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Sept 2003 - Samilling

Coming back strong

Following a fire, Saskatchewan sawmill L & M Wood Products is coming back stronger than ever, rebuilding with a $5-million investment that will result in a doubling of production.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Ken Davies, co-owner of L & M Wood Products.

Long-time Saskatchewan sawmill operator L & M Wood Products (1985) Ltd is not letting a devastating fire derail the company’s plans to keep operating and increase production, much to the relief of the residents of the town of Glaslyn. Owners Ken Davies and Pat Delainey have invested about $5 million to put the sawmill back on solid ground after three years of making do with a portable sawmill to maintain the company’s customer base. “I think if something were to happen to L & M, the town would suffer immensely,” says Davies.

Glaslyn is in north-central Saskatchewan, on the fringe of the boreal forest, about 175 kilometres west of Prince Albert. The sawmill is the largest employer in the community, providing 75 direct jobs, with even more on the way as a result of the company’s recent multi-million dollar investment. Then there are the economic spin-offs, such as jobs in trucking, logging, reforestation and the local purchase of goods and services. Having a local lumber and post product manufacturer is also particularly handy to area farms. L & M Wood Products was established in 1960 by Alfred and Maurice Lobe and their partner Howard McConnell, producing peeled fence posts for Domtar in Prince Albert. In 1962, the operation was relocated from north of Prince Albert to Glaslyn.

Installing the Forano headrig on the large log line at L & M Wood Products. The line handles logs over 16 inches in diameter and up to 24 feet long.

This was followed closely by the partners buying out a wood treatment plant that had been built in Glaslyn by Prince Albert investors. The company continued as a supplier of fence and telephone poles until the late-1960s, when a fire near Green Lake provided them with access to about 10 million board feet of spruce. This inaugurated the sawmill side of the business. At that time, it also acquired a licence to harvest 40,000 cubic metres of softwood annually from a forest management area between Glaslyn and Meadow Lake, only the second approved by the province.

The business fell on hard times, however, and was rescued by new owners in 1985. One of the new owners, Ken Davies, had worked for the company since 1963, and his partner, Pat Delainey, was also very familiar with the business. He had a long association with the sawmill as its logging contractor. Sales grew steadily under the new ownership. The company’s annual harvest increased to 57,000 cubic metres in 1989, and after spending half-a-million dollars on an environmental impact study, the harvest increased again to 119,000 cubic metres of softwood and 29,000 cubic metres of hardwood in 1999. Then came the night of the fire.

One of two Cambio debarkers (above) at L & M Wood Products. The average diameter of the jackpine and spruce they handle is about 12 inches.

While Ken says he felt sick when he heard that the sawmill had burned down, probably the person with the worst task of all was his son Brad who— as Glaslyn fire chief—was called out to fight the fire at 10 pm on March 18, 2000. Brad says the feeling was indescribable when faced with the knowledge that he had to fight a fire at the family business. The timing could not have been worse. The company had made a recent $750,000 investment to upgrade the sawmill to the point where it was “really working great,” according to Ken.

They had also just invested $800,000 into a new planer complex and about $1 million into a state of the art wood treatment plant. At that time of year, the log yard was filled with the largest volume of tree length wood that it had ever held; the logging season had just ended and the mill was getting ready to ramp up into full production. However, a stray welding spark during routine weekend maintenance sent both the sawmill and community into turmoil, with the complete destruction of the sawmill from the debarker to the chipper. The mill was partially insured, but nowhere near enough to cover the losses.

L & M maintenance manager Brad Davies (above). Brad, who was Glaslyn fire chief when fire hit the mill, says the feeling was indescribable when he realized he would be fighting a fire at the family business.

The decision to rebuild occurred within a short time. L & M’s industry connections really paid off on its road to recovery. For example, very soon after the fire another Saskatchewan sawmill, NorSask Forest Products in Meadow Lake, lent the company a scragg mill to allow it to continue to saw lumber. L & M also purchased a portable sawmill from Alberta, putting the skills of its in-house welders to good use to construct a production line.

