By Tony Kryzanowski
While the June 2019 fire that nearly destroyed Muskoka Timber Mills in Bracebridge, Ontario was a tragedy that nearly destroyed the business, it also created an opportunity to change the company’s focus.
Now, a couple of years later, their efforts have paid off, built around a fundamental decision to pivot away from commodity wood production to become an exclusive supplier of custom pre-finished wood products.
Management realized, from their decades of wood product manufacturing experience, that there was plenty of business available within this segment of the wood industry, with consistent demand from local building contractors, homeowners and cottagers. Their location in Central Ontario in the heart of Cottage Country helped. They also had customers that they had been serving consistently with wood products for three decades.
“After the fire, we were getting quite a few phone calls from people saying that ‘we miss you, you knew how to do it, you did it well, there’s not a lot of people doing what you do and we’re struggling to get the quality we want’,” says Ric Singor, company owner.
While it required considerable job retraining to make the transition to pre-finished wood products, it saved the original 55 jobs at the mill and the company has emerged stronger than ever.
This decision caps a long journey for Singor who, along with a group of partners, founded the business back in 1992 with the idea of producing timbers to fill local demand.
“It became very clear, very quickly to us that you can’t be in the timber business and not be in the lumber business,” he says.
Muskoka Timber Mills continued to evolve over the years, to the point where it operated a mix of high-volume timber and lumber production equipment, and did custom sawmilling, and production and marketing of value-added products like high quality, pre-finished wood siding under the TimberThane brand name.
Much of the expansion that took place over the years was simply in response to local product demand. Prior to the fire, they were using a 12” double-cut band mill with a 10” resaw unit and a big bull edger producing more than 30,000 board feet of wood products per day, either to fill custom orders or to place wood products into inventory for sale.
After the fire, management quickly looked at what they could afford and got down to business in a hurry in making the transition. They designed a supply chain from the forest right to the customer’s door, to match their vision. As Singor describes it, today nothing turns in the operation that isn’t attached to a customer order, mostly coming from timber framers and builders.
“We won’t cut a log until the square inside that log is sold,” he says. “We know, based on grade, what we can do best with those side boards and we cut them accordingly. We basically know where every one of those boards is going.”
Singor says prior to the fire, about 70 per cent of their energy went into and revenue generated strictly from sawmilling, with the remainder coming from producing and marketing pre-finished wood products.
“After the fire, we sat down as a team and gave a lot of thought to what we wanted the future to look like as we had this opportunity to hit the reset button and start over,” he says. “The team here felt that their skillset lent itself more to the pre-finished wood sector.”
They can take a white pine log that they have harvested themselves from their tenure in the Westwind Sustainable Forest License (SFL) area located in the Parry Sound/Muskoka area, debark it, and break it down on one of two, commercial-grade, bandsaw mills at the front end of their operation, and then funnel the timbers and green lumber in various directions to produce a variety of value-added finished products
Muskoka Timber Mills harvests both hardwood and softwood from their SFL allocation, harvesting softwood in winter and hardwood in summer. To harvest their softwood, they use a Tigercat 860D feller buncher and delimb the logs using a LogMax 7000 head mounted on a John Deere 2154D carrier. The logs are skidded tree length to landings by sub-contractors. They are then self-loaded on trucks and delivered to a marshalling yard where they are processed and delivered either for their own use or to log customers. For their hardwood, they also deploy the Tigercat 860D feller buncher. Logs are delimbed by hand.
They will harvest between three and four million board feet of softwood per year and 1.5 million board feet of hardwood per year. About half of their softwood volume is sold while the remainder, about 1.5 million board feet, is processed through their own production line. At present, they sell all of their hardwood species, consisting primarily of hard maple with the remainder being soft maple, yellow birch, white birch and oak. Prior to the fire, the company processed all of their hardwood and softwood, and as Singor puts it, “we probably bought another two million feet of gate logs.”
Today, the company does not depend solely on their own resources. They purchase a variety of partially-finished softwood and hardwood products to complete customer orders, leveraging their drying, planing, moulding, re-manning, sanding and wood treatment capabilities to provide customers with a large selection of wood species, patterns and colors. About 20 per cent of wood material comes from their own resources and 80 per cent is purchased elsewhere.
