March April, 2004






A History Lesson in Industry Efficiency

By Barbara Coyner

Packaging for shipment and Manufacturing Pres-to-logs.

Ask the college professor standing in line at a market in Moscow, Idaho why he’s buying Pres-to-Logs and he’ll tell you he heats his backyard woodshop with them. Ask the soccer mom in Colorado why she’s picking up Pres-to-Logs from a convenience store, and she answers that they’re perfect for her Girl Scout troop’s weekend campout. Finally, ask both of these consumers when Pres-to-Logs were invented and they guess maybe the 1970s. But they’re 40 years off. The handy sawdust logs got their start in 1930, when Robert Bowling, an engineer at Potlatch Corporation in Lewiston, Idaho invented them as a way to use excess sawdust and other wood waste. When the forest industry brainstorms about what to do with all that small-diameter timber waiting to be thinned from our overstocked Western forests, people need to review the Pres-to-Log story. As community development specialists mull the Fuel for Schools programs, they too should know industry’s track record for innovation.

The Pres-to-Log story addresses community development, practical economics, industrial efficiency and that popular buzzword, “sustainability.” “Turn Waste Into Profit” – that became the marketing slogan of the 30s as Pres-to-Logs were distributed through Wood Briquettes, Inc., based in Lewiston. A 1950s-era sales booklet for Pres-to-Log machines advertised the logs as “A proved and profitable fuel product, made by compressing clean, dry sawdust, shavings and other fibrous waste in ‘Pres-to-Log’ machines.” The booklet advertised that the product efficiently utilized not only sawdust, but also green waste, and required no binders in its manufacturing processes. As it said in its history of Pres-to-Log development, “Problems created opportunities.”

That sounds like instant replay for today’s forest industry. A June 1937 article by Roy Huffman in the Potlatch Corporation’s monthly newsletter, The Family Tree, further concluded, “Pres-to-Logs are here to stay.”  Like today’s Pres-to-Logs, the products of yesterday produced no dirt, no smoke, no soot, no odor and no ash, plus they were easy to handle and store. The marketing booklet boldly bragged, “For cooking service, Pres-to-Logs are unequalled.

They provide constant, uniform heat. A housewife soon learns the exact part of a Pres-to-Log necessary to cook a particular meal…Many people find that a third of a Pres-to-Log will cook an ordinary meal.” While Depression-era housewives popped the little logs into their wood cook stoves, others burned them in room heaters, hot water heaters and bake ovens. Pres-to-Logs turned up in ship’s galleys, railroad dining cars and service stations, as well. Markets were wide open for convenience and efficiency, and the uniformly shaped logs earned the title “modern” for eliminating tedious trips for firewood. Pres-to-Log sales representatives summarized, “A large part of these Pres-to-Logs was sold in the West, the most competitive fuel market in the world. Here every type of fuel is available — coal, wood, oil, natural and manufactured gas.

Tugboat on Lolo Creek in Idaho using Pres-to-logs for heating fuel.

The acceptance of Pres-to-Logs in the face of this competition, and the unfulfilled demand prove these important facts – Pres-to-Logs have distinct advantages over other types of fuel, and manufacturing them is a proved, permanent, practical and profitable business.” By the late 40s, 18 machines worked around the clock seven days a week at Potlatch mills at Lewiston, Potlatch and Coeur d’Alene. Four machines came on board at the company town of Scotia, California under the Pacific Lumber Company banner. The Raymond Flash Dryer helped process green wastes at Capital Lumber Company in Salem, Oregon. And a dozen Pres-to-Log machines churned out inventories at Weyerhaeuser Timber Company at Everett, thanks to a huge demand in the Puget Sound. Eventually Potlatch Corporation moved on to experiment with paper products as other uses for wood wastes, while Pres-to-Logs took on a life of their own, defining the word “sustainable.”

More and more machines churned out the compressed logs in places like Africa, Peru and Yugoslavia. In the mid-50s, Pres-to-Log plants cranked out the high-heat value fuel logs in Missoula, Longview, Reno, Sacramento, Vancouver B.C. and Memphis, just to name a few other locations. Because the logs were portable, housewives clamored for them in urban settings, missionaries hauled them overseas to locations that had no dependable heating fuels, and trains with limited storage facilities heated and cooked with them. Fast forward to the 21st Century. If the technology and the Industrial Revolution epitomized the past era, the new emphasis will be on efficiency and sustainability. Here, the forest industry can point to Pres-to-Logs as the textbook case of its ability to innovate. Who knows, the nation might end up looking backward, into those old company newsletters and sales brochures for its solutions. And the forest industry had better be ready.


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004