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May 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

ALBERTA SAWMILLING

Saved from the wreckers

Weyerhaeuser’s Grande Cache, Alberta sawmill—closed and slated to go under the wrecking ball—has been sold to family business C & C Wood Products, which has plans to convert it to a paneling and shelving mill.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Joe Cerasa (left) and mill manager Aaron Davis with some of the company’s paneling products (top photo).

In what may be the start of a new trend among medium-sized Canadian sawmills, a Quesnel, BC-based wood paneling manufacturer has saved Weyerhaeuser’s Grande Cache, Alberta dimension lumber mill from the wrecking ball, and plans to convert the mill into a full fledged paneling and shelving value-added plant.

“In order to survive in today’s world, volume is no longer an answer because volume has been cornered by the major producers,” says Foothills Forest Products co-owner, Joe Cerasa. “You must add some other solutions over and above the manufacturing of straight lumber because that market is so competitive, and it is so costly to be in it.”

That’s 30 years of experience speaking. Cerasa and two other shareholders operate a family business in Quesnel called C & C Wood Products Inc. Foothills Forest Products is a division of the company. Originally from Italy, Cerasa was already familiar with paneling products being manufactured in Europe and felt there was a market for them in North America as well.

While too small and unmerchantable for higher volume dimension sawmills, the lodgepole pine used in the mill has the smaller diameter, tight grain and smaller knot size that matches the company’s profile requirements.

“It’s been a long and arduous job of course, because we had to establish the quality parameters and convince the stores that they needed to devote a certain part of their shelf space to this product line,” he says. “And we also had to convince them through the years that this is a product that sells.” Today, C & C Wood Products paneling is marketed under a variety of names through wholesalers to box stores serving the do-it-yourself market.

Cerasa is now bringing his technical knowledge and experience for producing high-end wood paneling products to Alberta, much to the delight of the province’s Sustainable Development Department. It recently launched a strategy aimed at expanding the value-added wood products manufacturing sector.

The sticking point on the Grande Cache sawmill purchase was the wood basket attached to the sawmill. It was a portion of Weyerhaeuser’s Forest Management Agreement (FMA). While negotiating the license for the wood for Foothills Forest Products, the province decided to use this opportunity to reduce the harvest within that area of the FMA to achieve what it called “priority wildlife management strategies.” In other words, it was an opportune moment to make a serious effort to preserve endangered woodland caribou habitat. The end result: the annual harvest was reduced from 340,000 cubic metres to 176,000 cubic metres.

The sawmill is well set up for processing small logs. The small log line is equipped with a HewSaw R200 standard, single pass, chip ‘n saw unit, and the large log line has a HewSaw R250 unit.

“There is no question that the harvest was reduced considerably, and it had a serious impact,” says Cerasa. “We hope to rebuild the viability of the plant by bringing in more value-added production.” Despite this setback, both Cerasa and plant manager Aaron Davis speak confidently about the sawmill’s future.

“The goal really is to become one of the first primary value-added manufacturers in Alberta, where we produce the stock product and then we invest more money into the product to produce a value-added, higher grade material,” says Davis.

The purchase and conversion of the Grande Cache sawmill will more that double C & C Wood Products’ production output. It’s estimated output from Grande Cache is 40 to 50 million board feet annually. Right now, the company markets about 95 per cent of its product in North America. By acquiring additional production capacity, the company hopes to expand into Asia and Europe.

 

Cerasa says it’s the quality of the primarily lodgepole pine wood basket near Grande Cache that really has him excited, as it is even better than he had hoped for. While too small and unmerchantable for higher volume dimension sawmills, the wood’s consistently smaller diameter, tight grain, and smaller knot size matches the company’s profile requirements perfectly. Furthermore, given the sawmill’s need for smaller diameter wood, the owners are working to establish agreements with other area dimension sawmills to exchange its larger diameter logs for smaller diameter logs.

While the mill’s primary diet will be lodgepole pine, it will also process black and white spruce, and sub-alpine fir. The aspen resource within the company’s wood basket also has the owners excited, and they intend to conduct intense studies into the value-added potential of producing aspen wood products from the Grande Cache sawmill as well. The Japanese in particular have expressed a great desire for high-end aspen either as raw or further finished lumber for use in furniture manufacturing, windows, doors, and a variety of other applications.

