Using Salvage Wood to Produce Log Homes and More

A B.C. company, T.L. Timber, has found a solid market niche in manufacturing log homes and timber—all of it produced from dry wood that has been salvaged from mountain pine beetle stands or forest fires.

By Paul MacDonald

Clayton Hillman, operations manager of T.L. Timber, spends time with customers and finds out what they truly want, in building their dream home or cabin. “It’s exciting to see them get exactly what they want—I think that’s part of the reason why after 22 years, I’m still here. I really like what I do.”

If you’ve ever been to the massive Bass Pro Shops outdoor gear store in Las Vegas, you’ve seen the handiwork of British Columbia log home and timber supplier, T.L. Timber Ltd.

Located in the small town of Cawston in B.C.’s Southern Interior, T.L.Timber has supplied various commercial building contractors across the U.S. and Canada—and has outfitted several Cabela‘s and Bass Bro Shop retail stores, as well as Great Wolf Lodge locations in the U.S.

While T.L. Timber’s piece of the business with these projects might not be huge—some of the Great Wolf Lodges can be as large as 250,000 square feet—their contribution is noticeable. A 62-foot milled log from T.L.Timber is the main truss in a Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City, Kansas.

Working from a high profile site along the Crowsnest Pass Highway, T.L. Timber, which is family owned and operated, has been turning out milled log homes, log cabins, log siding, custom cut timbers, cants, log railings and stairs—and more— since 1996. The company has been
offering custom milled log home packages for over 20 years.

T.L. was set up to better utilize both the wood the Lusted Family harvests in the Okanagan-Similkameen region, and the family’s land holdings. Through Dave Lusted and his parents, the family had been involved in agriculture in this farm-rich area of B.C. When Dave shifted operations to logging and set up Lusted Logging, he wanted to make use of part of their land holdings that had been used for farming, for an added value wood products operation—and T.L. Timber was set up.

Dave’s son, Clayton Hillman, who is operations manager for T.L. Timber, explained that the company originally set up operations on another property, with a handset headrig.

“When we moved to where we are now, it was all bare land,” says Clayton.

Clayton had worked at Lusted Logging, and in the oilpatch for a while before finding his niche running T.L. Timber. “Logging wasn’t really for me,” he says.

Running an added value operation, with all the different moving parts involved, had more appeal.

After extensive negotiations with the regional district and the Agricultural Land Commission, they set up shop and started producing cants—and have since evolved into producing just about anything related to log homes and timbers.

And all of it is produced from dry spruce and lodgepole pine timber that has been salvaged from mountain pine beetle stands or forest fires.

Most of it is sourced from Lusted Logging, and local forest company, Gorman Bros. Lumber. “Really, we would not be here without Lusted Logging and the support of Gorman Bros,” says Clayton. Lusted Logging does almost all of its logging for Gorman Bros., which, like Lusted Logging and T.L. Timber, is family-owned and controlled.

Clayton was 21 when he started with the company, and he says he’s learned a lot over the last two decades-plus of running T.L. Timber. “I didn’t know a lot about running a mill operation, and managing people when I first started,” he says. “It’s been a process—and I’m still learning.” He was managing employees who were twice his age—but he’s listened, and learned, a lot over the last 22 years.

Equipment-wise, Clayton says that they went from just cutting cants to buying an old log lathe and a notching system. Along the way, they invested in a new Pendu M9700 system, which is their workhorse.

The Pendu equipment is designed for the log home manufacturing industry or companies who remanufacture large timber—and the M9700 Gang Saw is Pendu’s top-of-the-line model. With cantilevered arbors designed to handle up to 19” diameter saw blades, the M9700 has the capability to handle material up to 14” high and 14” wide. And with two 125 HP motors, it’s got the capacity to power demanding requirements.

