September October 2005



Rising from the Ashes

Lester Shingle Mill in Sweet Home, Oregon rebuilds after a fire.

Tommy Kohnke, operator, cutting 16" blocks with L&M chainsaw

By Alan Froome

The fire department confirmed it was arson, after the Lester sold for animal bedding. Shingle Mill burned down in September 2004. It was shown that the fire started simultaneously in four separate places around the building. At the time the company was running three shingle mills. The building was badly damaged, the whole front of the building with its electrical system was destroyed and several machines were beyond repair.

It took a total of five months to rebuild and Lester started up again in March 2005. At the time of our visit, some burnt roof beams were still visible and only one shingle line was running. Fortunately Lester owned other machines at another site in town to replace the fire-damaged ones. So far no one has been charged with arson, although the investigation is ongoing.

Generations at Work

Lester Sales Inc. is a real family firm and comprises a builders supply store in addition to the shingle mill on the same site. Today four generations of the family are involved in the operation. Mel Lester, now 93 and affectionately known as Grandpa, still comes in to pick up his mail, Stan Lester, his son, is president and co-owner, and Stan’s son Larry Lester is shingle plant manager. Larry’s brother-in-law Jim Philpott is co-owner, looks after shingle sales and marketing, and runs the store and office, while his wife Marsha Philpott manages the lumberyard.

Finished Shingles.

Mel Lester started the company in 1948, making cedar shingles in a small way. In 1950 he built a bigger mill, then in 1960 built what must have been one of the first particleboard plants anywhere in the USA. This proved to be too far ahead of its time, however, and was closed down in 1965. The family then went back to its roots, making cedar shingles.

The Shingle Business

Larry Lester took us on a tour of the shingle mill, which is a fairly labor intensive operation set up on two floors. When the mill was rebuilt, may more windows were added so the work area is now well-lit with natural light. The Basic machines and methods used in the shingle business have been around for a long time. As Larry pointed out, "It's an old style product and our main market now is San Francisco Bay area, where our shingles are in steady demand for heritage homes, specially for the side walls on Victorian-style houses." The company is working hard to win back some old customers who had gone elsewhere for their shingles during the time the mill was out of business. Larry added, "We had many of the same customers for 50 years."

The shingles are sawn not split, and sold in three grades. No. 1 is the best, all clear straight edge grain with no knots; No. 2 has some small knots in the top third (thin end), and the lowest grade, No. 3, is used for shim stock.

Red cedar logs up to a maximum of 60" in diameter and 32 feet long, are bought on the open market, mostly from the Oregon coast. The smallest logs handled are usually 12" in diameter and, as with all cedar, rot is a factor, so the operators are continually cutting around it to get the best grade from each log. Larry commented, "Quality is more important to our customers than price, so we get good value from each log."

Jom Kragness, operator, stacking shingles into bundles and strapping them. Three sorts below shingle machine.

The Shingle-Making Process

A Prentice 600 shovel loader is used in the log yard to offload trucks and load logs onto a log haul chain conveyor, which carries them from ground level up to the second floor of the mill building. Here operator Tommy Kohnke bucks the logs into 16" long bolts, using a simple log stop and a new L & M chain saw with an 8-foot arm. The bolts are then turned upright and transferred to a horizontal arbor circular splitting
saw, which Tommy also operates. This "Bolt Saw" uses a 60" circular blade with only 20 teeth designed for ripping. The saw is used to split the bolts into blocks and also to take the bark off the sides of each piece, which are then slid onto a gravity roller conveyor to the next machine center.

Larry Lester and cedar logs at Loghaul Convention.

The next stage in the process is to saw the 16" blocks into shingles. A 1916 vintage Sumner shingle machine dogs the cedar blocks and carries them through a 60-tooth 60" horizontal arbor circular shingle saw. The machine uses a system of cams to index the blocks forward to produce the tapered shingles 4" wide and up. As Larry said, "It’s an old machine but the new ones work exactly the same way."

Sumner shingle machine (1916).

Shingle machine operator Todd Kohnke effectively has three jobs. He manually loads the blocks into the Sumner carriage, takes off the shingles as they are sawn, trims their edges using a circular clipper saw mounted on the side of the shingle machine and also sorts them into the three grades, Sumner shingle machine (1916). dropping each grade down one of three chutes leading to the ground floor. Here a third operator, Jim Kragness, stacks and straps the shingles into bundles, using one of several packing jigs. The bundles are then stacked onto pallets and moved to a storage building for shipment to customers. As a side product, the aromatic cedar shavings are baled and sold locally for animal bedding.

Cedar shavings sold for animal bedding.

At present seven people work in the Lester shingle mill, including a fork lift driver. Larry Lester said, "We plan to start up a second line shortly using a vertical band saw with a 2" wide blade that survived the fire."

As an interesting side note, Lester’s No. 1 grade red cedar shingles are labeled 16" x 5/2. The latter means it takes the thickness of five shingles to make 2". Four bundles are required to cover 100 square feet and 16" is the standard length, but, Larry said, "Shingles destined for Texas are required to be 18" long. Seems everything really is bigger in Texas."


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, November 15, 2005