By Jim Stirling
Small, movable sawmills have played a time-honoured role in the development of British Columbia’s pioneer forest industry. Strait Timber Inc., on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, is following the historical lead—and writing a new footnote to the old style portable mill’s story.
The company has acquired a sophisticated portable sawmill unit and is taking it wherever customers have work for it along B.C.’s rugged coastline. The Have Mill/Will Travel business plan—with apologies to the similarly named old radio and TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s—represents an intriguing sawmilling niche with a promising future.
The old style portable mills also served a practical purpose. They were typically set up close to the forest stand they were to harvest, and moved on when felled timber became too far away to profitably haul to the mill. Folklore has it there were more than 600 portable sawmills of varying description and efficiency scattered through the bush surrounding Prince George in the 1950s and early-1960s.
Hard data is scant to verify the accurate numbers, but there were many small mills from one- and two-man operations on up that were regularly moving on and occasionally burning down.
The arrival of the pulp mill era changed all that. The forest industry was ushered into a great transformation. Something similar is happening today, but for very different reasons. The effects of the warming climate is behind much of today’s changes. It influenced the severity of the B.C. Interior’s mountain pine beetle epidemic, and the subsequent surge in destructive wild fires. The resulting fibre shortages have contributed to the industry’s rising operating costs.
But today’s realities are presenting new opportunities for portable sawmilling to come full circle. Greg Kelley, Jake Stanley and Danny Byers are the principals behind Strait Timber’s initiatives. The three 30-something friends based around the Gibsons area of southwestern B.C. were exploring business opportunities they might pursue. That was around the time when the Covid-19 epidemic clamped down on most aspects of day to day normalcy.
In hindsight, some of the effects of the epidemic were not an altogether bad thing for Strait Timber. People were confined to their homes. They spent more time looking around more closely at their surroundings. Many landowners among the confined began examining their properties in a different light. They began to reassess the opportunities offered.
“That was happening when lumber prices were skyrocketing,” recalled Jake Stanley, Strait Timber’s head operator and on-the-job point man. “We looked around on the coast and we saw some of the highest quality trees in the world.”
Strait Timber’s partners began putting together a business plan that could capitalize on the geographic realities of the region against the background of a changing pandemic. The concept of taking custom sawmilling and urban forestry services on the road—direct to the customer—began crystallizing.
A central early decision for Strait Timber was what was the best type of portable sawmill to invest in, that would test their business premise, said Stanley. Their extensive market research steered the three entrepreneurs toward Wood-Mizer’s LT40 wide portable sawmill model. The mill combined most of the features Strait Timber was seeking. “It’s an efficient, high production machine,” summarized Stanley. “The mill runs automatically, with hydraulic log handling. It’s user friendly and produces nice lumber.”
Wood-Mizer says its LT40 mill is designed to produce industrial quality lumber and cant production. The company adds that the portable can deal with logs up to 36 inches in diameter, and log lengths of 21 feet is standard, and longer lengths with bed extensions. Wood-Mizer cites a production capability of up to 550 board feet an hour. It’s a level of performance that bears little resemblance to many of the cantankerous old portable mills held together by baling wire and wishful thinking which echoed through the forests back in the day,
The Wood-Mizer LT40 has lived up to its billing so far, reported Stanley, and proven versatile and dependable. The mill comes with its own trailer that is easily towed by a pick-up truck. Stanley said the mill has proven straightforward to set up for work on customers’ property. “Getting it into a driveway has often been more of a problem,” he noted.
A more serious issue for Strait Timber is an all too familiar one: good help. As the young company strives to create continuity in its work order books, keeping a full work force busy is a challenge, explained Stanley. “We have about five casual workers we can call on,” he said.
An understanding of the best ways to use social media outlets was second nature to Strait Timber’s partners. “Social media has really helped us get the word out about our business,” reported Stanley. All three of the company’s partners are locals, so word-of-mouth contacts also helped promote their new sawmill-for-hire business. But the low tech approach to business development wasn’t neglected. “We also posted some notices around town.”
Even so, establishing and sustaining the business has been challenging and remains so, continued Stanley. “We want to become the go-to guys for portable milling services along the coast and Gulf Islands up to Powell River.” Strait Timber is wary about jumping the gun but expansion is part of the company business plan. “We have big plans once we have the business progressing and can see future growth,” he outlined.
