Making The Leap
Ontario sawmiller Ben Hokum and Son has made the leap into new technology with their recently completed small log mill.
By Paul MacDonald
Ben Hokum and Son Ltd entered the 21st century in terms of sawmill technology in the last year without a lot of fanfare and promotion. They made the leap the old-fashioned way-with a lot of hard work. And for this eastern Ontario lumber producer, with its mill located near the small village of Killaloe, an hour southwest of Pembroke and the Ontario/ Quebec boundary, the technology shift has been successful. "The last few years have been extremely busy for Hokum and that's an understatement," says company president Dean Felhaber. "We've seen a lot of growth over that period of time." The recent equipment addition has been the largest-in terms of technology and investment-in the 44year history of the family operated firm, he adds. The company began as a partnership arrangement between Ben Hokum Senior and his son, Ben Hokum Junior, in 1956.
The two constructed a small circular sawmill, which produced around 2.5 million board feet of lumber a year. By 1965, Ben Hokum Junior had taken over the operation from his father. In 1972, he established an associated company, North American Sawmills Machinery, to serve the forest industry. It specializes in fabricating sawmill machinery, and parts and steel distribution. In 1973, Ben Hokum used North American Sawmills Machinery to build a new band mill in Shawville, Quebec, which had annual production of 11 million board feet. That operation ran for 14 years, until a fire consumed the mill in 1987 and Hokum chose not to rebuild it. Ayear after constructing the Quebec mill, Hokum erected a new doublecut band mill at Killaloe to replace his circular operation, which today continues to operate double shifted as the firm's large log line.
By 1993, the small log component of the mill's raw materials intake was steadily increasing. "Our story isn't much different from a lot of people in the industry," says Felhaber. "We realized that the timber coming in was getting smaller all the time. We had to take action to handle smaller logs more efficiently, because we couldn't possibly continue running them through our large log mill because of escalating production costs." That same year, Hokum constructed a second sawmill at the Killaloe site to handle the smaller logs. He incorporated a twinband saw, bulledger, resaw and edger-conventional technology that got the job done. By 1997, however, it became apparent that operating a conventional mill was not going to be a longterm solution for small log processing, due to its production inefficiencies. Hokum quickly began researching alternatives and saw that he had to make full use of the available sawmilling technology and automation. Anew high production automated small log mill was constructed to replace the conventional small log line.
This $10 million investment has meant a large increase in lumber output, going from 28 million board feet to 40 million board feet annually. "The latest expansion is a very significant one for our company. It puts us where we want to be," says Felhaber. They have also been able to maintain the number of employees at 125 by shifting the workforce out of the production end and into the shipping and grading end of the business to handle the increased output. This significant achievement is appreciated in the local community, which has few large employers.
The original plan called for a four headed canter curve sawing line, but when it became clear this configuration was not working to expectations, it was switched to a three headed canter twin line doing straight sawing. "We've got a system that is working relatively well now," says Felhaber. Carbotech supplied the optimized trimmer, 60bin sorter and stacker for the mill. Felhaber says that all new mills or upgrade projects have their challenges and this one was no different in that respect, noting they made adjustments as the project proceeded. "We tried to take the changes in stride and plan out as much as we could in advance. But some things you don't know about until you get into it." It did involve a lot of hard work, especially on the part of employees, says Felhaber. Almost all of the installation and setup was done in-house.
That definitely brings some benefits. "We've always taken the approach of involving our own people. The employees are going to be operating this new equipment and by being involved in the setup stages, they have a better understanding of the overall operation." The workforce employed by the operation has made the new mill a reality, says Felhaber. "We have a number of exceptional long-term employees. Without them, we wouldn't be where we are today." The mill turns out anywhere from 85,000 to 100,000 board feet on a nine hour shift. It handles logs from five to 10 inches in diameter, the latter being the cutoff point for logs directed to the large log line. The mill's diet is a mix of white, red and jack pine, together with aspen and a small volume of mixed hardwoods. The line can reach speeds of over 450 lineal feet per minute. An almost 50 per cent increase in production has mean Hokum has developed some new customers. But longtime customer Falcon Lumber Ltd, a privately owned wholesaling operation based in Toronto, purchases a good deal of the additional lumber.
Hokum and Son has been dealing with Falcon Lumber since the 1950s and the days of Ben Hokum Senior. Understandably, considering their location in the famous Ottawa Valley region of Ontario, with its historical reputation for great white pine, that species is the major product of the operation. Depending on the year, they will produce between 15 and 20 million board feet of white pine in a wide variety of sizes. They have one of the largest-if not the largest-supply of air dried white pine lumber on hand in Renfrew County. The operation also does a good deal of plantation red pine-which represents about a quarter of production-which goes primarily into the treating market. The balance is mainly aspen, with a small mix of dense hardwoods. Although at one point the company did some cutting, it now contracts out the harvesting.
It is seeing some of its contractors, Felhaber notes, moving from the still predominant cut and skid operations to mechanical harvesters and cut to length. Tree length timber certainly works for the Hokum mill. In fact, the operation has three Serco slashers to handle this wood. "We buy a good deal of our timber in tree length form," explains Felhaber. "It comes into the yard and we can manufacture it into the lengths that we need for our markets and get better yield out of the product." And Hokum makes full effort to get lumber out of timber. If a piece of wood can go through the mill and they can get a board out of it, it goes through the mill. Otherwise, it heads to the onsite chipper. The chipper, once a mobile unit which operated in the bush for over 20 years cleaning up the low end wood out of the forest and supplying many of the major board and paper mills in the region, has since been made stationary. It handles mainly aspen, some white birch and a small amount of crooked pine.
Overall, however, they are able to achieve a balance in wood quality, with the private wood being larger and of higher quality, on average. Hokum and Son was one of the local mills/investors that was pushing hard for making better use of residual wood a few years back. It was one of the original investors in what is now the Temple MDF mill in Pembroke, which buys a lot of pine and some aspen residuals. "Together with some of the other mills and a few private investors, we formed a company to get things going." Along the way, they sold off their portion to MacMillan Bloedel (the original majority owner), which eventually sold the MDF operation to Temple Inland of Texas. Hokum is the single largest supplier of chips and sawdust to the Pembroke mill. They were quite pleased to see the MDF plant happen. "We needed another consumer for our wood residues.
The whole area did. This player has taken up the gap." The new small log mill represents the largest investment, and a major phase, in a longer-term plan for Hokum. The other phases would be an upgrade to their large log line and remanufacturing facilities at some point down the road. Currently, they don't have any planing or kiln drying facilities. But first things first, says Felhaber. "There are some sawmills that are spending money trying to improve their reman facilities, but they have not done anything on the sawmilling side yet. I think the first place to start with upgrades is the foundation, your sawmilling, and build from there."
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