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Back from the dead

Unprocessed, tight-grained, old-growth timber that is legally harvested using the highest standards is difficult to obtain on today’s lumber market.

Simon Petree of Greenleaf Forest Products leans against a stack of locally reclaimed Douglas fir logs.

To both fill market demand for old-growth fir and cedar products and to help assure the product is obtained and processed in ecologically sustainable ways, two Northwest Washington firms with long histories of applying the principles of waste reduction and recovery to the lumber marketplace recently dovetailed their respective companies’ unique experiences and abilities to form a new firm.

Local Source Forest Products works closely with Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources to locate and recover non-living old-growth source wood from historic logging sites around the Pacific Northwest.

The wood is recovered in a very non-invasive, environmentally responsible manner and is then processed into the dimensional lumber, timbers and other products sought by a hungry marketplace.

Petree splits a Douglas fir log with a John Deere tractor.

Local Source Forest Products aims to fill the demand with TD Wood Recovery in Mount Vernon, Wash., owned by Nate Donahue and Loren and Ken Tracy. Greenleaf Forest Products of Whatcom County, Wash., processes the wood.

Sourcing the wood

TD begins the recovery process with a foot survey to locate suitable source wood. Source wood can be standing dead trees, windfall, or stump and slab remnants from historic harvest operations. Wood that has been dead and down for very long periods of time can be found in surprisingly good condition.

In the case of Western red cedar, mature trees produce thujaplicin, a naturally occurring fungicide that prevents the tree from rotting a century after a tree is felled. Because of this, Ken Tracy says, “Cedar is our bread and butter — it’s the easiest to obtain and is usually in the best condition. High-quality fir is much more difficult to locate and recover because it’s often deteriorated.” In situations like this, portions of the source wood are recovered and parts that aren’t are left on site to continue the natural processes necessary to a healthy forest.

Once suitable wood has been located, it is prepared for removal with hand-held tools, including chainsaws and axes. Stumps can be sectioned into a size that can easily be transported to existing roads. Fallen logs are inspected and only the good wood is removed. Standing dead may have to be felled and sectioned. Depending on the condition, whole logs or slabs can be recovered. Stump bases, root wads and any other material are left to contribute to the forest system.

Petree and Lauren Tracy process a run of live-edge fir in the Local Source Forest Products shop with a 25" Powermatic planer.

Removal methods depend on location and forest condition. Material located deeper in the forest or in an ecologically sensitive area is typically removed with a helicopter to avoid impacting the area. The logs, sometimes weighing more than 1,000 lbs., are bound by slings and brought to a clearing for transport to Greenleaf’s yard.

Greenleaf Forest Products is a medium-sized milling operation located on about 16 acres in rural Whatcom County. The owner, Simon Petree, says the company’s goal is to “enable local wood supply to meet local demand, minimizing the carbon footprint of client projects.”

Greenleaf prefers to work with wood recovered from non-living sources or wood that has been removed out of necessity (danger trees, right-of-way removals, forest health treatment, etc.). However, being realistic, Petree is quick to say Greenleaf will gladly mill all types of wood and will work with what the firm’s customers have available. Locally processed wood, Petree points out, is in and of itself environmentally sensitive. That is one reason, he says, that certification protocols like LEED provide credits for locally processed wood.

A quartersawn product

Greenleaf’s primary wood-processing units include a manual Lucas walk-along circle saw and a Wood-Mizer LT70 thin-kerf hydraulic sawmill. Because Local Source Forest Products specializes in quartersawn old-growth product, having a mill with hydraulic log turners is absolutely key to efficient production.

“I have the Lucas circle saw for making large custom slabs, but the Wood-Mizer allows me to get 25 to 30 percent more product from the exact same log than mills with conventional equipment recover, so I prefer to use it for all of my production work,” says Petree.

