Gerard Ostroskie’s small sawmill operation in OntarioGerard Ostroskie takes considerable
effort to air dry, dress and trim lumber to increase grade and value—such as this high grade dried and dressed cedar.

Cutting FOR CANOES…

Gerard Ostroskie’s small sawmill operation in Ontario has a strong focus on increasing grade and value, and has developed an interesting niche market: producing cedar cuts specifically for canoe builders.

By George Fullerton

Anyone with an affinity for lumber would take notice of and appreciate a neat lumber yard on Highway 58, near the community of Tramore, south of Pembroke, Ontario. The lumber is very neatly piled and the stacks are level, evenly spaced, and many of the stacks have covers to shield lumber from the rain.

Stopping in and meeting the owner and mill operator Gerard Ostroskie is an opportunity to talk with a man both knowledgeable and enthused about lumber.

Ostroskie’s interest in forests and lumber began as a youth, when he would work part-time in a small sawmill in his neighbourhood.

Following high school, Ostroskie obtained a forest technology diploma from Sir Sanford Fleming College. He went on to have a professional career with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), working on Crown land as well as in the private woodlot sector, preparing management and operation plans.

His venture into producing and selling lumber, though, began when he was around 18, when a severe storm caused a lot of damage on his woodlot.

“I ended up harvesting the blowdowns and had it milled locally, and then I sold the lumber to friends and neighbours,” explained Ostroskie.

The Ostroskie operation is more than a simple lumber yard supplying eastern white cedar, eastern white pine and red pine. Ostroskie makes considerable efforts to air dry, dress and trim lumber to increase grade and value.

He indicated that about half of his 300,000 to 400,000 board foot annual production is marketed regionally in Renfrew county, on the west bank of the Ottawa River, and the balance is primarily sold in southern Ontario. The annual production is nearly evenly split between eastern white cedar, and white and red pine.

“Eastern white cedar is a very special species with unique qualities and the lumber is in high demand for many different applications,” he says. In addition to possessing rot- and moisture-resistance characteristics, eastern white cedar dresses well, and shows attractive pink to red highlights.

Gerard Ostroskie’s small sawmill operation in OntarioLumber and storage sheds in the background at the Ostroskie operation (above). Green lumber is off-loaded at the lumber yard with a pair of vintage 1963 Massey Ferguson forklifts, which are based on the Massey Ferguson model 35 farm tractor.

Ostroskie invests a lot of effort to grade his inventory, which allows individual customers to pick the specific grade and size lumber for a project. Through trimming defects to increase grade, Ostroskie ends up with lumber as short as three feet. He says that many customers have projects that require short lengths, and they would rather pay for the shorter length, vs. buying a longer length and then ending up with the trimmed piece to store.

On the other end of his marketing spectrum, Ostroskie also has 2 x 10 by 16-foot clear cedar lumber, which may end up in special projects such as long seats in saunas.

The log supply is a combination of timber he harvests from his own woodlot, wood purchased from local farmers and small scale woodlot operators, as well as large scale contractors who require a market for their off species and oversized logs.

Ostroskie pointed out that he works closely with contractors to make sure he gets good timber.

“I have built relationships with contractors over the years to ensure I get good quality logs,” he says. “We’ve worked at it a long time now and they know the quality of logs I need, and know that I can pay a good dollar for good quality.”

Ostroskie owns a number of woodlots, and spends a good deal of his winter harvesting with his John Deere 440 skidder.

“I also have a Kubota tractor with a forestry winch which I use most often for thinning in plantations on my woodlots,” he says. “I hire a truck to haul logs to the mills. There is a little hardwood that comes with the softwood, and I will have the best of that sawed. I often sell a little ash lumber to canoe builders.”

To mill logs, Ostroskie has established a business relationship with Ken Zoschke, who operates a small sawmill in the community of Alice, about a half-hour from the lumber yard. Zoschke saws most of the cedar and white pine. Ostroskie also uses some other small sawmills, on a smaller scale.

“Ken is a very conscientious sawmiller,” he says. “His variance on dimension is very small. I have the logs delivered to his yard, and when he has bundles of lumber, I pick them up with my trailer.”

Green lumber is off-loaded at the lumber yard with a pair of vintage 1963 Massey Ferguson fork lifts, which are based on the MF model 35 farm tractor, as well as a JCB forklift.

Lumber is sorted by dimension, graded and re-stacked into stickered stacks with assistance from Ostroskie’s wife of 34 years, Connie.

“Connie and our sons Kelvin and Joshua, as youths, have worked with me in the lumber yard over the years,” says Ostroskie. “Through observation and experience, they became very good lumber graders. Once they had re-stacked a bundle of green lumber, I’d be confident that I’d find very little off-grade in their stacks.”

Ostroskie’s sons have since moved on to their own professional careers, but Connie remains a stalwart employee at the lumber yard.

As part of the operation, Ostroskie puts roofs on stacked bundles for air drying.

“I plan to leave lumber air drying for up to 13 months, and that brings the moisture content down to 9 to 11 per cent,” he explains.

Following air drying, higher grade lumber is taken to the G.P. Splinter Forest Products planer mill in Pembroke. Lower grade lumber is often sold non-dressed.

“Splinter have a very high standard, and the lumber is put in dry storage on delivery, and back in dry storage after it has been dressed. I pick the bundled lumber up very soon after it has been dressed.”

In addition to dressed four sides, Splinter will also profile for tongue and grove and v-notch.

Once back at the lumber yard, the dressed lumber is re-graded and stacked into bins in two dry storage sheds. Through the grading process, Ostroskie will sort pieces which can realize an increase in grade, with a trim to remove a knot, wane or other defect.

Ostroskie has developed a niche market for lumber specifically for canoe builders; in addition to supplying canoe builders in Canada, he also supplies builders in the United States.

“I am very specific about canoe grade cedar,” he explains. “Only clear boards where the grain stays contained within the board go to the canoe lumber. If the grain runs out or off the face of the lumber, the material will split when it is bent for the construction process.

“I also pay close attention to the weight of the lumber which might make canoe grade.”

To demonstrate, Ostroskie presented a board indicating its light weight. “This is nice light lumber and it was sawn from a tree that grew mid slope.” Comparing it to a similar (size) looking board from another pile, he noted that it was heavier than the first piece.

“This piece was sawn out of a tree that grew at a lower slope where it got lots of moisture, so the cell structure is different and it is more dense. It would be a struggle to get it to bend properly. It would also maintain increased density and consequently result in added weight to the canoe, which makes it more difficult to carry and load.”

Continuing on the cedar silviculture lesson, Ostroskie stepped to another lumber pile. He noted the dark rings around the knots and says that tree, from a top slope, had witnessed drought stress through its life, and the limbs dried out prior to self-pruning. Still good quality lumber, but aesthetically less appealing.

Ostroskie applies similar principles to purchasing, milling and grading white pine, and to a lesser volume, red pine.

Ostroskie built two finished lumber sheds which have bins for different grades and dimensions on each end, and a centre bay. The length of each piece in the bins is marked, to easily manage inventory.

From a brief visit to the operation, it’s clear that Gerard Ostroskie is carrying on a tradition of producing quality wood products in this area of Ontario, which has a rich forest industry history.

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Cutting for canoes …
Gerard Ostroskie’s small sawmill operation in Ontario has a strong focus on increasing grade and value, and has developed an interesting niche market: producing cedar cuts specifically for canoe builders.

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The harvesting/forwarding team approach of Eric Boissonneault and Marcel Coutoure works very well, resulting in a very productive flow of wood in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscaminque region—and backed up by solid equipment support.

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