By Tony Kryzanowski
Athletes often talk about making the most of their opportunities—and that is exactly what sawmill owner Dave Slingerland has done.
The opportunity to purchase a custom sawmilling operation near the town of Cowley in southern Alberta fell into his lap a decade ago, and there’s been no looking back.
The business, HC Forest Products, operates on busy Highway 3 and manufactures custom timbers and lumber, timber frame material, post and beam construction products, mantles, decking, trailer decking, wind fence and ranch gates exclusively from Douglas fir and cedar.
“We do basically anything that you can’t get in a lumber yard—but the backbone of our business is Douglas fir timbers pretty much in any size,” says Slingerland. Up to 80 per cent of their product line is timbers.
“We promote Douglas fir because it is a stronger wood,” he says. “It has a lot of the same oils and tannins in it that cedar has.
“The strength is better than cedar and it should last almost as long as cedar, but it is way, way cheaper. It’s been a really great alternative to cedar and cosmetics-wise, it’s a beautiful wood.”
HC Forest Products in Cowley has purchased a second sawmill across the provincial border, in Hosmer, British Columbia. The intention is to expand their production and gain greater and easier access to B.C. wood fibre, particularly cedar. Slingerland has discovered that it is easier to source and manufacture wood products in B.C. than to deal with the challenges of shipping logs across the border into Alberta.
That sawmill is only about an hour away and even if it struggles, Slingerland says at least he’ll gain a new sawmill from the transaction. However, he anticipates that the current strong demand for timbers in building construction from these specific species will continue.
When he purchased HC Forest Products in 2009, the sawmill was processing only about seven truckloads of logs per year. Now, they are up to about 30 truckloads, or producing about triple the volume of wood products.
Slingerland comes from a farming background in the Lethbridge area and owns the company with his wife, Calinda.
“I was looking to do something different because farming is a 24-hour-a-day job,” he says. “It’s an awesome lifestyle, but it’s hard to raise kids when they are getting on the school bus and you haven’t seen them yet because you’ve already gone out the door.”
So he investigated the wood products industry as a potential alternative, “because you miss all the chances that you don’t take.”
What’s immediately obvious from entering the HC Forest Products yard and sawmill building is how neat and organized the business is, both inside and out, which helps with work flow and leaves a positive impression with customers. Slingerland says that’s largely due to the efforts of his staff.
What’s also obvious from the yard is that Slingerland has addressed one of the biggest challenges faced by all smaller sawmill operations: managing waste. It doesn’t take long for slabs from sawn logs to build up in the yard—and it can become overwhelming.
“Your first cut is going to basically be a firewood slab,” says Slingerland. “So we make eight-foot firewood bundles or we just cut the slabs into 16-inch blocks and put them into bins. Campers come by here all summer long and the firewood is cleaned up.”
They also have a waste pile that they burn once a year. Slingerland aims for at least 80 per cent timber or lumber recovery from each log, and with the thin kerf on his Wood-Mizer band saw blade, there is very little sawdust.
Perhaps Slingerland’s success involves a bit of good karma, as the HC Forest Products business site was the former planer mill location for what was Cowley Forest Products. In its day, it was a high volume, independently-owned, dimension lumber mill, with the ability to kiln dry and plane lumber. It fell on hard times and closed in 2002.
HC Forest Products was established on this site by two older individuals in 2007 as part of their retirement plan, but it was the growing success of the business that led them to the conclusion that it was more work than they really wanted. That’s when Slingerland and a partner entered the picture, in 2009, with a fortuitous visit looking to maybe purchase a small firewood manufacturing business in the area. On the day they arrived, the former owners had been talking about selling the business, and the situation evolved from there.
“We thought that cutting timber was better than cutting firewood, so we jumped in with both feet and started swimming,” says Slingerland.
Since then, Slingerland and his wife have become sole owners of HC Forest Products.
