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Woodline Focused on Recovering, Adding Value

Minnesota company uses DuraTech equipment to transform residuals into premium wood fiber products.

By Jack Petree
Date Posted: 10/2/2002

ONAMIA, Minnesota — Woodline Sawmills Inc. is located in a marginal region of the forest products industry. Located about 80 miles northwest of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, its mills operate in the transitional area between the Northern forests and the farmlands of the Great Plains.

As a result, the timber that is the company’s raw material is of inconsistent quality and quantity, and Woodline’s operations are quite dissimilar to other hardwood sawmills. At a typical hardwood mill, production of pallet stock is secondary to operations to produce grade lumber. However, Woodline’s grade lumber manufacturing operations are set up to maximize production in the company’s pallet stock plant.

Woodline also has a residue recovery operation that turns the tables on what many might consider to be the usual way of doing things. Using a DuraTech tub grinder, the company produces pulp mill quality chips that are sold as premium mulch products to the landscape market. Woodline makes a number of other specialty wood fiber products that are sold as premium products.

By managing the company according to the limits of the raw material that is available to it and applying some innovative strategies, owner Chuck Baxter has been able to make Woodline a profitable business in a region where few other mills have managed to survive.

Woodline operates two sawmills in Onamia plus another small plant in northeast Minnesota that produces dimension lumber and creates some synergies for the overall company. The company’s primary mill is a scragg mill dedicated to producing pallet stock.

Woodline’s scragg mill is an old Tipton mill that has been modified through the years to improve performance. The plant produces about 25-30,000 board feet per day using Brewco thin kerf band technology for resawing, a West Plains Resaw Co. notcher for notching stringers, and a variety of older equipment for trimming and edging.

Deck boards are sawn from the outside of the log, and stringers are sawn from center cuts. This sawing strategy produces high quality deck boards compared to cutting lumber from cants, according to Chuck.

The grade mill, adjacent to the scragg mill, produces about 15,000 board feet per day. The grade operation is used primarily to reduce large logs to a size that allows them to be processed more efficiently at the scragg mill for pallet stock.

The grade plant has recently been rebuilt and reorganized to improve performance and efficiency, but its operations still remain secondary to the company’s pallet stock business. A Morbark rosser head debarking machine prepares logs for processing. Primary break-down is done on a Cleereman carriage. A Ligna combination gang saw and edger sizes side boards. A merry-go-round with Forrester band saws is used to further recover grade material from cants.

Once the best of the grade has been recovered, cants are moved to the pallet stock plant. At the scragg mill, the cants are fed into the line to fill gaps in production.

Woodline’s pallet stock operations produce high quality pallet components, said Chuck, and the company’s hardwood cut stock has ready buyers among pallet manufacturing companies in the region and Canada. Grade material is sold on the open market or used to the north in Eveleth at Chuck’s secondary processing plant. The Eveleth plant produces specialty and dimension lumber products used by cabinet manufacturers and similar businesses.

Having operations to manufacture grade lumber, pallet stock and specialty components allow the plants to benefit and complement one another. For example, a stringer with a knot has the same value to a pallet manufacturer as a stringer without a knot as long as the knot does not reduce the strength of the stringer. In the sorting process, clear stringers, which have a higher value for other secondary applications, are taken out and sent to the Eveleth plant to be processed into more valuable products. "It’s an opportunity to use the synergy possible by having the three different types of operations to enhance profitability in each," said Chuck.

The example diverting knot-free pallet stringers to use in manufacturing more valuable wood components demonstrates the company’s strategy of optimizing wood recovery for the highest value. The raw material available to Woodline is erratic in quality and quantity, so it is important to maximize yield, yet without excessive investments in equipment or using too much labor. The company’s operations are designed to make the best use of the most material to manufacture high quality products.

Woodline’s residual stream is another example of how it is optimizing wood recovery for the highest value. There are no pulp or paper mills in the immediate region, so chips must be shipped long distances. Unless chip prices are quite high, the shipping costs make them unprofitable to sell. As an alternative, Chuck sells to landscape markets near Woodline.

"We have found there is a considerable amount of demand out there for a premium chip that looks and performs better than the typical chip made out of recycled wood," said Chuck. "So rather than ship our chips out, we have worked to develop a strong customer base for them in the region’s local landscape and garden markets."

Woodline’s focus on premium chips for high quality mulch requires equipment capable of reliably producing high quality wood fiber in large volumes. The centerpiece of the company’s residue operation has become a DuraTech tub grinder. It efficiently produces high quality grindings at volume rates, according to Chuck.

Woodline’s residual operation produces four wood fiber products that are shipped in bags and bulk form. Bark mulch is made from material recovered in the log debarking operations. Hardwood chips are processed from wood scraps and other material that is not suitable for lumber production. Nature Walk is a specialty hardwood chip product manufactured as part of the screening process used in making quality hardwood chips.

Finally, Woodline has developed a patented, proprietary wood fiber product that is trademarked as SoftStep. Manufactured from aspen, SoftStep is marketed for playgrounds, jogging tracks, hiking trails, and other applications where cushioning is important to help prevent injury. Tests by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) showed that SoftStep provided 65% more cushioning than ordinary wood chips or fine gravel, according to Chuck. He is beginning to market SoftStep to other companies looking to expand their own specialty markets.

Woodline selected a DuraTech machine for its primary grinding technology a couple of years ago after extensive research. According to Chuck, the company wanted a machine that could produce high quality wood fiber products, would prove durable and also be efficient. Chuck delegated the research to his plant manager, and the company invested earlier this year in the DuraTech HD 10 tub grinder with a 460 hp engine.

"We wanted equipment that could handle high throughput but still provide the quality we need, and we wanted to reduce the maintenance costs we were seeing at the time with our old equipment," said Chuck. "My manager’s decision has been a good one so far. The DuraTech grinder has significantly enhanced our ability to get everything processed when we need a lot of material fast, and it maintains the quality standards we have set in the marketplace for a premium product...We are seeing reduced maintenance requirements, and we think we can do even better."

Sales of ground wood fiber products represent about 5% of the company’s revenues, according to Chuck. Although it is a small percentage, Chuck noted that the beneficial financial impact is even greater because residuals formerly represented a waste disposal cost to the company. A 5% increase in sales for a sawmill is not easy to achieve, he said, and also may require a capital investment of millions of dollars. "The chip, mulch, and SoftStep business fits into our process well," he said. "It’s not a make or break part of our business, but it is an important part of maximizing our efforts."

For environmental, economic, and social reasons it has become important to utilize timber of even marginal value for its optimal use and value. At Woodline Sawmills Inc., Chuck is demonstrating how it can be done. Using timber that might otherwise go unused and wasted, Chuck has taken wood fiber that is of limited value and recovered its highest value. The company’s operations are set up to recover value and add value. Grade lumber is recovered as the result of operations to prepare logs for the primary product -- high quality pallet components. Higher value material produced in the pallet stock operation is sorted out and sent to the component plant, which can recover and add more value. Lastly, the bark and chip residue the plant produces is optimized for value using DuraTech technology and sold as a high quality product to landscapers and gardeners.

As a result of Chuck’s efforts, farmers, woodlot owners and others have a market for timber that might not otherwise exist, Woodline generates jobs that would not be available if Chuck operated the company in a more traditional way, and forest resources are conserved.


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