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May 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

 

SMALL SAWMILLING 2

A WILDCAT EXPANSION

Saskatchewan’s Wildcat Wood Products has achieved success turning out value-added wood products using a Kara Master circular sawmill, and has expanded to
include products from aspen, white birch and tamarack.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Unlike farming where profit margins seem to be getting smaller every year, Saskatchewan farmer and sawmill owner Robert Nagy is pleased with the progress, profitability, and work environment offered by his forest products manufacturing venture.

“We’re operating in the black and we have no debt,” he says. “It’s not ‘get-richquick’ like oil money, but it’s rewarding work and it takes my mind off of farming.”

In fact, it is so busy that Nagy has seeded all his farmland to alfalfa to minimize the maintenance it requires so he can concentrate on continuing to build his sawmill business.

The equipment line-up at the Wildcat Wood Products operation includes a Kara Master thin kerf circular saw (above, inset).

What started out as a cure for boredom during the winter months on his grain farm has turned out to be an unqualified financial success, operating year round, five days a week, and manufacturing a wide variety of value-added wood products under the name of Wildcat Wood Products. The operation is near the community of Mistatim in northeast Saskatchewan, and provides employment for five workers. One is Nagy’s son, Garnet, who has learned the skills required for grading hardwood lumber and operating a dry kiln.

The sawmill has come a long way in 10 years when it began as Nagy Land and Lumber. A big change came when Robert put his new Finnish-designed and built Kara YS thin kerf, circular sawmill into production about five years ago. At that time, the sawmill was still situated outdoors and the company was producing rough lumber from the white spruce on a quarter section that Nagy had recently purchased. However, Nagy already had a vision of how he wanted to see the company evolve.

Now, he has partnered with Carl Barber, Leroy Bader, and Bruce LeBarre to help share the financial risk and reduce the workload. While Nagy and his wife, Barb, are focused on administration, production, equipment maintenance, and delivery, Carl’s focus is on helping to find new and niche market opportunities, Leroy looks after the company’s website, and Bruce helps out on the production line when possible.

Rather than attempt to compete with high volume sawmills producing commodity lumber from traditional species, Wildcat Wood Products has expanded its product mix from jackpine and white spruce to include products from aspen, white birch and tamarack. All grow with varying degrees of abundance in Saskatchewan, and some are significantly under-utilized, particularly as solid wood products.

The company’s current line-up of equipment consists of a Kara Master thin kerf circular saw operating in an enclosed building, a board edger, a Baker band resaw, a planer, and a new Nyle dehumidification dry kiln.

It manufactures tongue-and-groove Vjoint paneling and tongue-and-groove flooring, as well as log profile siding from aspen, birch, pine and tamarack in #1 grade and a lower grade product that they refer to as a “Ranch” grade. Other products include vertical lap siding and decking from tamarack, dimension lumber, and timbers and ties.

What has set Wildcat Wood Products apart from so many other start-up valueadded wood product manufacturers, according to Canada’s wood products research institute Forintek Canada Corp, is how much time the owners have dedicated to formulating a detailed operating and marketing plan. It sets out the steps that the company must take to evolve from one stage to the next.

The company has also tapped into the technical support offered by Forintek, which is responsible for providing the brainpower in the trenches for the federal government’s “Value-to-Wood” program. As part of this program, Forintek has stationed a number of industry advisors in strategic locations across Canada. Several work out of the new Saskatchewan Forestry Centre in Prince Albert.

A number of Forintek industry advisors helped Wildcat Wood Products with drying, sawing, and finishing advice and information. In fact, Garnet Nagy took a correspondence course offered by Forintek to increase his lumber drying knowledge.

