A Look Inside Maine’s Only Veneer Mill
by George Fullerton
Columbia Forest Products mill at Presque Isle, Maine, is the state’s only operating veneer mill. Along with its sister mill in Newport, Vermont, it is one of the last markets for high grade hardwood veneer logs in New England.
Despite the scarcity of veneer mills in the northeast, the market for high grade hardwood veneer logs remains an important economic driver for the region. Columbia Forest Products facility fills a big need: So long as there are high grade logs in the northern woods, there will be a demand for veneer mills to process them.
Presque Isle is a face veneer mill, utilizing sugar and soft maple, yellow and white birch, some large tooth aspen, basswood, and some red oak. “Face veneer” refers to the high quality, aesthetically pleasing, finished face of sheet of plywood. Face veneers are glued to sheets of plywood that are constructed out of lower grade veneers. Plywood with high-quality face veneer finishes are often utilized for paneling and cabinetry — though, in recent years, the product has been used more frequently in engineered wood applications.
While the specifications for face veneer logs are extremely specific, the price paid for veneer logs make it worth loggers time. A logger working with face veneer has to be familiar with the specs and take the time to carefully evaluate and buck out veneer quality logs.
Columbia is a major buyer of those carefully chosen veneer logs. The company operates five veneer mills and eight plywood mills in North America. The Columbia Corporation became established in the veneer business when it built a mill Klamath, Oregon, in 1957. The Presque Isle mill operated originally as Indian Head Veneer, and was purchased by Columbia in 1966. In 1976, the name changed to Columbia Forest Products and the company was restructured to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), which provides the workforce with an ownership stake in the company.
The wood basket for the Presque Isle mill extends well beyond northern Maine, reaching into Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut as well as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec. The Columbia mill sees competition for the veneer resource from other veneer mills in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick.
Today, about one half of Presque Isle veneer production is shipped to other Columbia mills, while half is sold to other plywood mills or other manufacturers which utilize face veneer in their products. The refined product travels from Maine to the far corners of the world.
The Specifics of Face Veneer Milling
The veneer milling process begins with retrieving logs from the yard inventory, sorting them by species and size, and placing them in steam chests for preconditioning.
In cold weather, lots of about ten logs are ferried to the mill infeed with either a Cat or a Volvo wheel loader. The relatively small number of logs on the deck is to avoid the logs cooling too much while waiting to be debarked and milled.
Steam heating the logs allows for easier peeling and reduces cracking on the edge the veneer sheet. Cracks or splits in the veneer reduce quality and that, of course, lowers the subsequent value of veneer sheets.
Maple is heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit and birch logs are brought up to 120 degrees. White birch will be heated for up to eighteen hours, while maple will be heated for up to fifty or sixty hours.
“The time required depends on the density of the wood,” explained mill manager Kevin Paradis. “With denser wood it takes longer time to heat the entire log to the target temperature.”
Following debarking with a rosser head debarker, lasers and computer algorithms help center the log in the lathe chucks. The log is then rotated against the knife. As the veneer sheet is cut from the spinning log, it is wound on to a shaft, from which it is, in turn, fed into the three pass dryer which moves veneer through at a rate of 170 feet-per-minute.
The dryer energy is derived from steam, which is generated from burning residue from the milling operation. Fan speed inside the dryer is adjusted to take the veneer sheet to the optimum moisture content.
Quality, Quality, Quality
Quality control in veneer production begins in the woods, when loggers select trees and buck logs. But the quality focus has to be maintained through the entire milling process, or else the product suffers.
“At every station in the milling process, our staff are making critical decisions on quality,” said Paradis.
Out of dryer, the veneer sheet continues to the cutter, where the operator makes decisions to cut one piece or else make narrower cuts to eliminate defects that occur in the veneer. Columbia produces veneer in four foot sheets comprised of a single piece of wood, or else in sheets made of narrower strips glued together. The process can make sheets which are composed of up to twelve strips glued together.
