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K Ply Cottons to New Ways

The K Ply panel plant in Port Angeles, Washington is carving its future from cottonwood.

By Joni Sense
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"With the scarcity of cedar and the price of Douglas fir, if we didn’t have cottonwood, we wouldn’t be in business," says K Ply general manager Ernie Van Ogle. Cottonwood serves as reasonably-priced raw material for the operation.

A pioneering tradition drives Ernie Van Ogle, general manager of the K Ply plywood and specialty panel plant in Port Angeles, Washington. More than a century ago, a man named Van Ogle helped build Washington state’s fertile Puyallup Valley into a centre of culture and agriculture. The same trail-blazing spirit and dogged determination have helped his descendant lead K Ply from hard times to success.

Originally built in 1941 as an employee-owned mill, the K Ply facility’s weathered structures perch at the tip of Port Angeles, which lies directly south of Victoria BC, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The steam stack punctuates the town’s main drag as though all roads lead to K Ply. Two converging streets nearby bear the names of Cedar and Pine.

But instead of the cedar, Douglas fir or hemlock that grows predominately in the surrounding forests, most of the logs stacked neatly around K Ply today are the yellow hue of cottonwood. "We are the only operating mill that we know of, in the United States or Canada, using cottonwood as a face grade veneer," says Van Ogle.

Innovative use of cottonwood probably saved the mill. For decades it made tradi-tional softwood plywood. In 1971, it became the property of ITT Rayonier. The poor construction markets of the1980s, log supply issues and competing products were tough on the plywood business, how-ever, and toward the end of the decade, Rayonier decided they’d had enough.

"Rayonier had been trying to sell it for a number of years," explains Van Ogle. Finally a buyer stepped up. An Alaskan native village corporation, Klukwan Inc., bought the mill in 1989 and renamed it K Ply. Van Ogle, who worked formerly for Evans Products, among others, signed on to lead the new operation.

"The first two years were really rough," he says. As Douglas fir and cedar prices escalated, it became clear that if the mill were to survive, something would have to change. At the mercy of unpredictable con-straints, such as harvesting restrictions to protect the Northern Spotted Owl, the team turned to something they could control: their raw material. K Ply prepared to switch to the fast-growing hardwood.

"We had to convince the owners and the employees it could work. And we had to convince the market that the species was good wood," recalls Van Ogle.

Having worked with cottonwood earlier in his career, he had few doubts about its quality. "Cottonwood has been used for ply-wood since at least the 1940s. It’s very clear — better than second-growth Douglas fir," he says. "That’s why it’s good for specialty plywood." It’s also lighter than fir, so it’s easier to handle and more economical to ship.

Still, the change took more than historical precedence and the power of persuasion. It also required hard work by employees. "Cottonwood is harder to work with than cedar," says Van Ogle. "It takes a highly skilled crew." The details K Ply prefers to keep proprietary. Smiling, Van Ogle says: "Let’s just say we have some innovative ways of drying it."

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The owners of the K Ply mill, an Alaskan native village corporation, Klukwan Inc., have modernized the 50-year-old facility to replace outdated equipment and maximize use of cottonwood. The mill continues to upgrade, investing in up to $2 million of new equipment annually.

Klukwan also had to modernize the 50-year-old facility to replace outdated equipment and maximize use of the new raw material. In fact, a decade later the corporation continues to buy new equipment at a rate of $1 million to $2 million annually. But the investment has been worthwhile and K Ply is thriving. Today 210 employees work in three shifts to turn out approximately 4.5 million square feet per month (3/8 " basis) of plywood and specialty panels, for a total capacity of just under 50 mil-lion square feet a year.

K Ply’s cottonwood—representing 85 percent of its raw material— is obtained primarily from British Columbia and the Skagit Valley in northwest Washington. Western red cedar, most of which is harvested in Alaska, contributes the next largest raw material source, with fir, hemlock, spruce, and pine rounding out the supply. Having arrived at the site by barge or truck, the logs are debarked and cut to eight-, nine- and ten-foot lengths. A new Premier rotary peeler, which Van Ogle says has increased productivity and material recovery, peels each log in a matter of seconds as it automatically readies the next log. The resulting veneer is generally from 1/12 to 1/6 of an inch thick. Peeler cores, about five inches in diameter, are sold as poles.

