Cannon Bar Works’ Guide to Success: Quality

by | Apr 25, 2024 | 2024, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, March/April 2024

From a mid-sized manufacturing plant in Langley, B.C., Cannon Bar Works Ltd. is literally meeting the needs of loggers, and the wood products industry, around the world—with its high quality chainsaw guide bars—and is truly a Canadian success story.

While it has a strong sales base in Canada and the U.S., the company’s chainsaw bars, through an extensive dealer network, are now sold pretty much all around the world.

Bill Challenger, the President of Cannon Bar Works, recently celebrated his 50th year in the chainsaw business—and 50 years of being associated with Cannon Bar Works.

You could say that chainsaws are in the Challenger Family. After working in the bush as a faller himself doing right-of-way work in B.C. in 1970-71, Challenger started selling Homelite chainsaws for his uncle’s business. He also ran a business leasing chainsaws on the B.C. Coast, Challenger Chain Saw Services, to the point that they had some 2,300 rental saws in the fleet, and mechanics in 18 different logging camps on the B.C. Coast. Along the way, the company became Cannon Bar Works’ largest customer.

As the saying goes, Challenger liked the company, and its products, so much so that he bought Cannon Bar back in 1997. “And we have been going at it strong since then,” he says.

“I saw that Cannon Bar had a lot of upside,” he explained, noting that few people back then knew of the company’s saw bars outside of B.C. and the Pacific Northwest U.S.

These days, the company’s saw bars can be found in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and numerous European countries. “We do business all over the world,” says Challenger. “Pretty much anywhere logging takes place.”

When Challenger bought the company, they had three employees and a small shop. These days, they have 16 employees and the modern shop in Langley, a suburb of Vancouver, which serves as their base, and from where they ship to dealers all over the world.

Cannon Bar Works is a family forest industry enterprise: Bill Challenger, President of Cannon Bar Works, works with his wife, Rose (far right), who oversees HR functions, and is their in-house expert on AutoCAD. Their daughter, Ashley (at left in photo), is operations manager, and oversees manufacturing logistics.

In addition to having diversified geographical markets, the company has also diversified its product range, expanding into the tree service industry and bars for mechanical harvesters, and package saws.

“What really allowed us to diversify geographically was the Internet,” says Challenger. “It really got our message out to the entire world very easily and economically.”

Loggers and forest industry-related people abroad loved the photos of west coast loggers at work on the website—and wanted to buy the Cannon saw bar that was making the harvesting happening.

Following up on that interest, Cannon sales reps then travelled to Europe and other areas, to set up a dealer network that now numbers in the dozens, and sells the high quality saw bars to their own local markets.

“We have a well-earned reputation for quality,” says Challenger. “The northern Europeans especially appreciate the quality of our bars. Even though they are buying a bar that costs more, they recognize the value when they get four or five times the life of a less costly bar.”

Today, Cannon Bar Works has a solid dealer network that it has built over the last 20-plus years, and the company regularly attends industry shows in Europe and North America, to fly the Cannon Bar Works flag in the industry.

Throughout its history, Cannon Bar Works has had a laser beam focus on quality, and that continues into 2024—and will continue as long as Challenger is part of the company (see the sidebar story on how their saw bars are manufactured).

Cannon has in fact prospered in a competitive world of mass-production bars. Every Cannon bar is individually made by skilled craftsman. Mass-produced bars are less expensive, but do not come up to the company’s quality standards.

Some of their employees have been with the company for 15 years, and carefully honed their skills—they have Red Seal CNC machinists operating equipment, producing the saw bars.

All Cannon bars are made from high grade, custom formulated, cold rolled and annealed German steel, that has extra chromium for wear resistance and extra molybdenum for strength. The cost of this high quality custom steel is expensive. “But that is the way you get the best saw bar,” says company president Bill Challenger (above).

From Langley, the saw bars are sent out to customers, via the dealer network. The dealers the company has selected have been carefully vetted, and most have a bricks and mortar—and online—presence. With the growth of the Internet, the dealers have expanded into e-commerce in a big way, taking orders in what are usually local markets, and shipping the saw bars.

Cannon Bar Works has a very diversified market, with even their largest customer accounting for only six per cent of their sales. “We don’t want to have all our saw bars in one basket, market-wise,” says Challenger.

While there is a good deal of international and Internet sales, he says there are still customers who order the old fashioned way. “A faller will go into a dealer in Port Alberni, B.C. or Cottage Grove, Oregon, and they will want a Cannon DuraLite chainsaw bar—and we’ll get the phone call in Langley.”

Challenger says he would actually like to ramp up production, but like most businesses these days, he’s finding it hard to get staffing to do that. “If I could get the right people, we could double production,” he says. He’d like nothing better than to add a second production shift, if they could get the employees.

In the meantime, the company is investing in new equipment, to help the production flow, such as a vertical bar storage unit. “It’s kind of like an elevated storage system, 30 feet high,” Challenger explains. “All of our inventory that used to take up 2,000 square feet now is in a floor space area of 150 square feet—we’re now using vertical space, rather than horizontal space.”