It’s a complicated process: To make a sheet composed of multiple strips of veneer, the strips have their edges uniformly cut by a large shear, glue applied, and assembled into a sheet. Tape is applied to the underside of the assembled sheet to help prevent edge splitting.
Once the intricacies of the milling process are finished, all sheets of veneer get a final grading and are sorted into appropriate lots and packaged for shipping.
Buying Veneer Logs
As manager of log procurement for the Presque Isle mill, Stephen Tudor includes himself in a team of five log scaler/buyers who range across Maine and eastern Canada. The team meets loggers and checks in with wood yard and mill operations across the region to procure and scale veneer logs.
Jeff Hardy, based in Oakfield, Maine, covers northern and central Maine. Dean Mercure, based in St. Basile NB, is responsible for log buying in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and northern Maine. Richard Pierce, based in Farmington, Maine, covers western Maine and into New Hampshire. David Sykes works throughout northern Vermont sourcing veneer logs to supply both the Presque Isle and Newport Vermont Veneer mills. The Presque Isle procurement team is ultimately responsible to Dwight Jensen, who is based in Connecticut, and he is Procurement Manager for four of the CFP Veneer Mills.
Tudor explained that his territory, as procurement manager, extends from the St. Lawrence River, through to Cape Breton in eastern end of Nova Scotia. He came to work with Columbia in 1993 but took a five-year hiatus to work with another business buying Birdseye and curly figured logs before returning to Columbia. Today, Tudor is proud of his team. He readily pointed out that each of the procurement team comes to their job with decades of professional forestry experience.
“We could not survive without the cooperation from the hundreds of great contractors and landowners,” commented Tudor. “We strive to make their operations efficient and profitable. At the end of the day, its all about a straight log scaled, graded and delivered to our mill. We have a great procurement team, that the mill and suppliers can count on, it is quite an honor to work with them all.”
Tudor explained that each buyer has a target to procure two million board feet of veneer logs. The Presque Isle mill consumes in the range of eight million feet annually.
“A lot of loggers lack the confidence to produce veneer logs. But to simplify the task, we are basically looking for a straight log, with a square cut butt, 9’6’ long, and allowing one defect size of pack of cards,” said Tudor.
He went on to point out that ten veneer logs on a deck on the logging operation, may easily have the same value as a full load of pulpwood. Quoting his general rule of thumb, Tudor shared the loggers should consider a 10” log worth $700, an 11” log worth $1100 and a 12” log worth up to $2000/mfb.
Value of course depends on grade of the particular log, based on diameter class, defect, growth characteristics and heartwood size. It can get tricky. Yellow birch, for example, has some ten grades.
Columbia log buyers work on the road, and they come on operations and assist loggers to identify and buck veneer logs for the best quality and the highest value. The direct contact and guidance provided by the log buyers helps loggers develop confidence for identifying and producing veneer logs. In certain circumstances, log buyers will evaluate harvest blocks prior to operations to identify the potential for Veneer logs.
Columbia buyers encourage loggers to harvest when the bark is tight to avoid mechanical damage and staining issues. When practical, loggers will leave the veneer quality trees standing until the bark is tight, in order to ensure the optimum grade.
Each Columbia log buyer also maintains working relationships with log yards and various mills, to allow the drop off and handling of veneer logs. The logs may have been scaled at the producer’s operation, or the buyer may scale in the log yard. Buyers build trust with their contacts and often arrive on operations at odd hours to grade and scale logs.
Scalers identify individual logs with paint codes on the end of the logs, in addition to an attached barcode. They will mark the end of the log to point toward a defect on the side of the log. They may also dot defects with paint. The buyers will leave a copy of the scale sheet on the operation.
Buyers download their days accumulated scaling to a modem which transfers the data to Columbia’s Presque Isle mill, where staff process payment, usually on the following business day. Payments are typically made to loggers by electronic transfer.
“Log quality is critical for our business. Our log buyers are required to get quality logs to the mill, so the mill can make high quality veneer to supply customers,” underlined Tudor. “Columbia’s business model based on straight business practices, leading edge service to producers, and a focus on the best value for quality product. Buyers are available to troubleshoot for producers, and strive to provide prompt service.”
