The official opening of STEICO’s LVL plant in Poland in September 2015 brought the company one step closer to its aim of offering a complete timber construction system.

The German company, a market leader for wood fibre insulation materials, already manufactures I-joists and hardboard and now its LVL can be used in building components, from wall studs and ceiling panels to beams and floor cassettes.

To demonstrate the product’s strength, at the official inauguration of the line in Czarna Woda, attended by 150 guests from around the world, STEICO CEO and chairman Udo Schramek invited guests onto the stage – itself an LVL large-span box construction – for a photo.

A construction mock-up in the production hall also showed how STEICO LVL could provide a modular building system with stud partitions from small pieces of LVL, I-joists with an LVL flange, LVL panels, bonded beams, curved sections and a box slab roof.

Until now STEICO has sourced LVL from Modern Lumber Technologies (MLT) in Russia.

This has been sold under the Ultralam name as well as being used for the flange of STEICO’s I-joists. The new line gives the company supply security and the possibility to offer a broader range of products for timber construction and industrial use.

"We’re a fast-growing company, doubling turnover in seven years in a market that has over-capacity in many products," said Heiko Seibert, managing director, sales. "In central Europe, glulam is the dominant product and LVL is niche. Our aim is now to make Europe an LVL market."

Developing new markets

That doesn’t mean merely substituting glulam with LVL; Mr Seibert wants to develop new markets.

"I see plenty of different construction applications where you need slim and strong products," he said. "We don’t want to sell STEICO LVL just for glulam applications, we want to use it in virtually every application." STEICO is also Europe’s largest I-joist manufacturer and some of the output from the new line will provide its flange material, but it will also be sold to customers.

STEICO LVL, as it will be known, is available in widths up to 2.5m, thicknesses of 21-90mm and lengths up to 18m. Finishes range from simple blanks to high-precision profiling and sanding, with sorted veneers for decorative applications.

"We need LVL for our I-joists, which is a very fast-growing market, especially in the UK," said Mr Seibert.

STEICO LVL is produced in what the company describes as Europe’s "most modern LVL plant". It forms part of its Czarna Woda facility, on the edge of the Tuchola Forest, about 90km south-west of Gdansk and the Baltic coast.

The investment

Construction of the new, €50m-plus, line started in 2014 and just a year later the first billet of LVL came off the press; that was less than 14 months after the contract was signed with Raute of Finland to supply the machinery.

"It’s an excellent achievement. I don’t think anyone in the industry has done it so fast," said Tapani Kiiski, Raute’s president and CEO. Under the €23m contract, Raute supplied the equipment for the entire production process, from peeling through to the drying line, dry veneer grading, composer, scarfing, green- and dry-side product handling, LVL layup line, a hot press and billet handling line.

The new mill, comprising a 23,000m2 production hall, logyard with capacity to store 14,000m3 of logs and handling areas, covers 12ha of the 84ha Czarna Woda site, which already houses two wood fibre insulation board lines and two hardboard lines, which provide the hardboard web for STEICO’s I-joists.

The maximum production capacity is around 90,000m3 of LVL per year, in four shifts.

The process starts in the logyard where constant showers of water keep Polish spruce and pine logs wet and in good condition for peeling. From there they are loaded onto the log line, supplied by SCANTEC.

Here the logs undergo de-scaling to reduce the amount of peeling needed, plus butt reduction, debarking and log sorting. The first step is a 2-D scanner, then they pass through a metal scanner and then a 3-D scanner, which measures the quality and diameter.

The bark, along with any wood by-products from further along the production process, is used in the factory’s 13MW biomass plant.

This can take wet or dry material and has the capacity to heat the whole factory.

The core temperature of the logs is vital for peeling, so, once graded, they are placed in a 54m-long log pond where the water, heated by the exhaust from the dryer further along the line, is held at 55oC. The logs are placed in one of four channels, depending on diameter, and remain in the pond for eight to 12 hours.

From here the logs are loaded onto the peeling line, which moves at 350m/minute. They are peeled down to eight cm-diameter peeler cores, which are either sold as fence posts, or sent to the chipper for use in STEICO’s softboard production.

The resulting 3mm-thick veneers then enter the drying line. This analyses the strength and, at a temperature of 190oC, dries the wood to a moisture content of 5%.

From the drying line, the veneers go to the lay-up line, where they are sorted into bins for use as face, base or core veneers.

Grading for uniform quality

"With all this grading you get a very homogenous product, with good strength values," said Mr Seibert.

The veneers are joined using scarf joints and then go into a cold press before passing through a cross-cut to create the billets.

The 140oC hot press is the next step in the process. The core of the boards must reach a minimum temperature of 90oC and, depending on their thickness, they remain in the press for anything from 20 to 90 minutes.

The resulting boards are cooled for 20 hours before being further processed on the billet handling line, which includes a sander, crosscut saw and rip saws.

The LVL is mostly cut to size for beams, headers, lintels or as full billets, before wrapping for delivery.

Regular samples are taken for quality control and the on-site laboratory subjects the LVL to sheer, compression and bend testing. STEICO’s latest investment has been welcomed by the mayor of Czarna Woda.

Not only did the construction phase provide 1,000 jobs, but the working mill employs 170 people in four shifts, as well as R&D and quality control personnel.

The company also rebuilt the town’s vocational college – using STEICO products, of course.

But the investment and vision doesn’t stop there. Before the new LVL line was even fully commissioned, STEICO was thinking about expanding production. The first wall and columns are already in place for phase two, which will take annual production to 150,000m3.