By Tony Kryzanowski
The bounce back of both lumber prices and logging activity since the calamitous American housing crash is having positive ripple effects—including the re-opening of temporarily shuttered mill facilities.
One of those reopening is the Columbia Forest Products veneer mill near Rutherglen, east of North Bay, Ontario, which depends on a vibrant logging sector to secure its log supply.
The mill reopened in 2016 after being closed for five years. Not only is it providing 75 direct jobs, but it is also reopening a local channel for highly valued veneer logs for area loggers. These premium logs typically fetch as much as two to three times the value of sawlogs.
The main reasons behind the closure in 2011 were the ongoing economic recession, strength of the Canadian dollar, and reduced availability of veneer logs because of diminished logging activity. But mill manager Mark Kelly says that Columbia had the foresight to keep the plant intact while retaining a few maintenance individuals as security who also kept the equipment primed for a potential start-up.
By 2016, log availability and the marketplace had significantly improved.
That effort to keep the mill primed for restart really paid off because it only took three to four months, including an investment of a couple million dollars by Columbia in basic start-up costs, for the mill to be back in production on a one-shift basis.
“We take maple, birch and oak logs and peel them down to 1/42nd of an inch,” explained Kelly, of the operation. “Our finished product is really a four by eight sheet.” About half of the veneer mill’s production is from hard maple, with about 40 per cent white and yellow birch, and the remainder oak. At present, the mill processes about 500,000 board feet per week.
Kelly says that Columbia was able to attract about half of its workforce back when the veneer mill reopened, which was a major contributor to its quick restart, with the benefit of that experience. Kelly returned to Canada to manage the Rutherglen veneer mill from managing a Columbia veneer mill in Maine. While the mill currently has 75 employees, there are plans to hire more employees and expand in future, given current favorable market conditions and greater capacity being built into Columbia’s Hearst, Ontario plywood mill. Availability of additional quality and affordable veneer logs will be required.
What has helped to improve North American sales of veneer and hardwood plywood is a tariff placed by the United States on imported Chinese manufactured plywood in December 2017. Columbia also uses soy-based glues in its products whereas Chinese-based manufacturers use formaldehyde-based glues which have been identified by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen.
The Rutherglen veneer mill has a long history. Columbia purchased it in 1989. It’s located in a region where forestry has been a foundational industry since the early 1800’s. The enormous log booms that traversed local rivers, including the nearby Ottawa River, have been made famous in both story and song.
The region of Ontario where the Rutherglen veneer mill is located is blessed with a highly diverse wood basket as part of the Great Lakes Forest. It consists of a large number of valuable hardwood species as well as the large and iconic white pine, often featured in paintings by artists like the famous Group of Seven.
“Rutherglen is a great location for a veneer mill because it’s central to the log basket where we need to draw from and it’s also central to our Canadian plywood mills,” says Kelly.
Columbia is one of North America’s largest manufacturers of hardwood plywood and veneer products, with several plants both in the United States and Canada. Its four locations in Canada are Rutherglen, Kitchener and Hearst (where the company recently made a major investment in a new lathe), as well as Saint Casimir, Quebec. Headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, it is a highly integrated company. The Rutherglen operation supplies veneer to many of the company’s other plywood production facilities. Hardwood plywood is typically used in appearance applications.
In March, Columbia announced a multi-phase improvement project for the company’s Hearst hardwood plywood manufacturing facility—requiring an investment of over $16 million—to improve veneer drying capabilities and increase plywood production. This project will have a ripple effect on the Rutherglen plant which supplies decorative hardwood face veneers to Hearst.
Overall, Columbia’s plywood mills have a strategy to diversify their product lines so this will expand veneer demand from places like Rutherglen, possibly involving different veneer widths and different species.
“What’s different this go-around is that we have embraced LEAN manufacturing technology and that is exciting,” says Kelly. “So we are working on continuous improvement projects every day. What this has done is that it has really intensified and focused the daily effort.”
One of the hallmarks of LEAN manufacturing is improved workflow. Kelly says that definitely has occurred at the Rutherglen veneer mill, and it is something that is constantly evolving.
Another change is the launch of a Caring Committee, where employees look after the needs of other employees, with financial support if necessary, when they are faced with personal challenges. Kelly says this contributes to a greater feeling of team spirit.
The mill manufactures two versions of its veneer product: single 4’ X 8’ sheets and 4’ X 8’ sheets where smaller pieces are glued together after defects have been removed. A major part of the veneer manufacturing process is clipping away defects like knot holes and creating larger sheets from smaller, defect-free pieces.
The Rutherglen veneer mill purchases logs from all over Ontario from private and Crown land. Loggers understand the value of this wood, and will make great effort to sort and process veneer logs. The sorting is typically handled by the slasher operator who bucks and sorts logs at roadside.
