By Jim Stirling
At one point, the mountain-fringed site in northwestern B.C. was little more than a gravel pit clearing. By August last year, that origin was still evident—but a 100 x 65 foot building now dominated the location. And within it was a headrig and positioned strategically around the headrig was an edger, band resaw and a robotic vacuum-controlled material handling system.
All of the processing machinery originated in Europe. The mill’s design concept emphasizes accurate cutting and careful handling, rather than throughput. It’s the new operation’s guiding principle.
JCI Touchwood Sawmills Ltd.—calling itself the specialty sawmill of the north—is about10 kilometres north of Terrace in northwestern British Columbia. It’s a partnership between JCI Sawmilling, a home-grown Terrace custom sawmilling operation, and Touchwood BV of Schijndel in Holland.
JCI—Just Cut It sawmilling—headed by father and son team Percy and Warren Gavronsky, operate custom mills producing a range of products including western red cedar beams and lumber, bridge timbers and drill pad material. Touchwood Sawmills, owned by John Lammerts van Bueren, was until recently sawing Sitka spruce in southeast Alaska, processing it there and shipping it for finishing at a custom built reman plant in The Netherlands.
The Canada/Holland partnership behind the new Terrace specialty sawmill came about serendipitously.
“I heard about his operation and first e-mailed him (Lammerts van Bueren) to find out more about it five years ago,” recalls Warren Gavronsky of JCI Sawmilling. “Then he phoned me a couple of years ago, inquiring about the availability of quality Sitka Spruce in the Terrace area. He was having increasing problems accessing the kind of timber he requires in Alaska.”
The upshot of that was a visit to the Terrace area by van Bueren for a first hand assessment. “He’s been incredibly happy with the wood (quality) so far,” reports Gavronsky.
The valleys and inlets of the Skeena River drainage near Terrace are coastal in nature without being on the ocean. Some of the Sitka Spruce growing there reflect that subtle difference, growing slowly, tall and straight with long fibres and tight ring counts. They make the ideal feedstock for van Bueren’s discerning customers. The result is JCI Touchwood Sawmills, incorporating the upgraded processing equipment from the operation in southeast Alaska.
The partnership was underwritten by van Bueren, with JCI contributing the site, local knowledge and expertise, explains Gavronsky.
He reckons it will take the equivalent of about three months’ mill production to supply the up to 500 cubic metres a year of prime product van Bueren requires for his reman plant in Holland. The specialty products include high grade Sitka Spruce mast and spars in up to 40 foot lengths, and yacht and ship decking and boat planks in varying specifications. van Bueren is an experienced sailor and well understands the market and product requirements.
The Sitka Spruce is also in high demand for clears graded to customer specifications for use as sounding boards in concert grand and upright pianos for the concert halls of Europe. Sitka Spruce clears are also incorporated into harpsichords and guitar tops. Aircraft quality Sitka Spruce is crafted to military and custom specifications and for use in traditional archery blanks.
During the balance of the time, JCI Touchwood will be supplying a full range of western red cedar and hemlock products including lumber from 1 x 4 to 4 x 12 sizes in a range of grades. Sitka Spruce is also converted to products like drill pads, bridge timbers and low-bed planking, while knotty spruce is available in standard and custom designs.
Drill pad work continues to be a key product for JCI Touchwood despite the slowdown in the oil and gas sector, says Gavronsky. The demand slack there has been absorbed by the LNG sector, he explains. Sitka Spruce’s strength/weight ratio proves an advantage in helicopter delivery of the material to remote locations.
The mill’s versatility is further reflected by a customer with specific requirements on the other side of the continent. The Maine manufacturer finds the Terrace mill’s clear red cedar shakes and shingles perfect for his clients.
But it’s also important to Gavronsky to have the mill’s ability to precision cut in a variety of sizes and species available to the local and regional markets around Terrace. The mill’s reception area is being designed to promote and showcase the attention to individual customer requirements.
They focus on details like separating a customer’s logs from others in the yard, and continue the individual attention through to finished product. “We do our processing at a slower rate,” notes Gavronsky. “We might take three or four hours on a single 40 foot long log. We try to respect the age and quality of these trees.”
The raw material is primarily bought direct from loggers, he continues.
“There are log yards in Terrace, Kitimat, Prince Rupert, Stewart and Greenville.” Good relationships with other local forest industry players also helps with accessing the timber JCI Touchwood requires. He cites Terrace-based Skeena Sawmills which doesn’t usually process much spruce or cedar. “They’ve been super-awesome to deal with,” says Gavronsky.
The new specialty mill’s horizontal headrig and setworks were manufactured by Bogli in Bern, Switzerland. The headrig can accommodate log lengths of 60 feet and diameters of 80 inches. Yet the headrig can also produce long length veneers down to a four millimetre thickness with negligible variation.
