An Operator's Dream
A Backroad SURPRISE
Summary: Well off the beaten track in BC's rustic Kootenay Valley, a sophisticated sawmill and reman plant Meadow Creek Cedar produces more than 75 different products to Japanese specifications.
By Reg Barclay
Life is full of surprises. That is the conclusion a visitor might reach on finding a Japanese - owned sawmill tucked away in the back roads of BCs north Kootenay Lake Valley. This remote mill is located near the small rural community of Meadow Creek, north of Kootenay Lake and 23 miles from Kaslo, the nearest town. It is 10 hours by truck to tidewater in Vancouver.
Certainly not large by BC standards, this unique mill is both a sawmill and a reman plant, cutting over 75 products of extremely high quality for the Japanese market. The name of the mill, Meadow Creek Cedar Ltd., is a bit of a misnomer as cedar comprises a very small proportion of their cut.
Company controller Harvey Boyes describes the preferred species for the mill as Douglas fir, spruce, hemlock, and cedar, in that order, all available in the multi-species, wet-belt forest, in the valley. A mill has been operating at this site for about 20 years. Originally it was a cedar mill purchasing logs on the open market. In 1989, Taiki Industry Co. Ltd. from Japan purchased the mill. Over the next few years Taiki made major capital investments in acquiring forest licenses and completely rebuilding the mill to produce Japanese lumber specifications to the high quality this market demands.
In 1992, Ataka Lumber Co. Ltd., another Japanese company, purchased an interest. Both companies are in the wood distribution business in Japan . Taiki also manufactures wooden and steel cable drums. In former years, the company owned sawmills in Japan, before a shortage of imported logs forced closures. Both companies act as sales brokers for Meadow Creek, selling to the market generally in Japan, as well as to their own retail lumber yard outlets. The investment by the Japanese owners in the mill business has benefited the area economically, with steady employment for about 100 millworkers, plus loggers and service people such as truckers, consultants and construction contractors. Kathy Volpatti, the plant office manager, says the impact has been dramatic. I remember back to the early 1980s when the valley was in trouble economically.
Jobs were scarce and people were insecure. That has changed now and people are building homes and buying cars. Of course this is not appreciated by everyone, as some are quick to forget the economic benefits.
Like many sawmills in the province, Meadow Creek is facing a reduction of 20 to 25 per cent in the allowable cut of its forest licenses, due to the recent TSA review and the Forest Practices Code. This has created some uncertainty for the future as it increases the volume which has to be purchased on the open market.
The mill consumes 130,000 to 140,000 m3 of logs per year. New regulations not only bring fibre uncertainty, but also higher logging and road construction costs, and complexity. This relatively small mill now has a five-member forestry staff, including two professional foresters for timber license work. In addition, forestry consultants are used for road and logging layouts. The mill operates on two shifts, and is modern and well laid out.
Says Boyes: The mill layout is designed for its specialty of producing a multitude of sizes of top quality. It combines a head rig with a reman plant, both separate functions. Tree-length logs are stored adjacent to the mill. Logging takes place year round, but inventories have to be increased for the spring season, when weight restrictions come into effect on local roads, prohibiting the use of logging trucks. Logs are cut into either three- or four-meter lengths.
All logs are processed by a Rosser-type debarker. Small and medium-diameter logs proceed to the twin band saw head rig, which has a double-end dogger system for holding the logs steady fore and aft during sawing. The band saws are moveable, permitting a side cut before cutting the balance into cants of the desired thickness.
The sawyer uses a laser line to ensure the log is straight going into the saw. Large logs are diverted from the barker back to the millyard where there is a separate single band saw for breaking them down into cants. These re-enter the mill behind the head rig. Wood from both breakdown units flows to a horizontal band saw.
This is a merry-go-round type of operation as lumber keeps circulating until it is sawn to the thickness required. Lumber is then conveyed to the edger to be ripped to the desired width before proceeding to a sorting line with seven positions, where pieces are stacked manually, according to grade, width and thickness, and then stored in the millyard. Lumber for drying is handled by two dehumidifying-type dry kilns.
The air within the kilns is heated with propane, and compressor-driven coils kept at a low temperature regulate the relative humidity in the kiln by condensing the moisture. Lumber is dried to a range of 10 to 12 per cent. The rate of drying is admittedly slow, but this is offset by a reduction in the falldowns and a better quality of dry wood. Another kiln is being considered as dry lumber is gaining in popularity.
From storage, both dry and green lumber is then directed to the sizer, the entry point for the reman plant. The sizer surfaces the lumber face and back only. The edges are left as sawn, and are smooth, as fine saws are used in the mill. Green lumber, chiefly in the form of squares 90x90 mm and 105x105mm go directly to the sorting line for manual stacking. Other sizes are conveyed to one of three rip saws in the reman plant to produce the many small sizes, which is the mills specialty.
Two quad rippers with four moveable saws cut up to 10 sizes and can handle pieces up to 120 mm thick. The third saw is a gang ripper which can han-dle pieces up to 70 mm in thickness. Saws are only 3.5mm in thickness and very accurate, with a sawing tolerance of +/- 0.5mm. According to sawmill manager Rob Zilkie, the mills production actually represents more sizes than the 75 products produced, as some products have more than one size and length. Sizes can be as small as 16x40 mm (3/8'' x 1-1/2''). The products are the components required to construct the frame of a traditional Japanese home.
For example, roof rafters (Taruki), 45 x 45 mm and 33 x 72 mm; ceiling moulding (Mawari Buchi), 40 x 40 mm; floor joist (Neda), 36 x 45 mm and 45 x 45 mm, as well as posts and squares and many others. Pieces from the reman saws are directed to manual piling stations and stacked in shipment size packages. Small pieces are strapped together with fibre strap in smaller bundles for package stability, ready for delivery in Japan to a retail yard or con-str uction site. Lift trucks transport the stacked lumber to the packaging centre for steel strapping with dunnage attached, and shipping inform ation is stencilled on the sides. Kiln-dried stock is paper wrapped for shipment.
Lumber is trucked to Vancouver Harbour where it awaits ocean transportation to Japan. In line with the quality objectives of the mill, it was noted that truckers cover their loads with tarps to keep packages dry and clean in transit. The mills resident executive vice-president Albert Volpatti says in looking at profitability and future outlook that, contrary to popular opinion about the profitability of the reman business, it is very competitive and production costs are high.
Our operation is very labour intensive and this, combined with the rising costs of fibre, mean we have to obtain a very high price for our products and we have to work hard to be profitable. The market demands only the best quality and this creates problems with falldowns. We are very fortunate to have Japanese owners, in that it is their style to be patient and have a long-term philosophy about results, which permits us to experiment and work out the optimum mix of products and sizes suitable to the species of wood available and the design of the mill.
He adds: As there is now a limit to the fibre available, opportunity to grow is no longer a viable option. We must continue to do what we have been doing, but do it better. The future lays in better utilization and recovery of processed logs. We are now looking at new processes including a ring debarker and a log-scanning system. Precision end-trimming and finger-jointing are also possibilities under study.
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