May June, 2004





Moving From Cut-to-Length to Cut-to-Diameter

Washington State Small Log Mill Tweaks the System

By Barbara Coyner

Using cut-to-diameter software, the Timbco cuts the logs to lengths determined by the computer, before the operator distributes the cut sections into piles. Vaagen Brothers’ long merchandiser handles logs up to 53’6”.

Question: Is it better to buck a 53-foot-long smalldiameter log into uniform 16-foot lengths to create stock 2x4s, or can that log be better utilized at different lengths to make 2x4s, and perhaps an extra 2x6, as well? Vaagen Brothers Lumber prefers the second option, calling the method cut-to-diameter, rather than cut-to-length. The strictly small log mill in Colville, Wash., has gained about 5 percent recovery with the process, utilizing fiber that was previously lost to lumber-making potential.

“Cut-to-diameter is actually optimized software,” says software specialist Don Curry, a 28-year Vaagen veteran. “There’s only one other company in North America using cut-to-diameter software and that outfit is in British Columbia.” Noting that the program was developed in Finland and has been used at the mill since 1999, Curry compares it to the more widely practiced cut-to-length. “Cut-to-length doesn’t necessarily always maximize recovery, and can actually minimize recovery,” he observes. Curry says that the highly specialized software saves all logs to history by species and butt diameter. When a new tree is processed, the program looks at the history of all like trees and makes a prognosis, based on highest value return for that tree.

Vicki Spurlin scans logs for volume and defect as they enter the long merchandiser.

The program re-evaluates the prognosis every 30 milliseconds to make sure it is similar to the average; if it varies, the program will make a new prognosis, and change the bucking solution. Vaagen’s head forester, Josh Anderson, says that the company uses cut-to-diameter technology both in the mill, and in the woods. “We have two ways that logs are optimized. At the mill, we like to get our logs as long as possible, up to 53 feet. Once the logs are delivered, we run them through the long merchandiser, which scales them for volume, checks for defects, and analyzes them for shape and length, offering separate solutions for each log.

In each instance, the log is cross-referenced with the various products we make, and compared to get the best utilization.” With 100 to 150 log loads converging on the mill each day, Curry and Anderson stress that tracking that many pieces requires as much efficiency as possible. An imposing 127-foot portal crane offloads trucks and distributes inventory into over 30 sorting bins, each representing species, diameter and product breakdown. If the logs are brought in at the preferred 53-foot, 6-inch size, they go to the long merchandiser, before landing in the appropriate bins for later delivery to the HewSaw.

Jesse York sorts logs using cut-to-diameter software as they continue through the long merchandiser.

Shorter logs don’t get the cut-to diameter scanning because of their limited options; logs 20 feet or less aren’t cut down any further lengthwise. With mill scanning equipment operating at lightning speed, inventory gets pigeonholed rapidly, keeping the Hew Saw in constant motion. Because of a wide product line, Vaagen Brothers Lumber needs every manufacturing advantage it can implement. Similarly, the company has the specialized software installed on a Timbco 425D to cut to diameter in the woods. “In the woods, the shape of the tree is analyzed for bucking solution options to get the best value,” Anderson says.

Mike Pernsteiner, a local contractor, also has the software on board, making him a valued partner in the small log game. “Mike is our number one logger and he has a tremendous crew,” Anderson adds. Hank Anderson operates the company’s Timbco, which is outfitted with a Log Max 750 head. He points out that cut-to-diameter doesn’t look any different than cut-tolength as it’s practiced in the woods, but the process makes plenty of difference in overall wood recovery, especially in today’s familiar Douglas fir-dominated dog hair stands.

Hank Anderson takes a break from his cut-to-diameter work in the Timbco 425D.

Taking a small stick as his example, he shows how taper on a similarly-shaped log can yield perhaps a 2x6 in the middle of the widest part of the stem, with two 2x4s on each side, if the length is adapted during cutting. Yet that 2x6 is lost if the log is cut in uniform lengths, as traditional cut-to-length automatically does. “It’s a little slower than cutting all 16’s,” he says of his cut-to-diameter processing work. “Sometimes the head will run it out to 20 feet, then recalculate and run it back to 12. All I do is hit the species button, unless I come to a defect. I can override, but the computer makes the length decisions.”

Averaging 500 to 800 trees per day, and 1,800 to 2,000 segments, the processor operator sorts logs into piles by size, with separate piles for pulp. Logs are cut no shorter than 10’6” and are processed at an impressive 1,600 feet per minute. “Volume wise, we could be a lot quicker in getting through a stand, but there is more value this way. With the Hew Saw, there’s no waste. It optimizes it all.” Logging manager Tim Vaughn amplifies on the cut-todiameter concept, noting, “It fits us, and gets the most dollars out of each tree. Recovery is one of the key things for our outfit, and it’s a different game now.

Vaagen Brothers is setting a track record with the Hew Saw and sometimes it’s frustrating for us keeping up with it.” Charged with keeping the wood basket full, Josh Anderson echoes the same frustration over keeping up with the highly efficient Hew Saw, Vaagen’s ace-in-the-hole for processing small logs since 1989. The saw keeps a brisk pace, one that owner Duane Vaagen feels could allow him to extend productivity even more. But getting the wood is a constant headache, according to Anderson, who sources from company grounds, private holdings, tribal lands, and state and federal forests. “It’s hand to mouth, because the sources have changed,” he says of the constant hunt for hew wood.

He does acknowledge that the new forest supervisor for the Colville National Forest has managed to get some timber sales rolling again, and fast-tracked recent sales involving wildfire- damaged timber. With the emphasis on quality and teamwork, Anderson still aims some credit toward the boss, noting that Vaagen looks for any edge he can find, whether it’s the tall portal crane, the Hew Saw, or the cut-to-diameter technology. “He’s a visionary, and he thrives and takes pride in being innovative and more efficient. He’s always saying, ‘What if we did this?’ and likes to try new approaches.”

At the same time, Anderson recalls that fine tuning cut to-diameter software and procedures was no piece of cake. “Some of the software was just too complex,” he says. The company would like more contractors using the software, but also concedes that other area mills might not need it if they’re only churning out studs. But making hew wood out of spindly 11-inch diameter logs with 41/2-inch tops, and keeping a variety of products under the Vaagen label, has definitely help profits. “Cut-to-diameter has further utilization and we’d like to take it further, but it gets too costly and inefficient if it’s too complicated. Ideally, it would be nice to sort by pattern, but the volume would have to be huge.”

Given recent developments that might loosen up federal timber supplies, especially in small-diameter stands, he’d like to see more federal timber running through the mill again, so the company can keep a light touch on its own 40,000 acres of timberlands. And he believes that the region’s three small-diameter mills could easily absorb another 100 truckloads of small logs per day. Most of all, Anderson suspects solid forest health and profitable solutions can work together. “I don’t believe those two concepts have to be mutually exclusive,” he says.


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004