By Dave Boyt
Pete Lemiski is the owner of PAL Lumber, near Acton, Ontario, about 45 minutes northwest of Toronto—and he’s one company owner that knows all about being nimble and flexible.
“We started out doing lumber and logging,” Lemiski explained. “I had five guys working for me, logging in the winter and cutting hardwood grade lumber for the U.S. market in the spring, summer, and fall. When the 2008/2009 recession hit, I lost a lot of my lumber contracts, so I sold the sawmill, shifted gears, and went into the firewood business.”
About that time, Kevin Cullingham (a.k.a. “Skidder Kev” on Youtube) was also shifting gears.
“When I got laid off from my job at General Electric, I had a choice of working in a plant or changing careers.” As it turns out, the gears meshed, and Cullingham has been working with Lemiski full-time for the last nine years. “I had started out skidding, but since it was the two of us, I started cutting, too. I grew up on a farm, so I was familiar with firewood,” says Cullingham.
“We used to run a cable skidder, but we switched to track skid steers,” Cullingham explained. “They’re ideal for small sawlogs and firewood, and make it profitable to take jobs that other loggers would pass up. They’re easy to move to a job site, cheaper to run, lighter, and more nimble in the bush than full-size skidders.”
The 5,000-kg Kubota skid steers leave a light footprint and can work without leaving ruts pretty much any place there isn’t standing water. This makes them ideal for salvaging ash and thinning woodlots without damaging the remaining stand.
Lemiski and Cullingham do most of their logging in the winter, harvesting in soft maple swamps after they have frozen over. In the mornings, Lemiski fells trees with a feller/buncher head on his machine while Cullingham limbs, cuts the logs to length, and skids. In the afternoons, Lemiski puts a grapple on his machine and skids logs. The front-mounted log grapples work like mini-grapple skidders, pulling hitches of a half-dozen firewood logs backwards and stacking at the landing. “I’ve gotten to where I can run that skid steer in reverse as easily as forward,” laughed Cullingham. They use Martatch LG-72HS 72” grapples. The feller/buncher head is a BaumaLight FBS752.
From the landing, the logs go to a yarding area where firewood material is stacked and merchantable sawlogs are sorted out to go to area sawmills, though Lemiski does some custom cutting on a Wood-Mizer LT40. “That helps us get the most value out of each log, as opposed to just cutting everything for firewood,” Lemiski noted.
The rest of the year, Lemiski and Cullingham run a Bells 4000 processor with a 80 h.p. Cat engine and a 44-inch circular cut-off blade.
“It’s just amazing how fast the blade goes through the wood. It will rip through a 20” piece of ash without slowing down,” Cullingham exclaimed. They have no complaints at all about the machine, he added.
With all that experience, operating the processor is second nature to Cullingham. “There is a bit of a learning curve to get the logs to fall straight into the splitting chamber,” he admitted. “It’s just little things that you pick up along the way.”
The single lever joystick control has four-direction movement for direct hydraulic control of the cutterhead and the infeed conveyor. “That lets me control how fast the blade comes down in the log,” Cullingham explained. “If there’s a big knot or it’s the last piece being held by the clamp, I can cut a little slower, or back the blade out of a cut if I need to.”
A trigger and two pairs of buttons control the rest of the hydraulic functions. A squeeze on the trigger activates the splitting cycle. One pair of buttons raises and lowers the 8-way splitting wedge, and a second pair of buttons controls the three-strand live deck.
Cullingham says that the infeed conveyor has an aggressive feed that handles most crooked logs with no problem.
“When you’re cutting firewood out of the tops, you get the crooked logs. We can get 90 per cent of them through the processor, and the others, we cut shorter to straighten them out. We’ve cut and split maybe 800 cords this year, and I’ve had to set aside maybe a couple of cords that I didn’t think the splitter could handle.” Anything questionable is set aside to sell to weekend woodcutters.
The Simonds slashing saw blade holds 30 inserted carbide teeth. Cullingham inspects the blade daily, and can replace a damaged tooth in a matter of minutes. “I’ve gone through nails, screws, and wire, and you just carry on,” he said. After about 1,000 hours of operation, however, Cullingham and the blade finally met their match. “I was processing a log from a tree service,” he recalled. “I cut through a steel gate hanger and threw out every single tooth!”
Lemiski had an operator’s cab installed to keep sawdust from blowing back on the operator, and keep the controls out of the weather. Cullingham says he likes the working conditions inside the cab. It has heat and, with the 38-degree C (100 degrees F) summer heat in Ontario, he persuaded Lemiski to add air conditioning. “It also has a radio so I can listen to podcasts while I work.”
Cullingham observed that the cab affords a good view of the splitting chamber and that, with a bit of experience, it is easy to gauge the height of the wedge to give even-sized pieces of firewood. An optional firewood tumbler at the top of the conveyor separates the bark and dirt from the firewood.
According to Cullingham, maintenance on the Bells 4000 is similar to that of any hydraulic equipment. “It’s a matter of keeping the filters clean, blowing sawdust off the motor, greasing bearings, and changing the oil—nothing really unusual.” The 40 gallons of hydraulic oil needs changing every 1500 hours. “It’s cheap insurance,” he noted.
