By Andrea Watts
In December 2016, Sierra Pacific Industries’ (SPI) brand-new Shelton sawmill received its first log truck delivery and processed its first log. In the following three years, substantial improvements resulted in increased productivity that surpassed previously set production records. As the fourth anniversary of the sawmill’s opening approaches, another first is on the horizon, says Lisa Perry, SPI’s community relations manager for Washington: “We think the capacity of the mill is 500 million board feet a year. Last year we did 430 million board feet, and we’re on track to reach our goal this year.”
The Shelton sawmill is one of 10 owned by SPI, and one of four SPI sawmills located in Washington State. More than 70 years ago, A. A. (Red) Emmerson and his father started SPI with one mill on California’s west coast. “It’s one of those self-made American stories after that,” says Perry.
In 2001, SPI expanded into Washington. The state’s stable log supply and the regulatory stability afforded by the habitat conservation plan (HCP) were a big part of what attracted the company to the state, Perry explains.
Aberdeen was identified as the ideal location for a brand-new sawmill, which opened in 2001. The reason for this location was a plentiful source of logs, not only from state lands but also from Rayonier who signed a log supply agreement with SPI. In 2006, another brand-new mill began operations in Burlington, and a year later, SPI purchased a sawmill in Centralia that was later upgraded.
“The [the Aberdeen and Burlington] mills were built from the ground up, all new,” says Perry. “We took all the lessons we learned [in California] and moved forward.”
Sierra Pacific Industries Comes to Shelton
In 2015, SPI continued its investment in Washington State by deciding to locate a sawmill in Pierce County when they learned of an opportunity available in Shelton.
The Reed family owned Simpson Lumber Co, a company that started in 1890 and whose two Shelton sawmills employed nearly 300 people. They were looking to sell the properties, and on April 27, SPI announced the purchase of the two sawmills: one located in downtown Shelton and the other on the outskirts of town. On July 1, they took possession. The company chose to develop the downtown sawmill, but because the existing infrastructure was out of date (aboveground buildings and stormwater system), the new sawmill was built from scratch.
SPI chose to purchase Simpson Lumber Co.’s assets for two reasons: “The log supply, because it has a long history of both industrial and family tree farming,” Perry explains. “We also liked the fact that there was going to be a built-in labor supply because the legacy of the forest products industry here is very strong.”
When the closing of the Simpson mills was announced, “there was that initial shock and grief,” Perry explains. “A company that has been here since the 1890s [was] closing a mill! I think everybody was afraid [building a new sawmill] couldn’t happen. With building and planning these days, sometimes you hear about projects that go forever. There was that fear.”
To ensure the construction moved forward, Perry says both the city and state stepped up. A representative from the Governor’s Office for Regulatory Innovation Assistance was assigned to assist SPI in navigating the required environmental regulations. “We weren’t asking for exemptions,” she says. “We just wanted it to move. Everyone really stepped up to the plate to make that happen.”
And it did happen, quite fast — the first environmental permits were issued in March 2016 and the first log was sawed December 16, 2016.
A High-Tech Sawmill
Following the demolition of the existing sawmill, construction commenced. Prior to erecting the walls, some sections of the milling equipment were installed because it was easier to place the equipment. The bulk of the machinery was purchased from Comact, a Quebec-based company that specializes in sawmill equipment, but Darrin Moorcroft, the sawmill manager, explains, “Most of the big vendors we have in here in some fashion, whether it be one piece of machine here or one piece of machine there.”
A few of the vendors include USNR, the source of two vertical shape saws, and McGeehe for the board edger and gang saw. Nicholson debarkers are used to prep the logs for milling, and Moorcroft shared, “SPI has a long history with Nicholson debarkers at various plants. They have met the performance throughput required.”
The two Comact pivot hook lumber sorters that SPI installed are capable of handling 300 pieces of lumber per minute, and they have the distinction of being the second and third units produced by Comact.
Equipment selection was driven by the dual production goals of speed and quality, yet with equipment sourced from multiple manufacturers, Perry comments that a lot of tweaking was needed to get the equipment fit together. “But still it happened fairly quickly,” she says. “We had a crew that worked their tails off, and contractors who really stepped up.” Around 25 percent of the equipment was built on-site by Sierra Pacific’s fabrication unit.
One piece of equipment that was a first for an SPI sawmill was a profiler in a main breakdown line, which incorporates a 3D scanning system that maximizes cutting of the log.
“We introduced profiling into this mill, which is part of the breakdown on the canter line,” Moorcroft says. “This is the first time we’ve done this, so I think there’s a future for growth in that within our company.”
With the profiler, the need for a second edger was eliminated since the chip heads can cut a complete 2”x4” or 2”x6” out of a log in one pass.
The sawmill’s layout was based on a similar layout at their Centralia sawmill, but with noticeable improvements. “One of them being multiple log decks coming in for the sort decks for diameter sorting,” explains Moorcroft. “This increased that volume to eight, which was a big change. Centralia only has two.”
The completed facility is a 175,000-square-foot structure that houses two full-sized sawmills, making it a dual-line stud mill. To build the new sawmill, SPI invested over $100 million, which included the demolition of the Simpson Lumber Co. sawmill.
Adjacent to the main building are the kilns that dry the lumber prior to being moved to the planer. SPI purchased 10 Wellons dry kilns, which have a total capacity of 2.5 million feet. “We have a lot of experience with these kilns throughout our company, and they were a good value and fit for this facility,” explains Moorcroft.
Employment Growth and Excitement
Now more than 300 people are employed across all the operational units: the sawmill, the regional fabrication unit, and the trucking division, which Perry describes as growing pretty quickly.
And there are still open positions that need to be filled. Not many experienced millworkers applied when the sawmill was hiring, which Perry figures was due to a robust economy. To attract the next generation of mill workers, she conducts outreach to the local schools and parents. “I’ve done a lot of work personally trying to get parents, students, schools, and counselors to understand that trades are not a failure path,” she says. “There are some really good jobs out there with really good benefits.”
As for the city’s reaction to the mill? “It has been excellent,” Perry says. “You can really feel [the excitement] in town.”
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