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July Aug 2003

Equipment evolution on the rock

From bucksaws right through to harvesters, a lifetime of logging has meant constant equipment evolution for Newfoundland contractor A & F Hollett and Son.

By Heather Ednie

Winston Hollett (left) and son, Jeff. “Every change we’ve gone through has been a big one,” says Winston. The introduction of harvesters is the most recent change for A & F Hollett and Son.

With more than half-a-century in the logging business, Winston Hollett is a storyteller with many tales describing the technological evolution that has reshaped the forest industry over and over again. The president of A & F Hollett and Son Ltd—a company founded by his father—Hollett today is preparing to hand over the reins of his logging company to his two sons. “I got my first paycheque when I was nine years old, for loading boxcars of lumber,” says Hollett. “That was 53 years ago. I have lots of memories—there’s been a lot of water under the bridge.”

Hollett’s current camp is 44 kilometres from Grand Falls, Newfoundland. He has a shop in Norris Arm, close to Grand Falls, and another on site at the camp. His father used to contract for the International Power and Paper Company of Newfoundland (IP & P), and today the company contracts for Abitibi-Consolidated, supplying fibre for the pulp and paper mill in Grand Falls. With a father who was a logger in Norris Arm, Hollett grew up in the business. “I started working with my father during summers and holidays from school,” he says. “I lived the ‘bucksaw days’ and I’ve seen all the changes since.”

The move from bucksaws and horses to tractors and tractor sleighs took place in the late 1940s and meant a real change for the logging industry. “We bought the first Caterpillar D4 sold here in Newfoundland,” Hollett says. “Then later we purchased a J5 and a trailer in the 1960s.” In the mid-1960s, innovation again swept through the industry, this time in the form of pay packers. “Like a skidder with a rack on the back, the pay packers could pull a cord-and-a-half of wood,” Hollett recalls. After the pay packers, skidders were the next innovation. Hollett also had two Tanguay slashers, which were crane-loaded, cutting the tree before sending the wood by conveyor up to the box truck.

Next came the era of driving down rivers and lakes. “We would pull the wood onto the ice in the winter and do a spring drive,” Hollett says. “In fact, we would bus people in across the lakes, and even saw the wood on the lakes. I even recall one time that we went through the ice with a truck near the shore, in 20 feet of water.” In 1979, the advent of portable, self-contained mini-slashers meant another change for the industry. The wood would be skidded tree length to roadside where, using the mini-slashers, it would be cut in eight-foot lengths and piled. “We slashed about 5,000 cubic metres a week, using a truck with a loader and slasher on it, with hydraulic pumps,” Hollett says. “In fact, we only got rid of the last one last year.” The mini slashers evolved from a larger version that had numerous challenges. “Before, we had a great big monstrosity of a slasher,” Hollett explains. “In fact, once, about 25 years ago, one got stuck and it took four bulldozers and eight skidders to get it out.”

Equipment at the Hollett operation is run on a double-shift operation five days a week. Production—which is based on demand—reached over 100,000 cubic metres last year.

The end result of going to the mini-slashers was that it made the operation cheaper and faster. The large slasher was doing about 115,000 cubic metres annually and was easily replaced by a fleet of the smaller ones. “In fact, every change we’ve gone through was a big one,” Hollett recalls. “I remember when we started hauling the logs with trucks and trailers. Originally, we loaded the trucks by hand—managing about three to four cords per load. Then, we moved to pay packers and pallet trucks, and finally to conventional trucks in the 1960s. I still recall dumping my first pallet truck of wood in the mill pond in 1964.”

In 1997, change was upon Hollett’s operation once more, with the introduction of harvesters. “It hasn’t made much difference to the cost-effectiveness of our operation,” he says. “Volume-wise, a man doesn’t cost as much as these high-tech machines.” Today, Hollett has 70 people in his operation, which is about 30 fewer than in the past. There are still about 40 men on the ground doing manual harvesting. However, Hollett predicts there will be a gradual phase-out to a fully mechanical operation. Running a double-shift operation five days per week, production—which is based on demand—reached over 100,000 cubic metres last year. A year-round operation is impossible, due to the severe conditions of the annual thaw.

