By George Fullerton
Kevin Sexton grew up in the lumber business, working in his father George’s sawmill in Bloomfield, Newfoundland. The Sexton mill sawed purchased logs as well as cants from smaller mills, and marketed lumber throughout Newfoundland and Labrador (NL).
Kevin and his wife Susan established their own wood processing business in Bloomfield, debarking and chipping pulpwood, and trucking the chips to the Abitibi newsprint mill at Grand Falls, and Corner Brook Pulp and Paper (Kruger).
When George announced his retirement in 1996, Kevin and Susan made the decision to take over the sawmill business and went looking for a more modern mill which would provide higher production and complement their pulp chip business.
“I’m good at finding used equipment and making it work,” says Kevin. “We found a Kockums Cancar chipping saw in Montana, and brought it home and set it up.
“It was a struggle,” he added. “It was designed for big logs and we only have small logs, so it was not really very productive.”
The balsam fir and spruce they work with typically generate two eight- or nine-foot stud logs and an eight-foot pulpwood bolt.
“I was looking around for equipment which would process our small logs efficiently, and I kept looking over the HewSaw, but it was out of our budget. But eventually we were convinced that was the direction we had to go if we were going to stay in the sawmilling business,” explained Kevin. “It was a real stretch for us, to invest in a million-dollar mill when you are walking around with just twenty bucks in your pocket, but we made an investment in the HewSaw in 2000, and built infeed and downstream with used equipment.”
Regarding his propensity to gather up used milling equipment, Kevin made note that the current mill continues to operate with salvaged step feeders he bought for $1,200 each. Kevin shared that they have had great performance with the first HewSaw, and have since added two more HewSaws (2012 and 2019) to their operation.
“We are focused on production, and you have to have the best and most up-to-date technology in order to stay competitive,” stated Kevin.
Sexton Lumber’s annual production currently stands at 85 to 90 million board feet, with the goal to produce 100 million board feet.
“As we brought the third HewSaw on line, we developed bottlenecks downstream in the mill. We are working to smooth out those bottlenecks and work toward that 100-million board feet goal.”
In the yard, eight- and nine-foot logs are loaded to infeed decks by two Cat 325 and two Liebherr LH50 wheeled log loaders. Logs feed to three 18-inch VK debarkers, and are scanned with Prologic and VAB technology and sorted to bins according to size.
Kevin pointed out that they saw batches of similar sized logs, so the HewSaws do not have to reset a lot between logs, compared to simply sawing mill run logs.
Logs are positioned for sawing with a PHL positioner on the first HewSaw, with a HewSaw positioner on the second, and a Sawquip positioner on the third.
The VAB optimizer identifies lumber with excessive wane and it flows to a Newnes edger, and then feeds into the stream to a Carbotech positioner and Carbotech trim saw.
Trimmed lumber is sorted with a 42-bin Carbotech system and then stacked with a Carbotech stacker.
Lumber drying is handled by three Wellons kilns; two 130,000 board feet and one 80,000 board feet, for a total 340,000 board feet capacity. Drying energy is generated by a Wellons boiler burning sawdust and planer shavings. Sexton had recently upgraded their older kilns with new coils and fans which improve production, and provided a 15 per cent gain in efficiency.
The spruce drying cycle currently stands at 28 to 30 hours, while the balsam fir cycle is 45 to 50 hours. Previously, dry cycles were 48 hours for spruce and 72 hours for fir.
Lumber dressing is handled by Stetson-Ross planer technology, with integrated tension controls by Wolftec, which provides a high degree of productivity. Daily production is around 400,000 board feet (50,000 board feet/hour).
The planer infeed has a VAB wane-up system. The trim saw is a TS Manufacturing system. The eighteen-bin sort system and stacker are Carbotech. Wheel loaders handling lumber in the yard include two Cat 930 machines, a 180 Hitachi and two Liebherr 550 units.
Currently, about half of Sexton production is marketed throughout Atlantic Canada (Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI), and the other half is marketed in the United States.
Lumber shipped off Newfoundland and Labrador goes half by road transport (mainly backhauls to the Mainland) and the balance through Oceanex marine service. Oceanex delivers to the ports of Halifax and Montreal, where lumber is reloaded on rail service for delivery to U.S. destinations.