In the space that was opened up by the new compact storage system, they have installed a Flex CNC machine that is used to build saw bars for package cutting saws, such as for pallets. These are large, heavy bars that can weigh over 100 pounds, so the automation is a good fit. “We continue to invest money in the business,” says Challenger. “We believe in the forest industry.”

These days, the Langley facility has over 12,000 square feet, a far cry from the modest 3,600 square feet the company had back in 1997.

Challenger relates there have been some very interesting developments for the company over the last couple of decades, some of them quite unpredictable.

“I’d say there have been three unexpected surprises,” he says. “One of them was how fast the forest industry switched from manual harvesting to mechanized harvesting.” The industry has gone from an estimated 85 per cent of trees harvested manually down to about 25 percent—and that number continues to fall.

“In the B.C. Interior, especially the Northern Interior, there is virtually no hand-falling done at all.”

The diversification into different geographical markets, and saw bars for cutting packaging, was a solid strategy to deal with that change.

“The second surprise was the Internet—it was unbelievable how quickly you could get an international presence at very little cost, compared to hiring people, and have them knock on doors in other countries, to find new business. We were able to develop our markets in a very, very efficient way.”

The third surprise was, as mentioned, the labour challenge. “Maybe we should have all seen it coming, but I don’t think anyone anticipated our labour pool was going to shrink so dramatically—and take so long to replenish.”

As for the future, Challenger, at 73-years-old, has no plans to step down from the company. And it’s a family business. Bill’s wife, Rose, oversees HR functions, and is their in-house expert on AutoCAD. Their daughter, Ashley, is operations manager, and oversees manufacturing logistics. And they have solid experienced staff that produces those saw bars that are now shipped all over the world.

Challenger takes pride in the achievements the company has been able to notch in the 27 years he’s owned Cannon Bar Works. And he firmly believes there is more to come.

“I believe we’ve achieved a lot at Cannon Bar Works—and I believe there is a lot more we can continue to achieve,” he says.

 

Cannon Bar Works: Focus on quality from the materials through to manufacturing

Some of the Cannon Bar Works employees have been with the company for many years, and carefully honed their skills over that time—they have Red Seal CNC machinists operating equipment, producing the saw bars that are now shipped all over the world. Above is Joshua Carr-braint, who has been with the company for 18+ years.

When it comes to the materials, and the manufacturing process, for Cannon Bar Works saw bars, the company’s motto sums it up: The Best Bar – Bar None.

All Cannon bars are made from high grade, custom formulated, cold rolled and annealed German steel, that has extra chromium for wear resistance and extra molybdenum for strength. The cost of this high quality custom steel is expensive. “But that is the way you get the best saw bar,” says company president Bill Challenger.

From the raw steel, each bar is precisely water jet cut, so that there are no Heat Affected Zones (HAZ). Once the steel is cut, it is heat treated, oil quenched and press tempered to achieve the right hardness for strength, durability, toughness and flexibility. The hardened bars are carefully straightened and surface ground to the desired thickness.

Next, surface ground bars are CNC milled, leaving little margin for error. Different milling patterns are cut, depending on the style of tip that the bar is fitted with. Once a bar is milled, it is put into the hands of the company’s Master Barmen, who give it Cannon’s claim to fame, the precision honed groove.

Every bar has a true and centered groove that is accurate to within .003” of the desired gauge. It is this care, attention and skilled workmanship that really makes Cannon bars stand out against the competition, says Challenger.

Next is the rail hardening. Using a proprietary flame hardening process, the bar rails are hardened to 5 points more than the tie straps on most models and brands of chain. This special hardening process penetrates much deeper than electric induction hardening and results in much longer bar rail life.

Longer bars are then heel pressed in order to reduce vibration and prevent premature cracking from vibration. The bars are put through a stress relieving system in order to expel tension that builds up in the bars through all of the different processes. This step realigns the molecular structure to ensure that the bars will not be stressed and prone to premature cracking.

Finally, the bars are ready for the finishing touches. Cannon applies the attractive brushed gunmetal finish to most of the bars. Some longer lengths and specialty bars still have Cannon’s classic matte black painted finish. The bars are engraved with the company’s identifying numbers and silk screened with their logo. They are now ready to be tipped, put through the final quality assurance tests, packaged and shipped to the customer.

As part of the manufacturing process, the bars are hardened to a body hardness of 42 Rockwell. “We do that before we do the flame hardening, to give us harder bar rails,” explains Challenger. “And we put the grooves in using a stone, and that will make the tolerance of the groove accurate to within 3/1000ths of an inch.”

They also flame harden the rails up to 60 Rockwell. “That’s an important number,” says Challenger, because that feature is part of what allows their customers to get more production, more chains, out of each bar.

All of the above is very labour intensive, but that’s what it takes to build a premium, long-lasting saw bar. Challenger added that the company stays on top of technology, and also employs modern machinery in the manufacturing of bars, which also helps to maintain the solid quality.

www.cannonbar.com

Paul MacDonald

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