Logs are fed into the machine along a 163 foot concrete track with steel runners beginning out in the log yard and drawn in by cable. Boards and flitches coming from the headrig are removed by a 42 foot vacuum robot handling system made by Joulin Aero in France. The vacuum lifting, handling and positioning system is controlled by PLC and allows pre-grading between headrig and edger.
The Esterer-Socolest 6 x 36 inch edger has one stationary and two moving hydraulic saws. The English-made Stenner band resaw has a 48 inch diameter wheel and a 24 foot maximum product length. A trim saw completes the mill’s principle equipment. There’s ample space within the central mill building for future additions, like a planer or moulder.
With the exception of the PLCs, the mill has no computerized setworks.
“We wanted to keep things simple so we can fix things ourselves,” outlines Gavronsky. JCI also differed from conventional wisdom by acting as its own contractor on the new mill project.
One new piece of equipment in the mill is the full length and width 5 ton Demag overhead gantry crane supplied through Kristian Electric of Edmonton. The crane has the flexibility to handle and turn the long logs, flitches and beams around the mill, while minimizing mechanical damage with soft slings. Local company Skeena Blower and Sheet Metal engineered the mill’s combustible dust elimination and storage system. Gavronsky is hoping to find a market for the sawdust byproduct.
Gavronsky estimates when JCI Touchwood is fully up and running it will employ up to eight people, depending on orders. “We’ve got a good core of guys to run the mill.” It’s a core group that embraces the mill owners’ objectives of delivering quality products beginning with a respect for the raw material from which they’re manufactured.
“We’re carving out our little niche and manufacturing the most value out of some of the best quality trees we have left,” concludes Gavronsky.
JCI Touchwood Sawmills’ design concept emphasizes accurate cutting and careful handling, rather than throughput. “We might take three or four hours on a single 40 foot long log,” notes Warren Gavronsky (in photo). “We try to respect the age and quality of these trees.”
British Columbia’s northwest forests have a reputation for poor timber quality. It’s well earned in many respects. Forests in the mountainous region abutting the Pacific Ocean are expensive to access and have significant stands of homogenous over-mature and decadent timber. But that doesn’t reveal the complete picture of the timber profile.
The region has long been recognized for pockets of high grade timber material nearer the top end of the value spectrum. Straight grained, rot resistant western red cedar in the Skeena River drainage has long been recognized as a prime telephone and hydro pole making material.
Demand for those products greatly accelerated with the advent of World War II in the late 1930s and continues today.
Some of the finest pole-making cedar trees grew in the Kitsumkalum Valley north of Terrace, B.C. Harvesting and transporting the pole making material from the valley spawned a decades long logging tradition and lifestyle.
Those days come back to life through a fascinating collage of old photos and recollections compiled by the Terrace Regional Historical Society. The booklet— Cedar Poles and Iron Peevees, Pole Logging in the Kitsumkalum Valley—was published in 2015. It uses the photos and memories from two collections of local families with historic connections to working in the pole industry, primarily in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Peevee referred to in the collection’s title was essentially a spike with a hook near the end of a hardwood pole, and it was used to move logs around. Manhandling an 18.5 metre long cedar log was no easy matter, requiring two or three men and a sound grasp of leverage mechanics.
Many of the collections’ grainy black and white photos reinforce just how far the mechanization of the timber harvesting industry has progressed. These were still the days of two-man cross-cut saws and original horse power for log skidding, and the use of water when available to move the logs.
A bush sawmill established up the Kitsumkalum Valley would process the logs into poles. Then they were handed over to usually under-powered logging trucks for the often perilous journey to the railhead in Terrace and distribution around North America.
The hard, physical work routinely described in Cedar Pole and Iron Peevees understates the tenacity and ingenuity those early loggers routinely practiced to keep the logging operation functioning and the product moving to market. Perhaps that’s one part of logging today that hasn’t changed that much from yesteryear.
Cedar Poles and Iron Peevees is available at Misty River Books in Terrace, B.C.
On the Cover:
Simple, clean and efficient were the guiding principles for B.C. logger Gregory Jacob when he began his examination of available steep slope log harvesting methods. He was able to get exactly that, and the key new machine in Gregory’s steep slope arsenal is a wheeled John Deere 1910E cut to length forwarder with a Haas winch. Read all about it on page 10 (Cover photo by Jim Stirling).
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Two companies have joined forces on a new specialty sawmill that is taking Sitka Spruce in northwestern B.C.—known for growing tall and straight, with long fibres and tight ring counts—to produce high end product for a reman plant in Holland.
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Super logging equipment consumers are super valuable to logging equipment manufacturers—and dealers, says Jim Stirling.