Montana Mill Upgrades Boost Lumber Production

by | Jun 5, 2024 | 2024, May/June 2024, New Technology, Sawmill, TimberWest Magazine

CLANCY, MONTANA – Marks Lumber has completed a major retooling of its sawmill. A refurbished combination gang-edger and other improvements completed in 2023 doubled production capacity. The company’s 15-20 employees now can produce 2 million board feet of specialty lumber products a year.

Located in Clancy, Montana, about 10 miles south of the capital of Helena, Marks Lumber manufactures siding, tongue-and-groove boards for paneling, trim and fascia, flooring, rough-sawn timbers, and other products – primarily of Douglas fir. It is both a manufacturer and lumber retailer. The company also has significant sales of mill residuals and firewood.

The company’s operations are housed in seven buildings totaling 55,000 square feet. Most products are sold retail to local end users or building contractors within 150 miles, although some orders are shipped to customers in far away states. Marks Lumber markets through its website and email. Most sales are to repeat customers.

In the past the company has primarily been buying logs from logging contractors. A few years ago owner Steve Marks purchased logging equipment and began employing his own loggers.

Marks has shown a preference in the past for buying used equipment at auction and having it refurbished. An important partner in those projects has been Columbia Construction Inc. in Columbia Falls in northwest Montana, which specializes in sawmill equipment rebuilding and installation. Marks also has made a couple of investments in new equipment in recent years that also have paid dividends: a JoeScan log scanner and Paw Taw John Services optimized controls for machine centers.

The Marks family established a cattle ranch in the 1890s. His grandfather installed an American #1 sawmill and began cutting timbers for mining and lumber for other ranchers in 1938. The family operated the mill, mainly to supplement their cattle ranch operation, through the 1960s.

Marks began retrofitting the old mill and cutting crossties in 1989. He later designed and built a larger mill that began operating in 2000. It served the family well for more than 20 years, but Marks knew he’d have to make improvements in order to keep the mill going for another 20 years and beyond.

The mill continues to use a circular saw on its headrig, a process that leaves distinctive marks on sawn lumber. “Circle-sawn flooring and siding is pretty popular,” said Marks. “A lot of people like the old-fashioned look.”

The Morbark headrig can handle 40-inch logs up to 30 feet long. “But we don’t get a lot of that size timber here on the east side of the Rockies,” noted Marks. “We pretty much run 16 foot logs and shorter, random lengths.”

The most recent upgrades were the refurbishing of a Ukiah Machine gang-edger and an Irvington-Moore trimmer by Columbia Construction. Scott Bye, the owner of Columbia Construction, worked for Ukiah Machine in the past and knows edgers well.

The log basically is scanned on the fly by a JoeScan scanner when it is on the carriage. The carriage was remodeled with linear positioners on each knee. Programming and automation have been upgraded by Paw Taw John Services.

“We started talking,” said Marks, “and he said, ‘You know, we’ve got a Ukiah edger here in the yard that I think we can make work.’ So we started brainstorming.” Marks wanted to be able to cut 1-inch boards and 2-inch boards and also to edge boards on the same machine. “So Scott and his engineers started redesigning and reengineering this edger, took it to the shop and stripped it down, and made it work for us.”

The refurbished gang-edger can saw cants up to 8 inches. “So now we can optimize what we want out of each cut,” said Marks. “I can change from one inch to two inch on-the-fly and quarter-saw cants on the fly.”

Previously, the mill was equipped with an old Union Ironworks edger that could only saw 4-inch and 6-inch cants. The saw quill had to be manually put on the arbor to a fixed position. The quill was loaded with saw blades with spacers of 1-inch and 2-inches.

The refurbished Irvington-Moore 20-foot trimmer also has helped speed up production.

“In the old days,” said Marks, “the tail sawyer would stop the board and trim one end, and then it would go on to another stop where they would trim the other end. It didn’t take long, but you can imagine what it did to production when you had to stop every board a couple of times. The carriage was always waiting for them.”

The refurbished Irvington-Moore trimmer never stops as boards are fed into it continuously.

“The production improvement has been a huge success,” said Marks.

Shutting down the mill, removing the old equipment, installing the rebuilt machines and bringing them up to speed was a lengthy process. The mill was shut down in April 2023, and Marks and employees and a Columbia Construction team “started cutting things apart.” Marks had hoped to get back up and running by July 1, but sensors and other equipment were still hard to get because of the lingering effects of the covid 19 pandemic on manufacturers.

“With any retrofit you’ll have hiccups and problems,” observed Marks, “but this kept pushing us back and back, and we didn’t really get going until the first of September. That’s a long downtime, and it was hard on my crew.”

