Minnesota Mill Changes Gears To Cut Cedar

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Company operates 2 mills equipped by Jackson Lumber Harvester to make northern white cedar lumber.

ORR, Minnesota. — “It’s been a total flip-flop,” said Tim Olson, owner of Northern Lights Timber & Lumber Inc., referring to the change he made in the last 12 months from sawing 99% pine to 99% cedar. Up until two years ago, Tim focused primarily on pine, milling large cants for Voyager Log Homes and other customers. But it got difficult to compete in pine. “We had to diversify,” he said.

Northern Lights Timber & Lumber runs two mills. Tim owns a mill in Orr, Minnesota that he bought in 1996. He also leases a mill in the Nett Lake region of the nearby Bois Forte Reservation. Both mills rely on equipment from Jackson Lumber Harvester Co. Inc. in Mondovi, Wis., but the mills are outfitted and used in different ways. The Orr mill is equipped with a Jackson Lumber Harvester head rig with setworks, carriage and vertical edger. It handles long logs in the range of 8 to 25 feet. “We try to do a lot of 12-foot cedar,” said Tim.

“We do all 8-foot and 10-foot wood (at the mill) located on the Bois Forte Indian Reservation,” he explained. The mill at the reservation has a Jackson Lumber Harvester end-dog scragg mill. It is also equipped with dry kilns from Irvington-Moore.

The reservation put in a new mill for its own use in 1995 but only ran it about a month, according to Tim. He was offered a lease on the mill in 1998 and jumped at the opportunity because he knew Jackson Lumber Harvester equipment well.

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The Jackson Lumber Harvester equipment at the Orr location was already in place when Tim purchased that mill. “The only thing I did,” he said, “(was to) put in a new carriage and new setworks.” But as it happens, Tim knew a lot about Jackson Lumber Harvester machines even before he bought Northern Lights Timber & Lumber from its previous owner, his friend and colleague Mike Tuomala. “Mike still stays on and works with me as a consultant,” said Tim.

Because he knew the owner of the mill he bought, Tim had a very high confidence level with Jackson Lumber Harvester equipment from the start. “Mike did a lot of research,” said Tim, “he looked at how well mills performed (and concluded) the best bang for the buck was Jackson.”

Tim has been working in the wood products industry for more than 20 years. His dad switched from trucking to logging. And when Tim graduated from college, he joined his father’s business. He first got to know Mike as a customer of the family logging business. Although Tim, his father and his brother bought the Orr mill as a joint venture, they restructured the ownership about a year ago. The reason was simple. “…All I did was mill,” said Tim. Now, Tim’s brother heads up a separate logging business and his father is retired. The brothers share space in Orr, and Tim buys some of his logs from his brother, who has a cut-to-length logging operation equipped with Timberjack processors and Timbco forwarders.

Tim’s experience confirms that Mike did his research well. “Jackson is very supportive,” said Tim. “They support their equipment 100 percent.”

The Jackson Lumber Harvester equipment gives him the combination of simplicity and state-of-the-art function that his business requires. The equipment is simple to repair, he explained. “If a bearing goes out, it’s easy to change (because you) can get a bearing from a local store,” he said. “And the setworks are simple.”

The Jackson equipment also has proved well for the mill at the Bois Forte Reservation, where Tim has added machinery to make lumber products from cedar. “We had to buy some new equipment,” said Tim. “Cedar is very labor intensive,” he explained, because it “has some rot in it.”

Tim combined the Jackson scragg mill with a lumber remanufacturing line in the spring of 2002. He added a Grecon-Weinig optimizer, a Timber Harvester grade resaw, a Baker double-head band resaw, a Madison molder, and a Yates 420 planer. The Jackson Lumber Harvester end-dog scragg mill is a “good fit with high tech equipment,” said Tim.

With the scragg mill and other equipment, Tim is processing cedar logs into fence posts, fence boards, and lumber for decks and docks at lakeside homes. Even small pieces can be recovered and sold to companies that make bird houses. The cedar is all northern white cedar, and most of it comes from Boise Cascades Corp., Potlatch Corp., and the Bois Forte Reservation. Tim plans to buy more from Canada in the future. When Tim was milling pine, a Morbark model 640 debarker was used to remove bark. However, cedar logs are not debarked prior to processing. His company also makes cedar mulch from the slabs, and the product is of better quality if the bark has not been removed. The slabs are processed by a Rotochopper grinder, and the mulch is sold wholesale.

Jackson Lumber Harvester Co. was built on practical simplicity. Founded in 1944 by Clinton D. Jackson, who created the trademarked Jackson Lumber Harvester, the company aims to provide customers with uncomplicated designs. Tim said the Jackson concept has proven itself a very good match for his company.

Tim studied physical education at the University of Minnesota on a football scholarship and was an outside linebacker, but an ankle injury stopped his professional aspirations. He is an avid Minnesota Vikings fan and is a season ticket holder. Tim also played basketball in college, and it remains his favorite sport. Being an athlete, Tim would not leap into something without a warm-up. He knew a lot about cedar before he converted his mill operations to saw cedar exclusively. “I started out four years ago with cedar for special paneling requests,” he explained. That gave him a good feel for the capabilities of the species. As an athlete, Tim also appreciates a team effort and cooperation. He values his working relationships, such as those at the mill he leases.

The Bois Forte Reservation, which is just 50 miles south of the Canadian border at its closest point, is actually three parcels of land or communities, the largest of which is Nett Lake. “The tribal council is totally supportive, 100 percent supportive,” said Tim, who emphasized the wonderful experience he has had collaborating with the group. There is no requirement that Tim hire Native Americans for his workforce, but two-thirds of his workers are Native American. “The relationship we’ve had has been just remarkable,” said Tim. In the near future, Tim plans to add employees at both his mills. He expects to hire four more people at Orr, which currently employs five, and to increase the employees at Bois Forte from 22 to 30.

“Being independent” is what Tim likes best about his business. He also likes “being able to travel a little more.” Building the cedar business, he has been on the road looking at the way other mills are set up.

Sports continue to be part of Tim’s life. “I love to golf,” he said, often combining a trip to the fairways with a visit to his parents or his in-laws in Arizona.