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Small Timber Challenges Revamped BC Stud Mill

Processing 100-year-old pine ranging down to seven cm diameters, Quesnel Specialty Mill has had to refine the delicate art of small wood processing and recovery.

By Jim Stirling
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use. 

Teamwork and creativity define the character of the Quesnel Specialty Mill. The division of Slocan Forest Products Ltd. is one of few operations in British Columbia using lodgepole pine down to seven-cm diameters to manufacture about 200 precise metric sizes of structural components for the Japanese pre-fabricated housing industry. The enterprise has created work for about 200 people in harvesting, transportation, mining, silviculture and support positions, including a First Nations-run finger-jointing plant. The operation is also helping refine the delicate art of small wood utilization and recovery. 

November images The Quesnel Specialty Mill's achievements were recognized in 1997 by Forest Renewal BC in its Forests Excellence awards. The operation won the value-added category, where developing outstanding marketing or training programs and researching the value-added manufacturing sector were the criteria. The award marks the second consecutive FRBC award for Slocan. Ike Barber, the company's chairman, president and CEO received the communication category award in 1996. 

Slocan bought the old Weier's stud mill in Quesnel in 1987. It complemented the A mill Slocan has operated there since 1979. That operation produced about 160 million FBM of lumber in 1996, 80 per cent in 2X4 dimensions to 16'lengths, along with MSR and J-grade lumber products. 

But five years ago, the future looked bleak for the stud mill. Large bug-kill salavage licences were winding down. Lack of suitable wood fibre for two mills and a market downturn necessitated a re-evaluation. 

The timber profile in the Quesnel TSA contains extensive tracts of problem forest types excluded from the AAC. Among them were 100-year-old lodgepole pine that regenerated naturally after forest fires to densities of up to 8,000 stems/hectare. These tooth- brush bristle stands don't delight the standard lumber producer. But nothing is for nothing in nature. The slow-growth, dense wood with its small knots can make strong, straight, defect-free specialty wood products. 

November images Quesnel Specialty Mill evolved from Slocan's research into this timber type and its uses. About 100 sawmill/planer people facing the possibility of no job made a commitment to a new one. About $2 million was invested in re-tooling the old stud mill, although it's only been sustained so far by a series of small-volume, short-term licences. 

Since 1994, up to 35,000 M3/year of tops to seven cm have been recovered from the A mill licence areas and delivered to the specialty mill. Sorting, handling and delimbing the small wood was an interesting challenge for woodlands staff and contractors. But the change has become routine. And it reflects a close-knit cooperation that typifies the operation. 

"The big plus we've got is the good support in woodlands, throughout the mill and at the marketing end," says Ken Petteplace, specialty mill superintendent. "In the mill, there's a totally different atmosphere and attitude, more receptive to change. Everyone has the same focus and is on the same wavelength." 

Open-record check points throughout the mill allow any employee to stop production if a product is found to be off dimension or grade. "Everyone is very heavily into quality control," explains Petteplace. They need to be. Some finished components are only 2.54 cm by 3.81 cm in size. Tolerances are +/- 0.5 mm at the planer. 

Precise, cut-to-order accuracies imply a reliance on high-tech process control. Not here, not yet. Quesnel Specialty Mill is decidedly low-tech. "But we do have a whole load of creativity," smiles Petteplace. "People would be very surprised to see what we can do in this mill. We're not scared to try something different. People tell us 'that won't work'. We say, 'let's try it. We'll see'." 

The mill uses wood from seven cm to a high end of 23 cm. Larger wood goes to A mill for processing. The fibre is 98 per cent lodgepole pine, the balance spruce and balsam. Since April, a stationary Prentice EX 625 grapple loader has been doing an exemplary job feeding the mill's log decks, says Petteplace. 

Adjustments were made to the grapple to better handle the small wood. "It's a credit to people on staff throughout the mill that breakage is the least of our problems," he adds. 

A multi-stem bucking system prepares logs for passage through either of two 18" Cambio debarkers. Initial sorting on slash decks directs logs by size into one of two bins. Primary breakdown is through a Powell saw box with multi-saw capabilities. A Powell 4" edger with side boards to a 2" Schurmann and on to Newnes transfer and sorting tables, which describes the general flow, says Petteplace, choosing to be sparse with details. Workhorse in the planer is a belt- driven Yates A16. 

About 73 per cent of the net annual production of 24 million board feet is custom- made for the Japanese home component industry. The balance is in custom sizes for North American customers. 

Trim blocks down to 10" from the mill operation and other by-products are delivered to Nazko Resource Managment's finger-jointing plant in Quesnel. It's owned and operated by the Nazko First Nation, which also harvests timber about 80 km west of Quesncl. The Nazko region is a major fibre source for Slocan. 

Petteplace believes communication and trust among employees throughout the mill and planer is a major contributor to its success. That attitude is reflected in the 1.5-year, no time-loss accident record for the operation. 

Small equipment modifications can return big dividends. In-house modifying and tinkering with some old planer equipment and the investment of a modest $5,000 resulted in a 15 per-cent increase in production. About 15 people per shift work in the planer, typically handling up to 34,000 pieces per dav. 

On the maintenance front, it's a similar story. "Employees contribute a combination of ideas and from that - and the BS - we come up with a way to make things work better," says Petteplace. 

Expecting to extend operational horizons is an understandable trait for an operation that makes its way creating valuable products from fibre others ignore. "We're looking at how to utilize even smaller fibre. I already know that we can go smaller than seven centime- tres. The people here are willing to try and work with new items." 

When LSJ visited, a planer infeed was in the shop undergoing Quesnel Specialty Mill magic. "It can handle 48" now but we think we can maintain control over 42" pieces. That's 10 per cent," he continues. 

Naturally, waste is a dirty word. "We don't believe in waste," declares Petteplace "and we don't believe in making chips," he adds, with tongue only partly in cheek. Chip production can help the bottom line when prices are up. 

The four-year licence the mill is operating under expires in March, 1998. "We've applied for 195,000 ml for 10 years,"says Marcel Favron, Slocan's divisional manager. Two other companies bid on the volume, but Favron was hopeful Slocan's record of job creation and doing what it said it would do with short-term fibre licences will be considered. With a more secure timber base, the next step would be capital expenditure to better utilize little logs, he says. Favron anticipates that would include optimization, thin-kerf sawing of small cants and development of a super-small process line. A J-bar-type sorter would be another benefit. 

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