By George Fullerton
New Brunswick loggers Basil Isbill and son, Chris, keep heading out to the woods and it continues to be a major part of their work life routine.
As winter approaches, they put one of their three excavators in Chris’ Forax Equipment Limited machine shop and switch the excavation bucket for a Fabtek harvesting head. As that work proceeds, they pull in their Franklin forwarder and service it for “going to the woods”.
The Isbill’s live at Springfield at the head of Belleisle River, in southern New Brunswick.
At seventy-eight years of age, Basil recalls as a youth going to the woods in the winter, harvesting logs, pulpwood and fuelwood on his family’s farm.
“It’s hard to realize how the work has changed—from axes, buck saws, peeling spud and horses, to sitting in a warm cab and harvesting trees. It is so much fun, and so enjoyable, I only wish that I was younger, so I could enjoy it longer,” says Basil.
“I always enjoyed working in the woods, so after high school, I thought I would like to study forestry formally, and applied to Maritime Forest Ranger School in Fredericton,” Basil says. “At the time, I thought I might have a career in something like working for the government as a forest ranger.”
Following graduation with his forest technician diploma, Basil secured a job working at photogrammetry for the Department of Natural Resources, and spent weekends at home cutting wood. He soon discovered he could make more money cutting wood and gave up photogrammetry after a year.
In the early 1970s, he went to work with a local contractor on a horse logging operation. Chris shared that one of his childhood memories is driving out to the operation on the weekend, to feed and water the horses in their barns.
Working for the same contractor, Basil witnessed the transition from four-foot to eight-foot pulpwood, and seeing the wood move by forwarder. Basil soon became the forwarder operator, and purchased his own Timberjack 230 forwarder in 1978, and became a harvest contractor working for MacMillan Rothesay, which operated a paper mill in Saint John. When the paper mill was bought out by J.D. Irving, and contractor pay rates were cut substantially, Basil made the decision to contract private woodlot stumpage.
From his early years, Chris followed Basil into the woods watching and learning, and helping fix equipment. At twelve years of age, he was handed his first chainsaw and assigned a strip next to Basil’s other trail cutters.
On telling this story of working with a chainsaw at such a tender age, Chris was asked if he still had all his fingers. Chris declared yes, he had his fingers, and only a few other little chainsaw scars that are not particularly evident.
Chris learned trail cutting and operating forwarder and getting a truckload of wood to the mill. Upon his high school graduation, Chris applied to and entered Maritime Forest Ranger School and graduated in 1988. That same year, Chis purchased a Timberjack 230 forwarder of his own, and began contracting stumpage.
In 1989, Basil and Chris purchased a Hood slasher, acquired a skidder and hired a second skidder. In 1990, they added a triaxle straight truck, and eventually Chris built a pup trailer for the truck. In 1997, the truck was traded for a Western Star tractor and hooked on a new BWS trailer to handle treelength wood.
Through the 1990s, Basil’s summer time was taken up with a market gardening operation, and then going back to the woods in the autumn. In 1998, a used Komatsu excavator was acquired for building woods roads. The Komatsu soon acquired a used Risley slingshot harvesting head.
Chris recalls: “It was like a duck taking to water. Dad just fit right into mechanical harvesting. Our first two harvesters were for our treelength operation. Later on, he made the transition to cut-to-length harvesting effortlessly. We are currently working with our third harvesting head, and all that time I have harvested only a half-dozen trees.”
The slingshot head was eventually replaced by a Risley II head, and they upgraded again in 2010, to a Fabtek FT-180 head.
Through the 1980s and into 1990s, Basil worked seasonally in the market gardening operation, and went back to the woods when the produce was finished.
In 2001, Basil made the decision to quit the market gardening due to health concerns. Through that summer, Basil and Chris developed a golf course on the farm. The golf course operated for a number of seasons, but unfortunately it suffered major flood and erosion damage in a major weather event, and has not been rebuilt.
They began taking on excavation work through the warm seasons, and together decided that another excavator and a dump box on the Western Star would allow them to expand dirt contracting. Since then, they have added a bulldozer and a third excavator and a road grader.
In recent years, the tradition has been that as freeze-up approaches, and excavation halts, an excavator would head to the shop for harvester conversion, and then head to the woods.
In addition to harvesting (and silviculture) on their own woodlots, they also purchase stumpage from other woodlot owners in their area.
