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Vintage Hardwood

Quebec's Bertrand Beaudry creates hardwood lumber with the care of a vintage winemaker.

By Tony Kryzanowski

What distinguishes vintage wine from the commercial stuff you buy at the local liquor store is often the care that winemakers take to create that wine. When it comes to wood products, Quebec hardwood lumber manufacturer Saxby Lumber Ltd creates what is as close as possible to "vintage" hardwood lumber.

Consider the similarities. Unlike massive, commodity and production driven sawmills, Saxby Lumber manufactures a relatively small six million board feet per year, with plans to install a resaw line that will increase production-to about 10 million board feet.

Bertrand Beaudry (above) decided it was time to build his own sawmill so he could control every aspect from purchasing, grading, manufacturing and sales of the sawmilling process himself. The $2 million Saxby Lumber mill started production in November 1998.

A quality vineyard uses only one or two grape varieties in its winemaking process. Saxby Lumber manufactures hardwood lumber primarily from three wood species- red oak, hard maple, and white oak. About 75 per cent of the company's lumber production is derived from these species. The remainder is manufactured from birch, cherry, soft maple, basswood and ash. Purchasing hardwood is extremely competitive, so production often depends on wood availability.

Like many small vineyards, Saxby Lumber is a family business, owned by Bertrand Beaudry. His wife and two sons are also actively involved in daytoday operations.

Beaudry is an expert at selecting and grading hardwood, based on his 25 years experience in the lumber business. He has the same traits as a topnotch winemaker, with exacting standards and a reluctance to compromise them. He gives his full attention to every detail of the company's hardwood manufacturing process, spending on average 70 hours a week at the sawmill. It is clear that what Beaudry is producing is a superior grade of hardwood.

Beaudry understands the complexity of hardwood, and that each species of wood has its own distinct character. "Wood is a natural product," he says. "It's not plastic ." The majority of Saxby Lumber's wood is exported, and used in highgrade furniture, wall paneling, and doors. Lower grade lumber becomes flooring or pallet material.

Saxby Lumber's hardwood is in great demand, to the point where Beaudry has had to decline orders. However, it took a tremendous amount of sweat to reach this enviable position, driven by the owner's passionate and obsessive resolve to succeed in an endeavor that even he says is in a "very, very tough business".

It's makeshift, but this trimmer (above) at Saxby Lumber does the job until they have a multisaw trimmer installed. And sawfiling at the mill (right) is clearly an equal opportunity work sector.

Saxby Lumber started up 10 years ago, and in fact operated as a lumber brokerage for its first three years. Then Beaudry began buying logs and having them sawn under contract by other sawmills. Two years ago, he discovered an empty building on 12 acres of land on the outskirts of Deauville. This Eastern Township community is about 200 kilometres southeast of Montreal. He decided it was time to build his own sawmill, primarily so that he could control every aspect-the purchasing, grading, manufacturing, and sales-of the process himself.

After a $2million investment, Saxby Lumber is now manufacturing the type of hardwood lumber that has customers banging at the door.

Beaudry has built the foundation of his hardwood sawmill on a trusting relationship with skittish woodlot owners primarily in New York State, some from as far as 650 kilometres away. He treats his woodlot owners like a winemaker pampers his vines.

"At the beginning, it was very difficult because many sawmills in the past were not very honest with these people," says Beaudry. "It takes a long time to make arrangements. You have to visit the same woodlot owner maybe two, three or four times ."

Initially, Saxby Lumber might have received one load of wood from a landowner, but once that landowner discovered that he was being dealt with honestly, he spread the word. At the same time, Beaudry says he has had to ensure that the landowner is treating him fairly as well.

The wood is purchased using the international scale, which operates in increments of five. For example, an eight foot log that is ten inches in diameter will yield 30 board feet of lumber. An eight foot log that is 11 inches in diameter will yield 35 board feet, and so on.

Logs purchased by Saxby Lumber average 12 inches in diameter, and Beaudry will not accept anything smaller than 10 inches. The sawmill is designed to handle logs up to 14 feet long.

