By Jim Stirling
Owen Miller tells an intriguing story: it links the past to the present, with the prospect of a happy ending.
It began in 1974 when Owen’s grandfather, Conrad, was plant manager at the old Northwood Pulp & Timber sawmill in Princeton, British Columbia. While at work one day, Conrad noticed a damaged section of 2 x 4 lying in the millyard. As he removed it, he mused: “There’s got to be a way of putting that board back together again.”
It’s turning out, his instinct could well be right.
Now, in 2023, Owen Miller is president and project manager of Deadwood Innovations Ltd, a close-knit team of lumbermen and entrepreneurs based in the historic village of Fort St. James on the shore of Stuart Lake, about 60 kilometres north of Vanderhoof, in central B.C.
Deadwood Innovations has launched a pilot project to test the commercial feasibility of a method designed to upgrade damaged wood fibre. The potential feedstock includes low grade and under-utilized wood, and includes fibre damaged by insect infestations and wildfire.
Deadwood Innovations’ pilot is a science-based method that would help a regional forest industry meet a raft of major challenges it’s facing across its operating spectrum.
It was a very different forest industry in Conrad Miller’s day. Still to come were the diverse implications of a warming climate; timber supply shortages; soaring operational costs; unprecedented supply chain bottlenecks; pan-industry labour shortages and a world-wide health pandemic.
Conrad Miller and his brother, Don, had always demonstrated a flair for ingenuity and invention.
“They collaborated on numerous equipment and process innovations through the years,” recalls Owen. “In the early 1960s, they built and operated their own mill north of Fort St. James.” The pair designed and built a 10-inch gang saw when others were struggling with reliability issues in the six- and eight-inch double arbour designs, he adds. “Their design was the first to use thin kerf saws and a unique guide system that improved cutting accuracy and ultimately sawmill throughput. Before this, reciprocating gang saws were the standard.”
Don Miller went on to establish Central Mill Design, a well regarded sawmill engineering company.
Things have a tendency to come full circle in Fort St. James. It was Don Miller who was instrumental in designing the Tl’Oh Forest Products building in Fort St. James where Deadwood Innovations’ pilot project is now underway.
Tl’Oh’s finger joint plant was a fixture in Fort St. James, providing steady employment for about 40 people and benefitting the local economy. The plant opened in 1995 and was a joint venture between Apollo Forest Products, a division of the Sinclar Group, and the Nak’azdli Whut’en band in Fort St. James. The finger joint plant closed permanently in 2015 due to market forces and fibre source uncertainties.
The Nak’azdli are supporters of and partners in Deadwood Innovations’ initiatives.
Owen outlines the process under development in the pilot project. “We accomplish wood modification through an application of a proprietary biomass-derived lignin solution, mechanical forces and temperature. Applying a unique sequence of concurrent forces, our mechanical process fractures low quality and small diameter whole logs (non-sawlog grade) without length shearing,” he explains.
“When temperature and pressure are applied, the lignin-treated fractured log undergoes a chemical process that modifies the natural cellulose structure and imparts structural properties that Mother Nature didn’t.”
In simple terms, the process improves the log’s quality and grade.
“The result of the reaction produces a fibre to fibre bond at a molecular level,” he explains. “The process is species and quality agnostic, therefore provides the opportunity to improve feedstock utilization, avoid emissions through atmospheric combustion, sequester the carbon and increase forest resource value extraction.”
Deadwood Innovations’ process can be used in the manufacture of a broad range of upgraded wood products, anticipates Owen.
“We’ve produced boards of various dimensions and densities with promising results. During the pilot process we are learning and generating the necessary process data,” he adds.
The analysis will help determine a product portfolio. “Longer term, the University of Northern British Columbia’s Wood Innovation Resource lab and FP Innovations will continue performing strength and durability testing aligned to eventual structural certification.”
Assistance through the pilot development stage to date includes help from the federal government’s Natural Resources Canada; the province of B.C. through the Indigenous Forest Bioenergy program and Northern Development Initiatives Trust, a regional advisory committee funded by the B.C. government.
Key members of the Deadwood Innovations team in Fort St. James includes Steve Illerbrun, Daniel Rix, and Rob Ubleis. Owen credits several others in the Fort St. James area who have rallied around Deadwood Innovations and supported its pilot project engagement. These include Owen’s dad, Jerry, for his contributions to the grassroots development of Deadwood Innovation’s work and forming the inter-generational link with Conrad Miller. Jerry Miller began working engineering revisions of Deadwood’s concept back in the 1980s. “Another team member who—like my dad—is a primary reason for our success is Jamie Gordy, in Mackenzie, B.C. for his contributions and 30 years of experience in the wood sciences field,” adds Owen.
The process has been challenging—but the development team anticipated that it would be. “But we’re making progress every day and that’s very exciting,” enthuses Owen. His grandfather would doubtless agree.
Deadwood Novel Oriented Strand Lumber produced from softwood burned in the 2018 Shovel Lake fire in B.C.
On the Cover:
Jordie Wiens believes that his reading of today’s forest industry will strike a chord of potential with forest companies and logging contractors in British Columbia. He’s introducing a small—but proven—forwarder and a harvesting head honed by experience into the B.C. market. Read all about the equipment beginning on page 8 of this issue (Cover photo courtesy of Jordie Wiens).
Piloting a move to improve log quality
A pilot project now underway in B.C. would improve a log’s quality and grade—and help a regional forest industry meet a raft of major challenges.
A small, but proven, step forward for harvesting…
B.C.’s Jordie Wiens is introducing some new Scandinavian logging equipment, believing the timing is right for this small—but proven—forwarder, and harvester head.
Canada’s Top Lumber Producers!
Logging and Sawmilling Journal’s authoritative listing of Canada’s Top Lumber Producers, produced in association with leading forest industry consultants FEA, reflects the consolidation that took place in the industry in the last year—but West Fraser and Canfor remain the country’s top lumber producers.
An alternative approach to logging
Freya Logging is demonstrating an alternative logging approach in the B.C. Interior, including on a research project site involving different forest ecosystems.
Official Show Guide!
Logging and Sawmilling Journal is pleased to publish the Official Show Guide for the Canada North Resources Expo, being held May 26 to 27 in Prince George, B.C. The Official Show Guide has it all, from exhibitor listings to a show map to preview coverage of Resources Expo, the premier forest industry show in Canada this year.
BC Saw Filer’s coming up
The B.C. forest industry is facing challenges, with curtailments due to a drop in the lumber market and a shortage of fibre, but there remains a strong need for skilled workers in the industry, including saw filers, a topic sure to be discussed at the BC Saw Filer’s Convention being held May 26 to 27 in Kamloops, B.C.
Interior Logging Association gears up for show
B.C.’s Interior Logging Association is preparing for another successful show May 4 to 6 in Kamloops, with a broad variety of equipment to be on display at the PowWow Grounds, in Kamloops, B.C.
GP’s new Warrenton sawmill ramps up production
Georgia-Pacific is now working with a new state-of-the-art, high production sawmill in Warrenton, Georgia—and the BID Group was a big part of making that happen.
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
A transition is underway in Canadian forestry, and it will result in a stronger and more resilient industry, says Tony Kryzanowski.