As Petree mills the boards, a second person feeds them from the mill into the edger, trimming the boards into a specific width, depending on what the customer has ordered. Once the log is sawn into lumber, it is typically dried in Greenleaf’s kiln, a dehumidification unit also supplied by Wood-Mizer. A dehumidification kiln works on much the same principle as a common household heat pump. While the kilns are slower than conventional drying units, they are also energy-efficient and easier on the wood.

“We pay a lot of attention to manufacturing processes that are both efficient and environmentally responsible. A dehumidification kiln results in less waste due to damage to the wood sometimes caused by faster drying and the energy needed to run the kiln is small compared to traditional approaches,” says Petree.

Wood is dried to a moisture content low enough to reduce the likelihood of warping or checking later. Dried wood is stored under cover to reduce the effects of the damp Pacific Northwest weather.

For some orders, the Greenleaf kiln is the end of the line with no further processing necessary. For example, Local Source Forest Products recently sent a large order of 32’ long by 8” x 22” Douglas fir beams to Alaska.

For flooring, molding and other custom orders, the lumber is further processed in the shop. Greenleaf’s shop consists of an indoor storage area with a staging area and rollers leading up to each machine. Electricity is provided by an industrial diesel generator in the back room. The shop also has two Grizzly dust-collection systems. The first is a large cyclone system connected to the large machines; the second is a smaller unit connected to Local Source’s shaper and sander.

Custom capabilities

While the Lucas and Wood-Mizer make clean cuts adequate for many purposes, there are orders that require additional processing. Most boards are run through the shop’s workhorse, a 25” Powermatic planer. The helical cutterhead allows Local Source to efficiently finish boards with a minimum of manpower. Due to the width and sectional infeed rollers, multiple boards can be fed through at the same time while one or two people unload and stack the finished boards on the other end.

For custom orders, the heart of Greenleaf’s custom flooring and molding production is a CKM M410 four-sided planer/molder. The machine can handle wood in widths up to 16” and up to 9” in depth. It has four 3-hp heads turning up to 7,000 rpm compatible with any of the several hundred different knife designs generally available or, for special projects, custom knives can be obtained. Depending on the profile, the machine can be fed at up to 52 board feet per minute.

“We recently had a custom knife made for a client to replicate the original siding profile for a historical home restoration project. They were able to save portions of the original siding and exactly match the rest of the house with wood that is as old, or older, than the original wood used during construction. The difference is no living trees were cut down to provide the ‘new’ siding,” says Petree.

According to Petree, in addition to matching existing profiles, clients can design their own custom profiles for a unique look that can easily be replicated in the future, if desired.

Local Source also uses the planer/molder to make custom dimension tongue-and-groove solid wood flooring.

Three into one

Building Greenleaf, TD and Local Source Forest Products into the business it is today has required following a lengthy process. Startup wasn’t easily accomplished. The wood-recovery side of the operation has been in existence for more than two decades, while the milling and production side began a little more than a decade ago. Blending two privately owned operations into a cooperative effort required a good deal of hard work and, especially, trust in one another.

Because of the unique type of product and the focus on using local supply to meet local demand, the marketing has been unique as well. Petree recalls many weekends spent at demonstrations and fairs where he was able to bring his portable sawmill on site to show the local community how he is able to make lumber anywhere.

Another activity Local Source continues to pursue is the donation of lumber for local causes. While this is a difficult approach for a startup business, Petree says the approach has paid dividends in both goodwill and new customers drawn to his product. Local Source is also a member of Sustainable Connections, a non-profit organization that promotes the use of renewable resources.

“Most of our business is done with the owners of small-to-medium woodworking shops from cabinetmakers to contractors to fine furniture crafters. We have brought accessibility never before available to those small- to mid-range businesses. In providing very high-grade lumber milled from trees and tree parts that have been dead for decades and are harvested under strict supervision by state foresters, we allow small to mid-sized firms the ability to be competitive even in economic hard times,” says Petree.

For information, call 360-201-7393 or visit

Clayton Petree is a freelance writer and Simon Petree’s brother.

This article orginally appeared in the December 2011 issue.

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