Bells designs its equipment to operate in the cold Ontario winters. “We have run the processor down to about -20 degrees C (-4 degrees F) and I’m sure you can run it in colder weather,” Cullingham said. “We try to give it a good fifteen to twenty minutes and run the conveyors and blade to warm up the engine and hydraulics.”
While Cullingham runs the Bells 4000 from the comfort of the cab, Lemiski is busy on the skid steer, loading logs on the deck, removing debris from under the tumbler and clearing sawdust from under the cut-off saw.
“When you have decent-size logs on it, you can average three cords per hour, no problem,” says Cullingham. “With bigger logs, you can get up to four full cords per hour.” He cuts most of the wood to 16-inch lengths, but says there is a growing demand for bagged 12-inch lengths for convenience stores. “We do 5,000 bags of firewood for gas stations and convenience stores,” he said. “There’s more money in the shorter firewood, but more labour in filling the bags.”
Lemiski and Cullingham also make use of the processor’s easy portability, taking it to customers who yard up firewood throughout the year. Lemiski estimates that they custom process 400 cords per year—about a third of their total production.
“We contract to cut by the cord,” Lemiski explained. “One of our bigger custom jobs this past summer was around 300 cords for a customer that does land clearing.”
According to Lemiski, breaking down the machine for transport is quick and easy. “The live deck and conveyor fold up with hydraulics. Kev and I can have it road ready in about 15 minutes.” Once folded for transport, the processor is road legal without requiring a wide load permit. On site, the machine folds out and is ready to go to work in another 15 minutes.
Wholesale buyers usually bring in their own truck and trailer, and Lemiski or Cullingham load it with the skid steer and conveyor. When not logging or running the firewood processor, they deliver wood to retail customers with a GM TopKick dump truck that holds two cords, and a dump trailer that holds another cord.
“We only sell in quantities of full cords—or ‘bush cords’ as we say here,” Cullingham explained. “We don’t stack wood for customers, so they have to have a place where we can dump it. We’ve managed to squeeze into some pretty tight places,” he laughed.
“In April and May, we cut and split right into the dump truck and haul it straight to the customer. That way, the customer saves a few bucks and we don’t have to handle it again. That’s about half of our sales,” Cullingham explained. “The rest, we season in the yard and sell in the fall. We have a decent size yard, but you can use up a ton of space when you have four or five hundred cords. We put about 50 cords under cover for the winter so we don’t have to dig through the snow to load it.”
Lemiski is always looking for ways to be more productive and increase the value of his product. When asked about plans for the future he replied: “Our long term plan is to build a kiln out of an insulated shipping container, then heat it with an outdoor wood boiler. I can dry firewood as I need it for customers who don’t think ahead and buy their firewood in the middle of the winter.” Not one to burn his inventory, he added that he will fuel it with scraps from the tumbler and softwood slabs from the sawmill.
For those who are interested in going into the firewood business, Cullingham offers this advice: “First thing is to find a source for logs. You can’t have a firewood business without logs. Find out what land clearing companies are doing with their logs, and find local loggers who have pole-size logs for sale. Tree services are another source, but you can wind up with a lot of trash wood.
“Start small and work your way up, and get word out by word of mouth. We just placed one Facebook ad at the very start, and it’s been word of mouth ever since.” To follow Cullingham’s adventures in logging, firewood processing, and other outdoor activities—including the results of cutting into that steel gate hanger—check his Youtube channel “Skidder Kev”.
Note: Bells was bought last year by Eastonmade (all in the family). According to CEO Andrew Easton, the firewood processors will be basically the same. In addition to a new colour, Easton says that the new machines will feature an offset splitting chamber and a fly-by-wire joystick control system that is more responsive to inputs. Easton also emphasized that Eastonmade will support Bells firewood processors already in use. For more information, visit www.easton-madewoodsplitters.com.
On the Cover:
Adam Williams, owner of A.R. Williams Logging, of Englehart, Ontario, has been learning the ropes on some new, but also familiar, logging equipment, from John Deere, harvesting wood in northeastern Ontario, near the Timmins area. Over the past year, Williams has been demo’ing a John Deere 953MH Tracked Harvester with a Waratah 623C harvester head—and which features John Deere’s latest operator assistance control feature, Intelligent Boom Control (IBC), which the company has introduced for its 900 MH-Series Tracked Harvester. Read all about how IBC is working well for Williams beginning on page 22 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of John Deere).
Mercer moves into mass timber
In an interesting strategic move into the mass wood market, B.C.-based Mercer International has purchased the bankrupt Katerra Mass Timber Plant in neighbouring Washington State—which uses Canadian SPF lumber as feedstock.
On a Mission to build a new sawmill
The new $160 million (U.S.) Mission Forest Products sawmill in Mississippi draws on a wide variety of suppliers for equipment, including a number of Canadian companies.
Forest management: from planning to planting…
Silvacom’s comprehensive Forest Management System software seamlessly covers operations, from planning right through to planting.
Deere’s new Intelligent Boom Control (IBC)-equipped tracked harvester at work in Ontario
Contractor Adam Williams is having solid success working with the new IBC-equipped harvester, working in northern Ontario forests.
PAL Lumber is all fired up…
Ontario’s PAL Lumber is one busy operation these days, producing firewood for everyone from cottagers to large commercial customers, with the solid support of a tough Bells 4000 firewood processor.
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
B.C.’s Forest Practices Board is keeping tabs on spruce bark beetle harvesting, notes Jim Stirling.