Through the mid- to late-1990s, Chris began to develop the concept for a brush mulcher. The mulching head would provide another employment opportunity for their growing fleet of excavators.
Eventually, his concept ideas were put on paper, and in 1991 he built a mulching head which had swinging hammers on a rotating drum. Mounted on their excavator, it was used for plantation site preparation, and later mulching brush on public roadsides for the New Brunswick Department of Transportation.
Encouraged by the success of the swinging hammer head, Chris decided to build a mulching head which featured fixed teeth on a rotating drum. His second mulching head design also proved successful. He explained that he went through a number of different tooth designs before settling on a six-sided tapered design. The tooth can be rotated for six cutting faces and it can also be sharpened, further extending the working life of the tooth.
With the fixed tooth mulching head gaining success, different size models were developed to fit various sizes of excavator carriers. The mulching heads were working extensively in roadside brush control both for forestry and rural highways.
While the rotating drum mulcher is effective mulching virtually any sized stem, the overall productivity is limited by the travel speed of the excavator. Chris recognized that there was an opportunity to produce a brush cutting head, designed specifically for small diameter roadside stems, and if mounted on a road grader, would be much more productive compared to excavator-mounted.
Chris’s concept for the cutter was to mount it on a knuckleboom arm, attached to the grader, which would allow the cutting head to operate in a wide swath. The cutter and the arm position tidily along the grader when not in use.
The cutter design incorporated three overlapping discs, each with a series of eight attached cutting bits, which had proved successful on his mulching heads.
With the success of his prototype heads, Chris formalized the manufacturing business as Forax Equipment Limited. The Forax manufacturing is carried out in a shop near their homes, which has a complete machine shop including plasma cutter, lathes and milling machines, overhead cranes and even a heat treat oven.
Forax has manufactured a number of grader mounted roadside brush cutters which are employed by forestry and municipalities across Canada. They have also built many sizes of mulching heads and attaching brackets for many different power units, including wheel loaders, tractors, snowmobile trail groomers, and even side by side utility vehicles.
The Forax manufacturing shop has two full time machinists/welders, a part-time machinist, with Chris supervising and assisting on production. In 2020, David Lynch came on board as Market Development Manager. David brings experience of more than 20 years as a rep for a global construction equipment manufacturer.
“Our business has grown a great deal in the past year, despite COVID restrictions hampering our ability to meet potential customers face to face. We do a lot of contact through info @forax.ca,” says David. Forax products are now at work across Canada and in the United States, and recently they have received inquiries from Denmark, Germany and South America.
With the Forax business expanding, Chris finds himself in the shop more and more. But he makes time to get to the woods to keep harvested wood forwarded to roadside, keeping a wary eye to the weather to avoid having piles snowed under.
As for Basil, asked about retirement plans as he approaches his eighth decade, he responded: “I couldn’t think of a better retirement pastime. Going to the woods, and working with good equipment. I only operate about five hours each day, then I like to go to the coffee shop and drink a cup of tea with a bunch of other old fellas, but this COVID thing has shut down the social time with them.”
On the Cover:
For the San Group, which has been finishing the first sawmill to be built on the B.C. Coast in 15 years, the last year has come with special challenges. But they have been able to successfully meet these challenges head-on. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Langley, B.C.-based company has built a greenfield sawmill/reman operation in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island. Read all about this new cutting edge sawmill beginning on page 8 of this issue (Cover photo courtesy of The San Group).
A great ride in B.C.’s forest industry
B.C. Interior logger Bill Litke has ridden the rollercoaster that is the ups and downs of the forest industry over many decades—and it’s been an adventurous ride.
B.C. gets a new sawmill, on Vancouver Island
The San Group is wrapping up work on a major new small log sawmill in Port Alberni, B.C.—and there are more investments to come for the B.C.-based company owned by the Sanghera Family.
Focus on fir—and timbers
A focus on Douglas fir and timbers have proven to be the keys to success at Alberta’s HC Forest Products—so much so that they have purchased another sawmill, in B.C.
Family roots run deep in forestry
Father and son loggers Basil and Chris Isbill have a rich family history in New Brunswick logging that includes setting up equipment manufacturing company Forax—and Basil still heading out to the woods every day at the tender age of 78.
LSJ takes a look at the new developments and technologies in Small/Portable Sawmilling.
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 (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski talks about how the success of an Ontario wood products business cluster shows the value of much-needed outreach in the forest industry.