Originally planned as a small scale operation, Muskoka Timber Mills has since grown and recently upgraded its operation.
By Paul MacDonald
With its mill on a site that has been involved in the forest products business almost continuously for the last 100 years, you could say that Muskoka Timber Mills of Bracebridge, Ontario comes with a lot of heritage. The company's operation sits on a long, narrow piece of land along District Road 4 in Ontario's Muskoka Region, a site that has seen quite a few sawmills since the turn of the century. It's latest incarnation-previous to the startup of Muskoka Timber-was a retail lumberyard. Part of this old retail area is now being used for lumber storage by the current mill. "You can still see some of the footings for the old mills around the site," says Ric Singor, president of Muskoka Timber. Although the company's owners take pride in the site's history, they are really more interested in its future. Six years ago, Muskoka Timber started as a small-scale mill with only a handful of employees working on a seasonal basis.
Today, it is a medium sized operation producing an average of 30,000 board feet per day of hardwood and softwood product, with twenty employees working year round. It handles custom milling work, from large timbers-including logs for log homes-to lumber, as well as manufacturing wall paneling, siding and flooring. It works with a very wide variety of species including white pine, red pine, hemlock, spruce, hard and soft maple, red oak, cherry, ash, beech, white and yellow birch, basswood and poplar. As the company name implies, Muskoka Timber was originally set up to produce timber, predominately white pine. But that business plan had to be revised along the way. "We initially thought that we could stay in business producing only timbers," says Singor. "But we quickly found out that wasn't the case.
There wasn't enough demand for us to cut just white pine timbers." The market for white pine timbers is strong during the spring and summer in the region, well known for being cottage country. This part of Ontario has some of the most spectacular "cottages" in the entire country, huge grand old places made out of big timbers. "If I could sell white pine 12 months of the year, we would not produce anything else. But there are months in the winter when we don't sell any. In January, there aren't a lot of people knocking on our door looking for white pine timbers for their cottage." Singor and his partners set out to build a new company that met the needs of local markets. The mill focuses on the major lumber wholesalers in Ontario and a good deal of the production goes directly to the three regional retail operations of Muskoka Lumber. It was Paul Donaldson, one of the owners of Muskoka Lumber and a partner in Muskoka Timber, who first introduced Ric Singor to the idea of starting a mill.
Singor had just left Ontario Hydro, after 14 years with the utility, and was reviewing his options. "In the end I chose this venture, probably because it was the farthest away from anything that I've ever done before," he says with a chuckle. Singor brought a wealth of mechanical skills with him, however. "That's why I thought I could get involved with this business," he says. "I understand electricity, hydraulics, pneumatics. Those are all strengths that I have and I thought they would help us be a success. But there certainly were a lot of challenges along the way ." An additional problem was also surfacing. The initial equipment at the mill did not include a debarker or a chipper, resulting in a large amount of wasted product. "Six months after we had started, we had slabs piled as high as our buildings," explains Singor. "It was clear that we couldn't just produce lumber. We had to find a home for the residual materials."
The necessary handling of residual materials and the lack of winter white pine markets meant investing in more equipment and expanding production. While determining what else they could cut in addition to white pine timbers, they didn't have to look very far-the surrounding area has a good supply of hardwood. Even then they were selective about what to produce, keeping in mind what was already being produced locally. "Tembec has a really large hardwood mill just up the road from here in Huntsville," explains Singor. "They have a top notch operation doing hard maple product. That's fine, we'll do something that keeps us off their path." Muskoka Timber has recently installed a new Cleereman carriage and a used bandsaw, along with a Silvatech scanning and optimizing system. Singor reports that the new system, understandably, took some getting used to. "It was a learning curve," he says. "We had become pretty proficient at running our circular saw. We had to learn how to cut wood all over again: softwood versus hardwood, winter wood versus summer wood, frozen wood versus thawing wood, the whole range." They had the carriage installed on a 17-degree angle, which delivers a number of advantages.
The logs stay positioned back against the knees of the carriage better with the tilt and the pieces come off the carriage cut side down. "Cut side up is not a problem if it's a board, but if it's a slab and there's a knot on it because the log came through the ring debarker, or it's not perfectly centered, it could spin sideways and jam things up." The mill has two debarkers, a Morbark rosserhead and a Cambio ring debarker, the latter a more recent addition to the equipment lineup. The fourbunk, eighteen-foot carriage was custom designed by Cleereman for Muskoka Timber. "The typical mill wouldn't be interested in cutting beyond 16 or 18 feet, but we want to be able to cut up to 32 feet with the timber we are producing," explains Singor.
Singor says the primary reason for the equipment upgrade was improving recovery. "We've been able to achieve a kerf reduction with this new bandsaw. And with our old saw system, there was a decision that had to be made by the sawyer on the opening cut. With this new system, you enter what size you want that opening cut to be and it makes the decision for you. It's accurate all the time." There have been other benefits as well. Their previous 56inch saw, held in the centre with a four-inch collar, had a tendency to bend when cutting frozen wood. The end result was that timber would sometimes be slightly out of square. "With the strain on the bandsaw and it being guided top and bottom, our timbers now come out good and square, which also makes them easier to handle at the planer."
The linear positioners on the new carriage are a vast improvement over the old mechanical setworks which could be temperamental in cold weather or drift in hot weather. "With linear positioners, it doesn't matter whether it's February or August, or what part of the operating cycle we're in, it's bang on. The lumber we produce is much more consistent." The first month following installation of the new saw equipment saw their production fluctuate and they had to make some big adjustments along the way. Each subsequent month has seen improvements to the point where Singor says the mill is probably now running at 90 per cent of capacity. "There is still a way to go, and we can get more out of it, but the last 10 per cent is the most difficult.
The first improvements you make after an installation are the easy ones. The last ones are the toughest." The installation of the new carriage and associated upgrades has created an inevitable "ripple effect" on the rest of the mill. When the operation was first set up, they were producing 17,000 to 18,000 board feet in a ninehour shift, with all the lumber traveling with reasonable ease. "We invested time and effort on the carriage to get production up to 30,000 board feet and the equipment that was fine at 18,000 board feet was jamming up. So we had to make adjustments all the way down the line." The numbers tell the real story: the amount of residuals the mill is producing has been reduced by thirty per cent due to the new carriage, the scanning equipment and the ring debarker. "The ring debarker is taking off less wood so we have more fibre going into the mill. The scanner and the carriage are more accurate in the sawing of the log, so we get more finished material." The new system also produces extensive reports which chart how many logs are sawed and what is produced each hour, with every minute of down time itemized. "It allows us to be more accurate in determining what we get out of our logs.
The computer will tell us how many board feet we were able to produce from a load of logs. This also gives us more realistic, solid numbers to work with in determining what we should bid on logs because we know what we can produce with those logs ." In terms of the future, Singor says there may still be opportunity to return to their original business plan and saw strictly timber. The local market is growing and the company has made sales to Germany, Holland, and Japan. "If we can open up more markets overseas, we may end up coming full circle and be back where we want to be, sawing timbers."
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