Washington Mill Finds Niche in MSR Lumber

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Metriguard 7200 HCLT, FinScan/ScanWare BoardMaster-FS Good Investments for Vaagen Bros.

COLVILLE, Washington — Small, dense-grained logs see their full value realized at Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc. The treatment they get in the process is totally high-tech.
Putting smaller diameter logs to good use makes sense for the mill’s bottom line and for the well being of forests in and around the Kettle River Range of northeast Washington. “Forests are very stagnated here,” said Hubert (‘Butch’) Sager, a vice president at Vaagen Brothers Lumber.
It’s not uncommon to find an 8-inch diameter log (at the butt) that has been growing for 100 years, he said. Such a high number of growth rings in a relatively small diameter log means added strength for lumber cut from those logs.
Vaagen Brothers specializes in dimension lumber, almost all of it finished and heat-treated. The company manufactures a good volume of lumber that is used in making trusses.
Duane Vaagen is president and CEO of Vaagen Brothers Lumber. He is a principal owner of the family-owned business. Duane is also the current chairman of the Western Wood Products Association (WWPA).
Vaagen Bros. puts an emphasis on resource management and managing forests for the long term. Russ Vaagen, Duane’s oldest son, and who is the other vice president, takes a particular interest in building strategic alliances that are focused on sustainable forestry, according to Butch.
Vaagen Bros. began stress rating lumber in 1978 when it put in a machine from Metriguard at a mill in Republic, Wash. Today, the company has just one mill, in Colville, Wash. The first equipment from Metriguard was installed there in 1983.
“We’ve been in business a very long time,” said Butch. Throughout the history of the company, which dates to 1952, “there have been times where the price spreads between visually graded and stress rated” lumber have been significant, he explained.
Prices are in a narrow spread now, but Butch expects machine stress rated (MSR) lumber to command a premium again in the future. Wholesalers and building contractors who buy directly from Vaagen Brothers look for the extra measure of integrity conveyed by MSR lumber, he indicated.
So when Vaagen Bros put in its new planer mill a year ago, it went the distance to mesh the planer with the newest equipment from a vendor on which it has long relied: Metriguard Inc. of Pullman, Wash.
The layout of the planer mill was a team effort. “We had an engineering firm coordinate” the layout, design and installation of equipment at the mill, said Butch. He and other mill employees worked with both Metriguard and the vendor for the planer.
Ultimately, Vaagen Bros. settled on a Coe 249 eight-roll planer. Surfaced boards coming from the planer are graded with a Metriguard 7200 High Capacity Lumber Tester (HCLT), which quickly flexes and tests each board. The 7200 HCLT can evaluate lumber at speeds of more than 3,000 linear feet per minute.
The speed of the Metriguard 7200 HCLT is important at Vaagen Bros., which produces about 130 million board feet of lumber annually. The 7200 HCLT is just one partner in the quality control process. Graded lumber is sent to trim saws for further removal of flaws. The entire process is controlled by a FinScan-ScanWare optimization system, which is sold as BoardMaster-FS.
The BoardMaster-FS increases the ability of Vaagen Bros. to merchandize lumber. Depending on market conditions, the system can create a board solution to re-edge, cut-in-two, cut-in-two and re-edge, cut-in-two with cut-out, or send a board on its way.
“The planer mill is efficient. The Metriguard system is very efficient,” said Butch. “I’d say 80 percent of our lumber runs through the stress machine.” Lumber that is not machine stress rated typically is sold for decking or exterior trim or remanufactured into other products. This summer the planer mill is getting going with some patterns and venturing into millwork for the first time.
About 2,500 – 3,000 tons of logs arrive daily at Vaagen Bros. via truck or rail car. There is a Burlington-Northern rail siding at the mill. The logs are offloaded with a PNH portal crane. The company buys logs sized up to 14 inches at the butt and down to 4.5 inches at the top.
Ninety-nine percent of the incoming logs are harvested by contractors, but Vaagen Bros. also has a logging crew that harvests timber with a Timbco cut-to-length machine.
At the yard, the logs are offloaded, sorted by size, and checked for species. The mix of species has changed in recent years. Sixty percent of the logs are Douglas fir or larch, 20% are lodgepole pine and 20% are hemlock-fir. Less than 1% are cedar.
Logs are debarked with a Valon Kone three-ring debarker. Long logs are evaluated for the best-yielding diameter. For instance, a 53-foot log would be bucked to three or four different lengths, the bucking cuts made at points to maximize recovery.
A HewSaw processes the entire log at one time. The HewSaw has chipping heads, ripping saws and edging saws to process the log into lumber in one pass through the machine.
(This is the second HewSaw at the mill. The first was put in place in 1989.)
The HewSaw optimizing system measures the shape and length of the log. The data is compared to data on other, similar logs that have been sawn previously, and the system projects the best chipping-cutting solution.
Vaagen Brothers Lumber owns about 45,000 acres of timberland. It has 130 employees, including mill workers, management, office and corporate staff. The sawmill runs two shifts while the planer mill runs one shift.
