The US Pacific Northwest plywood industry once had many worker-owned plants called co-ops (for cooperatives), but only two remain. One of these, Hardel Mutual in Chehalis, Washington is one of the industry’s most successful – and becoming more successful.
Production is being boosted by nearly half, from 13 million ft2,3/8in basis, last year to 35 million ft2 basis when current projects are completed. The workforce will be increased by only 10 to 15%, to about 250.
A new veneer hog was a tiny part of the expansion, but is perhaps a clue of what’s to come.
The general manager minced no words: “I feel very strongly by the time we finish this project we are going to be by far the most productive plywood mill in the world.”
Hardel Mutual buys all its veneer, bypassing the necessity of dealing for timber sales or logs on a market that has been hobbled by environmental road blocks.
What originally set off the upward pace was a disastrous fire that destroyed Hardel’s nearly 50-year-old plant on the Olympia, Washington waterfront. The plant was rebuilt on its present site some 35 miles away.
Kingpin for the past 14 years has been Mr Piliaris who came from his hometown of Athens, Greece, via Australia.
Mr Piliaris is not afraid to spend money if it results in immediate or early returns, as it apparently currently does. All the present US$9m in changes is coming right out of cash. The only debt the mill has is a seven-year purchase contract for the building.
Mr Piliaris is a real ‘hands on’ manager. In his office corner a monitor automatically switches among 20 cameras throughout the mill so he can be immediately aware of any obvious problems in the flow. A big chalkboard is set up on one side with all the major equipment plotted, along with names of the people responsible for each piece.
The current expansion project includes many smaller improvements; at one time Hardel had 22 projects going. The lay-up line wasn’t the only big job. Presses were added and expanded, warehouses built, air quality projects accomplished, and outside storage paved.
Western Pneumatics Inc, Eugene, Oregon, is converting the mill’s RTO (regenerative thermal oxidiser) pollution control on the existing dryers to RCO (regenerative catalytic oxidiser), resulting in fuel savings. Just about to start is a new PPC Industries, Longview, Texas, ESP (electrostatic precipitator) on the Wellons thermal oil heater.
When all the work is completed the mill will have 140 press openings with a 4ft x 8ft, 40-opening; a 4ft x 10ft, 40-opening; a 5ft x 10ft, 30-opening; and a 5ft x 10ft, 30- opening press.
Mr Piliaris is quite philosophical about the high riding plywood market.“Everybody’s making money these days.We’re going to be productive. When the interest rates go up, demand will come down. But that doesn’t worry me as much as the imports.
“The Chinese, the Chileans, the Brazilians, are all building mills. Everybody wants a piece of the pie. Right now there is a shortage of the pie and a huge demand. When things turn around within a year or two, the economy will slow down and the inputs will really increase. That’s what I want to be ready for.”
He laid down the gauntlet: “I want my company ready. When that happens we won’t make millions, but we won’t lose millions. We have always produced and always sold. If  we make US$5 a panel and the profit drops to 50¢, we’re still going to sell it. But not too many people are going to do that. They’re going to be losing money. And they’re the ones who are going to have to cut back. I’m not going to cut back.”
His attitude is based on good management, good production people and very good employees. About half of them are long-time stockholders.
On the company’s policy of staying away from veneer production, he commented, “Wood supply is no problem at all. Veneer prices have not gone up as much as plywood.
Veneer people are doing OK, but plywood people are doing phenomenally well.
“We are a speciality plywood mill. I probably spend 20% or 30% of my time buying veneer. I cherry pick it. A specialised plywood mill has to have good veneer. If you peel it yourself you have to use what you have. I go around to probably 15 veneer plants. I buy 54’s from here, good random from there, good AB from here, 10ft from there. There’s nobody who could do the whole thing [peeling their own] and have that quality of veneer.”
He does his share of importing with Okoume veneer from Brazil to be made into siding. Its qualities are similar to Douglas fir.
The new WSM hog handles the larger residue volume generated by the increased production. The residues go to a Wellons fuel cell, generating hot oil for the mill.
Coe 16-section, 4-deck, and 20-section, three-zone, 4-deck stainless steel dryers have Sweed automatic feeders. Delta T controls continuously control dryer temperature and speeds to conserve energy. Hot oil inlet temperature can run as high as 500°F, to produce drying temperatures as high as 400°F. Viking fire deluge systems are installed.
A third dryer, a Coe 16-section, four-deck jet unit, will be added later this year, with Western Pneumatics RCO pollution control.
Seventeen Skoog patchers offbear to a  circular sorting table. A 10ft Hashimoto composer processes randoms into full widths.
Two Globe 66in 20E manual spreaders will serve mainly speciality products while the lay-up line will handle volumes.
The old press line was made up of a 4ft x 8ft, 40-opening Spar-Tek with pre-press and charger and receiver and a Williams- White 30-opening installation with Globe pre-press and charger and receiver. A 20- opening, 4ft x 8ft Williams-White press was converted from MDO and other specialities to a straight plywood unit.
A Globe saw line accommodates both 8ft and 10ft panels. It offbears to a Burrelbach grade line and stackers. A Globe speciality saw is also installed. Sanding is accomplished on a Kimwood 5ft machine, along with a Timesavers sander.
Hardel has a short railroad spur connecting with the mainline, but most product is trucked, mainly to the US West Coast.
Siding is an important part of the production. Thicknesses range from 1/4in to 1in. Hardel produces a full line of sanded panels and marine grade panels as well as 303 siding and structural 9ft and 10ft sheathing panels. APA is the inspection agency.