Their timber products are manufactured from a combination of locally-sourced and imported softwoods, specifically white pine, hemlock, cedar, and Douglas fir. The sky is the limit as far as what hardwood species they can further finish.
Given the extent of their value-adding capabilities, they can create such moulded products as V-joint, beadboard, shadowline, square edge, centre match, channel, bevel, cove, board and batten, and log look.
Singor says that it was touch-and-go whether they would even continue during discussions held immediately after the fire. Pretty much everything was destroyed except for the area where their Timberthane product was manufactured. But there was no time to wait because they only had six months of business interruption insurance.
As part of the rebuild, the company significantly increased its value-adding capacity, installing a new water-based paint system with a rapid dry oven which quadrupled their production capacity, and a new paint system for their pre-finished siding that tripled their potential output.
The front end at Muskoka Timber Mills was re-equipped with a Morbark debarker, a Wood-Mizer commercial-grade LT300 bandsaw as well as a Heartwood-brand bandsaw mill. Both sawmills are capable of producing timbers as small as 4” x 4” to as large as 12” x 20”. The Wood-Mizer has been modified to be able to process logs up to 24’ long. The Heartwood bandsaw mill was modified to be able to process logs up to 40’ long. They can process logs as large as 36” at the butt. The average diameter is about 20”.
Production of wood timbers is still a major component of their business, so much so that the Heartwood bandsaw mill is used exclusively for that purpose. The Wood-Mizer LT300 has much wider usage.
Both sawmills are highly automated with hydraulics for log manipulation, computer settings and operators stationed in enclosed cabs. Timbers head in one direction while the lumber heads in another for further processing.
The Wood-Mizer LT300 will produce about 5,000 board feet per day. Sideboards from either bandsaw mill are processed through a Valley edger and then a Morbark end trimmer. The lumber is dried using one of two new, 20,000-board-foot capacity, Innovated Controls System kilns. The supplier is headquartered in nearby in Bancroft, Ontario.
Muskoka Timber Mills also has a four-side Kalin-brand planer to complement their timber production that can dress timbers as large as 16” x 26”. The timbers are sold green.
They add value to both their own lumber and purchased material in their millworks shop. Muskoka Timber Mills made considerable investments in this area, post-fire.
Wood processed in the millworks shop first encounters a Raimann-brand, straight line rip saw system which is capable of sawing wide boards into smaller pieces. The lumber then proceeds to either a Weinig resaw or moulder followed by a Weinig end matcher. The wood components are then sanded and processed through one of two paint shops.
“I don’t know of another company that goes right from the stump to the homeowner,” says Singor. “So, yes, I think we are unique and we are totally custom. We don’t put anything on a shelf. We dabbled in the pre-finished business prior to the fire. Now it is a big part of our business.”
On the Cover:
The last several years have been busy for B.C.’s Lizzie Bay Logging. In that time, in addition to diligently carrying out active logging activities during COVID, the company has become joint owner of a custom sawmilling business, acquired a towboating company, launched a concrete company—and started a tree services business. Read all about the company’s successful diversification beginning on page 12 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of Lizzie Bay Logging)
Filling the need for fallers
There’s a shortage of certified fallers in B.C.—but fallers in training like Melie de Jonge are helping to fill that need, with the help of veteran faller—and certified instructor—Richard Butler.
Playing defense in forestry game
Veteran B.C. logger Clint Carlson is playing defense to weather today’s skewed business environment in the forest industry.
B.C.’s Lizzie Bay Logging is still very focused on logging, but is also finding success in diversifying its business.
Solid formula for sawmill survival
Strong faith, no debt and diversification have all helped Mardis Forest Products survive in turbulent times.
Pivoting to pre-finished products
Ontario’s Muskoka Timber Mills has made a successful market pivot to custom, pre-finished wood products, rebuilding after a devastating mill fire.
Tapping into an under-utilized fibre resource
A Haida-owned company in B.C. is working with under-utilized fibre, harvested sustainably, along with a custom sawmill operation, to produce value added wood products.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, is a story from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC).
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski notes that West Fraser Timber is investing in the future as Canadian softwood lumber producers face a tough year ahead, after some pretty flush times during COVID.