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Niche logger

Dave de Kleer’s Thomas skid steer with custom attachments is taking on niche logging assignments in BC, such as cutting beetle killed wood.

By Jim Stirling

Dave de Kleer was working in some good-sized timber earlier this year on a job for the BC Ministry of Forests.

There’s always that derisory smile and, although it may be a small machine, Dave de Kleer’s Thomas HD 173 skid steer with custom designed and built logging attachments is no joke. “One of the toughest tasks is explaining to people what it can do,” says de Kleer. “I often say it’s like an ant with a giant grain of rice.” He has a work assignment photo record to illustrate the skid steer’s versatility. “The only limits are your imagination. There’s no end to attachments.”

The machine accomplishes much the way de Kleer has it set up. The forest use applications for the machine became clear when it was working on a private land clearing project, piling and burning debris near de Kleer’s home base of Quesnel in central British Columbia. It occurred to de Kleer that he could widen the scope of the business and do that type of work in the forest. That and a whole bunch more. His grapple converts the Thomas into a skidder, hoe chucker, log manipulator and deck builder.

Soon to be added are a delimbing capability to the grapple function and a directional falling attachment to transform the machine into a feller buncher with a 40-centimetre log diameter capacity. The diminutive skid steer is a long way from the massive Wabco ore trucks—a couple of storeys high—de Kleer used to operate in BC’s northeast coal fields a dozen years ago. “The skid steer is built for niche markets,” says de Kleer. “One of them is that it is very effective in beetle kill wood.”

The grapple—De Kleer’s own design—converts the Thomas HD 173 skid steer into a skidder, hoe chucker, log manipulator and deck builder.

And that is what it was doing earlier this year in a harvesting operation about 60 kilometres southwest of Quesnel. The BC Ministry of Forests in Quesnel hired de Kleer and the skid steer crew to go after green attack lodgepole pine, selectively removing the diseased trees, leaving residual species and unaffected pine standing. The mature pine was good-sized wood—some of it as much as one cubic metre a stem—and more than 24 metres tall.

It was bucked into 15-metre lengths for skidding. The show was a short step behind hot logging, with a hand faller and bucker complementing the Thomas. De Kleer says he was cleared to remove infected pine not identified in the original cruise. Pockets of that increased volumes by 10 to 25 per cent, he adds. He’s successfully completed two other ministry assignments with the skid steer, each for 2,500 cubic metres. “We’ve got the trust and respect of the forestry people in Quesnel,” he says.

Log handling is a severe application for all bush equipment and the Thomas skid steer is no exception. He has put in more than 7,000 hours operating this type of equipment and learned through experience what it can—and cannot—do. “I’m pleased with the machine and the modifications we’ve made to it.” Some of these are what de Kleer describes with a grin as “classified.” De Kleer looked at various grapples before opting to design and build his own for the skid steer. He’s a firm believer in applying the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle to machinery. “I wanted a simple design with a two axis swing.” The result is a grapple with an opening range from eight centimetres to 152 centimetres, weighing around 158 kilograms, that has proved extremely bushworthy.

The grapple can hoe chuck hand felled trees to bunches, roll and turn logs and select the optimum stems for maximum pulling distances. He tries to keep skids within 500 metres to keep costs acceptable. The log handling ability is evident at the other end of the process. The Lilliputian machine and grapple has no problem building three metre high log decks, with the help of a little operator know-how.

Wood can also be sorted from the decks to lessen the wood purchaser’s per metre costs, says de Kleer. The machine has been beefed up, adding bracing and weight around the cab. He’s stayed with steel tracks and was planning on widening them up to 15 centimetres on the outside for improved flotation. “I’ve never, ever walked out of the others,” he adds.

He figured he’d put about 4,000 hours on the steel tracks and estimated his cost around $1 per hour. That’s why he believes in his customized steel tracks. De Kleer keeps bushings and pins super tight. It’s part of what he says is understanding what causes wear. The Thomas’ 52 hp is “basically enough” and he reports no shortage of hydraulic power. The machine is economical to run, costing about $50 a day in fuel costs.

De Kleer is ideally set up for green attack beetle wood work and the multiple small extractions it entails. The machine needs very little room—he typically works it on an average 1.8 metre wide path. Because de Kleer knows his corners and the machine turns on the proverbial dime, it can snake logs through the bush with minimal damage to residuals or forest appearance. The machine has a low undercarriage clearance so stumps have to be minimal.

Bucked limbs are left in the bush, walked over by the machine’s tracks. On the Quesnel area site, de Kleer’s crews had established a safe burning site where pistol butts, school marms and other waste material could be cut out and disposed of, while enhancing the overall quality of the retrieved wood. The Thomas is equipped with 30 metres of winching capability and can straw line a similar distance if circumstances necessitate.

Production typically takes a back seat in small patch, selective harvesting applications. “I’m probably producing somewhere between a small bulldozer and a horse logger, but you have to remember this machine can do more than just skid,” says de Kleer. A small bulldozer machine can handle approximately twice the volume per drag but the skid steer has twice the speed, he notes. De Kleer is self-contained and can move the machine and its attachments from place to place on a five-ton low bed.

The attachments include a short wood grapple he has also designed and built. “The band mill guys like that because there’s no dirt on their wood.” And there are buckets useful for reclaiming ends and other material to be chipped from tight quarters in and around exterior transfer belts in sawmills. The next stage de Kleer plans is manufacturing his own logging attachments for the Thomas. “We’ve learned what breaks and what doesn’t and how best to keep costs down.”

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