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A Mill for All Seasons

Spruce Products Ltd. follows up an astute quota exchange program with Repap by modernizing and expanding what used to be a small seasonal mill at Swan River, Manitoba.

By John Dietz
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Marking 55 years in business, Manitoba's Spruce Products Limited hasn't been spending much time looking backwards. What used to be a small but efficient mill at its Swan River headquarters is now a modern, mid-size operation that smacks of innovation and smart management.

Since 1992, SPL has increased production to upwards of 20,000,000 board feet per year. It has enclosed the planing operations, installed a dry kiln and replaced the original chipper. This winter, buildings will be heated with mill byproducts burned in the new boiler. Computers will operate the boiler and dry kiln. Employment will become steady rather than seasonal, and SPL will be able to access markets on a year-round basis.

SPL has had sawmill and pulpwood harvesting operations throughout Manitoba since the 1940s, ranging from Steinbach in southern Manitoba to Flin Flon in the far north. The company was operated by Frank Marvin until he passed away in 1986. His family owns and operates the business today. Georgia Marvin-Procter is company chairperson. Barbara and Margret Marvin serve on SPL s board of directors.

The company was a major pulpwood producer and broker until 1951, when it started a sawmill at Whitefish Lake, just north of Swan River. While operating this mill for seven years, it developed buying yards in four nearby villages: Bowsman, Kenville, Mafeking and Garland.

SPL moved its mill to Clearwater Lake, near The Pas, MB, in 1959. Major investments at the time allowed SPL to begin producing timber and specialty products for the mining industry in northern Manitoba.

A decade later, SPL built another sawmill, this one at Swan River. This soon flourishing plant created 30 direct jobs, plus 60 contract jobs. "We sold the original Swan River mill in 1974 and built a new mill here, across the road, the same year," says Dick Walker, president of Spruce Products. After that, SPL consolidated and focused its operations on milling and pulpwood for the next 16 years.

In 1990, with Walker's leadership, SPL went into the mobile chipping business. "The chipper allowed us to use small- diameter wood that we were leaving behind in the cutover. The investment was more than $1 million, but it created 12 jobs. It provided benefits to contractors and to the local logging industry."

From its sawmill operations at Swan River and Clearwater Lake, SPL began producing wood chips for Repap Manitoba. In addition to sawmill chips, the mobile field chipper greatly increased fiber recovery in the Swan River area . Logging operations improved immediately. Cutovers were left in better condition for forest renewal activities. And overall cash flow increased from the area.

Lumber sales, the primary enterprise, were increasing steadily. In addition, successful negotiations with major quota holders added to the potential for the Swan River mill.

Search In 1995, an exchange of wood volumes took place with Repap Manitoba. The normal volumes harvested at Clearwater Lake by SPL were transferred to the Duck Mountains, coming from a portion of the wood harvested by Repap. In turn, Repap gained control of the Clearwater volumes. Both companies gained a major reduction in hauling distance.

About the same time, SPL hired Ward Perchuk, who was employed with Avenor's Woodlands Northwest Division in Thunder Bay, Ont. A former Swan River resident, Perchuk became SPL's general manager in September 1995.

"This is home," Perchuk says, modestly. "I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to come back."

With wood volumes exchanged and the Clearwater Lake mill closed, Walker and Perchuk started planning expansion and modernization at the Swan River plant, ideally located on several counts. "We're sitting in the middle of our wood basket, between the Duck and Porcupine provincial forests," Perchuk says. "Our average hauling distance for fibre is 30 to 75 miles, and its exclusively road transport. We're producing a quality product, we are relatively close to Winnipeg, which is our main distribution point. As well, excellent truck transport to Winnipeg is available."

A three-phase expansion was launched in 1996 to make use of the increased wood volume.

Early in 1996, SPL modernized its planer operations. The $250,000 upgrade resulted in a facility that is able to produce more than 120,000 board feet of lumber per day.

Search An enclosed planing mill will improve the workplace and enable SPL to maintain its reputation for a high-quality product. Starting this winter, Perchuk says, hot water from the new wood waste thermal plant will be pumped to the planing mill to allow year-round activity. Cold weather, until now, has "pretty well stopped our planing operation between Christmas and spring."

The second phase of the expansion was arrival of a new Peterson Pacific mobile chipper. The DDC 5000 model represents an investment of approximately $800,000.

"It has superior debarking and several other features that give it better chip quality than the model we obtained in 1990," Perchuk says. "Chips are a big part of our business now. Anything that's too small for logs is being chipped and shipped to Repap in The Pas."

The pulp side of their production is unchanged. "If an area shapes up better for pulp, if there is a big stand of smaller diameters, we'll turn it into a pulp operation. It goes straight from the bush to the pulp mill at Pine Falls."

Construction of the third phase, a wood-waste boiler and lumber drying kiln, began late in 1996. Before entering into this $1.5-million project, Walker and Perchuk investigated several makes that might be suitable for SPL's operation. "We chose KMW Engineering of London, Ont. to make the boiler," says Perchuk. The 275-hp unit uses shavings, bark and sawdust from the mill operation.

The boiler runs on a guarded status, controlled by a computer and software supplied by the manufacturer. It produces low- pressure steam (14 lbs.) which is piped over to the kiln.

SPL chose an all-aluminum kiln made by American Wood Dryers of Portland, Oregon. Kiln capacity is 130,000 board feet per charge, in a structure approximately 84' long by 40' wide.

When a load of new lumber is ready for drying, it's rolled into the kiln from one end. A probe with sensors for temperature and moisture is placed into the load, and will feed information back to a computer. Four zones can operate simultaneously in the kiln.

With the door closed and heat rising, 15 huge overhead fans go to work. With heat and the circulation from 48" diameter fans, a load can be dry in 48 hours.

Perchuk says, "We chose this kiln based on a number of issues. It has superior air flow. It's all aluminum, so we won't have any corrosion problems. It has drying schedules that suit our needs, and it was cost-competitive."

Computers for both the boiler and the kiln are equipped with modems. This enables the suppliers to "dial in" at SPL's request to monitor or modify equipment performance.

It takes 20 million board feet of production to justify a dry kiln, Perchuk notes. A natural, open air drying system worked well enough when the company only processed 10 million board feet a year.

"The air drying process takes considerable time. Our dry kiln will move this process up from months to a matter of days, and we'll be able to fill orders very quickly."

For the first time, Perchuk adds, SPL will be able to dry rough lumber throughout the year. That will provide the planer operations with a steady flow of lumber. The spin-off, he says, will improve SPL's ability to market products year-round and lead to more opportunities to reach markets in the United States.

Spruce Products won't be finished once the third phase is completed. The company plans sawmill renovations that will dramatically enhance the amount of lumber recovered from a log. It's also planning some value-added products which should create more permanent jobs.

President Walker says, "Our focus is always on quality, and it will stay there. Last year, we grade-stamped 23 million board feet of lumber and didn't have one complaint from a customer. That's quite an achievement, for a mill of any size."

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