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June 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

SMALL SAWMILLING

A PATH TO TAMARACK

New Brunswick ’s Tim Hunter had a different path to developing his tamarack milling business—through an accident that sidelined him—but he has not looked back since.

By George Fullerton

Tim Hunter virtually stumbled into the value-added lumber business. He received a crushed vertebrae, along with nerve and muscle damage to his back, while installing a moulder in his hobby milling operation next to his home on Hunter Lake, east of Saint John, New Brunswick. The mill and moulder were a hobby that would supply specialty milling products for his residential home construction business.

The Wood-Mizer LT 40 provides Hunter Lake with the versatility to serve a variety of local niche markets. The mill, edger and moulder operate from three-phase power from an on-site diesel generator.

 

“The accident was certainly a life changing experience for me,” says Hunter. “I had a crew of twenty carpenters and an order book for more than two years of new home construction jobs.

“Unfortunately, I had always run the business pretty much single handedly. I found the customers, I set up the contracts, and I supervised the sub-contractors and our construction crews. When I couldn’t work, there wasn’t anyone to jump into the position.

“As soon as I got out of the hospital, I had a hard talk with my employees, regretting that I had to shut down the business. Next, I had to call my customers and cancel a couple of million dollars worth of business.”

As he was recuperating from the accident (a period of two years), Hunter realized that he would not be able to go back to construction. And as he looked at his career options, his thoughts kept returning to his “hobby” mill: a Woodmizer LT 40, a Valley Machine edger, a Weinig moulder with knife profiler and a small kiln. He had the experience of successfully marketing cedar deck kits, and some specialty products to the local market—and he liked doing it.

Hunter says he could see the potential to build it into a small business. But he realized it would be impossible to compete with commodity lumber producers and that the cedar resource was not sufficient to expand the business much. He would have to find a niche product and develop a strategy to promote and market specialty products.

The basic research for the “niche” began by looking at New Brunswick wood resources, identifying under-utilized species, and determining what marketing opportunities might be developed. “I found there were three under-utilized species: poplar, white birch and tamarack,” he says. The demand for poplar for waferboard and birch for pulpwood was growing. Tamarack, on the other hand, maintained an undeserved reputation as a junk species, with virtually no market demand.

Hunter undertook some basic research on the species and learned there had been very little utilization of tamarack since the 1800s, when it was in demand for the knees and ribs of wooden sailing ships.

“Tamarack has intertwined fibres, which allowed it to be bent for ribs and still maintain some flexibility.” The wood structure also made the lower stem and root curve ideal for ship knees, which formed the structural connection between the ship’s ribs and the decks. It was also used in barn flooring and as pit props for its strength and rot resistance properties.

The historical information was not very helpful in identifying new markets, but it did point out that the resource had not been targeted aggressively for 100 to 150 years, so he figured there should be some timber on the landscape.

Convinced that there would be opportunity in developing a tamarack market, Hunter bought a load of logs and set out to see what it might produce. “I was aware of tamarack lumber’s legendary reputation for twisting, cupping and otherwise distorting. What I discovered was a diamond in the rough, though. I was just amazed by the beauty of the grain and color of that first load we cut. We cut those rough old logs and found a jewel inside. I cut the whole tandem truckload into 1x4 boards to make flooring—and knew I had a beautiful product. We loaded the entire 4,000 feet of boards into the kiln and quickly took it right down to eight per cent moisture. When we opened the kiln, it was twisted all over the place, and we ended up with 4000 board feet of firewood,” chuckles Hunter.

Eastern white cedar logs (left) on the infeed
deck at Hunter Lake. Cedar decks are part
of the product mix at the company.

A little more research resulted in a new drying schedule, which provided a 50 per cent yield. The dry lumber was sent through the moulder and created a very attractive flooring product. The only trouble he had with this beautiful flooring is that no one wanted to buy it. Despite its beauty, tamarack’s reputation discredited it before it could be sold, let alone laid for flooring. “I was disappointed that it wouldn’t sell, and was thinking of a way to utilize the flooring when it occurred to me that I had to create a dust-free environment in the filing room, and needed a real good floor. So I took the tamarack flooring, laid it in the filing room, finished it and it was beautiful. Then every time a white pine or cedar customer would come into the mill yard, I would make them come in and see the filing room floor.” The strategy worked. Customers started to buy tamarack for home flooring needs and word got around to the point where customers were contacting them for the product.