Finding a use for every part of the log has been an enduring goal of Vaagen Brothers Lumber. The company has collaborated with researchers at Washington State University who are involved in the development of wood-plastic composites, which may be another use for wood fiber that is not processed into lumber.
A conveyor and blowpipe system collects planer shavings and moves them to a silo for storage. Bark is collected by conveyor and either sold as landscaping material or used as fuel. Sawdust is collected and used as fuel, too.
A steam-fired boiler is used to heat the kilns used to dry and heat-treat lumber. The company dries nearly all its lumber production. It takes 18 to 28 hours to dry a charge of lumber to 19% or less moisture content. Of the plant’s four kilns, three are from Wellons and one is from Moore International. Each has a capacity of 180,000 board feet. The easy-access, double-track, 84-foot long kilns enable the drying operations to keep pace with lumber production.
The company also has a 4 megawatt co-generation plant on its 70-acre site. The power it produces is sold to Idaho Power Co. In a power failure, Vaagen Brothers may tap directly into the electricity it
Lumber processed from relatively small diameter logs with numerous growth rings is a hit with the company’s customers. “It’s appealing to them because it is very dense and has few defects,” said Butch. The logs produce strong lumber with small knots.
“The integrity of the lumber is very important” to customers, he explained, so Vaagen Bros. invested in MSR lumber testing equipment — the Metriguard 7200 HCLT.
Most of the company’s lumber production is 2×4, 2×6 and 2×8 in random lengths ranging from 6 feet to 20 feet. Customers are concentrated in a few areas, including homebuilders within a 100-mile radius, such as Spokane, Wash. and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The company also does business in Utah, Montana, and other states in the Southwest and Midwest.
Colville, a town of about 4,400 residents, is 68 miles north of Spokane. A company truck makes local deliveries to Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, and other deliveries are handled by contract truckers and rail.
The WWPA is the agency that audits the heat-treating program at Vaagen Bros. and also is the company’s grading agency.
Prior to 1975, Butch noted, MSR equipment was not common. When it became widely available, it seemed a good match for Vaagen Bros. “We wanted to find a niche,” he said.
The long association with Metriguard MSR equipment speaks for itself, said Butch. MSR lumber is an important contribution to the building trades that use it. When wood is engineered for roof trusses and other products, builders can have confidence in their ability to comply with building codes.
The newest Model 7200 HCLT from Metriguard has been streamlined to keep pace with the heavy use it gets. There are 98 percent fewer lubrication points than on the previous model. Calibration stability has been improved by the addition of steel leaf springs.
Vaagen Bros. has some 20 acres under roof on its site. Still, space is a precious commodity. The Metriguard 7200 HCLT is only about 15 feet long. The newest model is designed so that a close-loop drive option can put the machine contiguous to the planer outfeed.
Butch has been at Vaagen Bros. for 33 years and in the wood products industry somewhat longer. A native of Montana, he earned a degree at the University of Montana and then went to work in a mill in Montana. He liked the work and stayed with it. Marriage and his wife’s opportunity to pursue higher education brought him to Washington.
Butch’s father worked in a mill, so Butch knew something about the wood products industry before he got into it. It did not take him long to realize he had found a profession he enjoyed.
Going to work each day is very gratifying to Butch. “I like the people — both inside the company and outside the company,” he said. “Plus, I like the challenges.”
Snowmobiling and fishing are high on the list of things Butch likes to do in his free time.
James D. Logan, P.E., president of Metriguard Inc., has been developing nondestructive testing and quality control equipment for the past 35 years. A number of technical papers are available at the Metriguard Web site, www.metriguard.com.
The Machine Stress Rating or MSR method for grading structural dimension lumber is based on physical measurements of each piece of lumber and is backed up by sample basis quality control tests. These tests verify that the material in each MSR grade meets the requirements established by the American Lumber Standards Committee.
Dimension lumber is manufactured to a precise thickness so that the lumber will ‘match up’ when used in nail-plate trusses and allow proper embedment of the connector plates. Of course, it is also very useful if the lumber does not fail in service, and that’s where MSR comes in. The entire lumber flow is subjected to double-bending tests that capture an accurate measurement of the lumber stiffness even when the lumber is not precisely straight, and the added quality control testing every shift verifies that the lumber will sustain its design load in service.
Metriguard placed in service a mobile laboratory with its Model 7200 HCLT machine mounted on a trailer with a diesel-engine-driven generator; lumber samples can be tested to study the economics of machine stress rating at mill locations of potential customers. “This equipment has identified a number of great opportunities for our customers,” said Jim.
Some of Metriguard’s other products include ultrasonic veneer testing equipment for structural veneer applications, production line tension proof testing equipment, a transverse vibration E-computer, stress wave inspection equipment, and a full line of tension and bending proof testing equipment for quality control of MSR.
With growing interest in building codes, especially those that encompass hurricane-force wind endurance, MSR testing is likely to become more prevalent. The testing also enables wood to compete more directly with other framing materials.
Small, tight grain logs — like the kind processed at the Vaagen Bros. mill — are naturals to standing up to stress, and testing the lumber is a significant way to add value to the mill’s products.