Lumber is brokered through Brunswick Valley Lumber, based in Fredericton, New Brunswick. “They are a great outfit to work with—they have found markets we could not have hoped to turn up by ourselves,” explained Kevin. “They also have a great logistics team which handles lumber transport.”
In 2009, the AbitibiBowater pulp and paper mill at Grand Falls closed and the company’s wood supply area was re-allocated to sawmills which had previously purchased logs through Abitibi. As a result, Sexton Lumber became responsible for harvesting their wood supply and became loggers.
As with equipping their sawmill, the Sexton’s assessed harvesting technologies, and leaned favorably to the Tigercat line. As with HewSaw, they thought Tigercat had the best technology and best support, but financially was out of their reach.
Kevin took a close look at the Tigercat 1075 forwarder at the 2014 Atlantic Heavy Equipment Show, and later made the deal with equipment dealer, Wajax, and took delivery later that same summer. Since then, the harvest team has grown to include three Tigercat 845 bunchers and five Tigercat processors, which work along with two Volvo and two Cat processors.
The first 1075 forwarder was matched with a second 1075 and a 1085, along with a twenty-tonne Rottne, to complete the forwarding team. The harvesting crew work ten-hour single-shifts, five days per week.
A Cat 320 log loader loads some 20 owner operators, who deliver to the mill hauling B-train or quad trailers. The log haul, from the mill to woods and back, is about nine hours.
Susan Sexton serves as Sexton Lumber’s chief scaler, as well as managing both the log trucking and lumber trucking operations. Sexton operates 20 highway tractors of their own, divided to chip and hog fuel, and lumber delivery.
Sexton Lumber handles their own wood road construction and the team includes Cat and Liebherr excavators, a 40-tonne Cat rock truck, a John Deere 850 dozer, and a Cat grader.
Logging supervisor Gary Freak is supported by Resource Innovations Inc., based in Corner Brook, which handles block layout and liaison with provincial government forestry officials.
One of the most recent production projects in the Sexton mill has been the installation of a Doucet finger jointing line.
“Our logs are short to start with, so after they get processed through the mill, we end up with a lot of shorts, so finger jointing allows us to utilize those shorts and make long lumber, up to thirty-two feet long,” explains Kevin. “To date we have sold some twenty-four foot lumber to an open concept design project. All our finger joint product is marketed in NL.
“We have had great support from the Maritime Lumber Bureau to help us certify our finger jointed lumber,” added Kevin. “However, we faced another challenge which was to convince our customers that our finger joint product met a high quality standard and was equal or better than a regular piece of sawn lumber.”
Currently, finger joint lumber production is 8 to 9 million board feet annually. Another marketing initiative is pressure treated lumber.
“We ship lumber throughout NL and we saw a demand for pressure treated, so we built a plant and now we can add pressure treated lumber to the load and serve that customer demand.”
Yet another marketing initiative involved building a drying system for hog fuel.
“We were selling wet bark to Kruger, but it was not a very profitable operation,” says Kevin. “We were looking for an opportunity to get better value out of the hog fuel and Kruger indicated that dry hog fuel could command a better price. We built a drying system consisting of a hog and hammer mills and a three-pass dryer.”
The hog fuel plant has generated a good deal of excitement for Sexton Lumber, but the business has also seen challenges.
Back in 2015, a spark detector alarm on the conveyor system in the dry storage building alerted operators of a fire, and that was immediately followed by a dust explosion which lifted the roof off the storage building.
“Thankfully there were no injuries, but it was a windy day and we had embers dropping all over the mill site. Thanks again to our local volunteer fire department, the fire was extinguished, with damage limited mainly to the conveyor system and the storage building,” said Kevin.
Susan and Kevin are quick to praise their employees for their successes and in particular point out some of their senior managers.
“Neil Greening has been with us something like 20 years. We like to call him the Minister of Finance. He has learned the lumber business intimately, both on the production side in the mill and on the marketing side. Neil provides daily and weekly production reports, so we know exactly what is working well and what needs attention. We make no investment or purchase decision without the blessing of our Minister of Finance,” declared Kevin.