The Rutherglen veneer mill has several log buyers who find, inspect, grade, and arrange payment for the logs, which are typically bucked to lengths of between 8’8” and 10’4”. The diameter range that the Rutherglen veneer mill processes is between 9” and 34”. Their average log diameter is about 15”.
“Veneer logs are usually about five per cent of the log harvest,” says Kelly. “Loggers are on the lookout for veneer logs because we pay top dollar for them versus a saw or pulp log—the birch around here is excellent. We have some very nice white birch logs come through.”
He describes the availability of veneer logs for current production levels as quite good, which reflects a more active logging environment and thus more potential sources for veneer logs.
Purchased logs have a shelf life to achieve the highest value veneer. The Rutherglen mill aims to have logs shipped to their yard in less than two weeks of being harvested in the forest. During the warmer months, the logs are constantly kept moist in the yard using a sprinkler system. Each log is given a bar code in the yard for identification. They soak in water vats for 60 to 80 hours before entering the mill.
Once they enter the mill, the bar codes are scanned and a drag saw cuts both ends to create an 8’6” log. The logs are then debarked using a converted Coe lathe equipped with a specialized blade designed for debarking.
“We don’t want to go too deep because the nicest wood is right underneath that bark,” says Kelly.
The next step is the flitch planer, where an employee uses tools to manually clean remaining bark, dirt and grime that could knick the lathe knife. Next, the cleaned log is scanned by a McDiarmid scanner before encountering the knife on the Coe veneer lathe. The scanner creates a three dimensional image of the log which is used to make log positioning adjustments on the lathe to maximize recovery. The knife on the lathe peels the log at high speed and the veneer is then reeled back up. The reels are transported to the dryer. As the veneer is unreeled, it is either cut into clear 4’ X 8’ sheets, or into smaller widths by a Merritt defect clipper that identifies defects like knot holes in specific locations. The veneer is then dried down to between eight per cent and ten per cent moisture content through a Babcock dryer that operates at 165’ per minute.
After drying, the various sized sheets of veneer are manually sorted and stacked. The stacker’s job is to create stacks of similar veneer widths where defects have been identified in similar locations. This is so that when the sheets encounter the bunch splicer later on, sheets with similar defect locations are sliced in large bunches of about 20 sheets at a time to maximize efficiency. These spliced sheets vary in size anywhere from 4” to 26” wide.
The smaller components are then transported for joining through the Fezer joiner, which squares up the individual components and places glue on either side. The next step is the Ruckle splicer, which butt joins the pieces together until a 4’ X 8’ sheet is achieved.
The sheets of veneer then land at the manual grading line. Each veneer sheet will fit into one of 17 different grades. Once graded, they are stacked and then banded for transport.
The North America hardwood plywood market still faces considerable offshore competition, but by implementing programs like LEAN manufacturing, the Rutherglen veneer mill is doing all it can to answer that competition by working as efficiently as possible.
On the Cover:
Fallers in B.C’s coastal forest industry work in tough ground—and safety is paramount. E&B Helicopters has the back of fallers, and the forest companies, operating on the coast, through providing air transportation and emergency evacuation services. Its Medevac (Medical Evacuation) capable helicopters are able to get in to spots where B.C.’s Air Ambulance Service machines can’t reach. Read all about E&B and its president, Ed Wilcock, and the services it offers to fallers beginning on page 14 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of BC Forest Safety Council).
Newfoundland’s new forestry voice
The new Newfoundland and Labrador Forest Industry Association will be better able to present industry’s case to the provincial government—and present it with a common voice.
Rebound at Rutherglen
Columbia Forest Products’ Rutherglen, Ontario veneer mill has reopened and is now looking at expanded production, thanks to a rebound in plywood production—and demand for veneer from a soon-to-be-expanded Columbia plywood plant.
The Go-to-Guys for loggers
E&B Helicopters provides air transportation to coastal forest industry companies, being the go-to-guys for getting loggers to work in remote areas—and sometimes being the first responders in case of serious accidents.
Continuing to battle the beetle in B.C.
The mountain pine beetle infestation in B.C. may be in the forest industry’s rear mirror, but it now has the spruce bark beetle to deal with, and loggers are well into the salvage and control measure mode.
Nine-axle trucks get traction in B.C.
It’s been a bit of a haul, but nine-axle logging trucks have finally gained traction in B.C. now that the rigs’ potential benefits are better understood and appreciated.
Stacking ‘em up in Saskatchewan
A new Sennebogen 830 M-T log handler’s stacking ability has boosted yard capacity for Saskatchewan’s Edgewood Forest Products—and is helping the mill feed the appetite of its new sawline.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Short rotation woody crop deployment in Canada is now at a crossroads, says Tony Kryzanowski.