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--  Sawmilling  --

Shift to Hardwood

Two East Coast companies each bring something different to the "hardwood" table with a new $5-million sawmill in Nova Scotia.

By Tony Kryzanowski

sawmill1.jpg (62377 bytes)
sawmill2.jpg (22148 bytes)Located in New Brunswick, Savoie/Dickson Hardwood Ltd. makes use of an ample supply of local hardwood. As with any hardwood mill, grading (above) is critical to Savoie/Dickson’s reputation for quality. Graders at the mill evaluate lumber for six different grades, as well as colour for some species.

Demand for Nova Scotia’s softwood timber supply has caused some mill owners to turn their attention to the ample supply of hardwood. The most recent reflection of this trend is the start of production at the province’s largest—and newest—hardwood sawmill, Savoie/ Dickson Hardwood Ltd. in Westville, near New Glasgow. Faced with no shortage of logs, the mill is on the verge of adding a second shift.

In the Westville area alone, there are six softwood lumber mills. "There’s more than an adequate hardwood supply out there," says mill manager John Whidden. "Actually, since we started to buy wood in the fall, we’ve noticed there are more sources than we anticipated. We may have to go to a second shift just to accommodate the supply."

The sawmill is a partnership between Group Savoie of St. Quentin, New Brunswick and local sawmill owner Clint Dickson, who owns CF Dickson Forest Products. Group Savoie has plenty of experience sawing hardwood, employing as many as 350 at a hardwood mill in New Brunswick. Dickson brings a long association with local private woodlot owners, since he has operated a softwood lumber mill in Westville for the past 30 years.

"We dabbled in hardwood because of the stress that is being placed on the softwood raw material supply in this province," says Whidden. "We were looking to expand our horizons, but in the hardwood line." It was only after Clint Dickson met Jean Claude Savoie of Group Savoie that the notion of a large hardwood sawmill in Westville took shape. "We are at the centre of a good hard-wood supply," continues Whidden. "They (Dickson and Savoie) hit it off, and it looks like a workable relationship."

While there are other hardwood mills in Nova Scotia, local supply has far outstripped demand. Consequently, many hardwood logs were leaving the province for New Brunswick, Quebec and Maine. Lower-grade hardwood is also chipped at a large chipping facility in Sheet Harbor and expor-ed to Asia. With logs and raw material leaving the province, this has effectively exported jobs from an area plagued by high unemployment. However, there has been no great rush to establish a large hardwood mill. Many Nova Scotians have not recognized the value of the hardwood that many simply use for firewood.

This relationship between Group Savoie and Clint Dickson is important to the Westville sawmill’s future. Dickson’s expe-rience with local woodlot owners is one reason why the mill was able to accumulate an adequate wood supply. About 75 per cent of Nova Scotia timber is held in private hands, so there is much more of a "public relations" effort required to ensure an adequate wood supply.

The harvesting process for the new mill runs the gamut from chainsaws to harvesters. Savoie/Dickson has a full-time wood procurement officer who identifies wood sources and works with private landowners to educate them about proper forest management. Whidden emphasizes that their intention is not to remove large swaths of hardwood without paying adequate attention to sustainability.

"The idea is to achieve a sustainable supply," says Whidden. "The owners have spent a lot of money here, and the idea is to have it sustainable for a long period— not just to come in, have a few good years and be gone."

Group Savoie brings something equally important to the partnership. "With hard- wood, it is not the volume—it’s the value. Hardwood marketing is based more on relationships," says Whidden. Group Savoie has built a strong relationship with a number of eastern Canadian hardwood consumers through their large hardwood mill in New Brunswick. As they manage the marketing of product manufactured in Westville, they include it as part of their overall mix, and are backed by their reputation for producing a quality product.

The partners have invested about $5 mil-lion to construct the mill, which is located on the same site as the Dickson softwood mill. They employ 28 workers and hope to achieve production of 50,000 board feet a day once they have completed start-up. They will consume about 12 million board feet of wood annually. Right now, the mill operates 45 hours per week. An extra shift will create from 18 to 20 additional jobs.