Columbia carries out periodic training sessions for their buyers, to ensure their scaling is consistent, and they are able to pay top dollar for logs according to the detailed scaling criteria.
“Our buyers are not in trouble if they pay a great price for a great log,” stated Tudor.
Commenting on the sustainability of the veneer log resource, Tudor recalled that twenty years ago, he scaled veneer logs on an operation in St. Zachary, Quebec. At the time, he noted that the operation had retained a lot of good quality pole-size timber on the harvest block. Twenty years later, Tudor found himself scaling eleven-inch veneer logs on the same road, and was able to count back twenty annual rings, and confirm that the logs he was scaling were indeed those same pole size trees left on that very good harvest operation.
Tudor maintains that it pays land owners and loggers to follow good harvest practices. “It is money in your pocket,” he said. “It is very important to respect those good quality pole size trees on harvest operations. They turn into timber in a relatively short time.”
A cold day at the mill.
Quality checking at Columbia Forest Products.
Twin Forest Products
By Mike Monte
Twin Forest Products, in Marathon, Wisconsin, is aptly named. This company was founded and built by identical twins John and Jeff Lawrence. The pair of young men grew up in Marathon, a central Wisconsin town of around 1,500 residents. The area is mostly farmland, but very nice stands of hardwoods dot the landscape. It is those good hardwood stands that make the Lawrence’s business possible and profitable.
As soon as the Lawrence brothers were of age, they began working as firewood cutters for both their parents and grandparents. Their first commercial job came in 2001, when a local business owner asked the brothers if they would like to clearcut the timber around a gravel pit that was expanding. The brothers, then in their early twenties, said “yes.” By that time, they’d gotten into selling firewood as a part time business. Both were gainfully employed at the time, but liked the extra money.
The timber around the gravel pit contained some nice hardwood sawlogs, so they made a deal to cut and sell the logs and split the profit with the owner. Soon after, a farmer asked them to cut his timber, so they invested in a used Belarus farm tractor that set them back a whopping $800. Farm tractors weren’t actually designed to do logging, so the brothers eventually rented a C4 Tree Farmer forwarder, and that led to buying a used Rotobeck.
Both brothers still held full-time jobs, and their weekends were used for their logging endeavors. The lure of logging must have been strong, because in 2003, the brothers decided to leave the security of their jobs and log full-time. John explained that they both had good jobs to leave, and he had just gotten married. He said it was “scary!”
They expanded by purchasing a John Deere 120 harvester, and then they decided to make some money from the lumber from their sawlogs. They purchased a Wood Mizer and put in a metal building about a mile and a half from town. It was 2009 when the brothers started turning their logs into lumber. Putting the value-added touch to their timber must have worked, because today, they are running a Cleereman carriage that uses a bandsaw and cuts both directions, with a Frontline edger, double cut.
Logs to Lumber
John Lawrence explained the evolution of their sawmill: Their HMC debarker is old, but the brothers rebuilt it. They also rebuilt the log trough that carries the debarked logs to the Cleereman. In addition to the log trough and the debarker, he said they rebuilt other used machinery, such as the chain that moves the logs.
At the other end of the mill, a table that the brothers fabricated supports the green chain, which they rebuilt themselves. It should be added that the green chain is inside a building with a big door to accommodate the forklift, so nobody piles lumber outside in the rain or snow. John gives credit to Cleeremans for helping them with John’s design and with building the sawmill.
What could be called a sideline to the sawmill business is the manufacture of fence posts from red pine. Instead of fighting the pulpwood market to use their red pine, they peel the pine with a Morbark PSP system that can handle up to a 1,000 posts per day. While they peel their own red pine, they also buy some on the open market. The posts are then sold to a company that pressure treats the posts, making them resistant to rot. Many of these posts head south to Missouri, where the Wisconsin red pine makes a durable fence that lasts for years after the treating process.
