November and December 2006



Getting the Shakes

Larry Katon finds a niche market in cedar shakes

By Jeff Mullins


Sawing cedar taper sawn - split shakes.

With his cedar shingle and shake mill, Larry Katon has not only found a niche market niche, but more important, a role that suits him well. As a soleproprietor, Larry produces taper-saw cedar ridge caps, as well as a variety of other quality products, and enjoys the freedom of being his own boss.

Enamored with Cedar

It all began on Nicolai Mountain, not far from Rainier, Ore., where Larry has operated his mill since 2004 in a rented building. As a boy, Larry says, wood got into his blood as he helped his father, Dale Katon, salvage cedar blocks from logged over areas. “A horse hitched to the hood off of an old car “sledded” the cedar blocks, where they would be split by hand with a froe and mallet into tapered shakes,” recalls Larry.

That was more than 30 years ago. Since then, Larry has tried many other things like logging, mill work, and even selling insurance. “But working cedar was my first love and I always come back to it,” he says. “Even when I had other jobs, I always did cedar on the side.” His commercial production began in 1988 at his home near Clatskanie, Ore., and recently moved to his current location.

Locating Logs

Although in the past, a large number of “block cutters” salvaged and sold shake quality old growth cedar, Larry buys logs almost exclusively from larger, commercial logging companies.

“When I buy logs, I get a scaled trip ticket receipt and there are no questions about where the material originated,” says Larry. “With block cutters, the risk of having the sheriff investigating a case of ‘misappropriated cedar’ exists.” A problem Larry has not had and wants to avoid. And he says, most timber companies do not grant cedar salvage permits today because of the small income potential and great liability exposure.

At some local sort yards Larry is allowed to select the logs he wants as long as he is “not too picky.” The old growth cedar logs arrive at the sort yard in mixed loads, having been salvaged from the forest floor during harvest operations of much younger standing timber.

Hired trucks bring the logs to Larry’s mill, where they are placed on skids, one at a time, and cut into 24-inch blocks. Blocks are hand split into manageable pie-shaped pieces, trimmed to remove rot, knots, and bug infestations, and stacked into racks. A Hyster E-9 forklift is used to move logs and to position the racks.

The mill buys logs almost exclusively from large, commercial companies.

Creating the Perfect Shake

Not all shakes are created equal. “A perfect shake has vertical grain, 15 grains to the inch, uniform thickness top to bottom, a consistent taper, and square faces on both ends,” says Larry. “To make such a shake requires perfect wood, but that is not what I most often get.”

Larry typically processes the tops and butt cuts of trees harvested many years ago. He explains, “Loggers used to cream the stand and take only the clear middle section of cedar logs leaving the top because of its many knots, and leaving the bottom because the swell makes the grain crooked.” Since old-growth cedar decays very slowly and is insect resistant, these pieces can be gleaned and processed today. To deal with the imperfection, Larry primarily produces “taper-sawn shakes” instead of split shakes.

Employees split and package kindling. Larry keeps overhead low by refurbishing salvaged machinery and custom building other tools.

Using a 24-inch Industrial Saws Inc. band saw with a custom-built slide table and guide, the block is first trimmed by hand and then repeatedly pushed through the saw using the guide. The guide provides the proper angle to produce the taper, and the direction of the block is manually changed with each pass to keep the grain vertical and the block square. The shakes slide into a collection bin where Geoff Browne, Larry’s nephew, stacks and binds them into bundles.

To produce “taper-sawn ridge caps,” Larry’s primary product, two shingles varying in width by an inch, are bevel sawn on one edge and stapled together on a “shaping form” to ensure the proper angle. These are stacked and bundled for transport.

Larry also uses a hydraulic re-splitter for splitting shakes, and splitting kindling from the trimmings and wood not suitable for shakes. His daughter, Jessica Converse, stacks and bundles kindling, and Lorrie, Larry’s wife pitches, in at every level of the operation when possible. Larry usually delivers his product to customers including wholesale buyers, contractors, and private citizens.

Challenges to Staying Profitable

He says, “Being profitable when raw material is limited and markets are seasonal requires a low overhead.” Something he accomplishes, in part, by refurbishing salvaged machinery and custom building other tools and equipment. Currently he is investigating the possibility of producing “knotty siding” and shims from 2nd growth cedar to broaden his market.

At the end of the day, Larry asserts, “It is what I have done today that matters more than how much money I have made. I make a quality product. I enjoy my work. I am a craftsman.” And being a craftsman has given Larry a niche in the marketplace and an enjoyable niche in life.




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This page was last updated on Tuesday, February 20, 2007