What also attracted C & C Wood Products to Grande Cache, besides the quality wood resource, was the potential interest from an experienced workforce. The sawmill currently employs 40 workers. With growth in sales, it hopes to hire more. However, Davis says it is unlikely that the mill will reach the 120 employees level—the number of people who lost their jobs when the dimension lumber sawmill closed.

There will be a need for extra training for those working in the value-added plant because the machinery they will use is completely different than what employees are used to. “The people we have hired are quite flexible,” says Davis. “We rotate positions so that they receive training in different pieces of equipment.”

Having had no luck selling the mill initially after it was closed in February 2004, Weyerhaeuser began demolishing it, starting with the removal of the debarkers from the infeed area and the entire log merchandizing part of the mill. However, demolition ceased once C & C Wood Products expressed a serious interest, and the sale was finalized in August.

“The people at Weyerhaeuser were really accommodating,” says Cerasa. “They genuinely showed an interest in keeping a facility going and keeping the people employed. They felt a commitment to the community.” Weyerhaeuser continues to operate both a dimension lumber sawmill and pulp mill near Grande Prairie, about 120 kilometres north of Grande Cache.

Once the sawmill became Foothills Forest Products, the overhead yard crane was mothballed in favor of a Caterpillar 988G wheel loader to unload logging trucks delivering logs processed to 16-foot lengths in the bush. Two Cat wheel loaders deliver logs from the deck to the infeed. A Chapman stationary log grapple sorts the logs either to the large or small log line infeed. The new owners worked with equipment manufacturer Linden Fabrication to manufacture and install two Cambio-type ring debarkers in advance of the two breakdown lines to replace those that had been removed.

The sawmill is well suited to processing small logs. The small log line is equipped with a HewSaw R200 standard, single pass, chip ‘n saw unit, and the large log line has a HewSaw R250 unit. The upper limit for logs entering the sawmill is expected to be about 10 inches in diameter. The back end of the sawmill production line features a Newnes optimizing edger and trimmer for lumber exiting the HewSaw breakdown units, as well as a Newnes 40-bin sorter and stacker. The site also came equipped with a Salton dry kiln.

The sawmill is currently testing stock for the production of the wood paneling products. While the sawmill is currently turning out dimension lumber to produce cash flow during the transition phase, the line will eventually produce one-inch stock that will lead to a separate value-added manufacturing section after it has been dried. Visual lumber grading will occur along the primary production line to ensure that only high-grade material is processed into paneling.

Davis says lumber slated for high-end paneling is dried more slowly to bring it down to eight per cent moisture content, as opposed to the standard 13 to 19 per cent for dimension lumber. The main reason for the drying is because slight expansion of the product is desirable once it is installed to create a tight fit, as for example in a tongue and groove product. Foothills Forest Products will depend on the experience gained from their colleagues in Quesnel to establish the exact kiln drying parameters.

Once the lumber is dried, it will encounter a number of both custom and off-the-shelf moulding machines to produce the company’s primary 5/16-inch thick, three- and four-inch wide panel products.

Cerasa says the value-added section of the sawmill will be purpose built with computerized systems. “A lot of the technical knowledge we bring in from Europe, which is way ahead of us,” says Cerasa. “They are the masters of re-manufacturing. Usually, we attend the LIGNA Show in Germany, and I travel extensively to get ideas and to find equipment sources.”

The quality of the moulding equipment is essential, he says, because a high quality piece of equipment will produce the finish that is required by the marketplace.

The additional fibre source and production capacity provided by the Grande Cache sawmill gives C & C Wood Products the opportunity to expand its market, and to also expand its product line to include shelving, something it has wanted to do but has never had the fibre volume to accomplish. The overall objective is to achieve 100 per cent fibre utilization, so the sawmill is also looking for ways to market its residual wood products.

“There are so many different opportunities out there right now in terms of value-added components that we are just being as open and flexible as possible in looking at these opportunities,” concludes Davis.                                                             

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