They also sort out the best veneer for sale to veneer mills or to export. This method is more profitable than running the logs through the mill, and helps the bottom line.
The Logging Operation
The sawmill, however, is only half of the business. After touring the sawmill and watching it work, I climbed in John’s pickup and we drove to Pittsville, about an hour away, to look at their logging operation.
John’s twin brother Jeff runs this part of the business, and he was hard to find, as he was driving truck and hauling logs. John gave me the tour of the private sale, which is a mix of northern hardwoods, but runs heavy to oak. John estimated that it would produce about 1,350 cords of sawtimber and pulpwood. The stand also runs heavy to good quality logs of the type that look good in the yard of the sawmill, and even better graded out and in a lumber package. The area in which they worked was a flat piece of ground that still promised a nice stand after the marked trees were removed. I made note of the lack of any damage to the residual stand. It was clear that this piece of ground would produce more good timber in the future.
Twin Forest Products owns and operate two Ponsse Scorpion harvesters and a Ponsse Buffalo forwarder. A contractor also runs a Buffalo forwarder to keep the wood heading towards the road.
John said that they don’t use the harvesters for the bigger trees. In addition to not damaging butts, it saves wear and tear on the harvesters not to handle big and heavy hardwoods. There are three hand cutters that follow the two Scorpions, and while I didn’t ask, I suspect that the hand cutters are more likely to saw the maximum grade from the timber.
Logs and pulpwood have to get to market, and that takes trucks. Brother Jeff, who spends his time behind the wheel of a log truck, said that the company runs four logging trucks. They run three Peterbilts and a Kenworth. One of the Peterbilts is equipped with a Serco and a Rosa pup trailer. The other three trucks are tractor trailer rigs, and one of those trucks is equipped with a Rotobek loader. I asked about how the lumber was hauled from the sawmill, and he explained that they had a competent trucker hired who does the job quite well, and were glad to not complicate their lives any more than necessary by purchasing a semi and hiring a driver.
According to John, their timber sales are about one-third private, and the rest are county and state timber sales. The brothers reach out about 70 to 80 miles from home for timber sales in the winter months, but will go farther in the warm months. Like other logging companies in this oak-rich area, they have to comply with the limitations put on by oak wilt. This means that they can’t cut oak from April 1st until July 15th. It also means that they have to build up a supply of oak logs in the mill yard. He pointed out that their logging operations cover about half the supply of logs they need to run the mill, and the other half comes from logs bought from area loggers. He also said that the supply of open market logs stays good if the scale and grading is kept honest and the payment for the logs is timely.
Knowing Their Industry
Like any business, there are always worries about factors that can’t be controlled, and John took time to discuss some of the problems they face as well as others in the forest products industry.
The first thing he expounded on was the closure of pulp mills in Wisconsin. Everybody that logs, even if they are chasing sawlogs and veneer, also has pulpwood to market. Whether it is the pulpwood in the tops of log trees or pulpwood trees that have to be removed to properly log the stand, pulpwood always piles up on logging jobs.
With the closure of pulpwood mills, the market is narrowed, and with the productive capacity available in the woods with mechanical harvesting, pulpwood yards soon fill up. When they are easy to fill, the corporations that own those pulpwood markets know that they can drop the price and still fill the yard. Of course, anybody in the logging business knows that they live on what is left over after harvesting, trucking, and stumpage costs. According to John, and everybody else in the industry, that margin of profit has shrunk dangerously low in recent years. John pointed out that with pulpwood at this time, there is no profit to speak of.
Like other businesses these days, available labor has been a problem. While they have never had a huge workforce, it has shrunk because they can’t always find people to work. This has also been a problem at times, especially on the logging side of the operation.
One person they can count on is the bookkeeper. John’s wife, Jill, keeps the books for the operation. She said that she likes the business, and John said that she is also there for moral support when needed.
It is obvious from looking in on the twins, John and Jeff, that their relatively new business is an efficient operation. It can easily be said that they should be proud of their progress.
The Lawrence operation in action.
A well-stocked lumberyard.