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Big time added value

The Spence brothers' mill operation in New Brunswick may be small, but it delivers big time added value.

By George Fullerton

Mike Spence sees an opportunity for other woodlot owners to add value by milling and marketing to niche markets.

Mike Spence says that sawing hardwood is just like opening up a birthday present.
"Sawing off the boards is just the same as taking off the wrapping," he says. "On the inside you are surprised and excited with the beauty of the grains and the colors."

Mike and his brother Marc operate a sawmill and dry kiln business on their family's woodlot overlooking Baie Verte, in the extreme southeast corner of New Brunswick. The hardwood and some specialty softwoods that the brothers harvest from their woodlot through the winter-as well as some purchased logs-are cut and kiln dried through the spring, summer and autumn. All the dried lumber is marketed directly from the woodlot.

The Spence brothers both have part-time careers in addition to handling the woodlot and sawmilling work. Mike is a farrier and spends about four days a week on the road in New Brunswick and across Nova Scotia shoeing horses. Marc has a degree in forest ecology and botany and is involved in botanical surveys and Environmental Impact Assessments, as well as a variety of other projects. Since both jobs typically slow down or stop in December, the boys harness up the yarding horse and head to the woods at freeze up.

The Spence brothers have drawn quite a bit of notice for their management efforts on their 1,000-acre woodlot. In 2000, they were awarded a national Forest Stewardship Recognition award for their sustainable management practices and forest biodiversity conservation. Later in the year, the Spence brothers were recognized as Woodlot Owners of the Year by New Brunswick's Southeast Forest Products Marketing Board.

Adding value to the wood coming off their woodlot was the driving force that led the brothers to the milling business. Mike says that cutting wood and selling it to conventional markets returns only a small fraction of the true value to the owner. "We could sell hardwood last winter for $230 per thousand. But after we mill and dry maple, for example, we sell it for up to $3,500 per thousand." He says that bird's eye and curly grain drives the finished price even higher.

The Spence brothers' operation uses a Mighty Mite portable band sawmill that resides permanently in a busy building that also contains a variety of woodworking equipment and the dry kiln.

A Mighty Mite portable band sawmill resides permanently in a busy building that also contains a variety of woodworking machines and the dry kiln. "The reason I picked this mill was because at the time it was just about the only mill available with a diesel engine," says Mike. He adds that the reliability, long life and "rebuild-ability" of the two cylinder, air cooled Deutz engine were among the factors that sold him on the mill. Both the mill and the EBAC dehumidifying kiln were set up in a building on the woodlot in 1995.

In addition to sawing wood from their own woodlots, Mike also keeps a keen eye out for hardwood that he knows will produce good lumber. "I have a habit of looking over the neighbour's wood piles," he says. "It's amazing the amount of high grade logs that are put into the fuel wood pile. I go to them and offer them a fair price for the logs.

"They look at me like I'm crazy because I am offering them nearly the same amount of money for a handful of logs as what they paid for the whole truck load as fire wood. I have some cherry wood that I got out of a fire wood pile and paid the homeowner $600 for the logs. I sawed them and figure I can sell the lumber for nearly $3,000."

Mike has also bought trailer loads of "fuel wood" and had it delivered to his mill for sawing. Because there is no pine on their woodlands, the Spences purchase white pine from woodlot owners and contractors in their region. Some years they have purchased up to 20,000 board feet of pine to fill orders.

When it comes to milling softwood for dimension lumber, that's not their area. "I can't even begin to compete with modern mills on construction lumber, so
I don' t even try," says Mike. As far as milling spruce and fir goes, they do some dimensional stock for their own use and a few value added specialty items.

With contacts in horse circles, Mike produces rails and posts for jump competitions. He also confesses to enjoying the sawing of big timbers up to twenty plus feet in length.

Markets for hardwood lumber include cabinet and furniture makers in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Spence hardwood has also found its way to crafters that use it for building guitars, mandolins and fiddles. Some hardwood lumber gets remanufactured into flooring. Bill and Ted Richards run a family-owned woodworking busness in Amherst that remanufactures lumber into specialty products like flooring, hand railings and baseboards.

"They do excellent work and I can do business simply by talking to them," says Mike. "I like it when I can explain what I need and when I go back it has been done exactly as I wanted. They are also great for helping out with rush orders whenever they can."

Many Maritime wood crafters have been calling on the Spence mill for some unusual woods. Mike says that he got into sawing one unique lumber product quite by accident when a customer saw a thin slab of wood come off the log. Mike explained that it was a point where his calculations had got off track and he took a 1/4-inch cut to get the sawing back on track. The customer asked what the thin sheet was for. After he understood it was a correction that was headed for the slabwood pile, he jumped on the thin pieces of lumber for making wooden puzzles. Now 1/2-inch puzzle stock is sawed on purpose and crafters are grabbing it up after it has been kiln dried.

Bowl turners have also come to know that Spence's will have a variety of species in 3x10, 3x12 and 3x14. In addition to selling at the woodlot , Mike has put together mail orders for as far away as Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Another Spence specialty product that is generating a lot of attention with regional crafters is spalted lumber. The lines and colors of spalted wood warms the heart and stimulates the creativity of many turners and cabinetmakers. Spalting is the staining that occurs in hardwoods as the wood begins to rot. The mold that causes spalting is a naturally occurring element that resides in the bark and sapwood in birch and maple.

To the uninitiated, the Spence spalting log pile looks just like a pile of rotting logs that might be seen around any small mill. Viewing the pile, one might silently think: "It's too bad these boys couldn't keep their sawing caught up-then they wouldn't have to work around these rotting logs." But in the Spences' case, the rotting hardwood logs are there by design and the pile is carefully watched and the logs turned and re-piled by a rough schedule. As the logs begin to rot, the fungus develops a stain in the wood that gives the lumber a marble effect, Mike says.

"Turning the logs seems to help distribute the stain throughout the log. When we figure we have got the stain through the log, we then saw it and get terrific designs and colors through the lumber."
Although they have the milling operation to a size that suits their lifestyle, both brothers see opportunity for other woodlot owners to add value by milling wood and marketing to niche markets. To illustrate the point, Mike recalls a customer who built a desk out of cankered beech. "In most cases that beech is discounted as firewood, at best. This guy had a photo of the desk. It would easily command a price of $4,000. It was just beautiful. I think that is a pretty good illustration of the potential for the woods we grow in this region."


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