Although it was nice to establish a local domestic market, Hunter wanted to build a much larger market and figured a formal marketing study was the next logical step. Graham Savage of GDS Services in Saint John entered the picture, and began working on a marketing study, focusing on the northeast United States , in addition to designing a website, and developing promotional materials around tamarack flooring. That preliminary marketing study provided very positive results, to the point that Hunter realized that his small operation would never be able to serve a fraction of the potential.

In terms of increasing milling and re-man capacity, Hunter says the choices were to look for outside investors or go for a very large bank loan. The latter is increasingly hard to acquire, in an atmosphere characterized by industry players facing major trouble over wood supply and the softwood lumber disagreement with the US .

“I was uncomfortable with the idea of working with a major investor, so I looked around the province and saw that there were a bunch of little mills that were already sawing a bit of tamarack. I approached a few to see if they would be interested in buying more tamarack locally, and supplying the lumber to me.” That effort resulted in agreements with six small mills across southern New Brunswick .

The next major hurdle was increasing the drying and reman facilities. The original Hunter Lake Lumber facilities were not large enough, and not well located to avail itself to a major expansion. The search for kiln capacity led Hunter to a recently-built facility—with a 30,000 board foot Nyle kiln and a building for milling equipment—that had been set up for a poplar value-added operation at Penobsquis, an hour east of Hunter Lake . The company now has plans to install a six-head Weinig moulder at Penobsquis.

Tom Hunter (top) with the Weinig moulder which creates beatiful tamarack flooring (left). Word got around about the flooring, to the point that customers were contacting them for the product.

 

Hunter also worked with Cape Breton-based Forest Insight Ltd. to do pre-finishing and end matching. Chem Craft of Dartmouth worked with Hunter and Forest Insight to perfect a catalyst that would ensure the finishing coats would stabilize. Tamarack has natural oils that react chemically with many common wood finishes.

With the potential for lumber supply and manufacturing capacity coming together, Hunter took his business plan to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) to seek funding support to do a detailed marketing study and finance some equipment purchases. Initial reaction was very positive from ACOA. However, despite positive encouragement from Business New Brunswick, the ACOA application failed because of concern that the support would be seen as a subsidy in the context of the Canada-US softwood lumber agreement.

“We were disappointed that ACOA could not support us in the US market development, especially since the initial marketing work gave us such a positive indication,” says Hunter. They looked for other opportunities and did some introductory marketing work directed at Western Europe , which resulted in them attending the 2002 Plan Expo show in Ireland .

Contacts made at Plan Expo indicated that the European flooring business was currently being swept away with laminate click flooring. Hunter related that it was not altogether a dark picture for tamarack because, as a rule, European flooring fashions run in five-year cycles. They determined it would be a better strategy to tackle the European market as the cycle neared its end, and consumers were starting to look for a new floor fashion statement product.

Facing repeated difficulties in entering the high-density global flooring markets, Hunter has remained determined that there is world level potential for tamarack flooring—and that it will be realized in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, he has continued to build regional markets, which has resulted in steadily growing demand for the flooring product. Convinced of tamarack’s good aesthetic qualities and versatility, the company has developed a fast growing, decking market.

“Tamarack has good rot resistant properties and cedar timber is harder and harder to source,” says Hunter. “Pressure treated lumber is the most popular alternative to cedar, but there is a lot of concern around toxicity issues.

“We started to market tamarack as an alternative to cedar in our domestic market, and we are currently selling three tamarack decks to every cedar deck, which is a complete reverse of when we started.” They’ve made some inroads marketing tamarack decks and docks as an environmentally friendly product in the Ontario cottage market.

In just a few short years, Hunter has built his tamarack milling operation into a 500,000 board feet a year business that currently markets 20 per cent as flooring, and 80 per cent as decking and timbers. He is currently marketing 80 per cent at the retail level from his facilities, with 20 per cent going into northern US markets. Hunter believes the potential to build more business is endless.

 


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