Northland Forest Products Limited is a family run sawmill located a few minutes north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Over the past 40 years we have helped many organizations with their wood product needs. Albertans have trusted us with their forest and we have been responsible stewards; adopting practices that have minimal impact on the environment as we follow the life cycle of the forest.
We have also provided stable employment opportunities within the community; approximately 55 full time employees complete a variety of jobs to keep the facility running year round. In the winter our workforce increases by approximately another 150 seasonal contractors involved in logging and hauling operations. For a few months over the summer we also hire summer students, and contractors for tree planting and other silviculture work (silviculture is the practice of establishing and controlling the growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values).
We value all of our hard working, dedicated employees and contractors that keep the mills running and the day to day operations flowing. There is a special dynamic here where friends and family members can work side by side and contribute to a common goal. We thank each and every individual that has helped Northland for their contributions of time, energy, focus and many other traits that are factors of success.
IN THE FOREST
The process of lumber manufacturing doesn’t actually start at the sawmill; first the trees must be harvested and that takes planning; a lot of planning. The crown lands that we harvest belong to Albertans, meaning we harvest the timber resources but the land and resource ownership is retained by Albertans. The Alberta government safeguards the crown lands on your behalf, administers the rights to companies to utilize the resources on the crown lands and they collect royalties for it.
When we are talking about the timber resources, each Forest Management Unit in the Province undergoes very comprehensive calculations computed by the government over a number of years to determine an Annual Allowable Cut (AAC). The AAC conveys the amount of wood that can be harvested in the Province within a one-year period to ensure its sustainability.
Once the AAC is determined, the timber can be allocated to different companies. There must be an agreement in place between the Alberta government on your behalf and these companies (the resource users). The agreement that allows Northland to harvest your timber resources is called a quota.
Once the quota has been allocated, we use it to create a General Development Plan that outlines what Northlands will be doing over a five-year period. The planning then proceeds to a more specific Preliminary Harvest Plan and finally to a detailed Annual Operating Plan (AOP), through which the Alberta Government approves the harvesting design for that year. Through each increasingly specific stage of operational forest management activity, the government retains control through a review and approval process.
The last stage of harvesting planning goes into our Detailed Block Plan. We plan our cut blocks following policies set by the Alberta Government, using industries best practices, and the Northern Alberta Operating Ground Rules. Our cut blocks mimic how nature affects our forests through fire, disease, insect infestations, storms, and age.
Environmentally our impact on the forest is full circle; the harvesting, silviculture, and reclamation planning helps us return the forest to a young, healthy, vibrant and sustainable one. We believe that good forest management is good business and we strive to strengthen the forest with our impact for future generations to utilize and enjoy.
As a responsible sawmill, and as individual forest users, our vision is for a sustainable forest that can be used by generations upon generations of stakeholders. Our respect for the environment is evident in the processes we use and the services we provide.
Our harvesting and hauling operations include:
- The building of roads; in winter ice roads and ice bridges,
- cooperating with other land users such as oil and mineral exploration companies and people in general that use the area for a variety of reasons; and,
- harvesting and hauling logs while maintaining the health and safety of everyone in the area.
Due to muskeg, lakes and rivers in our Boreal forest area, harvesting is done in the winter as it is easier for trucks and equipment to move when the ground is frozen. Spruce, pine and fir (SPF) trees are cut either tree length or cut-to-length (smaller wood is easier to haul in short lengths), then delimbed and put into piles (called log decks) ready to be loaded onto trucks. The trucks haul the logs to the mill yard where they are stockpiled for use in the sawmill.
Every log truck that comes into our yard must weigh their load on our scales. The information provided is used to calculate key data for our company and doubles as a truck and load safety inspection center.
After logging, the harvested areas must be reforested within two years. The summer after an area is harvested we plant 2 to 3 trees for every tree cut in that area, and we return 4 to 8 years later to conduct surveys that tell us how the forest is progressing. Regeneration surveys are used to ensure the number of trees and their height meets the growing criteria needed to pass guidelines set in place by the Government of Alberta. For 15 years Northlands will monitor the trees we plant to ensure a healthy forest is developing.
