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Vaagen Bros. Expands with Acquisition

Company Also Adding Third HewSaw, a Portable Model to Further Its Reach

By Diane M. Calabrese
Date Posted: 3/1/2007

COLVILLE, Washington — Try a new approach. If it works, there is every reason to embrace it. That’s what Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc. did.

            Vaagen Bros. Lumber installed its first HewSaw in 1989. Now, the company, which dates to 1952, owns four HewSaw machines. Two are in service, and one will soon be up and running; the oldest stands as a landmark and showcase for sawmilling.

            “The HewSaw has allowed us to adapt and change over time,” said Russ Vaagen, vice president at Vaagen Bros. Lumber. During the interval that Vaagen Bros. has been maintaining a robust production level, thanks to its HewSaw equipment, some “700 sawmills shut down in the West,” noted Russ.

            “We’re a progressive company that strives for maximum utilization of our forest resources, and HewSaw is a great tool to help us do that,” said Russ. With HewSaw equipment, Vaagen Bros. has been able to make optimum use of small logs. Production for 2007 is on track to be about 125 million board feet just from its main facility.

            Vaagen Bros. operates two mills that produce dimension lumber — 2x4, 2x6, 2x8 — in random lengths. The main mill, in Colville, Washington, encompasses 70 acres.

            Vaagen Bros. purchased a stud mill in late 2006 in Usk, 50 miles southeast of Colville. Usk is located along the Pend Oreille River and close to the western border of the Kalispel Indian Reservation in the northeast part of the Evergreen State. Vaagen Bros. employs about 130 people at its mill in Colville, and buying the mill in Usk added about 70 more workers.

            The reasons in favor of buying the mill in Usk were many, explained Russ. “It’s a small mill with a HewSaw. We were comfortable with that,” he said. Russ wanted to “build synergy on the log supply side” of the business.

            The stud mill is good complement to the company’s operations, said Russ. “We can plane half of the studs in Colville,” he said. (The planer mill at Colville relies on a Coe 249 eight-roll planer.) “The other half of the studs are dried and planed by Merritt Brothers Lumber in Athol, Idaho, about 40 miles away,” and sold by Merritt.

            After purchasing the rough green stud mill, Vaagen Bros. considered making some improvements. “We made some minor changes — improved log bucking ahead of debarkers,” said Russ. Upgrades included two machines from Newnes, a J-Bar bucker and a stacker.

            The key machine at the Usk mill is a HewSaw R200 PLUS, which the previous owner  purchased to replace a HewSaw R200 MSA.

            At the Colville Mill, Vaagen Bros runs a HewSaw R200 that was purchased in 1995; for a time it overlapped in service with a HewSaw purchased in 1989, but in 1997 the older machine was taken out of service.

            The third HewSaw, a model R200 SE Mobile (for “separate edging”), is being retrofitted. It was purchased in New Zealand and has European electronics that must be converted to U.S. standards.

            The HewSaw R200 SE will make an exciting addition to the capabilities of Vaagen Bros., said Russ. For starters, the HewSaw R200 SE Mobile is mounted on a trailer and is portable, and it includes a debarker. It gives Vaagen Bros. the opportunity to look at areas where small diameter material is not being utilized. As Russ envisions, HewSaw R200 SE Mobile will be transported to landowner sites to process small diameter, high density logs. The green lumber will be transported to Colville for drying and planing.

            Deciding to purchase the latest HewSaw was a process that began with Russ’s father, Duane, president and CEO of Vaagen Bros. “My dad had been invited on an equipment tour, and he had been interested in small diameter utilization,” explained Russ. The tour group visited mills in Scandinavia that were equipped with HewSaw machines. The European operations matched Duane’s vision for processing small diameter trees.

            Father and son both have a keen interest in maximizing use of forest resources. Duane has chaired the Western Wood Products Association. Russ is vice president of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, a group represented by the forest industry, environmental organizations and government agencies. The coalition spans three counties and its purview encompasses 1.2 million forested acres.

             The family has a long legacy in the sawmill industry. Russ is a fourth generation sawmill operator whose great-grandfather ran a mill in the 1920s.

            (The original HewSaw the company bought for the Colville mill in 1989 has been made into a monument and stands outside the family lakefront home alongside a mill from 1920. HewSaw provided a plaque for this landmark machine.)

            As vice president of the NWFC, Russ coordinates activities that “help manage forests effectively,” he explained. NWFC aims to keep lines of communication strong so all forest stakeholders can work cooperatively with each other.

            Russ earned a degree in business at Washington State University, but he always expected to follow his family roots in wood products. His experience in the industry includes forestry, log yard, mills and marketing. He puts all of it to good use in his role as vice president of Vaagen Bros.

            The company’s mills in Colville and Usk are open to visitors, who can take a tour. “We figure we tour over 3,000 a year at Colville,” said Russ. He expects the visitors to increase as tours get going at Usk. The tours, which attract everyone from grade schoolchildren to seniors, help to educate the public about the forest products industry.

            When most people see the HewSaw for the first time, they are “intrigued and surprised,” said Russ. The machine is so fast and so high-tech, he explained, that it is a real attention-getter.

