Oct 2004 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
Making the transition
A plywood plant in BC has made the transition to producing laminated veneer lumber successfully, and now has a bright future with strong markets and demand for LVL.
By Tony Kryzanowski
The laminated veneer lumber (LVL) plant in Golden, BC, is a facility with a great future as well as an interesting past. Completed in 1999 and still the province’s only LVL plant, few would have predicted back in the turbulent 1990s that it would land on its feet as well as it has. At that time, the plant faced bankruptcy. After an ownership change, it was flung into transition from strictly a plywood plant to a plywood/LVL plant. Employees endured extended shutdowns resulting from a lack of capital and a lot of uncertainty regarding the forest resource. For example, the plant’s annual allowable cut was reduced by 17 per cent in 1995.
Originally part of the Evans Forest Products group, the company was acquired by a self-made American millionaire, Georges St Laurent, who is still viewed by many in the community as a white knight for his efforts to save the company. He originally became involved as a lender of operating capital to Evans, then got directly involved through a restructuring plan developed in 1996. It stipulated how Evans would pay back its creditors.
St Laurent masterminded the plant’s investment in two LVL lines and established relationships with companies like Louisiana-Pacific (L-P) to market the product. L-P purchased Evans Forest Products’ assets in 1999 for $134 million, bringing deeper pockets and considerably more stability to the situation. The sale included the LVL plant in Golden and Evans’ Eagle River Division—a red cedar decking sawmill in Malakwa, BC. The LVL plant is now called Louisiana-Pacific Canada, Engineered Wood Division.
Although the 1990s were turbulent times, plant manager Bryce Piggot says the transition to LVL was an astute move considering the uncertainty of the plywood market. “Plywood is so susceptible to commodity market pricing,” he says. “What we were looking for was some predictability. LVL has brought a higher level of predictability, where we are not susceptible to the swings of the panel market.” At the present time, there is considerable demand for LVL, as there is for nearly all panel products.
The plant is running flat out, with transportation being the company’s biggest challenge, due to an acute shortage of railcars. About 65 per cent of the plant’s LVL production is shipped by rail and the rest by truck. Of that, 80 per cent is exported to the United States, with the remainder sold in Canada. Piggott says that manufacturing LVL is a technically challenging process, but there are many similarities between manufacturing plywood and LVL. L-P benefited from the collective experience of many long-term employees working at the plant. Today, over 30 per cent of the division’s workforce has seniority of 25 years or more. When the first LVL line started up in 1998, the plant was making LVL on a regular basis within a month.
Human resources manager and long time plant employee Bryan Englehart says the experiences of the 1990s were a real wake-up call for this picturesque mountain community. Golden is nestled in a valley on the western end of the Rocky Mountains’ Kicking Horse Pass and is very dependent on the forest industry. The LVL plant has nearly 500 employees, with several instances where both husbands and wives work at the plant. “I think people saw the need to diversify the economy,” says Englehart. “There was a big push to do that. A community plan was developed, and part of it was to work toward diversifying the economy with a lot of emphasis on tourism.” That effort has been an unqualified success with the development of a major ski resort and many more people moving into the area for its scenery and lifestyle. “It has changed the demographic makeup of the community,” he adds.
Purchase of the plant by Oregon-based multi-national Louisiana-Pacific has brought an added measure of stability to the community. The fact that they are producing LVL brings some other advantages to the plant and the community. As an engineered wood product, LVL has a lot of upside potential for use in strength applications and as a structurally stable substitute for other building materials. Once a producer of up to 160 million square feet of plywood annually on a 3/8ths-inch basis, plywood production at the Golden plant has dropped to about 60 million square feet. In fact, plywood has now become a byproduct of the 3.5 million cubic feet of LVL that is produced annually at the plant.
