Columbia Forest Products, with headquarters in Portland, Oregon, is the largest hardwood plywood and hardwood veneer producer in the US and the firm keeps ‘hopping’ to produce new products and processes to hold its commanding lead of 40% of that segment of the nation’s business.
Columbia, formed in 1957, and its subsidiaries, has 18 mills in the US and Canada employing 4,000 people. One of the more interesting and one of the older is at Klamath Falls in southern Oregon. It peels and dries its own softwood white fir inner plies from local timber. Columbia’s well-known hardwood faces come not only from its own and other mills in the eastern half of the US and Canada, but also from tropical dry veneer suppliers overseas. The mill uses some 50 different species of decorative overlays.
Columbia is the first to transition to soy-based exterior formaldehyde-free resins in a partnership with Hercules and Oregon State University which researched the product.
Kaichang Li, an OSU researcher, was intrigued with organic-based adhesives after studying the tenacity of mussels in sticking to rocks in sea shallows. Their secret is an adhesive protein containing a high amount of polymeric amino acids. He said it is one of the strongest and the most water-resistant natural adhesives and concluded that formaldehyde-free wood adhesive systems could be developed.
The soy resin start-up has been gradual, using a portable mixer on limited shifts; the company will install a new glue loft dedicated to the soy product. Product testing has been performed at several institutions throughout the US and boil and wet shear tests have proved to be much better than UF bonds.
Columbia has begun to switch to the soy based adhesive for three of its allveneer-core panel plants and plans to have all the other mills converted by next year.
Softwood logs to be peeled for inner plies are trucked to the log dump. A cherry picker supplies the deck feeding the Kochums 30in ring debarker, which offbears to the chains feeding the five 50in Kochums chop-saw installation which saws them to peeler lengths.
Next stop is the hot water vats for eight to 12 hours. The block core temperature goal is 120oF (49oC). Winter temperatures are cold and frozen logs are quite common and may require a longer vat schedule.
Next is the Coe 8ft lathe installation, which includes a Coe 790 charger, 1380 core drive and 33⁄4in roller bar and a McDiarmid six-sensor laser unit.
The line can peel 13 blocks per minute down to 33⁄4in. Average block diameter approaches 10in. The line produces 30,000fpm, 3⁄8in basis, using 3,000 blocks per shift,  operating two 10-hour shifts daily. There are five semi-close-coupled trays with a maximum speed of 1,200fpm followed by an automatic Durand Raute clipper and a three-bin automatic stacker for heart, sap, and mix.
The mill uses only the 50in material. The strip is sorted manually and sold.
The green veneer is then fork-lifted to the dry-end building where it is married to the hardwood faces which are Columbia’s stock-in-trade. This building houses drying, upgrading, lay-up, pressing, sawing, sanding, bundling and shipping.
The mill’s venerable hand-fed steam dryer was shut down last August after 40 years of service.
The other two Keller high-velocity gasfired dryers have been recently upgraded, including an AKI extension on one. Scanners, a Raute VDA defect analyzer and a stacker are soon to be added. Sweed feeders serve both units.
Seven of the nine Raimann patchers are mounted in a production line and two Hashimoto and one Precision Energy Services string composers assemble solid sheets.
Two Globe and one Dieffenbacher spreaders serve the 5 x 10ft, 24-opening SparTek, and Baldwin 4 x 8ft 30-opening steam-heated presses. One has an automatic stacker and the others are manual. A Rockwell automatic control serves the Globe pre-press.
The computerised Schwabedissen saws are fully enclosed, as is the operator, to protect against noise.
The Timesavers sander has floating heads, three on top and four on the bottom. An add-on was end- and edge-sanders. A Signode automatic strapping line serves the automatic stacker and corrugated cardboard covers the loads and the top cover has a company logo.
Plant operations manager Mark Slezak said: “We have a total employment here of 415, of which 10% are salaried or management. This is an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) company and we’re quite safety conscious.The 2004 OSA incident rate was just 1.0 compared with the industry average low of 5.0.
Mr Slezak said: “Our biggest objective is to run the plant five days a week. If we can do that with an occasional Saturday, everything else will fall into place. The market is strong enough. It’s a matter of imports that are causing something resembling a soft market. We run four days or five, and occasionally six. If we could run a consistent five days and add that sixth day it would be ideal.
“We’ve always been a speciality operation. We’re trying to carve out a niche within the niche. One of the things we have added is to be FSC certified and using no added-formaldehyde resins, along with smaller sizes and quantities.”
Mr Slezak concluded: “We have lots of plans for this year and next year. This was probably the biggest year we have ever had for processes and new products. We expect next year to be very busy, too.”
Another unusual aspect of the Columbia operation is its partial use of wheat straw fibreboard for core. This is through a partnership agreement with Dow BioProducts to use the firm’s WOODSTALK product. It is made with pMDI resin, which produces a strong, moisture resistant, lightweight product with limited VOC emissions.
Medium density overlay (MDO) plywood is an important product for Columbia, particularly for painted signs. The overlay is fused with the wood fibres. With 28% resin content the surface has high resistance to weathering, wear and water. It takes paint well for signage.
Interestingly, a popular Columbia product is Pacific Northwest alder-faced plywood. Once considered a weed species, the veneer provides a consistent light grain pattern with no heartwood-sapwood grain boundary.