Although Wildcat Wood Products has been granted a wood allocation by the Saskatchewan government, securing an adequate supply of the variety of species that the company requires can be a challenge. For example, the company is finding significant market demand for tamarack and white birch wood products, and they know the resource exists in the forest. The problem is convincing loggers and forestry companies harvesting pine and spruce that it is worthwhile to also harvest and deliver the birch and tamarack in the normal course of logging a cutblock. This is a common problem with many start-up value-added forest product manufacturers using non-traditional wood species, and who are partially dependent on larger forestry companies for a consistent supply of wood. Consequently, Wildcat Wood Products may do some of its own logging in future.

“We’re getting a really good response from tamarack,” says Nagy. “People love it because it is a character wood. Often they are looking for something a little bit different and that’s where tamarack fits in well.” The company has had difficulty keeping product in stock.

While tamarack is notorious for twisting when it dries because it is a very hard softwood species, Nagy says the key is to saw it in larger dimensions and not to let it air dry between sawing and kiln drying. He says the company has experienced few problems working with tamarack using this approach.

Wildcat Wood Products has also found considerable interest in white birch, particularly as an export product to Japan. “The Japanese believe that the white birch grown in Saskatchewan is some of the best white birch in the world,” says Nagy. “Because it is slow growing, it is a very dense fibre.” As a hardwood lumber grader, Garnet Nagy is able to pick out the top grade of birch and aspen lumber to supply a furniture manufacturer, and sort the remaining lumber into various lesser grades to serve the needs of other specific markets.

Acquiring a regular supply of white birch is a challenge because loggers don’t like to harvest it. It is a limby hardwood that can be tough on equipment.

The tragedy of under-utilized species like white birch and tamarack being left in the cutblock from Nagy’s perspective is that it often dies within a year after an area has been harvested.

But if it is harvested and delivered to his yard, he can transform it into a valueadded product.

Most of the sawmill’s wood is delivered in winter when hauling heavier loads is allowed. The logs also arrive cleaner.

The sawing schedule is determined by pending orders, the need to stockpile popular products based on past experience, and how long each species can be safely stored in the yard before it begins to deteriorate.

For example, aspen stores well over the summer while white birch deteriorates quite fast. So the white birch is processed shortly after it arrives, especially in summer.

Nagy says they like to saw a single species for a period of time before switching because it takes about half a day to clean up after each species run. Only minor sawmill adjustments are required from one species to the next, such as changing the settings to adjust the thickness of the lumber being manufactured.

The sawing schedule is determined by pending orders, the need to stockpile popular products based on past experience and how long each species can be safely stored in the yard before it begins to deteriorate.

An important feature of the Kara line of thin kerf sawmills is the ability to achieve considerably higher production than bandsaws while still maintaining high quality sawing performance. Karasaw, which has been in business since 1918 and has products in over 70 countries, claims that the Kara Master can be operated with a single person when equipped with the right accessories. It is available in both a stationary and mobile configuration. Among the Kara Master’s features is an aligning feeding roller that straightens and aligns the log. The double feeding roller accurately follows the log’s surface and presses the timber along the side adjuster fence. Karasaw says this quickens log positioning and increases measurement precision.

The basic tool that makes one-man operation possible is its patented log adjuster and log rotary device that operates from below the table. The Kara Master is also capable of sawing extra long logs.

Nagy switched to the Kara Master from his YS model once he moved indoors because he wanted the sawmill to be able to operate on electrical power rather than power supplied from a diesel motor.

Back in 2000, he was so impressed with the Kara sawmill’s performance that he became a distributor of the product line for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. So far, the most interest has been shown in Alberta, where as many as 15 Kara thin kerf circular saws are operating.

For now, Wildcat Wood Products’ marketing focus for its lumber products is on Western Canada and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese export market. Demand is strong domestically and transportation costs make expansion to the United States somewhat prohibitive.

Nagy says there is definitely no reason why other interested entrepreneurs couldn’t achieve similar success as has been experienced by his company, as long as they live by three basic rules. “You need a wood supply, a good way to break it down, and a market for your products,” he says. Motivation is also an important ingredient, as he says that he really enjoys being in the value-added lumber manufacturing business.


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