Restructuring the Forest Floor
Tricon Timber, Inc. finds a way to
turn small diameter wood into tongue-and-groove flooring
Jim Lommen (left), dry kiln manager, and Angelo Ververis,
assistant plant manager, check out some of the larch flooring blanks produced at
By Barbara Coyner
When Christy Hollenback hands out her business card, it doesn’t
always fit in a wallet. That’s because the Tricon Timber sales representative
sometimes shares a handsome chunk of stained tongueand- groove western larch
flooring with the company’s address and phone number inscribed on it. The St.
Regis, Mont.-based lumber mill recently began churning out the blanks for
flooring as a value-added angle. With wood floors all the rage in decorating
circles, and packs of laminated flooring flying off the shelves at big box
stores, Tricon seems to be on to something. “So far marketing has been mostly
word of mouth,” says Hollenback, who’s been with Tricon for over a decade.
“Passing out the samples has really helped spread the word.” Staving Off Fire
with Flooring Western larch boasts a tight grain and small knots similar to
old-growth wood, making it good for flooring. The honey grain holds paint and
stain well, and the wood has exceptional durability and strength. Plus, the wood
is harvested from overgrown forests so it aids in reducing wildfire potential.
With over 50 log home manufacturers in the nearby Bitterroot Valley alone, the
attractive and durable western larch floor could have huge market potential just
miles down the road. Hollenback and assistant plant manager Angelo Ververis
point out that the planets practically had to be in perfect alignment to get the
larch flooring from concept to actual product. Craig Rawlings, Smallwood
Enterprise Agent for the Montana Community Development Corporation, did much of
the coordination after connecting key players. The ball got rolling as Ken
Verley, co-owner of Tricon, attended one of Rawlings’s smallwood seminars in
Christy Hollenback staffs the Tricon Timber booth at the Small
Log Conference in Coeur d’Alene. The larch flooring samples on the table serve
as business cards for the value-added product.
Ken pondered the idea of flooring as a possible value-added product for his
mill, contacted the Forest Service’s regional wood products guru, Dean Graham,
then invited Hollenback and Ververis into the mix. The markets of course are
often the biggest hurdle, but enter Peter Stark, an outdoor writer from Missoula
who had recently thinned 80 acres from his property, and didn’t want the wood to
just take a ride to any old mill. He too focused on flooring, enlisted
restoration forester Matt Arno, installer Shannon O’Keefe and lawyer Mike Wood,
and looked into “green-certified” larch flooring. Amill at Dillon, Mont. did the
early cutting for Stark and his associates, but Rawlings again waved his magic
wand to find a closer location, and Tricon appeared as the logical choice.
Meanwhile, in 2004, Stark formed Northslope Sustainable Woods with his
associates, turning to Tricon for wood and processing needs. Tricon, on its own
quest, is now exploring various other options in flooring, as well. At present,
the mill cranks out the larch blanks, and sends the kiln-dried stock to Buckeye
Hardwoods in Arlee, Mont. for tongue-and-groove work. “We’re still small right
now and don’t have enough product for the orders coming in,” says Hollenback.
“This is just a supplement at our mill, but it’s increasing our bottom line.
We’re working with Northslope as our contact on the flooring. Peter Stark
originally put some down in his wife’s dance studio, liked it and approached us.
He also wanted a chain-of-custody for his wood when he came to us, so that’s how
things got going.”
Positive Impacts from Chain-of-Custody
Ververis says the chain-of-custody feature, favored by sustainable advocates,
gets a lot of attention at Tricon in the name of working with people to form new
alliances. With many area forests risking wildfire because of dense stands, the
time seems right for various sides to band together to thin forests carefully,
especially in the urban interface. Even better, if all sides work together, new
uses for all the material emerge. That’s the name of the game at Tricon these
days, and everyone appears pleased it’s working so well. As timber funnels into
the mill at St. Regis from a radius of up to 150 miles, Ververis explains that
the promising small-diameter larch is pulled and the flooring is run in separate
batches. Because he has some of the solid wood flooring in his own home, he has
an eye for the good stuff when it comes to raw material.
Kiln is Key
So far, one of the keys to producing successful blanks rests largely with the
newly installed kiln, designed by Irvington Moore, which has a mister in it.
Kiln manager Jim Lommen, a 13-year veteran at Tricon, says the mister acts as an
equalizer, tempering moisture content. “With the new kiln, we have the
capabilities for better quality wood, but we’re still on a real learning curve,”
says Lommen. “The unit has manual controls and we pick the setting, and set for
a certain species. The mister system is experimental and none of us had ever
been involved with this kind of system before. The fans are different and are
mounted on a common shaft. We’ve really had to start from scratch and talk to a
lot of people and tweak things from there. On every charge, we do a green check
on fresh cut out of the mill before we push it in. This helps with the basis
when we want to stop drying and check the kiln. We’ll undershoot the time and
temperature to find out where we’re at and that helps us. It’s at least an
80-hour process for flooring, and we do the slow process to avoid splits.”
Focus on Small Logs
For Tricon, being progressive is nothing new, and Ververis said the mill itself
was built in 1990 to handle small logs, because the mill nearby at Superior
wasn’t equipped for anything but large logs. “This was a new location for a lot
of used equipment,” says Ververis, also putting in a good word for the reliable
work force. “The mill is a product of creative engineering, and the sharp chain
line handles the small logs very well.” With a payroll of 95, Tricon is the
largest employer in Mineral County, a traditional timber area. The mill gathers
its timber resources from a generous wood basket that breaks down to 30 percent
Forest Service, 23 percent state, 3 percent Bureau of Indian Affairs, 12 percent
industrial, and 33 percent private ground. With a new track-mounted Vermeer
grinder out working in the woods, Ververis says the company has at last achieved
100 percent utilization. “We think pretty progressively around here,” he adds.
As a company motto announces in the main office, “Our lumber is framing the
future,” to which one might add, “Putting a floor under it, too.”
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