September October, 2004




North to Alaska

Spotted owl concerns caused sawmilling family the Dahlstroms to move north to Alaska, where they have set a large/small log mill that has thrived.

The islands along the coast of Alaska are famous for high rainfall and big trees. At the very severe end of the weather spectrum, however, snow and extremely cold weather can shut the Viking Lumber mill down at times in the winter months.

By Alan Froome

When forest conservation restrictions due to northern spotted owl issues began to affect logging in old-growth forests of Washington state, the Dahlstrom family of sawmillers looked farther north for a more secure log supply.

Taking it north
Dahlstrom Lumber has operated a sawmill in Hoquiam, Wash. since 1978, but the company’s log supply looked threatened in the late 1990s. The Dahlstroms decided to take a look at Alaska, where the spotted owl is not a factor. They found an older existing mill near the town of Craig — on Prince of Wales Island at the southern tip of Alaska, 75 miles west of Ketchikan — and subsequently purchased the shutdown operation in June 1994. After relocating some key personnel from Hoquiam, the Alaska mill was back in production by November of the same year. Since then, Viking Lumber has added a small log mill and made many improvements. Today, it specializes in producing vertical grain lumber without knots for the U.S. door industry. Viking is unusual in several other ways compared to most lumber producers:
• Everything is shipped by barge, both logs in and lumber out.
• Unusually large-diameter logs are processed in the large log mill.
• There is no end trimming after log bucking in the small log mill.
• There are no millwrights on-site; the operating staff does all the maintenance and construction for mill improvements.

The log mix at Viking is 60 percent hemlock, 30 percent spruce and 10percent red cedar. The mill produces a mix of rail ties, timbers and dimension lumber in lengths from eight to 20 feet.

Developing the business
Kirk Dahlstrom describes himself as the business manager of Viking Lumber, which he — with his three brothers and a partner — started up in 1994. “We have reworked practically everything in the mill since we bought it,” Kirk explains. “We added a small log mill in 2001, which started cutting lumber on the first day of January 2002, and we built a new filing room later in 2002.” The log mix at Viking is 60 percent hemlock, 30 percent spruce, and 10 percent red cedar. The mill produces a mix of rail ties, timbers and dimension lumber in lengths from 8 to 20 feet.

Being located on an island, all logs arrive by barge and all the lumber and chips produced are transported south the same way. “All the hemlock goes to U.S. door plants and some of the other lumber goes to Japan and South Korea,” says Kirk. “We ship a total of around 100 barge loads a year, which includes bark and chips.” This translates to production in 2003 of 26 million board feet of lumber, barged to the Hoquiam area for distribution. Most lumber is shipped rough green, but the company has a division (Little River Inc.) near Hoquiam for kiln drying and dressing lumber if it is required. Chips go to the Norske pulp mill in Campbell River, BC or to the Georgia-Pacific mill in Wauna, Ore., near the mouth of the Columbia River.

The company ships 100 barge loads a year, including bark and chips. Most lumber is shipped rough green, but the company has a division new Hoquiam for kiln drying if necessary.

Challenging conditions
The islands along the coast of Alaska are famous for high rainfall and big trees. However, snow and extremely cold weather can at times shut down the mill in the winter months. Talking about the log sizes they handle, Kirk said their big log mill is designed to handle logs up to a 68” diameter and they split about 60 logs a year which exceed that. Big logs indeed. What Viking calls small logs are, in fact, bigger than many mills see these days. Its “small” log side handles logs from 4” to 15” in diameter and up to a 24” butt. All logging is carried out by outside contractors and Viking usually buys its logs up to a maximum of 42 feet long.

The right equipment
There are two log yards, to separate the large (over 24” butt) and small (under 24” butt) logs. Kirk is particularly proud of the unique log bucking system Viking designed in-house and built itself. This feeds logs to the large log mill at one end of the system and the small log mill at the other end. Large logs are bucked using a long arm chain saw, cutting across a roll conveyor, while the small logs are processed by the bucking system. The main feature of the design is a moving carriage which straddles the log infeed belt conveyor and has three paddles four feet apart, which drop down to act as log stops.

The carriage can be set up to 47” using stacked hydraulic cylinders under Allen-Bradley PLC controls. This positions the tree length logs for bucking by an 84”diameter circular saw. “We can accurately cut any log length from 6 to 17 feet in one-inch increments,” notes Kirk. The log lengths are marked on the end of each incoming tree length log and the back wall of the bucking zone is also marked with the required log lengths to help the bucking operator make decisions. “We rely completely on our precision bucking system for length control in the small log mill as there is no end-trimming downstream.” Reviewing equipment on the large log mill, Kirk said they have no scanner at the headrig because the operator is principally looking for grade and cutting vertical grain cants for breakdown at the gang into 1”, 2” and so on. “We also turn the logs more than most. We may turn a big log nine or 10 times to get the best out of it.”

The large log mill comprises:
• Nicholson A1 50” debarker with bypass for larger logs
• Prescott 9 ft. headrig band mill
• Salem three-knee carriage with 60” opening and Inovec setworks
• Albany 5 ft. quad resaw bandmill with Digitron setworks and runaround
• Schurman (now USNR) 9 x 60 combo 16 saw gang/four saw shifting edger with Digitron setworks
• Salem 6 ft. single reman band mill with moving linebar
• Prescott 26 ft. trimmer, converted to 20 ft. with 14 saws
• Green chain for lumber sorting

The small log mill includes:
• Nicholson A5 24” debarker
• Cooper overhead end-dogging feed twin scragg saw, with diameter scanner
• Schurman 6 x 72 combo 12 saw gang/three shifting saw edger with Digitron setworks
• Green chain for lumber sorting

The A5 debarker and the Cooper end-dogger scragg saw system are new, but many of the other machines are used and have been rebuilt. In addition to the main machine centers listed, a common waste system serves both mills. This includes two Morbark 75” chippers and a Morbark 96” whole log chipper. Cants can also be sent from the small log mill to the large log gang edger and reman bandmill. The recently built filing room serves both mills and is set up for 100 percent stellite teeth saws. It is newly equipped with Wright machines and a Simonds automatic saw leveler.

Kirk Dahlstrom says that the logs are turned more than at most other operations. “We may turn a big log nine or 10 times to get the best out of it.”

Team work
Viking Lumber presently employs a total of 42 people on a single ninehour shift basis, 5 days a week. All mill maintenance and construction is normally carried out on Saturdays by the operating personnel, since there are no millwrights. Most employees were hired locally, but five key people moved north from Hoquiam. Besides Kirk, his son Bryce also works at the mill. Partner Bob Bell is the head maintenance engineer, Don Howard is mill manager and Donna Oldfield handles the financials. Despite their island location, Kirk does not consider the mill to be isolated, explaining that there is regular floatplane service up and down the coast.

When asked about future prospects for the mill, Kirk replied that the first year Viking was in business, it produced 7 million board feet of lumber. Since then, the amount has increased steadily each year and it expects to produce 28 million board feet in 2004. With strong demand, Kirk sees the upward trend for Viking lumber continuing, confirming that the decision to go north to Alaska was a sound move.


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This page was last updated on Saturday, November 20, 2004