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February 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


Small and successful

Ernie Smith runs a sawmill in the small community of Zeballos on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island, but he’s found no shortage of customers for the products he’s turning out from the locally harvested Douglas fir, western red cedar and hemlock.

By Paul MacDonald

Beachcombing may not be the easiest way of sourcing timber, but small sawmill operator Ernie Smith has found that it works just fine in a pinch.

Smith operates Amik Sawmill in the small village of Zeballos on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island, where there is usually no shortage of logs for beachcombers. “It’s really cheap to get logs through beachcombing on this side of Vancouver Island, with very low stumpage,” he notes.

The usual source of supply for Amik Sawmill, however, is the local log sort yard of Western Forest Products, which has a large Tree Farm Licence in the region. But Smith’s beachcombing skills, and his 20-foot Malibu boat with a 4.3 litre inboard/outboard, came in handy when Western Forest shut down its operations for seven months several years ago. He used his Hiab-equipped, five-ton GMC truck to transport the logs from the boat to the mill.

“When you are way out here, and you have no log supply, you have to be creative,” Smith says. On good days, he’ll pull in five or six decent-sized logs.

Ernie and his wife, Darlene, set up Amik Sawmill three years ago, and while the winters can be quiet—businesswise— they are working long hours during the rest of the year doing custom cutting of locally harvested Douglas fir, western red cedar and hemlock. It may take off even further if a deal with a Japanese company comes to pass. That would see Amik producing a containerload of lumber a month for use in high-end Japanese construction projects. While that may not represent a lot of wood in board feet terms, it’s high value product—clear yellow cedar—and will command a good price for the small company.

Ernie Smith (above) operating Amik Sawmill’s gas-powered LT-40 Wood- Mizer mill. “It works well and when something goes wrong, it’s easy to troubleshoot,” says Smith.

Prior to setting up Amik Sawmill, Smith was a carpenter for 18 years and worked with wood on construction jobs up and down Vancouver Island. It was while he was on one particular project that he first got the idea to get into custom sawmilling. Smith was working on a school project that required large timbers, which they were having trouble sourcing. The only solution: bring in a portable sawmill and logs from the local forest company, and mill the timber right on the construction site.

“On these kind of projects, I could see the value that was there in the cost of the custom cut wood we were purchasing and figured there had to be a business there.”

It’s not a huge surprise that Smith ended up in the small sawmill business, considering his carpentry background, but the move into producing lumber, rather than hammering nails into it, was not there from the start. “I never thought I’d end up in the sawmill business, but it’s been pretty successful. Sometimes the log prices are high, but it’s a good business to be in. And being a carpenter, and having been around lots of equipment on the construction site, operating a small sawmill is pretty straightforward.”

That said, Smith invested some time to investigate the wide variety of portable sawmills before deciding to go for a gaspowered LT-40 from Wood-Mizer. “It’s a good machine,” says Smith. “It works well, and when something is wrong it is easy to troubleshoot.” And Smith finds that the standard 25 horsepower engine provides more than enough power for his needs. While the LT-40—which has blades .045 inches or .042 inches thick by 1.25 inches wide—is said to be able to cut up to 300 board feet an hour, Smith is usually more concerned with value rather than volume.

The LT-40 is a well-designed piece of equipment, he notes, making basic maintenance such as changing the blade both easy and safe.

And it operates in all kinds of weather. While they don’t get a lot of snow in Zeballos, they get a huge amount of rain since it is on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

While the rainfall is seasonal with the peak period being October to December, the total rainfall for the Nootka Sound region averages 3,000 to 4,000 millimetres per year, reportedly the highest in Canada.

Ernie’s wife, Darlene, with her business school background, was a natural to put together the business plan for Amik Sawmill, which saw them get financing from the local Economic Development Commission and a First Nations lending agency. But as many other small business operators can attest, the business plan turned out to be more of a guide than a strict business road map. “Everything did not work out according to our business plan—it worked out better,” says Ernie.

The plan called for them to truly be a portable sawmill service and travel all over Vancouver Island to cut wood for First Nations bands. “That’s never really happened because we’ve been so busy right here in Zeballos,” Smith explains.

They work from a site in the local industrial park and cut for a wide variety of customers including the three local First Nations Bands, the village of Zeballos and Western Forest Products. Projects involve everything from cutting dimension lumber to large 12x12 timbers for logging road bridges for Western, and even larger pieces for floats.

An addition for Amik Sawmill in the last few years was a six-foot bed extension that allows the operation to cut pieces up to 25 feet long.

The bridge projects are the most interesting and challenging, Smith says. “Some of the orders are huge, with a lot of 6x6s, 4x12s and 12x12s, so I have to make sure I have the right logs, and blades, on hand. You have to be prepared.”

With these larger projects, he will have someone bucking and moving the logs with asmall Nissan forklift, while he handles the mill. “I could do everything myself, it would just be slower,” he notes. The busy times sees them operating the mill for upwards of 14 hours a day, without any problems.

Smith is able to cut up to a three-foot diameter on the LT-40. An addition he’s made in the last few years was a six-foot bed extension that now allows him to cut pieces up to 25 feet long. “We’ve had a few orders for 24-foot timbers,” he notes.

For anyone who has just purchased a portable sawmill, Smith advises them to keep up on their maintenance—and to learn how to sharpen blades. “That’s especially important in out-of-the-way places like Zeballos.” He purchased his own blade harpening equipment from Wood-Mizer.

For anyone who has just purchased a portable sawmill, Ernie Smith advises them to learn how to sharpen blades. That skill has been especially important for Amik Sawmill since it operates in the remote community of Zeballos.

These days, Smith says he’d still like to get out to other First Nations communities on the Island with the sawmill. But his approach would be more along the lines of eaching band members to work with portable sawmills themselves, rather than generating work for Amik. “I think there’s a huge market out there for custom cutting. And with the portable mill, we could basically leave here tomorrow and set up anywhere, provided we have the fibre.”

But that may have to wait if the Japanese business comes through. “We’d really like to get things going with the Japanese,” he says. The challenges of getting shipping containers in and out of Zeballos is a bridge that Smith will cross when he comes to it. The village lies at the end of 20 kilometres of curvy, sometimes quite narrow road from the main highway on Vancouver Island.

Smith is also mulling over the thought of getting a larger mill, noting there are some good-sized commercial mill set-ups in the marketplace. And there may be a small kiln in the future, as well, to add further value to the wood. “That would probably be the next step for us.”


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