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September 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal




Faced with competition from China, Columbia Forest Products opted to up the
veneer quality at its Ontario plant and target the top end of the market, a move
that included a $5 million dryer upgrade.

By Ray Ford

When the world’s most populous country muscles into your plywood market, you can do one of two things: wave a white flag or hang tough. At its Rutherglen, Ontario, veneer plant, Columbia Forest Products opted to hang tough by producing veneer that isn’t.

The effort to fend off Chinese imports includes a $5 million dryer upgrade and 18,000 square-foot expansion to hike veneer quality and produce a supple, softer product for high-end cabinets, paneling, and furniture. So far the move has gone off without a hitch, and more remarkably, it’s two months ahead of schedule. “We moved the upgrade up because of how critical it is,” says plant manger Mark Kelly. “It was like walking a tightrope without a safety net. We basically shut the old dryer down, and started up the new one.”

The changeover may have been the veneer mill equivalent of a high wire act, but Kelly says speed is essential in today’s market. “We’re looking at making higher quality veneer. That’s what this dryer project is all about: targeting the top end of the market.

“The market is extremely competitive. There’s a lot of Chinese plywood coming in. Right now they’re taking the bottom end of the market, but they’re pushing us really hard.”

Mark Kelly, (above) manager of the Columbia Forest Products plant in Rutherglen, Ontario, with poplar logs destined for another Columbia operation. “We’ve got a big wood basket,” notes Kelly. “We work in conjunction with the three other Columbia mills and we’re not afraid to trade logs back and forth.”

To push back, Columbia is working to give its plywood a marketing edge, both inside and outside of the sheet. The interior advantage is the use of soy-based glue that’s similar in cost to the conventional formaldehyde-based formula, but without the concerns associated with formaldehyde fumes.

Putting a smoother face on Columbia’s plywood is the job of the Rutherglen plant, and its three sister plants in Maine, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Thanks to a mammoth new press dryer from Grenzebach BSH GmbH of Germany, Rutherglen can make a more flexible, supple veneer that is less likely to crack during handling. The dryer also produces veneer with a smoother, cleaner face. The payoff is better looking plywood.

The flexibility carries over to the plant floor, where the Rutherglen operation produces not only the standard 4x8 sheet from solid veneer, but also splices smaller pieces into sheets and operates a cut-tolength shop that produces custom sizes for smaller manufacturers.

“These days we have to be faster on our feet. We’ve got to be able to change and seize opportunities,” Kelly says. “We can offer a better service package. We’re closer to our customers, so we’re better able to meet our customers’ demands.”

With veneer plants distributed across the Great Lakes and into the US northeast, Kelly says Columbia can swap logs among the plants and encourage each mill to specialize in a few species.

“We’ve got a big wood basket. We work in conjunction with the three other mills, and we’re not afraid to trade logs back and forth.” Kelly adds the company draws much of its wood from Quebec and Ontario, but isn’t reluctant to go to adjacent US states.

Rutherglen handles red oak, white and yellow birch and maple. Oak was a traditional mainstay, but demand has fallen off as consumers have gone for lighter wood tones. “Right now oak is the least popular species and maple is hot. Now people want white wood—white maple and white birch. Birch is our largest species, and we do as little oak as possible. We only buy the oak to get the birch and maple.”

The plant buys logs at the landing and estimates only about five per cent of sawlogs will make the grade for veneer.“Birch is one of the more difficult ones. White birch in particular tends to be smaller and spindlier, so we’re peeling more smaller diameters than ever before.”

While veneer makers face the same pressures as their SPF counterparts— including tough competition and the need to get the most from every log— each veneer log receives far more tender loving care than the timber destined for dimensional lumber.

Logs are stacked by species in the log yard, and during the warm months they’re kept moist by a battery of rotating sprinklers. Before entering the mill, the damp logs are cooked in a steam vat at 150 degrees F for anywhere between 30 and 100 hours, depending on the species.

Using 16 lasers, a scanner measures the shape of the log and determines the best way to pare it down to a solid cylinder.

The sprinkling and cooking “softens the fibre so we get a better peel,” says Kelly. “We try to peel white birch as fast as we can because it spoils faster than any other species.” The key concern is to prevent “end stain”—the discoloured section near the ends of the logs where the wood is starting to dry.

As logs enter the mill, they’re scanned by a metal detector, trimmed to eightfoot, six-inch lengths, and debarked in a process that’s vastly different than the one most SPF mill workers would be familiar with. Rather than a conventional debarker, the mill uses a rebuilt Coe lathe with a metal bit that runs up and down the length of the spinning log, gently skinning the outer bark down to the cambium.