The mill accepts logs with a minimum seven-inch top from a variety of species. These include hard and soft maple, white and yellow birch, ash, and some oak. They rough saw for grade, starting as low as 3B common, which are pallet-grade cants, up to selects and better.

The majority of their production will be one-inch boards for use as flooring, glue-laminated panels, wall panels, cabinet stock and furniture stock. "Hardwood is different from softwood because hardwood doesn’t have specific dimensions," says Whidden. "With softwood dimensions, you’ve got your grade stamps and the wood is inspect-ed. As long as they make that spec, the quality isn’t really going to vary all that much from one mill to another. Aesthetic value is much more important in hardwood." He knows of what he speaks, as he was mill manager at the Dickson softwood lumber mill prior to taking on the challenge of man-aging the hardwood mill.

The lumber grader is a key employee, as he must analyze each piece of hardwood lumber on a scale that rates six different grades, and also for colour in some species. Whidden says manufacturing lumber from hardwood has been a terrific learning experience so far. They have counted heavily on Group Savoie’s experience, starting with the purchase of equipment.

"Everything has to be heavier," says Whidden. "Hardwood is so much heavier than softwood. The equipment just takes so much more of a beating." When it came time to assemble the mill, it took a little longer than they anticipated because they installed equipment 12 feet above the mill

floor, which required additional support structures beneath the equipment.

When the logs enter the Savoie/Dickson sawmill, they first encounter a Brunette 27- inch ring debarker. The debarker operator makes a decision based on log size and quality whether to kick logs to a PHL scragg line or to a line featuring a Sanborn carriage with an Albany bandsaw. The break point is 16 inches and under on the PHL line.

The smaller logs are sawn by the PHL scragg, which features two upper and two lower saws. Sideboards are manually inserted into a Prescott band resaw, which also takes sideboards from the Sanborn carriage line. The sideboards are trimmed on a HMC three-saw edger before heading to the green chain.

"We recover everything we can up to 42 inches long," says Whidden. Centre pieces from the scragg are sent through a Valley gangsaw. It has 10 thin kerf saws, and five are movable. Then the boards are conveyed to the green chain. Once on the green chain, a trimmer operator uses a custom-built trim-mer to trim boards for added value.

The lumber is then inspected and graded by the lumber grader, and conveyed out to manual stackers. Because there are so many grades, a hardwood sawmill does not lend itself to mechanical stacking.

Whidden stresses that throughout the production process, they aim to gain as much value as possible from each board.

"At every position—at the resaw, gang-saw, and the three-saw edger—we can bring boards back around and around," he says. They have operators strategically placed to ensure that each piece achieves its full market potential.

Whidden says he has already noticed the difference in operating a hardwood mill over a softwood mill just by the different sounds that he encounters.

"The first couple of weeks we were running soft maple, and then we ran birch maybe three weeks," he says. "When we switched to hard maple, the pitch and noise of the saw was so much different. The wood is so much harder. We had to make an adjustment in terms of speed. The saw was running just too fast for hard maple."

"You just have to forget softwood when you are sawing hardwood," Whidden adds. "It has its own intricacies. Your saws have to operate at a different speed, and you need a different pitch on your blades."

When they filled job positions, Savoie/Dickson opted for individuals who they could train according to their needs, all except for the carriage operator, who had previous experience. To provide employees with adequate training, they hired a consulting firm from Quebec called TranFortec, located in Saint-Catherine a la Jacques Cartier. Whidden says they are pleased with the resuls so far.

They hope to eventually install their own dry kiln to add further value to the wood prior to it leaving the site, and hidden says that on-site manufacturing is not out of the question.

"If the market stays strong, we may put something in that will add value," he says. "The owners are committed to do as much added value at this facility as possible, rather than exporting it."

For now, they hope to sell as much production as possible locally, where a number of secondary manufacturers already exist. Secondly, they will ship additional production to Quebec, particularly to contacts that Group Savoie has in the Montreal area, building further on what has turned out to be a very solid business relationship.


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