In the 14th year, free growing surveys are conducted to ensure that the reforested areas meet our obligations to the citizens of Alberta; the trees must meet height criteria to ensure the trees are no longer competing with surrounding plants and show that they are free growing. If the areas are not growing as they should Northlands will replant them or treat the areas to remove competing vegetation that is interfering with the growth of the young seedlings. It is Northlands belief that these stands will once again be available for harvest within 80 years.
From our mill-yard stockpile, logs are brought from the decks to sawmill entrances by a log loader. The oversize logs that are too big for mainstream sawmill equipment have their own entrance to the sawmill where they are cut into custom order products by the head rig. Cut-to-length logs are fed into the sawmill at a different area, and the small and medium sized tree-length logs are continuously hauled to the prentice, a stationary machine with a grapple that advances the logs to the feed troughs, at a third entrance.
If we follow a tree length log through the sawmill process starting at the primary log entrance to the mill, we would see what looks like a big mechanical arm and hand working to sort the logs. This machine, called the prentice, sorts the tree-length logs into two lines; the smaller logs are sorted to feed into a 22” debarker, and the medium ones into a 35″ debarker. The debarkers have spinning knives inside that strip the bark off the log. The log then enters the sawmill and the bark, which falls into a conveyor, is transported to the hog, which will be explained later.
Inside the mill the debarked logs are scanned every 16th of an inch with a laser system that sends information to computers and monitors in the cut off saw booth. The computer system can be programmed to make choices on the best cut pattern for the greatest utilization of the log and for the highest value from the log.
The log is ready for its first cut at the cut off saws. The two separate lines each have a cut off saw that is a 6 foot diameter vertical saw. The small log line is controlled manually by the cut off saw operator to deal with the inconsistent nature of small wood. The saws on the larger line, however, are programmed to make cuts based on the computer made decisions for getting the best value from the log. Automatic photo-eyes at 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 foot intervals control the stops and ensure the log is in the proper position for cutting. Once in position, the log is clamped by rollers to ensure it will not move and it is cut.
Following the cut off saws, the logs are sorted into decks (or bins) according to their diameter to facilitate a better and more consistent flow of logs through the mill. Logs of the same or similar dimensions can be fed from one deck and the machines they are fed into have only minor adjustments to make.
The decks that hold the larger logs are fed into the canterline and the decks that hold smaller logs are fed into the small log line (also known as the Hewsaw or peewee line). Log singulators in the form of step feeders or log ladders individualize logs for processing so they feed one at a time onto a conveyor with an equal distance between each log.
Logs being fed into the canterline are laser scanned and the information is used to compute the optimal cuts. The log is then rotated by red spike rollers into the best position for making the cuts determined by the computer. The log is scanned a second time to ensure proper cutting alignment or the computer will make a readjustment to the cut pattern. The chipping heads and saw-box move into place as a pattern is cut out of the bottom of the log so it cannot change position. Feed rolls hold the log in position as it enters the chipping heads where the other three sides are chipped off to leave a “cant”, which is a four-sided block of wood. If the log is a larger one, two side boards will also be cut from the log and they will be processed through the board edger.
The board edger, as the name suggests, puts a square edge on the side boards that have come from the canterline, or on lumber that has been re-routed from other areas for further refinement. The wood that is edged off a board is sent to the chipper and made into wood chips, which are sold for pulp and paper production.
The cants that have come off the canterline are set up on queuing decks to go to one of two gang saws. The first gang is the double arbour gang which has 20 vertical saws set approximately 2 inches apart; a cant goes in and lumber comes out. The second gang is called the 5/4 gang and it works on the same principles as the double arbour gang except that the distance between its saws can be adjusted to manage custom order sizes.
If the logs coming out of the cut off saws were sorted into the decks holding the small logs, they will be fed into the HEWSAW; what we call our small log line. This machine curve saws logs by turning them so the curve is down (like a banana with its two points in the air) and pivoting them lengthwise through the machine following the centre of the log. Four sides are chipped off and the remaining fibre will either be one piece of lumber or big enough to be cut into 2, 3 or 4 pieces of lumber. This is a single-pass curve-sawing machine from log to lumber. The woodchips are conveyed away to the chip shaker and sifted through screens to ensure they meet size specifications and then travel on to the chip bins. The other screened whitewood particles form part of the hogfuel biomass (to be explained later).