Built on a thick, full 1” steel box-frame, the M9700 features an automatic chain infeed system, one-touch hydraulic height adjustment and inboard cant sizer. Easy-access arbors, supported with conical outboard bearings, make maintenance simple, says the company. The M9700 has a variable feed rate up to 90 fpm.

Clayton says that they have a variety of log profiles, so they change out the cutting heads as required on the M9700. “There are lots of smaller Pendu’s out there, but this is one of only three in North America this size.”

“We really needed a machine like the Pendu, for more output,” says Clayton.

In terms of other equipment, they have a vintage but heavily customized Webb and Gifford headrig, and an older custom built log lathe. They can cut a 32 inch by 65 foot log on the headrig, and the lathe can handle a log up to 34 feet, with a diameter of up to 20 inches.

Clayton says it would be nice to have the infeeds and outfeeds more automated, “so the guys don’t have to do as much pushing and pulling”.

But that said, he’s happy to be working with solid, sometimes vintage equipment that is truly not built anymore. “This older equipment is bomb-proof,” he says.

“We’ve always kept things very simple, and I don’t think it has hurt us,” he added. “I’m not a fan of speed. I like the guys to go at the right speed, take their time—that way we are doing the job right the first time.”

He added that it would sometimes be helpful to have a scale. “All of our logs are hand-scaled,” he says. “We usually don’t get more than two or three loads a week, so our scaler can handle it. But if we get a Timber Sale that has 30 or 40 loads, it can become an issue.”

In addition to commercial work—such as for Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s—the company’s main business is, of course, log homes. They recently finished off an 8,000 square-foot home, made of 13-inch logs, for a customer on the east coast of Canada. That particular house had a 20-page SmartCut cutlist, which starts with the longest cuts, working down to the shortest cuts.

A new initiative for T.L. Timber involves taking more of a retail approach to marketing their homes, rather than going through builders or marketing through other companies. This will see executive package homes pre-cut, and pre-built on T.L.’s site, before being transported to the customer’s building lot.

For smaller homes, Clayton explained, there will be a shorter cut list, as there will be fewer logs, and multiple combined log cuts. This particular house is more of a one-off. “Not everyone is going to want an 8,000 square foot log house,” notes Clayton. Reflecting the size, and that it was all logs, there were over 1,000 notches that had to be made on the logs that went into the project.

Clayton says that projects as large as this don’t come in often—they are producing plenty of smaller log homes, that people will use as second homes or recreational homes.

As noted, they use dry wood as feedstock.

“We’re using downgraded timber, but once you machine it, you don’t notice the difference,” says Clayton. “Logs with sapwood rot on the outside may look like firewood, but when you mill the sides off, and get down to solid wood, it looks great.

“The production process is a bit arduous, but the log value is there—we can still come under most stick frame home builders, in pricing.”

It’s tougher now to source the wood that T.L. Timber uses, with a number of mill closures in the B.C. Interior, less beetle-affected wood, and some cant producers entering the market.

“Other companies are coming into the market, buying this wood, making it into cants and selling it offshore—they have a market for the chips.” There are also firewood producers, who are also looking for wood.

While Lusted Logging and Gorman Bros are the mainstay wood suppliers, T.L. Timber also gets timber from logging contractors in the region. The vast majority of wood harvested by contractors will be sawlogs, and be headed straight to a sawmill. But there will sometimes be small amounts of low quality timber. “We’ll hear that a contractor has a bunch of dry wood, and give them a call,” says Clayton. Some contractors might only send them a few truckloads a year, but T.L. Timber is happy to receive them.

“We’re also capable of handling larger logs that the sawmills and pulp mills aren’t set up to handle,” he noted.

T.L. Timber tries to have a good inventory of logs before break-up, sourcing logs wherever they can. “We can be the last ones to see logs before break-up because the sawmills are trying to pack out whatever they can out of the bush. They’ll call us and we’ll pick it up however we can.”

