Cedar from Scratch
Northern Ontario Cedar has started out a new cedar shingle operation that is meeting with success.
By Dave Lammers
A new family owned mill in northern Ontario is producing a line of cedar shingles that are fast becoming recognized as among the best in the business. Northern Ontario Cedar Ltd, located in Mattice, about 160 kilometres northwest of Timmins, can't keep up with demand for their product a little more than a year after opening in January, 1999. "The first three or four months we were looking for customers," says manager Pierre Dorval. "Right now, we don't have to call anybody because we don't have anything for sale-our production is committed. It's a great situation to be in ." The plant, owned by brothers Luc and Norm and Duval, produces four different grades of white cedar shingles: a premium quality shingle for roofing; a wall or siding shingle; a knotted shingle for cottages and walls; and shims for undercoating or shimming windows and doors. Being the first medium sized mill in the region devoted to producing cedar shingles wasn't easy, Dorval says, as there were a number of small cedar shingle operators who didn't welcome the competition. "But it's a market in which customers have not been served as well as they could have been in the past," he says. Initially, customers wanted to see the Northern Ontario Cedar product before ordering, however. "Customers were looking for samples.
They were looking for some kind of proof that our product would meet quality standards. There are a lot of people out there who have a shingle machine in their backyard, without any standards." He says customers were surprised to learn there is a new cedar shingle mill that produces two or three trucks of product a week. Northern Ontario Cedar was operating last fall at 70 per cent capacity but intends to ramp up production quickly, reaching 100 per cent and producing 200 squares a day-each square the equivalent of 100 square feet. Dorval says many people were also surprised to hear there is any cedar in Ontario at all. He says the province's eastern white cedar is of a better quality than that of Quebec, which is known for its cedar and is home to the major producers. However, he says Northern Ontario Cedar is quickly gaining respect, backed by the fact that their entire line of cedar shingle products is currently sold out to a single client, Soanbert Corp. in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. From there, the product is sold mostly in the US. "This is the proof that our product is good, that it has been accepted in the market," says Dorval. "Right now they are putting us on the same level as our competitors and this after we've been in operation for only a short time." The $2million operation is the culmination of about four years of work on the part of the Duval brothers, which included researching how shingles are made and acquiring a mill licence from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Both of the brothers have equipment backgrounds. Luc Duval owns a filing business in nearby Hearst and Norm and owns Duval's Welding & Machining in Mattice.
The mill building was built by Duval's Welding & Machining. The company also manufactured and installed some of the mill's equipment, including the log slasher. The mill has a Morbark open head debarker. Its five shingle machines were produced by Quebec based Industries Desjardins. Logs are loaded onto a ramp and debarked. They then enter the mill in two rows and are slashed to 16 inches. "From there on in, the rest of the production process is very different from the other mills that we know of in our region," says Dorval. Log pieces are put through shingle machines, each with a hydraulic carriage saw, and an L Shaped edger saw, with the carriage on one side and the edger saw on the other side. "One time it's the top of the piece that will go through and the other time it will be the bottom and that's how we get the taper," explains Dorval. The sawyer then edges the shingles by hand on both sides. "You can also edge in the middle to get the best quality shingle." From there the sawyer sorts the shingles for packaging, without any further processing. "The product goes directly on the wall after it has left here." It's a labour intensive process from start to finish. "Every shingle is touched by the sawyer," says Dorval. "That's the way it's done. It's so manual. You have to work with your hands." Quality lies largely in the hands of the sawyer, he says. "That's probably the key job in the mill. The quality of your cut will make the difference in your product being accepted in the market or not."
The sawyers also have to grade each log before putting it in the shingle machine. "With shingles you go around the log, so you're going to try and make sure you get as much quality out of the log by looking at the log and making sure you can get the knots out. "When you start cutting the log, after a while you have to turn it and start back on the other face. So you want to make sure you get the best quality out of it. You don't want the knots right in the middle of the shingles. You're going to try and get them out by putting them at one side so you can edge it." The biggest challenge facing the mill in its first year of operation has been in training employees. It takes an estimated five months for a worker to reach maximum production. Experts were brought in from Quebec to train workers and management on a tight schedule that saw the 6,000 square foot mill built in November, 1998 and opening the following January. The mill has 45 employees and operates two shifts. "We've started a new business in a region where this wasn't known," says Dorval. "You're starting your labour force from scratch. They don't know anything about cedar shingles.
When you train people, you can't just train them on knowing the machine." He notes that the process is far more complicated. "It's very different from other mills where you see people learning how to work the buttons and after a week or two it becomes like they are playing a video game." Another challenge is retaining workers after the company has invested in their training. Some decide they don't like the job and others are lured away by other forest related companies. "You're always a secondary business because you're not in the same market as the big mills," says Dorval. "You can't really pay them the same salary. You're always into that thing where, when the other mills are hiring, you might lose someone. You've put a lot of time into training them and they're up to full production-and whoops, they're gone." The mill has to closely monitor the quality of logs coming into the plant.
Northern Ontario Cedar has a licence to harvest 12,500 cubic metres of cedar a year in northeastern Ontario, with logs hauled to the mill from up to 400 kilometres away. And they've found a vast difference in the quality of cedar coming out of the same region. "You can cut cedar here and then cut cedar 20 kilometres away and you'll have two different cedars, depending on the land or where it's growing," says Dorval. "Cedar is usually rotten in the middle. You can harvest a big cedar that you can't even get your arms around. But when you cut into it, there's only one or two inches of good wood and the rest is hollow." The mill has found white cedar from high ground to be better quality than cedar from swamps, which is also more reddish. But the hollow in high ground cedar logs is often larger as well. Cedar from sandy areas is good quality, though it makes for tough sawing. "We see a lot of cracking in the cedar," says Dorval. "And you can have sand in the cracks. Every time you get sand with the saw you have to change it." Sawyers in the mill also have to make adjustments depending on the season. "Every month of the year is different for being able to saw," says Dorval. "The wood may be wet or frozen, so there's always an adjustment, always making sure of the quality of the product." And while they are already attaining high quality, he says there's still room to improve. "We're too new to say exactly what wood from a specific area we're operating in has the best cedar. Right now we're talking more about a region than a specific area. But we definitely see a lot of difference between high ground cedar and swamp cedar."
The mill wasn't built in time to obtain a licence to cut cedar on Crown land in the Hearst area where it is located. In the future, Northern Ontario Cedar hopes to harvest cedar in the immediate area. It also has plans to expand, including adding more shingle machines and building a hogging system to produce mulch from cedar waste to sell for use in gardens and landscaping. One thing the company has learned is other lumber manufacturers are watching them and developing an interest in manufacturing cedar products. "Right now it's okay because the market for cedar is new," says Dorval. "But since we've started up, everyone has decided they would like to cut cedar or do something with cedar. For us it's a matter of making sure we can always get cedar."
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