At the trim saws, all of the boards from the canterline and the small line merge. Operators at the trim saw queuing deck manipulate the boards so that every board can be scanned using computerized ‘true shape scanning’ to detect length, width, thickness and physical defects. If there are “bad” edges or wane, the board can be sent back to the board edger to be edged once more or remanufactured from a two inch board to a one inch board. If the board meets specifications and makes it through the remanufacturing reject gate, it will be trimmed at the appropriate useable length. Inside the trim saw machine, one or more of nine saws can cut at any two foot interval. The trim ends are sent to the chipper.
Because the boards have been scanned, the computer has the information necessary to sort every board according to its dimensions into one of sixty bins in the J-bar sorter. When a bin is full, the operator is alerted by a red light and the bin can be lowered to floor chains running below. The chains then deliver the boards to the stacker.
The stacker lays out a number of boards (the number depends on the board dimensions) horizontally on a hydraulic table that elevates and lowers. A set of strips is placed on top of the boards and between each added layer of boards to facilitate the drying process and to allow air to circulate evenly to each individual board. The table lowers as each layer is arranged on top until the bundle is full and the table is at its lowest point. The bundle can now be transferred out of the building on chains. This ‘green’ bundle, which means it still has a high moisture content, approximately 40 percent moisture content, is now ready to be removed from the sawmill building and dried.
DRYING ROUGH LUMBER IN THE KILNS
Now that our green lifts of lumber are ready to be dried, they are lined up in a charge (a grouping of bundles to be dried at the same time on what looks like a train car). The charge is then rolled into one of two kilns which dry the wood to 19 percent moisture content. One charge is two hundred and forty thousand foot board measure which is enough wood for approximately 24 houses. Our kilns operate 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, and depending on the weather, it takes 16 to 24 hours to complete a charge.
Once dried, the lumber can be planed. The first process is to remove the strips from between each layer of lumber in a bundle. This is taken care of at the tilt hoist in the planermill. As the bundle is lifted and tilted, each layer of lumber slides off onto a queuing deck and the strips drop out to be stacked and used again in the sawmill.
Each board is planed individually by a Stetson Ross planer, originally manufactured in the 1930′s but upgraded extensively for high speed production. The planer averages three hundred and ten thousand board feet per 9 hour shift. The shavings and sawdust that is recovered from the planing process and later on through cutting processes is super absorbent and clean and sold for a variety of uses within the region.
After being planed, the lumber goes through a scanning system once more to detect length, width, thickness and grade. The trim saws finish the ends of each board with clean cuts to the most advantageous, correct lengths for market. Then, based on the scan results, the board is stamped with the appropriate corresponding grade stamp identifying strength and quality.
Grading is determined by a number of factors which includes knotholes, insect damage, disease, rot, cracks, wane, and stain. Any of these factors will decrease the desirability for the board and lessen the grade. From highest to lowest, the lumber is graded from a number one, a number two, a number three, or an economy board, which includes grades four and five. Alberta Forest Products Association inspects Northland’s product, its grading system and its graders on a monthly basis to ensure we are adhering to established grades for international markets.
Again, because the boards have been scanned, the computer has the information necessary to sort every board according to its dimensions and grade into one of forty bins in the planermill J-bar sorter. As in the sawmill, when a bin is full, the operator is alerted by a red light and the bin can be lowered to running floor chains below. The chains then deliver it to the planermill stacker.
At the planermill stacker, the boards are layered in the same process as at the sawmill. This is the last opportunity for Northland staff to check that the boards have the correct grade and are acceptable for distribution. Strips of cardboard are placed between every couple of rows of boards while stacking to provide stability to the finished bundle.
The bundle is then put through the squeeze making the bundle compact, sturdy and balanced. Dunnage is strapped to the bottom of every bundle (dunnage at Northland is grooved so strapping will not slide; dunnage is used to keep a bundle off the ground and facilitate the loading and unloading process). Every bundle is labeled but if it is higher than economy grade it is also wrapped in polyethylene as a tight, secure and clean package that is then labeled and ready for shipping into the worldwide market.
