Engineering solutions: Woodtone Specialties looks to meet demand for value-added products
By Ellen Cools
As the annual allowable cut in British Columbia continues to decline, the industry has begun to focus on the potential benefits of value-added wood products. Spallumcheen, B.C.-based Woodtone Specialties, which manufactures engineered wood products for the construction industry, has been manufacturing value-added wood products for years. Now, they’re seeing stronger demand and more growth than ever before.
The company started out as a custom coated exterior wood siding business. In 1989, entrepreneur Jim Young bought Woodtone. He saw an opportunity to expand their operations for exterior finishing. Over the years, the company has acquired multiple businesses to expand its offering and is now overseen by brother’s Chris and Kevin Young.
Most recently, in 2016, Woodtone acquired Synergy Pacific Wood Products, a manufacturer of engineered wood products based in Spallumcheen, B.C. Now known as Woodtone Specialties division, the plant produces a range of engineered wood products, including structural posts and beams, engineered siding and engineered fascia as well as other structural components for I-Joists and truss.
Many of these products are coated or painted at Woodtone’s other divisions located in Chilliwack, B.C., and Everett, Wa. The company’s largest markets today are Pacific Nothwest, Texas and California, and their reach extends throughout North America and into Europe, Chad Richmond, specialties product manager at Woodtone Specialties, says.
The Spallumcheen division employs approximately 140 people, running two shifts per day. The plant produces about 1.5 mmbf of engineered, high-value wood products monthly.
Providing a solution
But unlike primary manufacturers of wood products, the company is not getting its fibre from logging contractors. Instead, their fibre comes from neighbouring dimensional and specialty lumber sawmills, Hal Hanlon, president of the Woodtone Specialties division, explains.
The company takes SPF, Western Red Cedar, and Yellow Cedar in a variety of sizes and lengths including other small pieces of wood that would often go to waste, and finger-joints and laminates the pieces into large pieces of engineered wood. The input size of the wood they take ranges from 2 x 3 to 4 x 6 and wider, and from one foot to 20 feet in lenth.
“One of the advantages for us in the design of this plant is to be a good takeaway for primary sawmills when they can’t get rid of odds and ends, the lower-valued products,” Hanlon explains.
“Our business plan is essentially to provide solutions to the sawmills,” Richmond adds. “We take lumber that’s often below value for sawmills and create solutions for our end-use customers.”
That business plan has been very successful for the company. In fact, in 2019, when sawmills across B.C. took downtime or shut down, Woodtone was hiring, Hanlon says.
“We’ve been on a pretty steady growth path for several years now,” he says.
“This is a really exciting dynamic that exists, and it really reflects what we feel the forest industry should look like in British Columbia – adding significant value to what’s being cut in the province, at scale.”
But how do small pieces of wood from sawmills become engineered wood products?
There is a different process for each type of product, but, in general, the wood arrives at the plant, green, and then is kiln-dried through one of five Muhlbock dry kilns.
The wood is then optimized, goes through one of two Conception finger jointer lines, is laminated and resawn, profiled, and then packaged.
The company uses an optimization line built in-house and has multiple resaws from different manufacturers, including Baker and McDonough, as well as several Weinig moulder lines.
One of the products Woodtone makes is siding from cedar trim-ends. For this product, the company has partnered with a number of nearby sawmills who sort their cedar trim-ends to certain specifications, which Woodtone buys in packs. Those trim-ends would normally go to chipper waste, because they bring little value to a sawmill.
“So, we pay them a better price for the trim-ends, which brings more value back to their mill,” Hanlon explains.
Once at the plant, trim-ends go through the optimizing line where they are cross-cut, horizontally defected and sized. They then go to a Conception finger jointer line, through one of several custom-built presses and are then dried in the dry kilns. The product is then surfaced for lamination, laminated and built into billets. These billets are then resawn and further processed into high-value finished products.
“Through the process, material goes through extensive quality control testing, some of which are for structural certifications, at our own in-house lab to make sure that the fingerjoints and laminations are stronger than the actual wood and will perform as well or better than solid wood product. Then, we have in-line re-work, so any defects are repaired through that manufacturing process,” Hanlon says. “In many cases we’ve taken basically waste from a sawmill and built specified high-demand finished product that gets packaged and shipped out to one of our other divisions, gets coated and goes to a distributor.”