Coddling the log pays big dividends in the veneer business. “The nicest veneer is closest to the outside of the log. If we lose the top two inches of wood, that could be 84 sheets of veneer,” Kelly says. Once the bark has been stripped, the log is scanned on an XY charger from McDiarmid Controls Inc. The scanner’s 16 lasers measure the shape of the log and determine the best way to pare it down to a solid cylinder.

The smaller strips of veneer that are peeled before the solid cylinder is reached are called “round up” and are dried separately, and reserved for the cutto- length department.

If the saws are the key components of an SPF mill, the lathe lies at the heart of a veneer plant. Rutherglen uses a customized Coe lathe that peels veneer in either 1/36ths or 1/42nds of an inch.“We’re proud of our lathe,” Kelly says. “We’ve done a lot of innovative things with it, and from what we’ve heard from contractors, it’s one of the nicest lathes in North America.”

After the veneer is peeled by the lathe, long rolls of the fibrous skin is collected on reels and run through a defect clipper where it’s cut into four-foot panels. The wet panels are fed into the centrepiece of the upgrade, a moss-green press dryer that’s almost as long as a football field.

Fired primarily by steam heat from the plant’s wood-fired boiler, the new dryer is three times as long as the older natural-gas-fired Coe unit it replaces. Like the Coe, the new Grenzebach (formerly Babcock) dryer handles veneer at 150 feet per minute. But because the German machine is three times longer than the Coe, it can dry the veneer at a more leisurely pace, and with lower temperatures. “In the old 100-foot dryer we had temperatures as high as 350-400 F. Now we run 250-300 F so it’s a much gentler
drying,” Kelly says.

Veneer goes into the dryer at 40 to 60 per cent moisture, and comes out at 10 per cent. It resembles firm wallpaper, so it’s supple enough to flex without cracking and not too brittle to work with. Flexibility is an important trait in a product that is extensively handled in sorting, grading, splicing, and in the cut-to-length shop.

“The dryer wasn’t put in for productivity reasons, but for quality reasons,” Kelly explains. “It’s a press dryer, so it actually irons out the wood. The result is veneer that is smoother and more consistent, without the wet and dry spots that were problems with the old dryer.”

Sheets of veneer emerge from the new Grenzebach dryer (right). Fired primarily by steam heat from the plant’s wood-fired boiler, the new dryer is three times as long as the older, natural gas-fired unit it has replaced, and dries the veneer at a lower temperature.

The rollers also produce a smoother, more consistent veneer that’s easier to join on the plant’s Ruckles splicers. “The rollers actually sand the veneer a bit as they press it, and because of that, we’ve noticed a big difference in our splicing department. The wood is much flatter so it butts together and splices better.” The advantage is greatest with maple, a dense and fine-grained wood that doesn’t soak up glue as readily as oak or birch. Because the maple veneer has a cleaner edge, it’s now easier to glue and join.

Upgrades and expansions almost invariably come with headaches, but the dryer addition was relatively glitch-free. The dryer was shipped from Germany early in 2005, and it began operating this past April—nearly two months ahead of schedule.

Kelly lauds plant engineer Dave Drenth, backed by Columbia’s employees and contractors for the smooth start-up. The plant’s maintenance crew carried out much of the work, while GAL Industrial set up the reel track to convey veneer from the lathe to the dryer and DMS Ltd provided construction support.

So far the effort is paying off with a rapid increase in dryer throughput, measured in “dryer coverage”—the space on the dryer line covered by veneer.

The goal was to have 50 per cent coverage during the dryer’s first month, but plant workers were able to achieve coverage levels approaching 90 per cent.

The eventual goal is a consistent 95 per cent coverage. “So far, we’re doing all right,” Kelly says. “Reaching that last five per cent is going to be tougher, but the start-up came off really well. The whole thing has gone better than expected, and I give Dave and his crew the credit for that.”

With the new dryer handling the bulk of veneer, round-up pieces will be rerouted to the old Coe. A smaller Coe dryer that previously served to handle roundup will be removed and sold or scrapped. The second round of renovations was slated for this summer’s annual shutdown, when most of the plant’s 300 workers will be idled. “When we get rid of the old dryer it will free up a lot more space,” Kelly says. “We’ll be moving our splicing department and grading lines and that will give us more opportunities and room for automation. We’ll have the scope to do some modernizing. It’s a mechanical engineer’s dream.”

The goal will be a smoother flow of high-quality veneer, with high levels of wood recovery. In the veneer business, beauty may be skin-deep—but if beautiful veneer gives Columbia’s Rutherglen plant a marketing edge, the benefits will be profound indeed.



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