Logging and Sawmilling Information for the Western United States  

November 2000 - Volume 25 Number 11


Waste Knot, Want Knot 

The Sintay brothers use portable saws in their full recovery operation  
By Jack Petree


Forest industry analysts point out in recent years that the industry has begun to evolve into two major segments. On one end, consolidation and a new view of world economies are leading to the creation of large firms serving national and international customers with fiber. On the other end of the industry, local and regional milling sources are servicing specialty markets too small for the big outfits to trouble themselves with. On that end of the marketplace, a silent revolution is taking place driven by the development and increasingly widespread use of the portable band mill. Small mills, especially one and two person operated portables, are providing an increasingly large share of America's lumber supply by utilizing fiber that would have once been sent to a landfill, or left in the woods to rot or burn. No one is quite sure just how much lumber portables are producing today because the firms utilizing them generally do not report production figures. 

But one company, WoodMizer Products Incorporated out of Indianapolis, Indiana, has roughly 25,000 mills in the field with each capable of producing between one and several thousand board feet of lumber per day. If each mill is only producing of John Day, Ore., are creating entirely new industries based on these developments. Portable band mills, like the WoodMizer that form the foundation of Juniper Northwest's raw material acquisition effort, are small sawmills that can be towed to a milling site using pickup trucks or any other vehicle capable of towing a light trailer. Once on site, the mills saw lumber from the log by one or two person crews. The saws are capable of producing 2000 board feet and more of lumber per day, depending on the species being sawn, the dimensions of the lumber and the conditions the wood is being sawn under. In some specialty situations owners report they can saw as much as 8,000 feet per day. 

Juniper is spreading like a noxious weed across the dry lands of the west. Each tree, when mature, suffocates a circle of grass around it for a distance of 1015 feet. In a desperate attempt to slow the spread of the species, whole hillsides must be treated. As the wood has minimal possiblities for use at present, the trees are left in place to slowly disintegrate. As can be seen in the foreground, new trees spring up almost immediately.

When the saws were first introduced, some saw them as hobby saws. But that image is long gone in most areas of the country. Manufacturers, retail outlets and contractors, and others have come to utilize the portable saws to produce specialty materials from species not often utilized by the larger mills. They have taken advantage of the low cost lumber the mills can often provide from local log sources that may not be commercially viable. 1,000 board feet per day, 300 days per year, an individual mill can account for 300,000 feet of lumber per year. Using a very conservative calculation, WoodMizer mills alone may be providing America with several billion board feet of product per year. 

That level of production may only be the beginning in the forest products industry of the new century. Creative use of portable mills is expanding their range almost daily. Some secondary products manufacturers obtain the bulk of their supply from portable sawmill operators. The innovative George, Willis and David Sintay, owners of Juniper Northwest Incorporated The Sintay's firm, Juniper Northwest, is an example of how creative use of portable saws has expanded the ability of the entire industry to not only produce quality specialty lumber but, at the same time, provide an environmental benefit. What could be better than making flooring and other useful products out of a material that must be harvested to preserve the environment? That's a question George and Willis Sintay asked themselves when they established their firm several years ago in John Day. The two brothers thought the wood could be developed as an important specialty offering and they knew logging and processing the fiber would be an important environmental positive. 

But, no one had quite figured out how to log and process the wood economically. They decided to try out a unique idea. "Juniper is not only a tree producing a beautifully grained, strikingly colored, hard wood, but also, throughout much of the American West, a tree that degrades the environment, says Willis president and CEO of Juniper Northwest. Allowed to spread by the suppression of fire in the 20th century, juniper has devastated millions of acres of native grasslands in the west and, despite extensive efforts to control it, continues to threaten rare grasses and endangered species of birds and animals alike. The need to control the species is one of the few things environmentalists, ranchers, and government agencies agree on throughout the region. It's ironic that the tree has managed to spread virtually unchecked. 

