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Aspen is the Mission

Alberta contractor/ sawmiller Les Dahl is intent on seeing aspen used for more than just OSB.

By John Dietz

Fully utilizing what's been called the "weed of the woods" is the task that Grande Prairie, Alberta contractor Les Dahl has decided to take on. With a lifetime of forestry, farming and a general reverence for natural things under his belt, Dahl has set the commercialization of aspen as the mission for his seventh decade. Dahl's logging company, Royal Chipping, routinely harvests more than $2 million a year in aspen for the Louisiana Pacific oriented strand board (OSB) plant in Dawson Creek, BC. However, the plant only uses wood to a diameter of about 20 inches. That leaves Dahl holding larger diameter aspen logs, up to 35 inches at the butt, as salvage material. He's been finding alternative uses for larger aspen since starting the LP contract work in 1994. But in spring 1999, after a tour of Finland, Dahl took things further and set up a small specialty sawmill at Beaverlodge, Alberta to develop the market potential of aspen.

He affectionately named it UFFDA Sawmills Ltd., a word drawn from his Norwegian heritage-it roughly means "I don't know" in response to the question: "What's that?" Local support for his efforts to develop aspen products has been excellent, Dahl says. "The enthusiasm, cooperation, and encouragement I received from many woodcrafters, foresters, local businesses, government, family and most of all, employees, has overwhelmed me." UFFDA, with only seven employees, already has a lot of sticks in the fire for research and development. The mainstay, for the moment, is making aspen skids and dunnage along with custom moulding. UFFDA completed an order for 40,000 aspen skids in September 1999 for a gas  pipeline in the Peace Region. The skids are 4x6 inches, and 4 or 5 feet long. They're used to temporarily block up the pipeline as it's being built. "Between UFFDA and Royal Chipping, I think we've put about 130,000 skids on the job in the last two years," Dahl says. "When they're done with the pipeline project, they reclaim the skids. We'll sticker them and inventory them at the mill for their next project." Each delivered skid sells for $3. "It makes a profit, but it's not as lucrative as you might think."

His two companies buy the timber from private woodlot owners, log it, bring it to Beaverlodge, saw it, stack it, and load the skids on to Dahl's three SuperB trailers for delivery to the pipeline sites. "It's a really nice contract to kick off a specialty mill that's training people while starting up and developing new wood projects," he says. Aspen panelboard, flooring, cabinet material and Scandinavian cabins are among the new products emerging from the UFFDA "research department". To tame the "weed of the woods" and turn out finished product, Dahl has constructed a small natural gas kiln, purchased a thinkerf Kara sawmill and two midsize moulding machines. Although it is used in some plywood, aspen has discouraged mill operators who in the past have seen it as a source for dimensional lumber. The tight, short fibers can hold onto moisture through two years of air-drying, and still be too moist for planing into finished lumber.

Aspen boards are also notorious for twisting like a pretzel in high capacity kilns or when exposed to sun and uneven moisture conditions. "We are having success with lower heat, more air and using nylon compression straps on each lift," says Dahl. "We're optimistic that adding a dehydrator to the kiln will give us the final quality we want." These challenges aside, Dahl says aspen is a great "character" wood. Very attractive patterns of grain and color emerge on boards. It's also a hardwood that can rival oak or fir for flooring. Finally, it's a non-allergenic wood, making it a forest product very suitable for people with allergic conditions, according to Dahl.

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Les Dahl (above) has set up UFFDA Sawmills to process large aspen in northern Alberta with a principal goal of finding other uses for the wood. He has set up a small Kara sawmill which keeps the rest of his company supplied with material in any dimension he chooses.

