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A Helping Hand for Finger-Jointed Products

A Quebec samill is working with Forintek and the National Lumber Grading Association to establish a new specification standard that will allow mills to manufacture MSR finger-jointed products for structural use.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

The Asian flu has resulted in lumber-producing countries dumping their production into North American markets, thus keeping prices low on commodity dimension lumber, despite record housing starts in the US.

Canadian sawmills have turned their attention to more value-added product development as a means of breaking free from the vicious circle of price wars with foreign lumber producers. Most have realized that there are limits to how efficiently they can produce a single stick of lumber.

One of the major advantages to Canadian lumber is its international reputation for strength. Yet the growing trend is that sawmills must harvest smaller and smaller timber because of the long growing cycle. Ultimately, sawmills must find innovative ways to manufacture value-added products from lumber sizes smaller than the typical 2X4. Value-adding processes such as finger-jointing have now caught the attention of Canadian lumber producers.

A large sawmill in northern Quebec, Les Chantiers de Chibougamau Ltee., is working with Forintek and the National Lumber Grading Association to establish a Special Products Specification 4 (SPS4) standard. This will allow sawmills to manufacture Machine Stress Rated (MSR) finger-jointed products for structural use. Right now, sawmills can manufacture SPS3 lumber, which is for vertical use only. An SPS4 standard opens up many more structural possibilities for finger-jointed lumber, thus making it possible for sawmills to develop innovative, value-added products from small yet strong dimension lumber.

The SPS4 designation is still only in draft form, but the Chibougamau sawmill has already invested $7 million into a high-production line to produce SPS4 flanges for I-beam joists.

Michel Filion

Michel Filion, co-owner of Quebec mill Les Chantiers de Chibougamau Ltee. (center) says the new $7 million line to produce SPS4 flanges began in January.

Les Chantiers de Chibougamau Ltee. is located about 10 hours north of Montreal in one of the most active forestry regions in Canada. It was established in 1962 and is owned by the Filion family. Several family members are involved in the day-to-day operation of the sawmill. It is now capable of producing 180 million board feet of dimension lumber per year, using three production lines. Two of the lines feature HewSaw breakdown machines, and one line is dedicated entirely to manufacturing 2X3s, which are used entirely in the company's MSR finger-jointed flange production.

Their first experience with finger jointed lumber began when they built an SPS3 line in 1994. This involved a $4.5-million investment, and is anchored on a finger-jointing machine capable of producing 250 to 265 lineal feet of vertical-use finger-jointed lumber per minute. It provided the owners of Les Chantiers de Chibougamau with the invaluable experience of producing finger-jointed lumber in a cost-effective way.

The company then decided to build a production line to convert all their 2X3 lumber to I-beam joist flanges, despite the absence of an official SPS4 designation. The new line began production in January, 1998. They are taking their time through the start-up phase to ensure they hit their SPS4 target consistently.

"We always have to be in control of what we are doing in terms of wood resistance," says co-owner Michel Filion. "If we go too fast, then maybe we will have problems with our resistance. So we have to keep a good base on where we stand and where we are, because we can not fool around with that. If we say it is Machine Stress Rated, and it is that particular grade, and this kind of resistance, it has to be there." Right now, they are testing their MSR finger-jointed flanges up to 20,000 lbs. strength.

Their objective is to be the best in this new market, the standard upon which all new manufacturers will rate their SPS4 products. Filion says the keys to reaching their objective are the inherent strength of the wood fibre from that region of Quebec, the speed they intend to manufacture their flanges, and the variety and frequency of testing to which they intend to subject their SPS4 flanges.

"Why we decided to go that way was due more to the density of our wood because we believe that we have strong wood," says Filion. As proof, they have tested their wood strength, and about 75 per cent is in the high range of MSR 2100 and over.

"It's strong wood, but it's small wood too," he adds. They can only produce 2X3s up to 10'long, yet I-beam joist manufacturers require longer lengths. Consequently, they must finger-joint more lumber to achieve required lengths, as well as prove that the glued joints are extremely strong.

"We're sure we have the right strength," says Filion, "so, it's a net advantage for us to build these flanges."

While Les Chantiers de Chibougamau have proven to themselves that their flanges can meet the exacting demands of I-beam joist manufacturers, they also believe the market is ready for a pre-made MSR finger-jointed flange.

Right now, I-beam joist manufacturers purchase long lengths of MSR lumber and finger joint them into their required lengths as part of their manufacturing process. Purchasing SPS4 flanges will potentially save them a step, and help to maintain high productivity in their plants. Typically, Filion says, the I-joist assembly machine operates more quickly than the finger-jointing step in the process.

"They are always waiting for the flanges," says Filion. "So for the big companies, it's an advantage to have some coming from other companies so that it (joist production) can go very, very fast, and they can use their machine to full capacity."

Les Chantiers de Chibougamau Ltee.'s SPS4 finger-joint line can produce flanges from 26'to 50'long.

Having established that they can produce acceptable flanges, the sawmill must now prove that they can produce them economically. After realizing that they needed a faster production line than what they had built in 1994, they worked with Quebec equipment manufacturer Conception RP to develop what they believe is the fastest finger-joint machine available on the market today. It is capable of producing 450 lineal feet of MSR finger-jointed flange per minute, or 420,000 lineal feet per day. This is nearly double the output of the SPS3 line.

"We wanted fast equipment because our intention is to produce them (flanges) faster at lower cost," says Filion. "So we purchased a machine that could go as fast as 450 lineal feet per minute. I don't think that type of machine existed on the market."

The Conception RP fingerjointer is only one piece of the puzzle. Filion says the entire line has been designed for speed, from infeed to outfeed. Other companies such as GreCon, Crown Machining and Welding from New Brunswick, Radio Frequency Service, and an Australian-built DART MSR machine sold in Canada by Eldeco Industries Ltd. in Burnaby, BC, also made significant contributions to the speed factor.

Filion prefers to keep the exact assembly line process secret for now because they have entered a delicate stage of development toward achieving the SPS4 designation with production of 450 lineal feet per minute. They have made a significant investment with no assurance yet just how quickly SPS4 will be adopted as a legitimate national standard. Plus, they are only beginning their efforts to market the flange product to a limited number of customers.

"We've still got to build our place in the market, and when there is no specification like that, it's hard for those people to buy product without knowing what they are setting." says Filion. "There is no stamp on it. It's not complete yet."

So far, they have achieved 320 to 325 lineal feet per minute, consistently hitting their SPS4 target. All of their 15 employees on the SPS4 line have been trained in all SPS categories, and are gradually working toward their target of 450 lineal feet per minute on the SPS4 line.

"So far, it's gone exactly the way we thought it was going to go, in terms of start-up," says Filion.

About 90 per cent of their product is transported to US markets by rail. While their transportation costs from northern Quebec are significantly higher, the cost of obtaining the wood resource is low because it is within their midst. Ultimately, the cost per flange balances out.

Locating the SPS4 finger-joint line in Chibougamau was the most logical choice for the sawmill, since their 2X3 feedstock is manufactured, dried and planed there.

While their initial intent is to supply flange stock to other I-beam joist manufacturers, they also intend to enter the I-beam joist business themselves in a further step down the road toward value-added processing in Chibougamau.

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