The renowned beauty of juniper wood, coupled with its hardness, ability to take a finish, and its lack of movement once dry make the tree ideal for wood flooring, paneling, and specialty furniture lumber. Despite that, harvest levels have traditionally been low and the wood rare in the marketplace. "That's mostly," Willis says, "because the tree is difficult to harvest and mill economically. The stems are often internally stressed and can have invisible pitch pockets, twisted knots, and other defects that cannot be seen until the wood is sawn." That means Juniper logs can contain a good deal of unusable fiber so it is difficult to assess quality until a log is actually processed. Past efforts to establish viable markets for juniper have failed, according to Willis, because conventional logging and milling techniques are inadequate to the challenges posed by the wood. The limby nature of the tree makes harvesting and processing difficult and to obtain good lumber the logs must be milled soon after felling, before they dry excessively and unevenly. 

Those things combined with the unreliable yield from a log have crippled past efforts to make the wood a commercially viable product. To solve the production problems posed by Juniper, the Sintays turned to WoodMizer and its portable sawmills. They reasoned that if a way could be found to break down the log before it is hauled from the forest, the quality of the material could be assessed before the costs of transport and waste disposal came into play. The solution to the challenges presented by Juniper, the two men reasoned could be to utilize a WoodMizer band mill to process trees into cants almost at the stump. 

Using portable bandsaws like the WoodMizer, wood fiber that was once wasted in the effort to control Juniper can be recovered and utilized to create high grade furniture, flooring and paneling lumber. 

"By hot logging to the mill breaking down the logs where they are harvested, the quality of the potential lumber can be checked onsite so only good wood is transported to the secondary processing facility," says Willis. Unusable material is stacked and left behind to provide wildlife habitats or, at the discretion of the landowner, is burned to return nutrient to the soil. The cants, which consist of almost entirely usable fiber, are transported and processed into flooring, wall paneling, furniture lumber, and other products at the Northwest Juniper plant. According to Willis, finished juniper flooring looks much like Australian Cypress but is generally a bit lighter and much less expensive. 

Juniper, he says is about 25 percent harder than pine but less hard than oak. The wood dries well and, once dry, does not expand and shrink excessively. It also takes stains and finishes well. "Juniper supplies are immense, making the wood, once established on the market, a viable replacement for more expensive lumbers that might be in tight supply," says Willis. "Billions of board feet are available in the West." And the techniques Willis, his brother George, and son David have developed at Juniper Northwest assure that adequate supplies equal to any market needs can be provided as the market grows. Juniper, as a flooring material, Willis contends, has great promise for architects, designers, and other specifiers. The wood, he says, is especially viable as an accent to other materials. It is also widely utilized in log homes and upscale cabin/residences where a "rustic" look is desired. 

Because juniper is an ecological problem, the material can be promoted as being 'green' while still providing all the performance a designer wants in a wood. In short, Willis comments, users of juniper are getting an exotic, beautifully grained flooring material that is long lasting and easy to install while doing a service to the environment. "Those things combined make juniper especially viable to the designer," he says. The techniques George and Willis have worked out to produce viable quantities of Juniper in their own operation are transferrable to other kinds of Northwest operations. And the techniques also bode well not only for the future of the portable saw industry but also for the entire forest products industry. As an example, in the typical mixed wood forest of the Northwest, mass producers of lumber are primarily focused on the conifers their lands produce. Hardwoods, including a dozen or more exotic species, as well as the more common alder, maple, cottonwood, and oak, are commonly chipped for pulp or left in the woods to rot or be burned. 

But as the Sintays have shown, large quantities of marketable lumber can be quickly and easily recovered from those waste materials and sold in the form of cants to specialty lumber producers as a high value product rather than as lower value chips. Anyone can do as the Sintay brothers have done, "hot logging" right to the sawmill with conversion to cants coming on the spot. High quality cants, absent bark and other waste, can bring a premium on the marketplace and additional profitability to land owners. In perfecting a methodology for removing high value lumber from the woods in a profitable way, George and Willis succeeded in two ways. 

They built a solid business that both provides a high quality product to the marketplace and performs an environmentally important service. And they've demonstrated how to increase profitability for land owners, faced with the disposal of fiber that may be unprofitable if logged by conventional technology by hot logging and shipping to the mill as partially processed lumber direct from the woods. In doing that, the two men will, in the future, have had an influence on the forest products industry that goes well beyond whatever success they find in their own business. 

George (left) and Willis (right) Sintay hope to build a market for juniper both because the wood is a high grade material that is presently underutilized and because of the environmental benefits a heightened interest in the lumber creates.

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