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May 2004

Small Sawmilling

A good Uphill battle

Small sawmiller Uphill Wood Supply is battling wood waste with thin kerf technology using Wood-Mizer equipment, and a “nothing goes to waste” philosophy.

By Jack Petree

Norman (left) and Bill Gretchen are dedicated to the full utilization of the wood resource. Slabs from the logs they mill are sold as firewood, and smaller material is utilized in an electrical generation facility.

With its diversified customer base and a flexible operating approach, Uphill Wood Supply seems to have found that successful market niche much sought after by small sawmillers. Located in Castlegar, BC, in the heart of the Kootenay “wet-belt” forest, Uphill Wood Supply is owned and operated by Bill and Norman Gretchen, and manufactures lumber for a broad range of customers. The mill takes custom jobs, saws to specs provided by specialty manufacturers, and sells to brokers as well as individual buyers ranging from contractors to the local farmer. Uphill has also found an important client base subcontracting with larger sawmills desiring to process especially high-grade logs with their more hands-on equipment, enabling an enhanced yield.

All customers considered, Norman says, Uphill Wood Supply produces about a half million board feet of birch in multiple grades each year, a million-plus feet of cedar, and a variety of miscellaneous products from other species. While it may operate under a 40 x 112-foot arched canopy reminiscent of a storefront awning, Uphill’s two breakdown units keep 10 employees busy year round. The mills, a Wood-Mizer LT300 thin kerf band head rig, and a traditional Wood-Mizer LT 40, are operated in association with a twin head Wood-Mizer MultiHead resaw, and a Meadows edger to process both hardwoods and softwoods for the specialty lumber markets of both Canada and the United States. The very thin kerf technology used throughout the mill—coupled with a “nothing goes to waste” philosophy—also makes the mill a model for environmental sensitivity among the growing number of small to mid-sized milling firms.

 Uphill’s twin head resaw system also makes use of ultra thin kerf technology to provide yield enhancements, according to the system manufacturer, of as much as 32 per cent over yields available using circle gang resaws.

Uphill Wood Supply was founded more than 20 years ago when Norman, who’d purchased a block of timberland, was looking for ways to do something with the land but really didn’t want to just sell the timber. He and his dad were researching options when they saw an article about a Wood-Mizer portable sawmill. Intrigued, the two contacted the company and, after further investigation, bought a Wood-Mizer LT40, a portable, thin kerf band, sawmill that can be towed to a job site behind a pickup truck. Bill has been in the forest products business off and on for most of his life, he recounts. World War II was raging and he was just 14 when he first went to work on a green chain and, he says, he’s done many of the jobs that can be done in a sawmill since, but was impressed with the Wood-Mizer.

As a result, what was going to be an attempt to maximize return off a single piece of land has turned into a fully operational sawmill. Through the early years Bill and Norman built their business slowly, expecting, at most, to operate their mill, coupled with an edger, in a modest facility of some sort. Then, Bill recounts, the two saw a Wood-Mizer LT300 and a Wood-Mizer MultiHead resaw working the Oregon Logging Conference. They liked what they saw and a deal was struck for the equipment. The LT300 was designed to be a production mill combining some of the benefits of Wood-Mizer’s traditional thin kerf, portable sawmill with the volume possible in a larger stationary facility.

Because it is designed using some of the technological approaches the company pioneered in its portable operations, the 300, while stationary, can be installed, with associated handling and processing equipment, for a fraction of the cost of a traditional mill.Uphill utilizes the mill in much the same way a traditional sawmill would use a standard head rig. The unit breaks down logs delivered by loader to a deck, removing side boards until the operator, who works the equipment using electronic controls housed in an enclosure overlooking the saw, decides to send the resulting cant off to a bank of resaws. Side boards (slabs) are forwarded to a Meadows edger, manually examined for optimum yield by an operator, then cut down to a grade board depending on size and quality. Cants are routed to the twin head resaw system for further processing.

The MultiHead resaw is a horizontal band resaw available in one to six-head configurations. Like the LT300, the MultiHeads utilize very thin kerf band technology that Wood-Mizer claims will yield “up to 32 per cent more lumber than gang circle saws.” On a day this past fall, the plant was processing high value birch under the supervision of a quality control representative from a nearby specialty lumber manufacturer, Kalesnikoff Lumber Company, a firm known, Norman says, as a producer of very high quality wood products. The manufacturer’s own mill is capable of 65 million board feet per year but, Norman explains, Uphill’s ability to saw lengths shorter than the large mill can easily handle and recover significantly more yield from very high value material caused the larger mill to job the birch out to Uphill. “They can saw in one day what we saw in three weeks,” he laughs, “but, for this particular work, we can recover more high grade fibre with ten guys instead of a hundred.”

Uphill’s LT 300 is capable of sawing logs up to 18 feet long. On the short side, the mill can handle even small blocks but, Norman says, six feet is usually the practical low end his mill saws to. Random lengths can be run back to back with no adjustments required. Some of the birch the mill saws for Kalesnikoff, for example, has crooks and turns requiring processing in shorter lengths to achieve maximum yield and grade. “We can do that here,” Norman points out. The LT40 has not been forgotten in the new plant. No longer used as a production saw, the machine is permanently mounted with its own deck for log supply. The mill is used for short runs, specialty orders, lengths up to 32 feet, or to supplement production. “With over 16,000 hours we have put a lot of wood through that saw over the years and it’s still a good machine capable of production sawing,” Norman reports.

The building Uphill operates in is as unique as the process Bill and Norman utilize to mill their logs. A large, arched structure reminiscent of a huge storefront awning houses the entire plant. According to Norman, the original idea was that the whole thing could be struck and easily transported should the firm ever have to move. However, after having experienced running under the “arches,” Norman says he sees a number of advantages he hadn’t considered when the original decision to build was made. Particularly impressive, he comments, is the quality of the light in the plant. Because the skin of the building is translucent there are, he points out, no shadows in the place. “We get a nice, even light through the whole thing,” he comments. “It feels like we’re outdoors the year around even though we’re inside and out of the weather.”

An attribute of their mill both Bill and Norman are quietly proud of is the fact that few mills can match Uphill Wood Supply in environmental friendliness. The combination of thin kerf sawmilling and an emphasis on making complete use of the resource makes the firm a model for environmental sensitivity. About 60 per cent of the aboveground carbon stored in the boreal (northern) forests is stored in the stem of the tree. Improving the yield of lumber from a given log is recognized by forest scientists as being an important factor in the global effort to control greenhouse gases.

Uphill also salvages all its residuals. Anything not able to produce a millable grade is recovered as firewood and sold or utilized locally. Smaller material, bark, and sawdust are recovered and sold to a co-generation plant producing electricity. Each of those efforts also provides greenhouse gas reductions through reductions in fossil fuel consumption. Mill equipment like that installed and operated by Uphill Wood Supply may fill an important niche in the future Canadian forest products industry. From an economic standpoint, a plant employing eight to 10 people, as Uphill does, can make a substantial contribution to small communities that once prospered, at least in part, due to the presence of a larger local mill. The environment is a beneficiary too.

Mills like Uphill Wood Supply allow for improved resource recovery and they provide the small mill resource needed to utilize fibre removed from forests for forest health reasons. In short, a mill that has found its successful place in the market may—in the not too distant future—be seen as an operation that sets the standard for a new, and important, niche in the nation’s effort to utilize its forest to improve the economy and the environment.

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