The continuous green veneer from each log is cut to size, and the sheets are graded and transferred on carts to one of two enclosed Coe drying lines. Employees feed and off-load the dryers by hand, again grading to capture maximum value from each sheet. When necessary, a half-dozen Skoog machines are used to plug knotholes and other imperfections with football-shaped biscuits. Narrow pieces of veneer are routed through a Hashimoto veneer welder to be assembled into full-sized sheets for K Ply’s typical 4X8-foot and special 5X10-foot panels.

In the pre-press area, employees staple resin-impregnated kraft paper sheets to veneers and stack them to be pressed. K Ply makes panels from 1 / 4 inch to two inches thick. While the num-ber of layers depends on the desired thickness of the finished product, K Ply often creates a nine-layer panel rather than the more common seven-layer panel. Besides cottonwood, these panels may be faced with cedar, poplar, medium density overlays (MDOs) or high-density overlays (HDOs). Press employees load the veneer stacks into 24 openings of the one or more of K Ply’s three Lamb hot presses, which apply 175 psi under 280 degrees F.

Finished panels are edge-trimmed and may be grooved or efficiently sanded on a new Kimwood Smithway five-foot sander. K Ply siding is available in roughsawn and brushed surfaces, several appearance grades and a dozen groove profiles. For customers who want unusually long panels, K Ply runs a Globe scarf line that assembles finished panels up to 50 feet long. Several K Ply products are also available pre-primed or pre-finished. Under the brand names CedarPly, WeatherPly, Royal, Peninsula Cedar Paneling and Concrete Form 321, everything from concrete forms and exterior siding to knotty wall paneling bears the K Ply logo. These branded products, as well as commodities such as marine grade plywood and rated sheathing, are bundled and shipped by truck, piggyback van or container line to customers around the world.

"Florida, Minnesota and Texas are among our larger markets, but we also serve all of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and a bit of Europe," notes Van Ogle. It helps that MDO panels are one of the fastest-growing segments of the plywood market. In fact, many K Ply MDO panels end up painted as business signs as well as filling traditional roles such as siding and appearance-grade paneling.

Cottonwood is at the heart of it all. "With the scarcity of cedar and the price of fir, if we didn’t have cottonwood, we wouldn’t be in business," declares Van Ogle. He says cottonwood provides the mill with raw materials at a reasonable cost and with the assurance of a sustain-able yield into the future. "It hasn’t been affected by the owl circles or other environmental restrictions," he notes, but salmon restoration efforts could impact K Ply. "That’s why we’re going more to British Columbia for our supply," he says. There, cottonwood tends to grow in broad upland valleys, he explains, rather than along river drainages, which should help place it outside potential harvest restrictions designed to protect salmon.

The mill itself performs well environmentally, especially considering its age. "There’s no real waste," says Van Ogle. Log remainders are chipped and sold for pulp. Edge- and end-trimmings are hogged along with bark to run the mill’s boiler. The steam rising from the mill stack is white, leaving the vicinity’s air smelling simply of wood and sea spray.

That rising plume of steam is a positive symbol for Port Angeles. "We’re here for the long term," asserts Van Ogle. That’s good news for K Ply owners, customers and employees alike. Employees in particular are proud of their place in the mill’s long tradition. Panels are stamped "Mill No. 2" in recognition of the generations of equipment and people that have made paneling at the site. In more than 50 years of production there, many crew members have been sons or daughters of former employees and a few current employees are descendants of the original owners. In addition, a half-dozen of the Alaskan native owners are also cur-rent employees. All told, nearly half of the employees, who are not represented by a labour union, are female or from ethnic minorities.

As the company celebrates its 10th anniversary, Van Ogle says: "I’m most proud of keeping this mill successful — rather than having to shut down and lay off these people. That’s my shot at glory." And as long as the cottonwood grows, K Ply plans to keep hitting that mark.

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