve lumber recovery over the circular saw versions. Additional drive rolls were used downstream of the infeed chain section to power logs through each machine module. A third generation machine called the Mark III was also built in smaller numbers for 4-1/2 to 10-inch logs and there was also a Jumbo Mark II to cut logs up to a 28-inch diameter. In 1970, yet another version of the concept was built and installed at Hunt Lumber in Danville, LA to handle small logs and plywood cores.

This was called the V-Head Chip-N-Saw and was sold as a V-2, V-4 or V-6 to produce 2x4 or 2x6 lumber. An alligator feed chain was used but two simpler V-shape chipping heads were used top and bottom, with a single arbor circular splitter saw close coupled behind. “The core machines were really successful and just about every plywood company bought one,” recalls Gregoire. Some saw-life problems showed up on southern pine, but in 1972 the carbide Strobe saws (invented by a Weyerhaeuser filer) came along. “We could then speed up the machine, run all day on the same saws and process 2,000 logs a shift,” says Gregoire. Many of the original machines are still running and have been upgraded and improved several times. Many of the alligator infeeds have been replaced by less aggressive systems as CanCar further developed the concept to improve lumber recovery.

The Chip-N-Saw revolutionized the North American sawmill industry and suddenly, demand outstripped CanCar’s capacity. Even when the company was shipping a Chip-N-Saw every week, a year’s worth of back orders quickly accumulated. New facilities were needed to meet the demands of the market. But in 1975, soon after the new facility opened in Surrey, BC, a recession hit the forest industry and forced CanCar to cut back in their production. The recession brought on a number of mergers and takeovers within the industry, and among them were Kockums Industries and Can Car. The two companies merged in 1983 and the Chip-N-Saw tradition remained alive as it began its transformation into the latest generation of four-sided canters. Bob Chapman went on to form his own company, Optimil Machinery Inc, which builds a complete range of sawmill machines.

Bob died suddenly in the spring of 2004 and sadly Ernie Runyon has also passed on. Optimil continues today under the leadership of Fred and Ross Chapman, building a complete range of sawmill equipment, including double-length infeeds (DLI) and chipping canter lines, at its Delta, BC plant. In1996. USNR acquired the Chip-N-Saw design and brand name as part of its purchase of CSMI (Kockums CanCar).

Today USNR manufactures some of the industry’s most advanced DLI canter lines in a continuous evolution of the original 1960 prototype. It is interesting to think that today’s high speed canter lines can trace their ancestry right back to the first Chip-N-Saw running 40 years ago at 50 fpm in Quesnel. Some of the latest DLI canter systems now run up to 700 fpm and use shifting, lifting and slewing infeeds to better position curved logs, using scanners and computer controls in the search for ever higher efficiency, speed and recovery. Looking back, the Chip-N-Saw is probably the most successful sawmill machine ever devised.

In researching and writing this story, thanks go to Fred Chapman and Bill LeGentil at Optimil, Don Bingham at USNR, and Ernie Buchacher and Jim Gregoire, both now retired.


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