Making a successful move
A move into value-added manufacturing—with a Kara Master one-man sawmill as the machine centre—has been successful for a small southern Ontario company.
By Tony Kryzanowski
As the Canadian forest industry switches definitively toward the pursuit of more value-added wood products, both large and small sawmills are positioned to investigate the inclusion of some value-added manufacturing in their product lines. Smaller sawmills are particularly motivated, since they are faced with tight profit margins for commodity dimension lumber and greater competition for a diminishing wood resource from the larger forestry companies.
In fact, following the expiry of the Canada/US softwood lumber agreement, governments and industry associations have spent considerable resources encouraging Canadian companies to invest in more value-added production. Both realize that value-added manufacturing holds the key to creating more employment in the forestry sector and keeping many sawmills viable. All sorts of free or relatively inexpensive technical data, market intelligence, and hands-on technical advice has been made available from a variety of sources to the enterprising sawmill owner.
Terry and Sharon Blair, owners of the T Blair Sawmill in Haliburton, Ontario, north of Peterborough, are good examples of a current industry trend among small sawmill owners in some areas of Canada. They are benefiting significantly from technical advances in both primary and secondary wood manufacturing equipment, growing public demand for wood products in the do-it-yourself market and the clustering of small to medium size secondary manufacturers within this region in Ontario.
The company has grown steadily over the past decade. Starting with a portable bandsaw, the owners later decided to invest in a permanent location and second-hand sawmill. The most recent change came last year, when they replaced their older technology with Finnish manufacturer Kara’s highly automated and largest one-man sawmill—the Master. At the same time, they diversified their product line to include more value-added products with the purchase of a planer, reman saw, moulding and trim machine and kiln.
The T Blair mill works primarily with pine, hemlock and spruce. Their equipment is also capable of manufacturing lumber from hardwood such as maple, beech, ash and oak, but that raw material is harder to come by. The mill’s product line includes dimension lumber, tongue and groove flooring, wood siding, roof sheeting, mouldings, V-joint paneling, wainscoting, baseboards, crown mouldings and chair rails. “We can sell the whole package,” says Blair. “We’ve experienced growth through our own efforts with the value-added manufacturing. And we feel we’re growing in the right direction.”
After a period of significant transition and growth over the past two years, he says the company is now at the point of integrating its work processes to maximize efficiency and production, while maintaining quality. A broader product mix is only one reason behind its growth. Blair says he is also putting considerably more time into marketing.
“There is a lot of advertising involved with it,” he says. “There’s sometimes a lot of long hours spent just trying to keep the customer happy because you don’t want to lose a customer. They are hard to come by.” Given its location north of Toronto in the region’s “cottage country,” the T Blair mill is deriving a lot of its business from young retirees moving into the area. Many are taking up woodworking as a relatively inexpensive hobby, wanting to realize a dream of renovating a room in their homes or remodeling their cottages. On the retail side, he says, although big box stores may have their place, “people come in here and are pleased that we spend a few minutes to show them how our product is manufactured. They don’t feel like they’ve just been pushed through a cookie cutter. They have a pleasant experience.”
Blair has earned a reputation for providing hard-to-find wood products, such as the large wooden siding used on older cottages, which is no longer available in most lumber yards or box stores. Also, he has the ability to custom manufacture knives for his Woodmaster moulding machine—within just four days—if a customer comes in with an unusual moulding or trim design. The company stockpiles its more popular products or it fills custom orders. They can range from one board foot to several thousand board feet. Their largest orders to date have been about 9,000 board feet.
Logs are purchased from jobbers or harvested from wood sources found by Blair, then logged on a contract basis. They are then stockpiled in the yard by species and size, based on customer orders and demand. In the yard, either a Case or Pettibone loader transports the logs, as needed, to the sawmill bucking station, where the sawyer places them into position on the sliding Kara Master carriage. He then proceeds to manufacture green lumber. Blair says when he decided to modernize, he shopped around for a sawmill replacement. “What excited me about the Kara sawmill was that it was advertised as a one-man sawmill. And if you put in a little bit of automation, it is a one-man sawmill. So you can reduce manpower there and that is what we did.”
With the Kara Master installation in 2001, the T Blair mill reduced its workforce from five to three employees. However, it is in the process of rehiring a couple of workers, now that the strategy of diversifying into more value-added wood products has fuelled growth. The mill installation design is more than just the Kara Master sawmill, although it is the key machine centre. “We spent a lot of time putting in roll casings and tipping irons so that it has become pretty much a one-man sawmill,” says Blair. “Two workers can also run it comfortably, and three workers can produce a lot of lumber. It’s geared to as much production as you can put out.”
The new sawmill has not given him more production, which is 4,000 to 4,500 board feet of hard maple or 8,000 board feet of pine per day per man. However, he is achieving the same production with half the manpower, re-deploying labour to where it is most needed, which is in the value-added side of the business. Blair has also built in a surge area behind the Kara sawmill and in advance of his custom trimmer. This allows one operator to accumulate 1,500 to 2,000 board feet of lumber before needing to process it through the trimmer. In addition to savings on labour—due to greater automation—the Kara Master also provides Blair with flexibility. With the touch of a button, he can switch to various dimension lumber sizes, including changing from imperial to metric dimensions. This provides him with yet another value-added aspect to his business—an opportunity that was unavailable on his older sawmill without a lot of intense labour.
The new equipment hits the mark in a number of areas, says Blair. “The Kara Master is very flexible, very simple to operate and very safe.” And it can take on some big logs, manufacturing lumber from logs up to 36 inches in diameter. So far, the saw has also proven very dependable. "With our older mill, you never knew from day to day what the breakdown was going to be, but you were anticipating one,” he says. “With this mill, that weight is off of us.” Should something break down, Blair says that all parts are available in North America.
Kara has established a strong network in Canada and Blair is now the company’s representative in Ontario and Quebec. He decided to take on the distributorship after witnessing the results of the equipment for himself. So far in Ontario, the Taylor Sawmill on Manitoulin Island has also purchased a smaller Kara sawmill in its own bid to diversify into more value-added wood products. Business clustering is another aspect of the forest industry that has proven successful in both Europe and southern Ontario. For example, both Denmark and Germany have no major primary forest industry to speak of.
Yet both countries have very successful secondary manufacturing industries simply because various wood-related businesses are clustered in close proximity to each other. Blair says that in addition to the do-it-yourself market, he is deriving significant business from local furniture and cabinet manufacturers who appreciate the close contact they have with the supplier, since their wood needs are often very specific. Rather than purchasing or manufacturing a large kiln, Blair has custom-built a smaller kiln with a 4,800 board foot capacity. That way, he is able to dry smaller lots of lumber more efficiently.
He intends to build four more small kilns so that if they attract a large order, they have the drying capacity to deliver large amounts of wood. Although secondary wood manufacturing has recently enjoyed its own technological revolution, its processes are generally still highly labour-intensive because of the material handling required.
The employment potential—particularly in remote, struggling communities—is one reason why politicians are so eager to support this sector of the forest industry. A number of clever ideas have been put into practice at the T Blair Sawmill, but that should come as no surprise to anyone—innovation within the Canadian forestry sector is one reason why it has remained viable in the face of numerous trade barriers from competitors. In the end, Canadian manufacturers have learned, one of the best defences against such actions is plain and simple smart management.
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