Right off the bat, he recognized that the business had a lot of positives going for it. First, it was located on the Crowsnest Highway, which is a main highway leading travellers through the Crowsnest Pass in the Rocky Mountains. So, there is a lot of traffic passing by, fulfilling an important axiom to business success, which is having a highly visible location. Slingerland says he doesn’t advertise because a lot of his business walks through the door from highway traffic, and he attracts a lot of repeat business. Word of mouth is his best advertising, with customers telling others where they sourced their timber products.
Second, the business is only a couple hours south of Calgary, about an hour west of Lethbridge, and about a half-hour from the B.C. border, giving HC Forest Products visibility with a significant number of building contractors looking for timber products. This comes at a time when timbers are becoming more and more prominent in building construction. It is much more cost-effective for contractors to purchase 8 X 8 timbers to use as pillars than to purchase treated 6 X 6 timbers and then add more wood and labour to them to manufacture 8 X 8 pillars.
Third, Slingerland has access to good local sources of raw logs from loggers, fulfilling yet another axiom to sawmill success, as the economics of purchasing and shipping logs can make or break a sawmill business. The logs arrive tree length, and are then bucked and sorted in the yard for the best potential recovery, depending on their quality. Slingerland supplements his wood supply with a Commercial Timber Permit (CTP) available through the province. This provides him with log supply security for a year and he also has the ability to choose an area offering the type and size of log he wants.
The backbone of the business is a Wood-Mizer LT40 Super HD band sawmill, which allows him to produce finely manufactured timber and lumber products to customer specifications. That was another attractive feature to HC Forest Products, as the band sawmill came with the business. His new Hosmer sawmill offers a step up, with a larger and longer Wood-Mizer LT70 HD band sawmill.
Slingerland describes his Wood-Mizers as well-built, very accurate sawmills, that produce high quality products, but are geared toward lower volumes. His Wood-Mizer LT40 HD band sawmill had 7,000 hours on it when he bought the sawmill and now it is pushing 20,000 hours.
“It’s an amazing sawmill,” he says. “We’ve replaced every moving piece, roller and bearing on it multiple times, but it still cuts as true as the day it was made.”
They equip the band saw with Wood-Mizer 1 ¼” blades exclusively, featuring a 10 degree hook, and they have performed superbly for them, he says. Each blade cuts for about an hour-and-a-half before being changed out.
“A sharp blade is pretty much the key to quality timber,” says Slingerland. They also use a Wood-Mizer sharpener for their blades.
Finally, the building itself where his band sawmill and Valley Machine Works two-blade, Junior board edger is located is an ideal location, offering interior working conditions and plenty of room to both operate the equipment year round and to store inventory. He tends to fill orders as they arrive, delivering products usually within two weeks, and never operates the band sawmill just to stockpile lumber. The lumber inventory simply develops from the edged timber sideboards, but this does allow him to maintain a small lumber inventory for walk-in traffic and quick sales.
“Dimensional lumber comes off the side of each timber so we always have anything from 1 X 6 to 2 X 12,” says Slingerland. “We can cut up to 26 feet long here and we have cut up to 20 X 20 timbers.” They manufacture a lot of 8 X 8 timbers as they are in high demand.
In terms of log dimensions, the largest log they can process is 36” in diameter and the smallest they prefer is 10” in diameter.
“The most unique product we make is probably live edge fireplace mantles,” says Slingerland. “A lot of times we can get the bark to stay on, so people can put up mantles that have moss and lichens still stuck on the bark. It makes an absolutely gorgeous mantle.”
Currently, their wood products are air-dried as needed, but they have plans to build a custom dry kiln, using their sawdust as the fuel to provide the heat.
Overall, Slingerland is feeling positive about the future of the company—and glad he seized the opportunity to purchase the business.
“What we are witnessing is a trend of building more and more with timbers, which is about the greenest material that you can build with,” he says. “There is far less manufacturing time in building just out of raw wood. I think as people are becoming more Earth-conscious, they are finally realizing that maybe the best way to build stuff is to cut trees down and replant them. I think it is a trend that we are going to see for quite some time.”
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.