Trucking the wood can be an issue. “It can be tough to find a trucker that is willing to take a little less to bring the wood to us vs. taking a load of green wood to Gorman’s or Weyerhaeuser, in Princeton.” They sometimes will find truckers looking to fill in some hauling time towards the start of break-up because the roads are still decent, or in the spring, when loggers go back to the bush, and there might be some dry wood piles that need to be moved.

T.L Timber has a solid crew of 10 employees, but at various points it has had up to 18 employees.

“At one point, we were bigger, but it was kind of crazy and too much—at the end of the day, you would look at the numbers, and we weren’t making any money,” says Clayton. They right-sized the operation, both in terms of employees, and output, and are now on a more solid footing, financially.

Clayton said they take a very prudent approach to finances for the business. “We’ve yet to have to go to the bank for a loan—we try to do everything on money coming in, and money going out.”

In terms of competition, the economic downturn of 2007 slimmed down the number of companies producing timbers and log homes. “Log homes are not exactly an essential item when times are tough,” says Clayton.

There is sports memorabilia in Clayton’s office, and while he longer plays hockey, he is a strong proponent of the team concept at T.L. Timber.

“We are a team, and the guys know that,” he says. “We have a lead hand and a foreman, but aside from that, we don’t have job descriptions. We make sure that everyone knows what they are doing in the yard, so they can always step in and help out with the next job.”

In terms of what all the T.L. Timber folks are producing, Clayton has two go-to web sites that he refers potential customers to for home designs, one that is more practical, the other more high end.

“I use those two quite often—but if people come in and are in love with a plan, we’re happy to work with that. We welcome all home plans.”

He noted that people really have come in to T.L Timber with their design on a paper napkin. “And we have turned it into a proper stamped, certified design. Those are the best because you get to spend time with people and find out what they truly want, and build their dream home or cabin. It’s exciting to see them get exactly what they want—I think that’s part of the reason why after 22 years, I’m still here. I really like what I do.”

A new initiative for T.L. Timber involves taking more of a retail approach to marketing their homes, rather than going through builders or marketing through other companies. This will see executive package homes pre-cut, and pre-built on T.L.’s site, before being transported to the customer’s lot.

“We’ll be doing more of that—it’s a little bit more hands-on,” says Clayton. “It lets our guys see what we are doing, with the assembly in the yard—they usually don’t see the finished product.

“My goal as a log home company is to bring the home to a dry-up stage, and then the trades take over after that.” The homes will be branded, Epic Log and Homes.

Both Clayton and the crew are excited about this new business initiative. “This is one of the best crews we’ve ever had,” he says. “This is the next direction we want to go in.”

This move will help keep things busy at T.L. Timber.

“It can be a bit challenging in the winter months keeping everyone busy,” says Clayton. To help out, they’ve been running a firewood operation the last three years. “It’s been a good little business. We use wood that is not used in the home packages, cut it to proper lengths, split, and deliver it.”

They deliver the wood using a classic 1986 dump truck found in a barn in Alberta.

“It’s the same with our wood chips—we will deliver them, or people can come and get the chips themselves. We’re in a big agricultural area, so we get ranchers that want it for their cattle or horses.”

While they have had the occasional sale of a timber home to China, their market is pretty much between Canada and the U.S. these days. But another market might be in the offing. They had a recent visit from a New Zealand company interested in purchasing complete log homes.

“So far, so good,” says Clayton about the possible Kiwi business. “The best part is the difference in seasons. They will be looking for at least half-a-dozen homes, and they will want them in their summer—which is our winter here.” It would be a good fit, in terms of sourcing wood. Clayton noted that T.L. Timber is better able to access good, solid dry timber from spruce belts in the winter—these areas can’t be logged in the summer.

And while it may seem unusual to be sending timber homes to a major forest products country such as New Zealand, Clayton said TL Timber is able to supply them with large diameter timbers that are hard to find in New Zealand—all from a mid-sized operation that is adding value, and providing employment, in small town B.C.