Generally, Hollett’s operation, and those of other local loggers, closes for two months from mid-March to mid-May. The area of operation includes about a 30-kilometre radius from the campsite. “Our camp is the same as a hotel,” Hollett says with a grin. “We have electricity and backup electricity. The bunkhouses are comfortable, and there’s a cookhouse, movie room and so on—everything you’d need.” Hollett has five harvesters working around the clock, including two Rottnes with Log Max 5000 dangles; two John Deere 200s with Fabtek 2000 fixed heads; and a Caterpillar 315 sporting a Log Max 5000 dangle, all of which were bought in 2000. During the day shift, 10 trucks run between the site and the mill.

Six forwarders operate with the harvesters and the manual cutting group. In total, Hollett has 17 haul trucks of which 10 to 12 run at a time. Five excavators are used for road building and maintenance. “We used to run eight bulldozers, but today it’s only three—the excavators have taken over,” he explains. He also has Caterpillar 140 graders and two 950 Caterpillar front-end loaders under operation. A mobile unit out in the field provides maintenance for the harvesters. All Hollett’s product is cut into eight-foot lengths.

Years ago, Hollett would sell his timber to different companies, but today it is 100 per cent on an Abitibi contract. Hollett also has a contract with the pulp mill to execute the handling of wood and chips that come in and out of the yard. Using three Prentice ATL 625 machines one-and-a-half cord grabs, a Cat 980G with a two-and-a-half cord grab, along with two Caterpillar 966G front-end loaders with 11-yard buckets for the chips and a Caterpillar 981, Hollett’s equipment keeps the pulp mill’s yard running efficiently. There are five logging contractors in the area, many of them family run businesses like Hollett’s.

Today, his sons, Winston Todd and Jeffrey Ambrose, oversee the operation while Hollett spends more time in town dealing with suppliers and equipment servicing. Though his daughter doesn’t work for the company, her husband is an employee. Slowly, Hollett is making the move to retirement while the next generation assumes the reins. “I’m sorry I’m getting older, but I’m not sorry I’m getting out of the business,” he says. “After all these years, I’m looking forward to a relaxing retirement. It’s been a working life of struggles, challenges and accomplishments. It’s not an 8- or 12-hour day job, but early mornings, late nights and weekends. But my two sons grew up in this atmosphere and are now doing it and are ready to take on the business.”

Throughout the years, Hollett says it was a challenge to make innovation work in every phase he encountered as the industry evolved. “It is a challenge, because it’s experimental,” he explains. “We had to suffer great pains to get to the areas of profit required.” Debugging of new technology has required effort at every stage. And today, Hollett says the harvesters are one of the biggest challenges he’s every faced, due to their cost. “The harvesters are so expensive, and their cost of operation and maintenance is very high,” he says. “It requires a real learning process, as we must educate ourselves to operate and maintain these machines.”

Adding to the challenge is that wood is becoming scarcer in the area. “There’s enough to sustain the needs of industry in this area for a while, but it’s getting harder and harder,” Hollett says. “And it becomes more costly the harder it is to access.” Looking forward, Hollett predicts that one of the next innovations in the region will be chippers in the woods. “It’s been discussed, and I think we’ll see that,” he says. “They’re always working on new things, and I believe this will be one of them.” Though there have been many challenges, there have also been some great moments throughout Hollett’s career.

He still remembers some of those times fondly. “My favorite time was when in a camp, close to the camp we’re using today, delivering wood in rivers and lakes for the drive and my family would join me all summer long,” he recalls. “We weren’t driven by money then. It was a family way of life, and we really enjoyed it.”

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