It was back in business within a month. However, the owners were well aware that a more permanent solution was needed. “Our cost of production was too high running the portable,” says Davies. “So it was either get in or get out. We needed to put together something that would saw larger volumes at a lower unit cost.” Over the next three years, the company put together the pieces of the puzzle, acquiring equipment at auction sales and through industry contacts from an area spanning coastal BC right through to Quebec.

The approach was to construct a mill at least as good as what the company had prior to the fire, but also including improvements that it intended to make to the old sawmill to take full advantage of its newly acquired wood supply. Once its new sawmill is operational, L & M plans to double production. That’s due to its recent acquisition of more timber, coupled with greater plant automation. Its target is around 16 million board feet per year. Davies says not only did the owners feel a sense of responsibility to the community when deciding whether or not to rebuild, but also to their families.

Together, Ken and Pat have five sons working at the sawmill. Brad Davies is mill maintenance manager, while his brother Trevor works in sales. Pat’s son Zane is office manager, while his sons Pat Junior and Brent continue to operate his logging company, P & E Logging. It is still the mill’s logging contractor after all these years. Also, the business itself is extremely viable, with sales having increased substantially since Davies, Delainey and previous owner, Howard McConnell, rescued it from the brink of bankruptcy in 1985.

McConnell, one of the original owners, sold his share to the remaining partners in 1990. L & M continues to derive a considerable amount of its income from treated fence posts, serving the needs of both the cattle and game farm industry. The sawmill branch of the business focuses primarily on timbers from 4x4 to as large as 12x12 and anywhere from eight to 24 feet long. In addition to its fence posts, a significant amount of its timbers are also treated.

The timbers find a variety of uses, primarily in heavy load bearing applications in the mining industry, oil patch, road construction and cottage construction. About 95 per cent of its 119,000 cubic metre annual allowable cut is jackpine, with the remainder being spruce. Average diameter is about 12 inches. It also harvests 29,000 cubic metres of hardwood. Currently, their hardwood, which is primarily aspen, is sold to the Millar Western pulp mill in Meadow Lake.

However, the company intends to keep that resource in-house in future. “In the future, we plan to saw some hardwood,” says Davies. “There’s certainly a market for hardwood.” The company’s main market is Western Canada, with a small amount exported to the north central United States. It disposes of its sawdust, bark, shavings and peelings through an agreement with Howard McConnell’s son, who trucks the material for use in landscaping, hog barns and the oil patch. During its search for sawmilling equipment, the company came across a Quebec firm that specializes in sawmill installations.

Called C E V Enterprises, and located in Senneterre, the company installed a sawmill in Ignace, Ontario, which had subsequently been mothballed and put up for sale. L & M ended up buying many components of this sawmill. Because C E V Enterprises was already familiar with the equipment, it seemed reasonable to contact them about re-installing the mill in Glaslyn. Once operational, the sawmill will have a large and small log line. Logs arrive in the yard tree length. Sawlogs are bucked into lengths between eight and 24 feet, while logs destined for posts, poles and rails are bucked to between six and 25 feet.

The small log line will accept logs from four to 16 inches in diameter, in lengths up to 16 feet. They will be debarked in one of two 18-inch Cambio debarkers. Next, they will proceed through the production line, which features a Swecan canter followed by a Comact circular twin, then a vertical arbor edger. Any cants over six inches and too large for the vertical arbor edger will be re-directed to a Ukiah 12-inch-by-54-inch double arbor edger. Sideboards from the twin will be diverted to a Kockums chipping edger.

On the large log line, where logs over 16 inches in diameter and up to 24 feet long are accepted, the logs will first proceed through a 30-inch Cambio debarker then to a Forano headrig. Finished boards will proceed to the green chain, while the cant will be directed to the Ukiah double arbor edger and the sideboards to the Kockums chipping edger. All lines merge on a common feed chain, where lumber is trimmed using a Powell multi-saw trimmer. Except for the largest squares, lumber is manually stacked, with as many as 132 sorts possible.

It is then either air-dried, planed and possibly treated later, or strapped and shipped green. Davies says it is essential for the company to maintain a yard inventory to fill customer orders. And filling customer orders is what they have been doing over the last several years, despite the difficulties posed by the fire. While many others might have called it a day after such a serious fire, renowned Prairie know-how has kept the lights on in Glaslyn.

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