However, the production gains have been substantial. “Our production has more than doubled,” said Marks. “We could cut three times as much if I could add more folks to my crew.”

The improvements have increased yield, too. “We can optimize our logs better than we used to, so we’re getting more out of everything we run through the mill,” said Marks.

“We really had to do that. We might’ve limped along for a few years, but I probably would’ve had to shut down the mill at some point. Now I’ve got a really nice mill that’s efficient and well-maintained.”

The other principal machines in the mill are a Brewco B1600 grade resaw system – a bandsaw that cuts 1-inch or 2-inch boards from wide cants – and a Stetson-Ross 612 planer that can surface lumber or cut profiles.

The scanner from Washington-based JoeScan was installed in 2019. It scans the log on the Morbark carriage and sets the taper as programmed instantly, basically on the fly.

Steve remodeled the carriage and installed linear positioners on each knee in 2006; Paw Taw John Services did the programming and automation work. Additional equipment and programming modifications were done at the headrig last year. Now, the sawyer can dump slabs to the waste line or to the resaw, and cants and boards can be routed to the edger or resaw; timbers can be sent directly to a green chain.

The largest diameter log the headrig can cut efficiently is 40 inches with a 56-inch saw and a 36-40-inch top saw running Simonds blades. The scanning data optimizes how the log should be processed and records the board footage.

The scanner is an expensive piece of equipment, noted Marks. “But it’s a pretty cool deal. And it’s fast. It’s the best thing you can put in front of your headrig.”

All of the main machine centers – the JoeScan sensors, switches, the headrig, the Brewco resaw, the Ukiah gang-edger, and the Irvington Moore trimmer – are controlled and optimized by control systems from Paw Taw John Services, another Idaho company. Paw Taw John Services provides control systems for sawmill primary and secondary log break down operations. The company is a leading nationwide authorized repair center in the U.S. for Temposonics industrial sensors.

Marks Lumber also produces and sells firewood. Marks bought a Multitek 2040XP2 firewood processor in 2020 to produce firewood. “It’s been an excellent machine,” he said. “Last year we sold approximately two and a half million pounds of firewood.” The company sells firewood by weight. Customer trucks are weighed as they enter the wood yard and weighed again as they leave. Dead lodgepole pine is plentiful on nearby national forests and private land, and Marks also buys some low-grade Douglas fir logs for firewood.

Firewood is stored in a fabric-topped building from Norseman Structures in Saskatchewan. Marks has another Norseman Structures building for sawdust storage. Both buildings were installed as part of the mill refurbishing project in 2023.

Marks invested in a Rotochopper B66-L horizontal grinder in 2022, replacing a Rotochopper B66 purchased in 2007. The Rotochopper grinds scrap material that is used to fuel a boiler system that provides hot water for a dry kiln – a 40,000 board foot kiln that was built by Marks Lumber employees.

The wood products industry in Montana has been in the news of late with the closures of two major mills: Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake and Roseburg Forest Products particleboard plant in Missoula. The effects of the closures will have profound impacts on employment in both communities, as well as other mills in the region – including Marks Lumber.

Columbia Construction refurbished this Ukiah Machine gang-edger for Marks Lumber. It can saw cants up to 8 inches and change from 1-inch to 2-inch boards on the fly.

“Pyramid Mountain Lumber used to use a lot of ponderosa pine, and we were able to offload any ponderosa pine we had,” said Marks. “So now if we get some ponderosa pine logs, there’s no place to offload them. Pine logs are worth basically nothing. They’re pulp logs, and the pulp log market is poor as well.”

The Roseburg particleboard mill was a market for sawdust. “I don’t make a lot of sawdust like the big mills do,” said Marks, “but if you create a load or more of sawdust every week, and now there’s no place to ship it, you’ve got a big problem.”

Now Marks hauls sawdust to a Weyerhaeuser medium density fiberboard plant in Columbia Falls – an additional 120 miles away. “The freight eats up any revenue that was there,” he said.

As for the future, Marks says remaining flexible is the key to success.

“We’re unconventional compared to larger mills that produce commodities such as framing lumber,” said Marks, “but it works for us. It’s kind of old school, but also new school. You just try to take opportunities that come along and try to make the best of it with the mindset that this may not last forever. You’ve got to be nimble, and that’s been a big part of our success. We’ve learned how to shift gears on the fly.”

“We still continue to tweak things, to make things work smoother,” said Marks. “Anybody who’s been in the sawmill business knows that you’re always doing that.”

Steve Wilent

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