In one day, the sawmill and planermill can process up to 310,000 board feet for sale. This is enough wood to construct approximately 31 homes.
Once the bundle has come out of the planermill a loader moves the bundles and sorts them in the yard by dimension, length and grade. The bundles are counted daily so the sales team can offer the products to our brokers who then sell the product to lumber yards and other customers throughout Canada, United States and China. Each day brokers call our sales team to find out what is available, and what our price is per truck load. Once a broker purchases a load, or many truck loads of lumber, they send flatbed trucks to pick up the product. The loads can be sent directly to distributors or to a reload yard to be shipped via rail and/or ocean vessel throughout Canada, United States or China.
The price of the lumber fluctuates with the market and is also dependent on the quality of the wood and the availability of the product. The quality of the wood in Northern Alberta is superior to other areas due to a short growing season. Northland is lucky, because the growing season is short, the growth rings in a tree are thin, with tight and white fibres, making a denser and more visually appealing wood product which makes it easier to sell.
BYPRODUCTS FROM THE SAWMILL AND PLANERMILL
We use 100% of the logs that are harvested and brought to our sawmill and planermill. The sale of byproducts from our processes have helped us survive through down cycles the lumber market has experienced and we are proud to offer hogfuel, woodchips, shavings, sawdust, stringers, trimblocks, and pallet stock to our customers.
The products from the sawmill that have been removed from the log and routed to other areas for utilization consist of bark and anything trimmed off the log after that. The bark, along with some larger pieces of whitewood waste that could not be sent to the chipper and pieces too small to be used for chips, is conveyed out of the mill. This fibre goes to the hog, which grinds the bark and waste into relatively uniform pieces called hogfuel (hogfuel biomass). We use the hogfuel on-site to provide 90% of our facilities with heat and we sell the rest of the hogfuel into the regional market.
If it is used for heat, the hogfuel is supplied to a storage metering bin that consistently feeds this fibre into a heat exchanger to maintain a regulated flame and temperature. The heat generated is used to increase the temperature of oil in the exchange unit. The hot oil is then transported by way of pipes to the kilns, the sawmill, the planermill and our secondary manufacturing shed, supplying them with heat in the process. Northland is currently researching opportunities to utilize excess heat generated by this system.
Any other solid whitewood waste that comes out of the sawmill is routed to the chipper. The chipper reduces pieces to a uniform one inch size for use in pulp and paper products. A thorough screening process sorts pieces too big that can be chipped smaller, and pieces too small that are sent to the sawdust holding area. Those that are just right are stored in 15 foot high, 20 foot long overhead bins. Chip trucks can drive under a bin and drop a load right in.
SHAVINGS, SAWDUST AND TRIMBLOCKS
Fibre removed from boards as they travel through the planermill consists of shavings and sawdust as mentioned earlier and trimblocks cut off at the trimmer. Our shavings are primarily used for animal bedding and distributed by Cowboy Shavings™ out of Missoula, Montana, USA. The sawdust is generally used within the Wood Buffalo region for its absorbent qualities, and the trimblocks, depending on quality, are sorted, stacked and sold for finger jointing, or made into chips.
A visit to our site, even a virtual one, would not be complete without including our office. Our office is a showcase to wood and a statement that we believe in wood. This two-storey, 8,000 square foot building was constructed in 2002 using our own product. You will see our wood as the structural support in glulam beams manufactured by Western Archrib, in joists, floors, stairs and walls. Our wood was also made into desks for accounting, sales and administrative staff. It is a beautiful place to work.
Our mission is to utilize 100% of the fibre from logs and provide consumers with high quality products using world class forest stewardship.
We continue to expand the products we offer and research future markets and ideas. Currently our product line includes: Dimensional lumber, Large Custom Cut Dimensional Lumber, Greenergy (Hogfuel Biomass), Wood chips, Shavings, Sawdust, Trimblocks, Notched Stringers, and Pallet Stock.