On average, production stays two weeks to a month ahead of customer orders. Beaudry stays in close contact with his regular customers, keeping them apprised of the quality of wood he has in stock. Buyers will often visit his yard to evaluate the wood for themselves.

"I will not try to push too much on the grade," says Beaudry, concerning his relationship with buyers. "Reputation is very important. Sometimes we have to live with the best colours we can get on a particular run. My buyers know me. I call them and say that the wood will not be the best this time. They say, 'You always tell the truth, Bertrand. This is not a problem. We can live with it' ."

With the help of family members, Beaudry has developed an extremely useful computer monitoring system that helps him manage his inventory, organize wood supplier payments, keep tabs on the cost of production, set lumber prices and evaluate profit margins.

It took eight months to build their sawmill and, by installing equipment themselves, Beaudry estimates that they saved $250,000. Production started in November 1998.

Prior to building the mill, Beaudry visited other sawmills and evaluated their equipment. He has learned from experience that it is critical that sawmill owners conduct their own research when it comes to equipment purchases so they don't end up buying "a bunch of crap for a ton of money" from slick sales types who then aren't around if there's equipment trouble.

Once a log enters the sawmill, it encounters a New Brunswick made Valley debarker. "I was impressed with that debarker because it is a very strong machine," says Beaudry. "It weighs 10 tons. It is very fast and we can use it to feed a mill with 50,000 board feet per day production. We saw only 16,000 board feet in one shift ."

In fact, Valley provided the entire conveyor system, deck and log turners based on a design they conceived with Beaudry's input. The conveyor system is unique in that everything is controlled with hydraulics rather than with electric motors. "It is very simple, strong and easy to repair," says Beaudry. "I save money on electricity ."

The backbone of the sawmill is a Cleereman carriage, which features a guided, thin kerf circular saw. Saxby Lumber loses about three per cent recovery using a circular saw carriage versus a bandsaw, but they intend to install a Silvitech scanner for better wood optimization that will result in at least four per cent improved recovery.

Beaudry says he visited five sawmills using Cleereman carriages and each owner was extremely satisfied with the equipment's performance. He was also impressed with the Wisconsin based Cleereman company because it has only manufactured carriages for the past 45 years.

"I told myself it will cost a lot of money, but this is a Ferrari," he says. "Mr. Cleereman, the father, was so proud of that machine. He would sit down in the shop and follow all of the production. It is built like a tank-simple, extremely strong, accurate, and fast. We don't need to replace a small chain here, a small light there, and other things that you don't need to saw hardwood ."

Boards that require edging and the heart of each log are redirected to a Valley bull edger. At present, Saxby Lumber depends on its own makeshift, yet functional, trimmer. By the end of this year, Beaudry expects to have enough cash to install a multisaw trimmer with laser line optimization.

After it is trimmed, the lumber enters the grading station, is stacked according to grade, then prepared for transport to kiln owners. Saxby Lumber manufactures only green hardwood lumber. Buyers are responsible for drying the lumber, which is sometimes handled at their own facilities or contracted out to other kiln owners.

Next year, Saxby Lumber hopes to install a resaw immediately after the carriage. "With a resaw, it is easier to get grade out of the logs," says Beaudry.

The main objective of most hardwood sawmills is to achieve the highest grade of lumber possible and Saxby Lumber's employees are all expected to focus on that goal. "The sawyer, the edger man, and the trimmer operator all have information about grades. They learn with time. We've had a few meetings with my number one lumber grader so that we can focus on evaluating the value of each piece ."

The sawmill operates two shifts totaling 21 hours per day, four days a week. Friday afternoon is spent on clean up and maintenance.

Just as Beaudry has attempted to simplify the manufacture of his hardwood lumber, he has a simple philosophy on life based on hard work and personal integrity. Ask any expert maker of fine wine, and their philosophical approach would sound remarkably similar. Experts like Beaudry have a special ability to take something that is extremely complicated and make it sound easy. However, as with a great vineyard, it takes a special person to successfully operate an independent hardwood sawmill with the quality that Saxby Lumber is noted for.

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