            The high-tech HewSaw is not the only thing that turns the heads of visitors. A P&H portal crane offloads 2,500 to 3,000 tons of logs that arrive by truck or railcar daily, and the company also has a co-generation plant onsite. Each person in a tour usually finds something fascinating.

            The Colville mill processes logs that are up to 14 inches at the butt and up to 4.5 inches at the top end. Douglas fir and larch logs account for 60% of the raw material, and lodgepole pine and hemlock fir each makes up 20%. The company also mills a few cedar logs.

            Logs are sorted by species prior to being debarked by a Valon Kone debarker; mill runs are set up to focus on a single species. Logs are bucked to lengths that will yield the maximum lumber. Bucking enables “batch merchandizing,” said Russ. Logs are sorted to size, too, before going to the HewSaw.

            The HewSaw R200 is equipped with chipping heads, ripping saws and edging saws to process the entire log in one pass through the machine. The saws are set to run batches of similar logs very efficiently. The HewSaw R200 Plus has scanning technology that measures the shape and length of the log, and it compares the data to logs that have already been milled to determine the best processing solution.

            Vaagen Bros. grades and tests its lumber production with a Metriguard 7200 High Capacity Lumber Tester that operates at a speed of more than 3,000 linear feet per minute. Machine Stress Rates (MSR) lumber brings a premium price, and it gives the company an advantage in marketing and selling to lumber markets for building construction applications.

            Slow-growing trees with compact growth rings produce a high density wood fiber that has value and can be utilized. Vaagen Bros. is committed to sound forest management, and its ability to process small diameter trees provides a market for overstocked timber that is removed in management thinnings and also harvests aimed at reducing fuel loads and preventing forest fires.

            Vaagen Bros. makes good use of its residual wood material. Bark is recovered and sold for landscaping markets, and some scrap wood is used to fuel the boiler system for the dry kilns. The four megawatt co-generation plant also uses scrap wood for fuel, producing electricity that is sold to Idaho Power Co. The co-generation plant was the idea of Russ’s grandfather; his father and grandfather “championed” the plant and developed it.

            HewSaw Machines Inc. is part of the Finnish company, Veisto Ltd. The company has offices and facilities in Abbotsford, British Columbia for the Northwest clients and offers on-site consultation. HewSaw Machines Inc. also has offices in Eastern Canada, the Southern U.S., and all sawmilling countries worldwide.

            In the case of Vaagen Bros., the exchange of information with HewSaw has been reciprocal. “Because we’ve been around (HewSaw) so long,” the company’s maintenance staff is very experienced in serving the machines, Russ acknowledged. Indeed, it was Vaagen Bros. that put the first HewSaw in North America in operation almost two decades ago.

            Properly maintaining the HewSaw equipment is a priority at Vaagen Bros. The machines get a thorough going-over each year. “We do an annual rebuilding, typically during spring breakup,” said Russ. In addition, each machine receives a thorough annual maintenance to keep it performing well.

            Over the years, Vaagen Bros. has had suggestions for improving the HewSaw equipment. The manufacturer’s representatives listen carefully, according to Russ, and its engineers have a good history of working with Vaagen Bros. personnel to implement improvements — a win-win scenario.

            Having had a HewSaw in operation for 18 yeas, Russ and Duane have heard some skeptical comments from people who wonder about the single-pass machines. Son and father have addressed them all, which is easily done with the results they can show for their company.

            Concerns from other mill owners usually fall into one of two areas. “The first doubt is, ‘you’ll go broke,’ ” milling small diameter logs, said Russ. However, the speed and efficiency of the HewSaw enables it to be economically viable and profitable.

            Sawmill businesses, which are accustomed to having a wide array of machine centers and equipment to manufacture lumber from raw logs, also may be reluctant to embrace the concept of one machine that performs multiple log processing functions. They say, “It’s really hard to believe a single machine works,” said Russ.

            It requires a “paradigm shift,” said Russ, for mill owners to see the value of maximizing efficiency by accomplishing all the mill tasks in a single pass through a machine. The HewSaw produces sawn lumber as well as high quality chips.

            The features of the HewSaw R200 PLUS illustrate the capabilities of the single-pass HewSaw machines. A number of different chipper heads are available, making it possible for a three- or four-spiral head to be matched for high-speed sawing. The machine uses a double-arbor circular-sawing method. By using small diameter saw blades, kerf can be reduced without risk of flutter. The blades are easily replaced because they are clustered in cassettes.

            HewSaws can edge with a separate edging (SE) module, or edging tools can be mounted on the ripsaw arbors. The HewSaw chipper knives are patented, and they do not leave the factory until they meet rigorous quality control standards.

            The HewSaw R200 Plus can run at line speeds ranging from 250 to 750 feet per minute. The machine weighs 30 tons.

            Staying with wood products has been a good decision, said Russ. “Like so many other people in sawmilling, it’s the challenge of the entire process that keeps you coming back,” he said. “It can be very rewarding” even though it has been challenging, too.

            Russ enjoys the rural environment of the sawmill business. “I make a good living in a rural place,” he said, and has the benefit of living in a region that offers much in the way of scenic beauty. He also enjoys forest-based recreation.


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