By Tony Kryzanowski
While it took some time to establish a client base, Saskatchewan sawmill owner Vernon Heatwole has demonstrated that there is no shortage of demand for good sawmilling skills and custom wood products, especially in these days when many smaller Canadian communities no longer have lumber yards.
There was a time when bigger towns had at least a lumber yard and a grocery store to support the surrounding community. But as people migrated into cities and farms became bigger with fewer farmers, many small town lumber yards closed down. For those who have continued to live by choice in small town or rural Canada, buying the basics like a stick of lumber or a loaf of bread has become harder and more expensive, sometimes requiring a road trip of more than an hour from home. Over the past half-century, Saskatchewan in particular has witnessed considerable migration away from its small towns.
That’s why businesses like V & R Sawing are such a benefit to smaller communities like Rosthern, Saskatchewan and the surrounding area.
Heatwole says that it brings him great satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment that he’s able to fulfill his customers’ needs with wood products not easily attainable, while also having the opportunity to work with his children. Each phone call is interesting from the standpoint of the variety of custom wood products he is asked to manufacture.
The custom sawmilling and wood products business is highly visible, located about 45 minutes north of Saskatoon, right along the busy Hwy. 11 corridor that connects Saskatchewan’s largest city with Prince Albert. Heatwole says that visibility has been great for attracting customers, with the majority coming from about a 100 kilometre radius of Saskatoon.
“There are many farmers in this area, and that’s our main customer base, along with some customers for industrial wood materials,” says Heatwole. “We do quite a lot of corral material in 2” X 6” dimensions in 16’ lengths, as well as windbreak slabs.”
While the good news is that he is surrounded by farms, the bad news is that he is surrounded by farms—which means that he has to transport logs to the mill. But he says that hasn’t been a hindrance. While Rosthern itself is a farming area, it sits on the southern edge of Saskatchewan’s extensive boreal forest.
V & R Sawing has been at this location for about 15 years and Heatwole has worked hard to establish the business. The upheaval in Saskatchewan’s forest industry involving a number of closures around 2007 during the general industry downturn didn’t help in terms of securing a log supply, but he says the situation today is much better in terms of log supply and business growth potential.
Previously, Heatwole operated a similar business in Ontario. He grew up near Kenora. His father operated a sawmill “for as long as I can remember. I started helping him probably when I was as young as nine-years-old when I came home from school.”
Heatwole ‘s father was involved in custom sawing, where farmers would transport their primarily white poplar, red pine and white pine logs into the yard, and his father would saw them up.
Heatwole took over the family farm and sawmill in Ontario, diversifying into purchasing some logs, manufacturing wood products, and marketing them. For a time, he manufactured pallet material, which was sold into the United States. The U.S. border is close to Kenora. Eventually, he found that farming and operating his sawmill was too difficult to manage, so he sold the farm.
“I had an uncle here in Rosthern, so he invited me to come out here,” says Heatwole. He did and established his family sawmilling business, with sons Marcus, Daniel and Jeffrey working with him.
Heatwole’s experience working with his father in a custom sawmilling operation is really paying off because he can offer his customers the potential of providing them with just about anything they require, which is again a huge benefit to the area. Among the custom lumber products they can manufacture are tongue and groove, V-joint, ship lap, lap siding, two different styles of log siding as well as flooring products. Different products like these aren’t readily available from today’s retail lumber outlets. He also does a good business supplying timbers in a variety of custom dimensions, which has turned out to be a solid niche market.
“I always tell people that we can custom cut anything and everything,” says Heatwole. “There aren’t a lot of sawmills around here anymore sawing specialty materials. We do an awful lot of custom cutting of odd size material like timbers. We can cut up to 18” squares and then lumber down to as small as 1/2” by 6” material for siding.”
What makes the business particularly interesting are some of the unique product requests. For example, one order required 22” long tapered timbers measuring 12” wide at the bottom and 7” wide at the top. They were used as blocking for a trucking company. He also filled another order of massive 12” X 12” timbers measuring 16’ long that were transported to a mine site in northern Canada, in Nunavut.
At the mill, logs are first bucked to length by chainsaw in the yard, and then transported with a skid steer to the sawmill infeed. The sawmill consists of a 48” headrig with a vertical edger. Heatwole purchased the sawmill from Alabama after he established himself in Saskatchewan. It combines components from several brands, consisting of some Frickco components and a Carthage carriage.
Ohio-based Frickco Inc was formed in 1993. After 20 years in the sawmill service and supply business, Jerry L. Albright, President of Frickco Inc, purchased all of the blueprints, patterns, copyrights and patents for Frick sawmills and related equipment, which had been designed and built by The Frick Company of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, since the mid-1800’s.
“The sawmill arrived here in a pile of pieces, and I had to figure out what went where,” Heatwole says. “I rebuilt a bunch of stuff because it was in need of repair. It’s older equipment, but it does the job.” V & R Sawing produces between 4000 and 6000 board feet of wood products per day.
Previously, he operated the sawmill that his father custom built, describing it as “a totally manual mill, where all the log turning and dogging was manual. That’s why I switched to this mill, because my shoulders couldn’t take the log turning anymore.”
Heatwole says that the newer Frickco headrig has hydraulic log turning and air-powered dogging, as well as setworks, adding that once the log is on the infeed deck, he can manipulate it through the headrig from the control room cab. He has equipped the sawmill with Simonds circular saw blades that have carbide tipped teeth. He says that the Simonds blades deliver good performance and they are supplied to him by A.M Ludwig Saw Shop in Thunder Bay, Ontario. A.M Ludwig Saw Shop also hammers the saw blades for him.
Complementing his headrig is a Yates American four-sided planer moulder for producing wood products like V-joint and tongue and groove lumber. For transporting both logs and lumber stacks in the yard, V & R Sawing uses a Cat 246 skid steer and a Case 586G fork lift.
The company does no logging, but sources wood from loggers or purchases oversize logs from other sawmills.
“Anything that grows in Saskatchewan, we can process,” says Heatwole. “We’ve had logs as large as 39” in diameter. As far as length, we like them 16’, but we also take quite a lot of tree length material and then cut that up.” He says his sawmill can cut logs up to 24’ in length.
While V & R Sawing can custom cut any local species, Heatwole has chosen to focus on spruce products exclusively for business reasons. He could cut poplar but he doesn’t have a market for those products, and although he has access to jackpine, Heatwole says those logs tend to be quite crooked with unacceptable amounts of what he calls ‘red rot’. It gives some lumber a red appearance, which Heatwole says is not something his customers like to see, and being that he saws a considerable amount of 16’ material, it is hard to find a straight jackpine log. For these reasons, he just avoids jackpine altogether.
In addition to custom cutting, they also keep an inventory of common lumber sizes from 1” X 4” to 2” X 10” in different lengths, and popular square timber sizes. Vernon says they fit in this inventory sawing whenever they can. Custom cutting takes up most of their time.
On the Cover:
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