Adventures with sawdust

22 May

Because I have a completely awesome instructor, my Timber Harvesting & Products class gets to take the best field trips ever. We recently traveled to the McDonald-Dunn Forest near Corvallis to observe the Oregon State University student logging crew in a thinning operation, and then went to the historic, zero-automation Hull-Oakes mill in Dawson for a tour, and finally to Freres Brothers mill in Lyons to observe a state-of-the-art automated operation. Thank goodness our instructor is energetic and excited about putting these trips together.

At the McDonald-Dunn Forest, our guide Jeff gave us some background and history on the forest as well as some information on current operations. The land was acquired partly from an old military base and partly from a wealthy donor who wasn’t even from Oregon. What luck! But leave it to OSU to top itself and up my jealousy factor to 11 — apparently companies like Papé and John Deere also donate millions of dollars worth of spanking-new equipment every year for the operation. And like my old alma mater’s flagship radio station, this logging operation is entirely student-run, from the choker setters and talkie tooters to the chasers and yarder operators (you know you love logger jargon).

We followed Jeff down the hill to get a better look at the intermediate line supports, chokers and carriage, while he explained the various sorts and parameters used on the operation. They use 30 – 40 year rotations and thin from 200 to 120 sq. ft. of basal area per acre instead of staying at the recommended 160-180 BA/ac so that they could provide a better educational experience and  to raise more money to fund the program. I’m not sure I’d even take advantage of the opportunity to work on a logging crew like this, but it is clearly exceptional and well enough to make me green with envy.

When we got to Hull-Oakes mill, we heard the requisite history of the mill from our guide Don, who immediately impressed by handing out business cards made of actual Douglas-fir (two-ply)! Our first exposure to the facilities was the screeching choir of grinders in the saw filing room, which is photographed in the image at the beginning of this post. Beyond that was an area where we could observe the head sawyer giving hand signals to a ratchet setter who was working on a carriage that made me motion sick just to watch! I apologize in advance for the quality of these videos; my videographer is an easily-distracted, excitable sort of guy.



The logs moved on through the edger and gang saw areas, and I was impressed with the decision-making speed of the gang saw operator; he worked so quickly that the machine almost appeared automated.



From there, we saw the steam engine room, where much of the energy for the mill is produced. I was also very surprised to learn that the mill has its own blacksmithing shop, mainly to maintain the Babbitt bearing system that keeps their low-pressure high-volume steam engine running.

After this, we backtracked a bit to the beginning of the production line: the river. Dozens of logs floated here while a worker used a little metal motorboat to cut them away from the pack. A loader caught the logs and pulled them onto the conveyor line, where they were fed into the debarker — probably the most mesmerizing piece of equipment I’ve ever seen. The whole mill was so old it looked like it might fall down at any moment , so my confidence was not high as we ascended the rickety catwalk running over the conveyor line. I quickly forgot my fear of heights when I saw the debarker process a huge log that must have been at least 50″ in diameter.



Once I pulled myself away from that, we headed to the greenchain and met an extremely cheeky timber inspector (“Feel free to tip your tour guide; he owes me money.”) before walking past the world’s noisiest planer. Out in the main yard, lots of equipment moved lumber around, and in the antiquated boiler room, they were burning biomass (“We call it sawdust!”) to produce power for the mill. We also observed a timber sizer and heard about the strange case of the fishbearing stream that passes under the mill.

Don said that the mill probably wouldn’t exist if not for some serious foresight and stewardship on the part of the original owner. Back in 1958, well before the advent of stream protection laws, he recognized that the headwaters of the stream on their property were an important and vulnerable part of the stream system. So they routed the thing through a protective culvert that preserved the natural stream bottom, which prevented the closure of the mill when the Oregon Forest Practices Act became law. By our modern standards, this may seem like common sense, but I see it as little short of a miracle for a private business owner to care for the land surrounding his business before the advent of stewardship laws, and before environmental issues were a notable part of the public conversation.

Good planning seems to be a theme at Hull-Oakes, too. One of the first things that went through my mind when I set eyes on this archaic complex was how such an place stays in business. Turns out it’s a combination of niche marketing and prior planning. The mill produces a lot of specialty products including 85’ beams that no other mill in the nation can produce, and wooden guttering that is in high demand for restoration projects on the East Coast. As if the operation were not unique enough, I discovered that this mill has never taken on a debt load, every tree is harvested to order, and they’ve never lost a single work day to economics.

Around here, all I seem to hear about is how many mills have closed and how dire rural economies are all over the state, so it’s truly great to hear about a mill so dedicated to staying open and retaining highly skilled employees; caring about long-time employees seems to be another rare artifact from the past held in high esteem at Hull-Oakes. This mill certainly has every right to be very proud of the whole operation — from the precision lumber they produce to the fact that they make much of their timber purchases from the Grand Ronde and Siletz tribes.

And because we were not exhausted enough, we drove out to the Freres Brothers mill, where my mind was blown and I was unfortunately unable to get many photos. This mill also has an interesting operation, though it is the polar opposite of Hull-Oakes — everything is slick and automated. I won’t devote a lot of time to the nuts and bolts of its relatively typical production line, but I do need to talk about a couple of the machines in this place.



Watching the lathe work to peel logs into sheets of veneer was damn impressive; the brother leading our group informed me that they like to have 9″ diameter logs peeled in under three seconds! The machine works at a maximum of about 1200 feet per minute, and a set of three conveyors whisks away the sheets of veneer to several places based on quality and dimension.

Then they come to the rotary clipper. It’s the bottleneck of the operation, performing at a maximum of only 500 fpm, but the capabilities of this clipper cannot be overstated. It is hands-down the coolest thing we saw at this mill, even moreso than the giant hydraulic lift that raised an entire semi-truck into the air at a 65-degree angle to shake out the contents with only a three-foot-tall piece of metal holding the rear tires in place. So pretty cool.

This machine takes a photo of every single piece of veneer that passes beneath it, and analyzes the images to determine how to cut the sheets of veneer. In other words, this thing makes split-second decisions to produce the maximum standard-sized (and therefore the most valuable) sheet of veneer possible while minimizing defects like knots and weak grain. I was so impressed that I went home and immediately started digging for white papers and patent information to find out how the machine works. I’m writing up what I’ve found and will probably share it here soon. For now, here’s a video where you can hear the sound of it clipping to get an idea of how quickly the equipment performs these analyses.



The owners of this mill should also be very proud of their cogeneration facility, which burns waste products like chips and sawdust to produce 30 – 40 percent of the mill’s energy. I was pretty tired by the time we saw this part of the mill, but this achievement wasn’t lost on me; the state of cogeneration in the industry seems pretty poor, yet this mill gets a reliable return out of their cogen efforts.

Each of the operations we observed was remarkable in its own way, from a completely antiquated mill that manages to turn huge profits, to a student-run logging crew, to a technologically advanced mill whose owners believe that greenchain automation is the shiny future of their company. I feel lucky to get such hands-on, experiential opportunities in my classes, and I hope that sharing them here is of some value to you!

One Response to “Adventures with sawdust”

  1. Tony Leagjeld May 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    Really good post. I just came on your blog and wanted to say i always have really really liked reading your blog posts. Anyway I am going to be subscribing to your feed and I really hope you post again soon enough.

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