“We target all the veneer we can for Metriguarded grades for use in LVL,” says Piggot. A Metriguard scanner measures the strength properties of each veneer sheet. “It’s the veneer that doesn’t make Metriguard grade that goes into plywood.” He says the LVL produced at the plant is used in I-joists, as headers and as rimboard products. It is often used as wide support structures in building construction. LVL works well as a substitute for 2x8 and 2x10, and is in growing demand as solid wood products in these large dimensions become scarcer. Golden is L-P’s only engineered wood product plant with its own allocated forest resource. However, its forest is not rich in Douglas fir, which is the primary species used in Golden’s LVL manufacturing process.
Up to 80 per cent of the fibre it consumes is Douglas fir, with the rest being hemlock and pine. L-P trades its plentiful spruce and pine resource for fir, with some coming from as far away as the West Coast. Overall, the plant consumes about 300,000 cubic metres of fibre per year. Logs arrive tree length and are transported through a bucking station where they are trimmed so that each log will produce up to four peeler blocks for the veneer lathe. After bucking, the logs proceed through a Nicholson A5, 28-inch debarker, then to a triple-saw bucking station where they are bucked into 101-inch peeler blocks.
The average peeler block diameter is about 9.5 inches, but the lathe will accept a peeler block as small as 5.5 inches. As the peeler blocks move from the triple saws to the sorting bins, they are scanned to ensure that they are the correct length and diameter. Any rejected blocks are diverted and processed through a whole log chipper. From the sorting bins, the peeler blocks proceed to eight conditioning vats where they are conditioned for about 24 hours to increase core temperature to over 100 degrees F. Hemlock takes a little longer. This process makes the wood more supple, resulting in better peeling on the lathe. Once conditioned, the blocks are individually scanned for their geo-centres, then loaded onto a Raute Wood veneer lathe.
The freshly peeled veneer proceeds through a rotary clipper and full sheets are stacked into one of three bins, depending on moisture content. Random veneer is stacked separately. The veneeris then dried using either the plant’s Prentice longitudinal drier or one of two Coe N62 jet tube dryers. Full sheets are sent through the Prentice, analyzed for grade by a Metriguard scanner, colour-coded, then sorted into an eight-bin stacker. Sorting is based on three Metriguard grades as well as wets and plywood grades. Veneer dried through the N62 units is also graded and colour-coded, then proceeds to a turntable where individual sheets are manually sorted according to colour-coded grade.
From these sorting bins, the veneer proceeds to either the LVL lines, plywood line, or to the composer, where defects are clipped out of random pieces. They are glued together to be used in LVL and plywood cores. The plant is able to manufacture plywood from 3/8ths to one-inch thicknesses, and LVL from 1-1/8th to 3-1/2 inch thicknesses. Raute Wood supplied all the major machinery for both LVL lines, including the stationary, platen presses. LVL veneer is sent through scarfers, which ensure that the veneer has the proper dimensions so that there are no gaps when they are laid up to produce LVL. Then it is placed in sorting bins at the front end of the LVL manufacturing line.
Depending on the recipe for a specific size and strength batch of LVL, individual veneer sheets are fed along the LVL manufacturing line and pass through a glue curtain. A lay up operator and helper ensure that the veneer has been placed in the correct position as the long ribbon proceeds down a conveyor to the pre-press. The purpose of the pre-press is to ensure that there is a good glue tack before the laid up veneer enters the two-opening, 80-foot long, stationary press. Here, the veneer is pressed into billets that are 48 inches wide. The billets can range in length from 40 to 65 feet. Depending on billet thickness, press time will range from 13 to 51 minutes, at 300 psi and 300 degrees F.
As the billets exit the press, a number of quality control checks are conducted on them, and then they are cut to size on a gangsaw. They are placed in storage to cure, then site coated and sealed for moisture protection, packaged, and put in storage for shipping. Because the plant was practically brand new when purchased by L-P, the LVL lines are essentially operating today as when first installed. Piggot says L-P is looking for ways to give them the capability to manufacture billets up to 72 feet long and to speed up the process. “Today, we are not constrained at the presses,” he says. “We want to get to the point where the presses become the choke point, so we are looking for ways to speed up the process.” The plant undoubtedly continues to provide critical employment in Golden. Manufacturing engineered wood products has been a bonus for the community, considering that the ratio of employment for plywood and LVL is three to one compared to a sawmill.
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