Elmsdale Lumber ready for its second century

by | Jun 28, 2024 | 2024, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, May/June 2024, Sawmill

Nova Scotia’s Elmsdale Lumber Company (ELCO) has witnessed a lot of changes to the sawmill industry over its 106-year history. Currently, ELCO is in the midst of a major upgrade of its sawmill to lead it into the future.

Additionally, ELCO is actively working toward building a mass timber plant, and a biochar project which would transpose sawmill residual products into a soil remediation product or energy feedstock.

ELCO was founded by Walter S. Wilber, who built a sawmill in 1917 to produce lumber for the United Kingdom in support of World War I efforts. In 1939, he established the mill permanently at Elmsdale, east of Halifax.

Walter’s son, James B. Wilber, grew up on the lumber business sales side, as well as at the sawmill operation. In 1939, James went to work for Charlie McCulloch, purchasing lumber from small sawmills throughout Nova Scotia to supply European markets.

In 1950, James and Fred Miller purchased the Elmsdale Lumber operation. When Miller started his own planer mill, he sold his Elmsdale shares to Luther Anderson. On Anderson’s passing in 1976, James’ son, Robin, bought the Anderson shares and joined the business with his father.

Today, Robin points out that he learned intricacies of the sawmill business from his father, the sawmill operation from Luther Anderson, and woodland knowledge from Downey Thompson.

Employing state-of-the-art technology such as Autolog equipment, the current production of the Elmsdale mill is 100,000 to 120,000 board feet per shift. Its premium lumber products are marketed mainly in the Atlantic provinces.

Upon his father’s passing, Robin realized that to be successful into the future, ELCO required modernization and upgrades. In 1990, production was 9.6 million board feet annually with a complement of 150 employees, and by 2022, production was 30 million board feet, with 50 employees.

Robin’s son, Mark, is the current vice-president of ELCO, and like his father and grandfather before him, grew up well-initiated in the sales and marketing, business management and sawmill operation. The current production of the mill is 100,000 to 120,000 board feet per shift, producing premium lumber products marketed mainly in the Atlantic provinces.

At a relatively early age, Mark oversaw the installation and commissioning of a new bin sorter (2011) for ELCO and major upgrades to the planer mill.

Currently, Mark is guiding a major upgrade to the sawmill which includes a new building to enclose lumber breakdown and sorting, and new processing equipment to increase lumber recovery and speed up processing.

Prior to the recent upgrade program, the ELCO mill featured a Forano double-ring debarker which can handle logs up to thirty-inches using the larger ring, and an eighteen-inch ring handling smaller diameter logs. Large logs are processed through double-cut band saws. Smaller diameter logs are processed through twin circular saws, with cants from both lines moving on to a Valley combination board and gang edger with 15 saws. The combination edger relies on an operator to decide the optimum recovery, and to manually line up cants with laser guidance to feed into the combination edger.

Elmsdale Lumber has witnessed a lot of changes to the sawmill industry over its 106-year history. Currently, the company is in the midst of a major upgrade of its sawmill to lead it into the future.

The combination board edger is highly labour intensive, with production relying heavily on operator knowledge, judgement and energy. Slabs from log breakdown are processed by the board side of the combination edger. The combination edger had been in operation since 1994. In 2018, the TS Manufacturing twin saw, on the small log side, was optimized by USNR (VAB).

More recently, ELCO has seen upgrades to the drying and planing equipment including conversion of the hydraulic drive Yates planer to electric drive, with technology provided by Gilbert. Planer mill equipment beyond the planer is a PHL trim saw. Grading is manual, with premium grade lumber receiving additional grade scrutiny, and a third and final grade confirmation at the stacker. Second grade travels a separate conveyor system and lumber is manually pulled and stacked.

In 2021/2022, a kiln upgrade converted the boiler from a 150 horsepower low pressure system to a 350 horsepower high pressure system. “The boiler upgrade made an amazing improvement to our drying capacity,” shared Mark. “With high pressure, we are now much better able to modulate the drying process and realize greater drying efficiency.