Kevin also pointed out general manager Mike Butt as a key part of the management team. Some 25 years ago Mike retired as Captain of a Fisheries research vessel to work at Sexton Lumber.
“Both Mike and Neil bring their perspectives to our management meetings and we discuss issues thoroughly, and together we make the right decisions for the business,” said Kevin.
The Sexton team is on the receiving end of praise from their suppliers. “Newfoundlanders have had to develop the ability to ‘make things happen’ to create success,” says Neill Gibson, of VAB.
“The team at Sexton Lumber are a perfect example of this can-do attitude and this philosophy definitely starts at the top. Kevin and Susan have found extraordinary individuals like Mike Butt and his right hand man in terms of the optimization and electronic integration of equipment, Danny Champion, to really make the primary and secondary transformation of logs to lumber hum.”
Gibson says VAB can’t wait to help celebrate the first year the mill produces over 100 million board feet of product, and also establish the next target volume for the future.
Kevin maintains that adopting new technologies is absolutely critical for remaining competitive in the lumber business. He also recognizes that their 120 employees, and the contractors working for the company are also critical to the success of Sexton Lumber.
Lots of companies voice their appreciation for their employees’ contribution and commitment to their employer. In June 2021, the Sexton’s literally put their money where their mouth was, and shared some $2 million in bonuses with their employees, amounting to $10,000 for each employee. Literally, they decided to “walk the talk”.
“The lumber business turned out to be really good in 2021, despite our concerns that the COVID might have shut us down,” says Kevin. “We made the best profits we’ve seen in many years, and we decided it was time to share that good fortune with our employees. I left the details up to Susan and Neil, and they organized the employees to come by the office for a special announcement after their shift.”
Susan added: “There was quite a bit of tension with some employees, because their experience was that a special announcement from an employer was not always good news. But when they opened their letters and saw the cheques, the tension switched to a happy surprise.”
“That bonus meant a lot to our employees. For some it meant the ability to complete some home renovations. For others, it was an opportunity to visit family living away, and for some it was the ability to purchase a quad or some other toy they would otherwise not be able to afford,” explained Kevin. “We did not intend for the bonus to be publicized, but word got out and then the media got hold of it and we had them calling for details.
“It felt good to share our success with our employees,” says Kevin.
On the Cover:
Logging company Tri Valley Construction Ltd., of Princeton, B.C., did not hesitate when they were approached by Cat and B.C. Cat dealer, Finning, about participating in a trial of the new Cat 538 machine—and the new machine has proven itself in B.C.’s Southern Interior. Tri Valley is also getting involved in more steep slope logging, with the purchase of Tractionline and Harvestline equipment from The Inland Group. (Cover photo courtesy of Tri Valley Construction).
Major industry expansions in Saskatchewan
Big things are happening in the forest industry in Saskatchewan, with a new timber allocation from the Saskatchewan government supporting growth of the industry, including a $100 million expansion of Dunkley Lumber’s Carrot River sawmill.
Moving into steep slope equipment
Tri Valley Construction has been working with some new logging equipment, having solid success with Cat’s new 538 machine, and the company is now springboarding into getting involved with steep slope logging equipment in B.C.’s Southern Interior.
Franklin Forest dives into different markets
Franklin Forest Products turns out a variety of wood products—everything from wood for logging road bridges to diving boards—from its spectacular location on Vancouver Island’s Alberni Inlet, using an interesting combination of mill equipment.
Livestock still makes up a good portion of the business for B.C.’s Ootsa Lake Cattle Company, but it has also been doing more logging the last few years, including an interesting project for a community forest.
Turning out more lumber on The Rock
Newfoundland’s largest sawmill, Sexton Lumber, has seen some big increases in demand for lumber, and has incorporated a number of equipment changes to improve efficiencies.
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.
From power upgrades to safety improvements, read all about what’s new in mulcher systems in this issue’s
The Last Word
The partnership of Alberta sawmill Vanderwell Contractors—which will be supplying the raw material for a $35 million biofuel and hydrogen commercial demonstration project partnership—with a biofuel producer deserves praise, says Tony Kryzanowski.