Strait Timber would like to establish a stationary sawmill, like Wood-Mizer’s LT70 model. They would use it to help re-manufacture their lumber to meet market requirements (typically Strait Timber negotiates a 50-50 split with the land owner for the lumber produced on site). But there’s one link between the company’s present and future business plans. “We’ll be keeping the portable
mill side going,” confirmed Stanley.
By Anthony Robinson
Since moving to B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, my soon-to-be-wife Hannah has been hearing the words, “I really want to buy a sawmill”, from me on a regular basis.
“Han, we should really get a sawmill, think of all the logs we can get from some of our amazing trees.” She’s likely getting slightly tired of the rhetoric!
After having Melie de Jonge and Richard Butler come onto our property and drop a number of large beautiful trees (see recent story here: https://forestnet.com/LSJissues/2022-november-december/filling.php), no pun intended, but I had my work cut out for me, bucking, and piling the logs. And the thought of the time and logistics of publishing 12 magazines a year (Logging and Sawmilling Journal and sister magazine, TimberWest), an impending wedding—plus milling all these logs ourselves—just seemed a bit much.
That’s where we reached out to Strait Timber and found Jake Stanley extremely responsive and easy to deal with; Jake and his crew came out here for a week, they cut our wood for 2.5 days and then moved to our neighbour’s property, milling there for another three days.
We were astonished with their efficiency, and the sheer amount of lumber they produced in a week.
We worked with Jake to develop a cutting list and every log was carefully assessed to meet our criteria, and how we could get the most out of each piece. I really enjoyed working alongside the crew—it felt like I was back in the sawmill. While studying at university, my summer job and best way to “refill the tuition fee coffers” was planting trees in the winter and working at my local sawmill in the summer (Australian summer, mind you), and this was in part the reason why I got so interested in forestry.
Shortly after the crew from Strait Timber left, Hannah and I got working on our latest project, which was to be our first exploration into Airbnb hosting. We purchased a tiny home and then set about building a cedar deck adjoining the home. The cedar that Jake and his team cut was beautiful, clear, high quality stuff, a pleasure to work with. Hannah said: “It’s pretty neat that the trees that we felled and milled have now built a beautiful deck. In fact, some of them didn’t move more than 30 feet!” We don’t imagine any of this lumber will leave the property as we have a long list of projects to complete.
And along the way, it saved us thousands of dollars we would have had to spend for the wood deck materials—and it makes for a great story, for our guests.
Also, in today’s need for being aware of our impact, this only adds to the story of carbon consciousness for our tiny home guests.
To date the endeavour has proven successful and we were happy to welcome our first guest into the space in late-March and we see a busy calendar of bookings for the foreseeable summer months.
On the Cover:
Despite the current industry downturn—following the lumber market going on a tear through the pandemic—the B.C.-based San Group is continuing on a strategy that involves acquisitions and equipment upgrades. The purchase of the Acorn sawmill is part of that strategy, and the company now plans a number of upgrades at the facility. In a year when the B.C. forest industry has been marked by permanent sawmill closures, Kamal Sanghera, the San Group’s CEO, notes that the company is working hard to make investments—and create jobs—in the province. Read all about the developments at the San Group beginning on page 12 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of the San Group).
Have mill/will travel …
Wood-Mizer’s LT40 portable sawmill is a solid fit for the Have Sawmill, Will Travel, custom sawmilling/customer-focused approach of B.C.’s Strait Timber.
Switching gears in Alberta … to forestry
Alberta contractor Backwoods Forestry Solutions is switching gears, going from logging solely for the oil patch to logging for the forest industry.
San Group keeping busy with acquisition, upgrades
B.C. forest company the San Group has been busy lately, with the company working on completing a new small log line, and purchasing the Acorn sawmill, with plans for upgrades.
Shortage of logging truck drivers moving along autonomous trucks
A severe shortage of logging truck drivers is among the drivers for an initiative to customize autonomous truck driving technology on Canadian resource roads by 2026.
Landrich 2.0 gets two thumbs up
The equipment operators at L.E. Spencer—including 78-year-old Lloyd Spencer—are finding the outfit’s new Landrich 2.0 harvester to be a very good fit for their New Brunswick logging.
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
The B.C. Interior town of Houston is waiting for a Canfor sawmill decision to come this summer, but also planning for beyond that decision, notes Jim Stirling.