By Paul MacDonald
When you call up Franklin Forest Products, a specialty sawmiller near Port Alberni, on B.C.’s Vancouver Island, you’re likely to get the on-site sales department—who also happens to be mill manager Mike McKay.
The mid-sized sawmill at the end of 16 miles of gravel road, and fronting on the spectacular Alberni Inlet, has been turning out lumber for close to 30 years, meeting the needs of local and regional markets. Its founding dates back to when industry giant MacMillan Bloedel dominated the forest industry on Vancouver Island and the B.C. Coast.
The company was set up by Mike’s dad, Pat McKay, who was running shingle mills and logging operations, and saw the opportunity to set up a sawmill near Port Alberni, using timber that was freed up from the closure of MacMillan Bloedel’s Somass “A” mill, back in the early 1990s.
Pat set up the company with Gary Reed, a very talented sawmiller who was involved with Stag Timber.
Mike joined the company in 1993, after graduating from UBC’s forestry school.
The operations of Franklin Forest Products have evolved over the years, Mike notes. Initially, they purchased some basic mill operations on the site from sawmiller Chuck Green.
“When we bought it from Chuck, there was no concrete or pavement on the site—it was just dirt and mud.” Mike and Pat blew some rock off the site, and put in a dryland sort.
“We also originally had a shingle mill on site,” recalls Mike. “But the larger operations started cutting shingle logs, so we started to focus on cutting utility and pulp logs, with western red cedar being the main diet for the first 15 or so years.”
Mostly they’ve cut four species: Douglas fir, red cedar, yellow cedar and hem/bal. Six species if you include Sitka spruce and western white pine, which they’ve cut from time to time.
Their dryland sort has been an advantage for Franklin Forest, both in terms of sorting for their own purposes, and doing contract sorting for some of the major forest companies operating on the coast.
In terms of the sawmill itself, Mike says there is only one roll case left over from the original mill operation that Chuck Green built in the early-1980s.
“We gutted the whole mill,” he says. “We basically reconfigured the old mill, putting in a different head rig, a different edger, through the 1990s and the early 2000s.”
Their mill equipment is a combination of used equipment from various B.C. sawmill operations from the Coast and the Interior. The mill also has a boneyard that they have regularly accessed to add on to the existing mill set-up, as needed.
And there is some new equipment, as well. ATS Automation is a go-to supplier of controls systems for Franklin Forest Products. This year, ATS have upgraded the headrig setworks controls and supplied the PLC controls on the mill’s new Wood-Mizer small log twin-band saw line.
The mill is served by a 4.5 kw power line built to the site, from the Bamfield mainline.
Franklin Forest Products has turned out wood products for oyster farms, railway bridges and, a few years’ back, manufactured some diving boards out of Douglas fir for local cottagers.
Mike added that they very much appreciate the local support they receive, both in terms of buying the company’s wood products, and from local suppliers. Like all of the industry, Franklin Forest went through some lean times around 2008/2009, and the understanding and support they received from local companies were key to their survival.
Relationships with major licencees, First Nations and Vancouver Island and Lower Mainland independent logging, sawmill and reman companies are crucial and invaluable to Franklin Forest Products, says Mike.
Mike added that he is also fortunate in that he has a solid crew turning out all their products, and handling the dryland sort.
“Overall, I’ve been able to keep a core group of people for almost two decades,” he says. “We’ve got a versatile bunch of guys, from the log yard right through to the lumber yard. And our maintenance guys are talented people who will do electrical and hydraulic work, right through to welding and millwrighting.” He says having those skills in-house is important, and helps them avoid the costs of calling in service people.
They have two shops on the mill site that look after the mill and the dryland sort equipment needs. “There is very little work that we farm out,” Mike says.
In terms of their mobile equipment, Komatsu wheel loaders have been used on the sort for quite a while. “We had some old Michigan’s back in the day, but they have gone to sawmill heaven,” jokes Mike. “We really like the Komatsu loaders. The log deck is long and narrow, so there is a lot of turning into piles when we are decking wood, so we want something that can get around easily.” They also use the loaders to pick up cants for re-entry into the mill.
They have Cat forklifts, and two Bobcats equipped with log grapples for moving smaller wood around, and debris clean-up.
Safety is a big focus for Franklin Forest. “I take pride in our operation being a safe workplace,” says Mike. He notes that the work around the mill is pretty physical. “There is not a lot of high tech equipment—it takes a lot of sweat to move wood out the door.”
In addition to making sure his employees have good, safe working conditions, Mike says a focus for the company is plain and simple: “It’s finding wood.”
He added that it’s become important for them to communicate with customers that the mill is now dealing with a changing log mix, and to manage expectations on what customers are going to get with the finished product. “The end product can change because the type of log we are working with has changed, and will continue to change,” he says. “Flexibility is key.”
From wood supply to the sawmill, Mike says that having gone to UBC’s forestry school prepared him well for managing Franklin Forest. “I trained originally as an RPF, but went more into the marketing side, and have a resource management degree. I also got my lumber grading and log scaling tickets.”
And, like his father, west coast wood seems to run through his veins. “I like the business and I like the people I work with—and everything about working with wood is good, no matter the age of the timber or its size.”
And they have some spectacular west coast wood to work with. And a spectacular place to work at, on Vancouver
Island’s Alberni Inlet.
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.