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MAKING The Best of It 

BC's Seaton Timber is making the best of low quality fibre, turning out a range of value-added products, and has recently added a pallet making operation

By Jim Stirling

Wishing something isn't so just doesn't cut it and that's something Zane Fricke knows all about. When your wood basket is full of large volumes of decadent timber, you have to figure out what you can do to turn it to your advantage. "Everything comes back to available fibre," says Fricke. He's a partner in family run Seaton Timber Inc which strives to do whatever will work in the market with the predominantly low quality fibre it can access. The company goes about that in its own distinctive manner. It plans for and harvests timber, hauls the logs, sorts them, trades them, converts the convertible among them to a range of truly value-added products and markets and transports them to customers. That's a tough chore and a constant challenge. 

The Fricke family and the up to 70 people dependent on Seaton Timber for a job believe the addition of a new pallet manufacturing plant will provide a crucial piece in the company's jigsaw and create a long-lasting marketing niche. Seaton Timber's operations are near Moricetown, between Hazelton and Smithers in west central British Columbia. The transition forests in the surrounding mountain valleys are composed mainly of balsam and hemlock. Ron Fricke, Seaton's president, has a variety of responsibilities and keeps tabs on the woodlands side. 

Son Jody is operations manager at the plants, son Zane takes care of finance and marketing while daughter Gwen Wahl is company controller. Operating "all in the family" is fine but the company occasionally requires reliable outside business advice and has found that at the Hope Learning Institute in Edmonton, says Ron Fricke. Flexibility and versatility, driven by the realities of fibre supply, have channelled Seaton's development. During the late 1970s, the company logged for a sawmill on the Indian reserve in nearby Moricetown. Seaton ended up running the mill for the band for four years. Between 1984 and 1986, the company bought timber, dressed it with a Yates planer and shipped it to England, delivering the product to dockside themselves, recalls Fricke.

Seaton Timber is a family affair. Above, from left to right, are Jody, Ron and Zane Fricke. After researching equipment, the company opted for a turnkey milling package from Baker Products for its new pallet operation. 

Other initiatives followed including running a mobile dimension mill (but a steady supply of the right sized material wasn't available) and operating a small scragg to produce pine studs for Europe (the nematode problem killed that). Fricke credits E R Probyn for handling Seaton's various products through the years. "They've been excellent." Seaton has improved its versatility with the addition of a debarker and a 30inch Morbark whole log chipper. The company decided to get out of trying to produce commodity sawlogs with their high stumpage rates and costs and concentrate efforts instead on the abundant low grade wood, continues Fricke. They've since found interesting ways to add value. For example, extracting clears from hemlock flitches, selling into the volatile Japanese markets in the required metric sizes and producing log home components. 

For more than four years, Seaton has been cutting squares and delivering them to Rocky Mountain Log Homes in Montana for assembly. Rocky Mountain is happy to utilize BC's alpine fir, says Fricke. Seaton also produces ties for Union Pacific Railroad through Forwood Forest Products. The idea of manufacturing pallet components resulted from figuring other ways to best use available fibre. Seaton's region contains all kinds of dry and standing dead wood. It has around 19 per cent moisture content, ideal for pallet manufacturing. Most pallet makers have to buy economy grade lumber at the going price. Seaton's dry wood is waiting in the forest. Zane Fricke sourced some persuasive numbers when researching pallet-making equipment. 

The US Department of Agriculture came up with weight recovery numbers ranging from 68 to 83 per cent for Baker Products mill equipment. The "phenomenal" recovery figures were obtained by weighing logs, running samples and weighing the resulting lumber, slabs and sawdust, says Fricke. He visited Baker's plant and toured other operations using its equipment. Seaton ended up purchasing a tailored Baker Products milling package from the Missouri manufacturer. It was a turnkey deal, right down to hydraulic hoses and electrical plugins. Seaton received nearly $400,000 in financial assistance from Human Resources Development Canada. 

The federal agency has generated bad press for its questionable funding and followup practices, but Seaton's project went ahead as outlined and new real jobs have been created and maintained for First Nations and others. The whole project cost about $1.2 million. Dry pallet stock in 10inch diameter and under log form is fed to an infeed deck by front-end loader. It is measured and chopped by power saw into 44 to 50inch blocks. The blocks are centred on a chain for passage through a two band saw scragg with horizontal splitter saw on the backside. The approximately four foot blocks are easy to handle and short enough to avoid spiraling and taper. Saw kerfs are little more than a millimeter. Slabs from the scragg are placed faceup on a sharp chain for edging. 

The three-sided cants go through a precision end trimmer with infinitely adjustable vertical band saws. A Baker resaw with four horizontal band set can manufacture the laid flat pieces into four boards if the piece is wide enough. There's a second two saw horizontal set followed by deduster boxes feeding to an end table for stacking and notching the pallet runners. The pallet plant had been up only three weeks this past summer and the eight people a shift were in the familiarization phase. Crews were working toward reducing waste. "I feel confident it will run 30,000 board feet plus on an eight hour shift," predicts Ron Fricke. "We're getting about 18,000 feet of saleable product from 56 cubic metres of the kind of wood we're working in." 

Seaton has had a 63,000 cubic metre value-added timber sale allotment under section 21 for 10 years. The company logs an average 95,000 cubic metres a year. It sells to major licensees and buys or trades for logs it requires. In that context, the Frickes commend the supportive role of West Fraser's Pacific Inland Resources division in Smithers and woods manager Gord Gunson in helping meet Seaton's timber requirements. Seaton's logging equipment fleet includes a Finning TK 923T feller buncher, a John Deere 690 with a Denis and a Cat 300 with a Limmit for processing; a John Deere 748 rubber tired skidder and a Cat D5H with swing grapple and three butt n' tops. Seaton has been sorting its logs for about 10 years now, removing the pulp material, directing most of the sawlogs to licensees and adding value to the low grade material. It runs six sets of its own chip trucks to Eurocan Pulp's Kitimat mill. 

Slabs from the scragg are placed on the sharp chain for edging (above, left) and notched runners are stacked (below). Seaton Timber's Ron Fricke is confident that once they are familiar with the equipment, they will be turning out 30,000 board feet plus on an eight hour shift with the pallet plant. 

The addition of the whole log chipper has significantly boosted chip production. The company runs nine highway truck units to deliver its forest products to customers. This includes an anticipated 120 loads of log home components to Montana this year. "We can provide guaranteed delivery in a timely manner," says Zane Fricke. "We're a partner in the supply chain." California is the initial market for Seaton's pallets and it transports them to the Lower Mainland of BC for shipment south. But Fricke says if California develops into the dominant market, he would consider switching to dedicated truck delivery from plant to customer. That might well turn out to be the case. Fricke says the market's initial reaction to Seaton's pallets has been "fabulous". When you're starting off in a new direction, that's just the kind of encouraging response you want to hear from the marketplace. 


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