It’s all in the family: Above standing on left is Robin Wilber, President of Elmsdale Lumber, and on the right is Robin’s son, Mark Wilber, Vice-President of the company.

“There were three major reasons which led us to proceed with the current mill upgrades,” he added. “First, the current mill required intensive labour inputs. Second, it is increasingly difficult to find and retain workers in our milling operation. The third major driver was that our mill equipment was getting worn out and required lot of costly maintenance to keep in operation.”

The upgrade project was structured to be carried out in three phases, which included the construction of an entirely new building shell over the existing mill building while production continued. In 2023, a new optimized board edger was installed and went into production. The second phase of the upgrade began with a mill shutdown in January 2024, with the plan to become operational in late-January. The second phase included a new curve gang with Autolog optimization. The third phase will see commissioning of a new optimized quad saw to replace the rotary twin primary breakdown system, late in 2024.

“The upgrades to our mill will allow us to gain efficiencies from each log, improve and speed up processing and realize increased recovery from small logs,” says Mark.

“When the time came to select equipment for upgrades, we reached out to McDonough Manufacturing, in large part because they manufacture in Mactaquac, New Brunswick which translates directly, and very importantly, to very fast service and support for the processing equipment. We had a historic connection through the Valley combination gang/edger,” says Mark.

“Valley Equipment was established in Nackawic by Joe Weirathmuller and they developed a highly respected reputation for quality engineering. For optimization support for the process machines, we worked with Autolog.

”The mill upgrade began in 2022 with construction of a new steel building which was built over the existing mill by Lindsay Construction.

“The new shell has a significantly larger footprint than the old mill and is designed to accommodate new processing equipment and associated transfer conveyors,” noted Mark. “Additionally, the higher ceiling allowed the opportunity to install an overhead crane system to facilitate installation of processing equipment in upgrade phases, as well as future operations and maintenance.”

Mark and a few key ELCO personnel will be trained on the new equipment by the manufacturer’s staff, and the ELCO team will in turn work with their operators to run the new equipment.

In addition to upgrading their sawmill, ELCO has been actively working for a number of years toward building a mass timber plant and developing a biochar operation.

Robin Wilber, Mark’s Dad, has been a leading member of the Maritime Lumber Bureau and a keen supporter of the Atlantic Wood Works program. Since 2011, Atlantic Wood Works has followed a mandate to promote wood use in construction and lead change in advanced and sustainable wood construction technologies. Mass timber has been a constant technology advanced by Atlantic Wood Works.

Large samples of Nova Scotia spruce, pine, and fir have been tested in Oregon, and found to meet the quality demands required for mass timber production. Robin announced at the Fall Meeting of the Canadian Woodlands Forum meeting that ELCO, in partnership with Ledwidge Lumber, will see the ground-breaking in 2024 for a $200 million, mass timber plant.

“It’s very important that Nova Scotia help fill the demand for mass timber supply,” says Robin. “It’s also important for Nova Scotia to be a leader in the green economy with mass timber, which can replace a lot of energy-demanding construction products like concrete and steel.”

Above, a Sennebogen loader feeds logs to the mill infeed. The upgrades to the Elmsdale mill will allow the company to gain efficiencies from each log processed, improve and speed up processing, and realize increased recovery from small logs.

Robin added that wood products, including mass timber in multi-storey construction, is a means to store carbon and mitigate climate change.

Another project championed by ELCO has been the development of a biochar production plant in the Elmsdale region, which would consume sawmill and wood manufacturing residual products.

Biochar is a product produced by cooking wood at very high temperature, in the absence of oxygen. Biochar is recognized globally as having important soil fertility properties, and has potential as a fuel for industrial processes.

ELCO has teamed up with Halifax-based RDA Inc. to research and develop their biochar project.

Robin explained that ELCO’s biochar initiative has faced a lot of hurdles, but in 2023 they finally won approval to construct and operate a containerized pilot system which will demonstrate the potential for a large scale project.

Moving ahead in their second century in operation, Elmsdale Lumber is solidly committed to embracing advanced technologies for lumber processing, as well as technologies for wood use in construction—and generating products which move society toward a greener economy and help mitigate climate change.

George Fullerton



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