The entrepreneurial Dahl is starting to supply aspen in specialty orders for craftsmen and artisans in the Peace Region. "This is where the character of the wood really shines," Dahl says. Projects like tables, small cupboards, feature walls and wooden ornaments can highlight the color, grain and knotty features. Folk art features, which are sometimes applied, enhance the value still more. On a larger scale, UFFDA has announced plans to custom build aspen cabins. Dahl has supplied aspen to, and interfaced with, a small local company, Thistle Down Mills, for five years. Located in Grande Prairie, Thistle Down uses aspen and spruce in a variety of products, from cants to bridge planking to aspen flooring and p a n e l l i n g . Moulding is done by UFFDA, when needed. Thistle Down owner Garry Wilkinson says the niche market for aspen is growing, and he's planning to leave the spruce business to bigger c o m p e t i t o r s . "Aspen sales already represent roughly 80 per cent of our total sales," he says. "Of this, 30 to 40 per cent is value added kiln dried aspen product."

Wilkinson gleans the best of the hardwood from aspen he supplies to the local OSB plant. More than 80 per cent is eventually flaked for OSB. Thistle Down thrives on the remaining, largest aspen. The outer sapwood makes prime material for his kiln and mill, Wilkinson explains, so large diameter wood is best. He has gradually improved the low temperature dry down process he uses for aspen, and has confidence in his ability to supply "tamed" aspen board. "We don't force dry it," Wilkinson explains. "We give it enough time to release moisture almost naturally. We make sure every board has dried down to less than eight per cent moisture. Then we can handle it without any risk. That process takes 50 to  80 per cent longer than spruce, but it results in a reliable, good quality product."

The market for alternative material like aspen is growing, he believes, as the public becomes more concerned about allergic reactions to dust, fibres and glues associated with manufactured construction materials and floor coverings. Wilkinson recently supplied 7,500 square feet of aspen for a complete interior in a new home in the area. The family's daughter is allergic to a variety of things, but not aspen. All the walls, ceilings and cupboards are made of aspen. Finnish technology related to aspen production and general forest management made a huge impression on Dahl during a recent visit. He's incorporating as much as he can into his approach, with UFFDA, Royal Chipping and on his own woodlands. Pine and birch are the chief forest products in Finland, but aspen is still a prized product, Dahl found. 

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He picked up pointers on drying aspen while in Finland. Dahl observed that Finnish woodlands technology, like the Kara sawmill, and intensive forest management are what enables that country to compete in the world market. "They're paying double the stumpage cost that we do, and have twice the labour rate, but they can still compete against us," he says. Most woodland in Finland is privately held. All of it, by law, has a sustainable management plan based on a cycle of three harvests. Cycles begin with thinning when trees are about 25 years old. The thinned trees are gathered and neatly piled at roadside, for eventual sale. Nothing is wasted. Dahl subsequently purchased, and became a dealer for, the high efficiency thinkerf sawmill made in Finland. The Kara is a computerized one-man mill. Precision cutting and high lumber recovery are teamed with high capacity. Stationary and mobile models are available.

One Kara operator, working alone, can produce 6,000 board feet of lumber in a 10 hour day. The yield is about 790 board feet from one cord of sawlogs. With up to 45 preset cutting dimensions, the operator has quick responding push button controls at his fingertip. Dahl's model has a 39inch diameter head saw and a 24 inch top saw, that can rip precisely cut boards from logs up to 34inches. At UFFDA, the new Kara mill is quickly proving itself. "It's just what I was told it would be," Dahl says. One operator keeps the rest of his small company adequately supplied with material in any dimension he chooses. Sizing is rarely needed prior to moulding. Direct from factory support is available via email, to answer questions. Forty-five years ago, Dahl recalls, he and his wife Loretta were clearing homestead land north of Grande Prairie. Later, he became woodlands area manager for 10 years at the nearby Procter and Gamble cellulose mill.

This past decade, he became a stump to dump contractor with a 13man crew that harvests mainly on private land. "I've seen 30 per cent of the fibre yield of a forest dropped on the floor because they said it wasn't economical. A big part of that was aspen, and that was wrong." But things are changing. "I am thankful to be in Alberta and appreciate the efforts by government and forest companies as they work to develop our forest resources. We need to hear the words 'forest utilization' more often. "We live in a wasteful society that causes us to overlook waste. We are stewards of the forest and we need to be accountable for what we do as owners, managers and as forest users."

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