Focus on Recovery
Vancouver Island's Aquila Cedar Products produces attractive cedar garden products from low-grade boards and dimension lumber.
Westem Red Cedar reman plant Aquila Cedar Products is on Vancouver Island, near the rapidly growing retirement community of Parksville.
But there is nothing retiring about this operation. On entering the yard of the plant, a visitor is struck by two things. One is the array of a multiplicity of handsome cedar products for the garden, all made in the plant. The second is an urgent bustle in the plant as operations people go about their business.
According to general manager Lyle Stolz, the company has grown steadily over the last 18 years. It started originally as a vinyl siding business and has gradually evolved into a cedar reman operation. Three years ago, the company was converted from the sole proprietorship of the founder, and is now employee-owned.
Aquila Cedar has two sales channels. One is through its Weather-Wise retail supply Centre on the property, which sells to contractors and the general public. The retail store also handles a limited range of stain and hardware products, strictly complementary to the cedar product line.
The other sales channel is to brokers and fabricating plants on the mainland, like Visscher Lumber in Chilliwack, who buys shorts. Tight-knotted shorts are made into planters and lawn edgings; clear shorts are for hot tub profiles. Sales are about evenly split between Vancouver Island and the mainland, but much of this is then wholesaled to the US.
The product line is wide and offers every thing imaginable made of cedar wood for the garden. What is truly remarkable is that the lumber resource for these attractive products is the lowest grade of lumber conceivable. Laced with splits, large knotholes, and rot, green utility and economy cedar 1" boards and 2" dimension are purchased mainly from large Vancouver Island forest companies such as MacMillan Bloedel, Doman, and Interfor. Loads arrive in random lengths of 4", 6" and 8" widths.
According to Stolz, fencing is the bread and butter production item, which is sold mainly in panel sections to the US market. The standard size of fence panels is 8'wide and 6' in height, but 8' panels 4' and 5' in height are also produced.
They also make garden furniture such as sheds, trellises, picnic tables, planters, and other specialty items such as decorative miniature lighthouses or doghouses. Products for outdoor use are protected with Sikkens preservative and stain. Garden products are produced mainly from selected tight-knotted cedar recovered in the plant. Longer lengths of select tight-knotted are made into siding for the local Vancouver Island housing market. Short and long lengths of clear are sold to wholesalers on the mainland who in turn sell to reman plants.
According to Stolz, Aquila is not a production-oriented operation, but is focused on recovery of clear and tight-knotted material down to lengths as short as 6". It will even rip short pieces to recover a narrow piece of clear or tight knotted face. It is amazing what a demand there is for a multitude of sizes and lengths in better grades of cedar. After the grade has been recovered, the balance is cut for pallet stock or is chipped. Chips go to the Harmac mill in Nanaimo, which has learned to cope with cedar for pulping and with the oversize chips that result from feeding many short pieces into the chipper.
Aquila general manager Lyle Stolz with Western Red Cedar short pieces, which will be ripped for the clear portion.
The manufacturing side of the business is housed in several separate buildings on the site. There is a fabricating building where components are assembled into the final product, using jigs to assist assembly. This is strictly a hand operation using power tools for fastening. Nearby, a roofed shed with open sides has a cutoff saw, which cuts for grade down to a 6" length. Pieces are dropped on to a slow-moving circular metal table from which they are pulled to be sorted into piles by size, length and grade. Stolz pointed to some 16" pieces which will be tongue and grooved and made into planter barrels for the US market.
The largest building on site has open sides and houses an A66 Yates planer, which dresses, patterns or rips low-grade 2" dimension lumber, mostly in 2X6 with some 2X8. From the planer, pieces can be diverted to a resaw and there is a chopsaw for further processing, before the green chain sort.
A further building houses spray equipment for painting their select tight-knotted siding. There is also a ripsaw that rips boards into narrows for such things as tile battens and lathe. Also in the building is a unique special cutting machine, developed on site by the maintenance supervisor, which automatically precision end-trims fence boards and "dog ears" the boards four at a time. Nearby is the chipper, which feeds directly into a truck trailer.
The plant has a staff of 45 and processes nine million board feet per year of low-grade cedar boards and dimension lumber. The operation is mainly hands-on. This gives Aquila Cedar a great deal of flexibility to produce to customer-specific grades and sizes. To control costs, workers are paid on a piece-work basis. The plant operates four 10-hour shifts and one eight-hour shift on Friday, for a total of 48 hours per week.
For the future, Stolz would like to obtain a small business timber sale. Logs harvested could be used to improve company capital or for leverage in trading logs for low-grade cedar supply. However, to date, the BC Ministry of Forests is not sympathetic and says the value-added component is not high enough, despite the fact that Aquila is roughly doubling the value of lumber that is otherwise virtually waste wood.
Right now, low-grade cedar lumber supply is adequate, although normally it is in tight supply. Prices are weak in the North American cedar market, as large cedar mills have maximized production to offset the slowdown in the Japanese market, and have oversupplied the market.
For the future, Stolz says that Aquila will continue to feel its way in the market, concentrating on the profitable items and diversifying with new products as opportunities present themselves. A few years ago, for example, they placed more emphasis on garden furniture. They have been able to price competitively by using a tight-knotted grade instead of all clear. Displays at lumber yards have drawn customers and sales of garden furniture this year are nearly double last year. As Stolz says, profit will be their guide for the future.
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