BC’s Theden Forest Products is ramping up production—and seeking new markets for its flooring product—with a new Weinig moulder.
By Paul MacDonald
When the employee downsizing came at the local pulp and paper mill he worked at in Powell River, BC, Peter Ranger did not miss a beat. “I was ready for it because I knew it was coming,” says Ranger. “I had my quarter century in down at the mill, and they wanted to downsize.” Helped along by the buyout package from the mill—owned by MacMillan Bloedel at the time—Ranger quickly switched from employee to entrepreneur and started to work full-time at his small value-added operation, Theden Forest Products.
The Theden Forest mill is on the Sunshine Coast, three hours and two ferries north of Vancouver. Ranger had things well planned out when the buyout opportunity came. He had built—and paid for—a 4,000-square-foot workshop. “When things happened at the mill, I went home and straight into the workshop and started things going.” While it has struggled at times, 10 years later Theden is now poised to ramp up production, armed with a modest timber sale awarded by the BC Ministry of Forests, and a substantial investment in new equipment.
The timber sale—which at 2,000 cubic metres a year is the smallest the ministry has ever awarded, Ranger says—will be a huge help in terms of securing a wood supply for Theden. But there are conditions in that the company is obligated to increase its production four-fold. That is a huge increase, but Ranger is looking forward to the challenge. He believes it will allow the company to reach the point of critical mass, where it is producing at its most efficient level. “We are not there yet,” he says. “But this new equipment will put us over the top.”
It is also critical to Theden expanding into what looks to be a very lucrative American market, with the assistance of marketing consultants Raven Bay Wood Products (see story on how to expand into the US market on page 36). While production has grown steadily for Theden over the years, there has been nothing like what it will go through over the next couple of years. They are currently using about 600 cubic metres of wood a year—“We’re now very small,” says Ranger—and that will increase to 2,500 cubic metres. That still represents a modest amount of wood, but for medium-sized operations like Theden, it’s a big jump. The centrepiece for the big push is a new Weinig Quadramat 23P moulder.
The moulding equipment the company had been working with was Ranger’s own design and was made up of a combination of pieces. “It’s a bit of this, a bit of that and a bit of something else,” he says. “It’s not a half-bad machine. It functions well and is good at repeatability.” The new Weinig moulder offers a number of advantages, including a smoother drive and feed system.
This will give product a better quality finish, with less tear out. A big advantage is the speed with which they can change from producing one flooring profile/product to another. They had been working the wood with several different machines. That meant stacks of wood, going in and out of equipment, around the shop. They are confident that with the Weinig simplifying production, at least some of those stacks will disappear as the result of being able to better manage the process.
The new equipment also includes two new kilns, each with a 15,000 board foot capacity. They previously had one kiln which, if pressed, could handle 12,000 board feet but which usually took charges of 10,000 board feet. Drying times will be reduced by one third with the new set-up and Ranger says further equipment additions could reduce that by a further third. Those are impressive numbers considering the cost of energy these days.
The real savings on the new kilns will come from the reduced labour required to move wood around. Both of the kilns are tracked. The new kilns are his own design. The existing kiln will be kept and used for safe storage. “A problem that we can have is that if the flooring is dried to eight per cent, and the wood is left outside, the moisture can climb a couple of per cent and actually change the size of a board. “We’re aware of that now, and we’re careful, but using that old kiln for storage will allow us to do a better job.” Theden sources its own raw material—in the form of logs—and deals with four local sawmillers, who cut the logs according to the company’s requirements.
Douglas fir, the main species they work with, amounts to about 60 per cent of production. It is in high demand among flooring customers looking to complement the appearance of “rustic looking” homes. This is followed in popularity by maple and hemlock. They have been trying to do more hemlock because the wood is readily available locally. The American market has been receptive to their product. Theden has been successful in sending flooring to customers in Alaska, Texas, Washington State and California.
The government timber sale will help the company with its wood supply, which Ranger says has been a major challenge for the company in the past. They have sometimes been in a time squeeze with orders. If a customer is looking for flooring in six weeks, three weeks of that timeline will be used for kiln drying, machining and associated manufacturing. “That leaves us with only three weeks to source the right wood, get it sawn and delivered to our site,” says Ranger. “It’s a real push sometimes.” While the timber sale puts Theden Forest in a better position, Ranger says a longer-term solution for value-added producers in the region would be a community forest.
The local Community Futures Development Corporation is spearheading a move to establish such a forest. Forestry giant Weyerhaeuser has extensive cutting rights around Powell River and the mid-coast of BC and has a commitment to supply 20,000 cubic metres of wood a year to local milling and manufacturing operations. A community forest would complement what Weyerhaeuser is doing and also provide a more flexible source of wood, in terms of species and availability in a short time frame.
This would allow the value-added industry to flourish, says Ranger. “I’d like to see dozens of value-added companies like mine around Powell River.” He believes that job creation in the industry is going to come from small companies such as his, rather than the large operations like the mill he took early retirement from. Theden is truly a value-added company, going by the end value of its flooring products. It costs the company $350 per thousand board feet just to saw logs to spec, with an emphasis on getting edge grain pieces.
By the time it is dried and machined, the final product will have an average value of $2,500 to $3,000 per thousand board feet. They have a reasonably good local customer base for high end product. “People around this part of the BC coast are putting in some pretty large and expensive houses.” They recently used three logging truckloads of timber to get the finishing wood for just one house. The flooring work sometimes leads to interior work—such as baseboard, trim and mouldings—and exterior, such as siding. Ranger would like to develop the same premium flooring market in the United States, where high-end home construction has been very healthy. “It’s a good market to be in.”
To export to the US—and not be subject to the countervail—Theden does a number of things. Their flooring product is tongue in groove on all four sides—classifying it as added value—exempting it from any countervail. They also sell direct to customers in the US, whether they are homeowners or, for example, spec builders. With such high value wood, there is an understandable focus on making the best use out of every piece. With the residual material, small pieces of kiln dried wood go to local crafts people who make wooden toys and the shavings go to a local organic farmer. “The amount of waste wood is pretty darn small,” says Ranger. “At the end of the year, we won’t have any more than two pick-up truck loads of material left.”
Once the expansion is over, and the new equipment fully incorporated into the production flow, Ranger would like to return to his true passion: tinkering with equipment. He comes by this honestly—instrumentation and computers were his area of specialty at MacMillan Bloedel. And prior to that, he had his own machine shop. Ranger has a number of ideas he’d like to experiment with. “There are still lots of opportunities to think up new things that I’d like to apply in the operation.”
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