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Taking Control

The partners in two BC value added operations have taken control of the supply of wood at the sawmill level to ensure they get the quality of wood they need.

By Jim Stirling

Roy Pritchard and Randy Isaac are control freaks. Not in the usual sense, but in the context of developing a viable value added wood product business in British Columbia.

The partners concluded the only way to ensure access to the right species, quality and specifications of wood in the right quantities and at the right time was to have control of those phases. That is why what began conceptually as a gluing plant has evolved to include an innovative sawmill and is progressing toward managing the log input from the bush. It is vertical infrastructure integration by common sense, born out of blood, sweat and tears.

Pritchard and Isaac count about a dozen tough years steering the sister operations of Pacific Precision Wood Products Ltd and Prince George Specialty Wood Products Ltd. Today they employ about 100 people to meet the requirements of mainly international customers for specification exact furniture components, panels and blanks.

Pritchard and Isaac worked together in Prince George area sawmills for years before taking the entrepreneurial plunge and launching Pacific Precision Wood Products in 1987.

"The original concept was to glue small pieces of wood together to make 2x12s with edge gluing to come a little later," recalls Pritchard. It took nearly two years for Pacific Precision to acquire its first timber supply licence under BC's small business enterprise program: the company was blazing new trails.

Part of the criteria was an alignment with a major licensee. The licence provided theoretical trading clout for what Pacific Precision needed: lodgepole pine, bright, with small tight live knots with no butt rot or sap stain. Appearance of the finished product is everything to the customer. The licensee ran a joinery plant and the plan was to intercept some of its special dimension product. But it proved difficult getting a reliable supply in the specifications required. "We tried to emphasize that pre-selection was critical before cutting into special dimensions," says Pritchard. As well, the spruce, pine and fir were not often separated.

To obtain a reliable supply of specified lumber to meet the requirements of their Pacific Precision Wood Products value added operation, entrepreneurs Roy Pritchard and Randy Isaac figured they had to set up their own primary milling operation- Prince George Specialty Wood Products was born.

Pacific Precision ended up finger jointing material, which was never part of the equation. And shortly after the gluing equipment was installed, the licensee shut down the joinery plant. Pacific Precision scoured the province for its specific fibre but the security of supply remained elusive.

"We decided about 1993 that there was no option but to get control of our fibre and build a sawmill," says Pritchard. An extensive feasibility study on sawmill design for Prince George Specialty Wood Products began using consultant Larry Isotani Engineering of Vancouver. "He takes our brilliant ideas and massages them into better ones," says Isaac.

The basic sawmill concepts were predicated on Pacific Precision's specific requirements, its customer/client in effect. The raw material-small, tight knot pine without butt rot and blue stain-directed the company to utilize the top end of the tree. Using top ends adds to the value of the rest of the tree for more conventional users.

The other key feature of mill design is employing an end dogging primary log breakdown system. The partners had worked with an end dogging system at Lakeland Mill's Prince George stud mill. They believed an end dogging carriage was the way to go for them rather than ribbon feeding, both in terms of volume and recovery. "Our fundamental principal is to position the log, grab it securely at both ends and move it precisely down a track," says Pritchard.

The company's original 60,000 cubic metre licence expired before the new sawmill was operational in 1994. New licences had to be sought. The company ran into cash flow problems. Things looked bleak-as they had before-but the partners found ways to persevere.

"Today, there's light at the end of the tunnel and with our infrastructure, we now feel we're one of the stronger local value added groups," continues Pritchard.

The companies' most recent small business licence was offered late in 1999. The oneyear, 29,000 cubic metre licence allowed, among other things, the training of new workers for double shifting at both plants.

The Prince George Specialty sawmill is designed to handle small diameter wood in front or back orientation and in random lengths. A single log conveyor leads pieces to a scanning and bucking system that like most of the mill's machine centres is designed in-house with its own software.

"We decided about 1993 that there was no option but to get control of our fibre and build a sawmill"

A cutoff saw bucks out defects, including sweep, and trade material is kicked out. A scanner/software system on an 18inch Forano debarker determines log lengths and diameters. The debarked pieces proceed to a slasher deck where five computer positioned saws can be lifted or dropped. "They guarantee that on the random lengths, the small end is no greater than 12 inches and the chipped component is always on the small end," explains Pritchard. The pieces are mainly in six, eight and 10 foot lengths and are also sorted by diameter into eight inch to 12 inch (about 25 per cent of volume) and eight inch to four inch. The plant cuts metric dimensions and is a zero wane mill. Prince George Specialty's end dogging system is unique. It can accelerate the dogs from standstill to more than 1600 ft/min with 25 hp. Its sawmill philosophy is not to run full bore, though. An average seven seconds per log is a typical operating speed.

The system is automated by PLCs and the data provided is used for diagnostic and troubleshooting purposes. The system uses four dogs, each about one inch wide and spiked on both sides. The drive system is controlled by quadraphonic module and works as a positioning system. When positioned, the log is dogged overhead, saws are set and it is taken through. As the lead dog clears the load zone, the next dog in line is free to load, explains Pritchard.

Wood from Prince George Specialty is trucked to the Pacific Precision plant (above left) where it is used to produce edge glued furniture components. The operation's goal is to ship a third of production to each of Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim.

Downstream processing continues with a horizontal band saw, a board and cant edger backed by a 17bin sorter dropping to a green chain. All were designed and built in-house.

The product is trucked across town to the company's Pacific Precision plant. It is dried in three Salton kilns incorporating gas-fired hot oil systems. Target moisture contents range from eight to 12 per cent. Inside the plant, material passes along a moulder line from where it's ripsawn into laminations. Material handling of the laminations is being streamlined so after grading they proceed more smoothly for manual chopping, if required, or gluing and pressing. The plant uses 100 per cent white PBA glue, essential for furniture components.

Pacific Precision recently installed a new to them press from Radio Frequency Services. The press can accommodate 4x8 panels and apply 50kW of energy into the glue line. The precision press allows a drop in target sizes and improvement in recovery.

Panels are sized after emerging from the press then ripped to width and trimmed to length. More puttying follows, if required, and 80 and 120 grit levels of sanding are suitable for most end users. Pacific Precision has been splitting its production of specification correct, edge glued pine furniture components about 60/40 between Japan and North America.

About 10 to 30 per cent of the North American component is marketed in Canada. The goal is to ship about a third of production to each of Europe (mainly the UK), North America and the Pacific Rim, but still retain flexibility to meet market needs. "We can move a 15 to 20 per cent increase into any one market in a six week period," says Pritchard. And, joy of joys, it's all quota exempt. So far.

About 46 per cent of capacity from Prince George Specialty supplies 100 per cent of Pacific Precision's operation. "Prince George Specialty can support another plant about this size. It's a unique opportunity to be involved with another value added joint venture," says Pritchard. But that again reemphasizes log quality.

"When we control input to the sawmill, we can exceed 75 per cent in Agrade material. But we have to manage the log input ." It's the central problem. Painful experience has proven the companies can't use typical commodity product loggers without copious training. Smaller, specialty loggers are more adept at sorting at the stump to select and process trees of the right species and dimensions.

The partners are examining the possibilities of commercial thinning suitable stands in central BC. The potential is intriguing. It would move the partners closer to optimizing management of log input for the two plants while enhancing the growth and yield of the remaining stand for the benefit of subsequent users.

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