Impact of COVID-19
And with the boom in the housing market and higher lumber prices brought on by COVID-19, there is more demand for Woodtone’s products than ever before.
“With the decrease in the annual allowable cut in British Columbia, there’s no way you can sustain the U.S. housing demand when the allowable cut will decrease by 25-30 per cent over the next 20 years,” Richmond says. “And the log profile is changing, so you’re left wondering ‘Where is that going to come from?’ The only way to fill that demand is through engineered wood products.”
COVID-19 has also accelerated the acceptance of engineered wood products in the construction industry, he says.
For example, Woodtone produces 1×12, 16-foot Cedar weatherboards for board siding applications.
In the B.C. Interior, “it’s almost impossible to make a 1×12 piece of solid Cedar anymore from a second-growth sawlog Cedar tree,” Hanlon says. “So, we created an engineered version of a 1×12, now available in retail box stores throughout North America, because people just couldn’t get that product as a solid wood product, so they’ve turned to value-added engineered wood products.
“We can’t keep up with the demand for that product now,” he continues. “So, that’s an example where we’ve taken narrow, short lumber from the mill that’s a problem for them to move, and we’ve created a solution for the market.”
More generally, engineered wood products provide an opportunity to use Western Red Cedar. In light of the dwindling fibre supply in B.C., and given that Western Red Cedar is a more expensive species than others, the industry is not able to offer all the different sizes and sku’s that people require, Hanlon explains. This impacts the takeaway of the species as a whole.
“So, even a lot of manufacturers – like the sawmills we work with – that might make a competing solid 1×12, love what we’re doing because they can’t make enough and it rounds out the entire species offering by continuing to provide the full dimensional sizes demanded of that species in the market. This product is just one example of a wide variety of engineered wood product solutions we manufacture,” he says.
In fact, the Western Red Cedar Lumber Association is now promoting engineered wood products because it helps Cedar as a species.
Woodtone has seen the same thing happen with their WRC and SPF 6×6 and 8×8 engineered hollow-core structurally certified wood posts, Hanlon says. It’s becoming harder and harder to get solid, high-quality traditional versions of wood posts in those sizes, so Woodtone is filling the gap with their engineered products.
As a result of this increased demand, Woodtone is expanding its plant in Spallumcheen, adding new production lines and modernizing equipment.
The company has invested in several new resaw lines, automatic stackers, a new trim line, and upgraded one of their main moulder lines. They have also invested in a new slasher optimizing line from Conception, and Baker is in the process of building a custom resaw line for the plant.
This is just phase one of the company’s modernization plan.
“We’re still trying to figure out what phase two looks like, based on available fibre and available labour force,” Hanlon explains. “The surge in the building material industry – it’s coming at us from all directions right now, so we’re trying to prioritize, so that’s delayed us looking at what phase two will look like.
“It’s been hard to keep pace with demand for our products for two reasons,” he adds. “One, fibre is pretty tight right now. The annual allowable cut in B.C. is going down. And two, COVID-19 has made finding hourly employees and growing the workforce tricky.
Ideally, Woodtone Specialties would currently employ 180 hourly employees, rather than the 140 they now have. But, the available workforce in the rural area where they operate is not large, and it takes time to train new workers, Richmond says.
“It’s good-paying jobs; you make a good livelihood and have a long-term career,” Richmond says. “That’s what we’re trying to do – build up to scale and create as many opportunities and as much stability for our people as we can.”
“We don’t want to make small volumes, but we don’t want to produce billions and billions of board feet as it is not sustainable,” Hanlon adds. “So, we’re going to continue to grow this business based on our business model of finding value-added solutions, both on the fibre side and for our customers.”
To address the fibre supply challenge, Woodtone is pursuing their own timber license and partnerships with nearby First Nations groups.
Looking ahead, Hanlon and Richmond believe the market for building materials will remain strong, given that the U.S. housing market is under-supplied. Consequently, the demand for engineered wood products in the construction industry will continue to grow, which spells good news for Woodtone.
“We really feel like we represent what the forest industry should look like in British Columbia, and what it’s going to need to look like. We’re on the leading edge of that, for sure,” Hanlon says.