Did you know that the body of your guitar be made with wood cut at a small Terrace mill?
JCI Touchwood Sawmills, located 10 kilometres north of Terrace on Hwy 113, evolved from a recent merger of several mills and is now branching into a new market.
Finding a unique niche in the industry, the two-building sawmill has started cutting specialty timber used in pianos, guitars, wooden airplanes and ship masts.
It saws the lumber and ships it to a remanufacturing plant in Holland, where it is further processed and sent to factories all over the world to be crafted into special musical and transportation products.
But it all starts here in northwest B.C.
Sitka spruce grows all over the world, but the highest quality is here on the west coast between Bella Coola and the Alexander Archipelago on the south east end of Alaska. The rich soil conditions foster growth at the perfect pace to get the prime grain of wood.
Logging companies harvest the spruce with a blend of other trees, and JCI Touchwood buys it off their logging trucks.
JCI co-owner Warren Gavronsky says about half the spruce they buy comes from Skeena Sawmills in Terrace, which prefers hemlock wood for their processing.
Just a year ago, JCI Touchwood undertook significant renovations, installing a new horizontal band saw with the capacity of cutting up to 60 length boards. The saw, a Bögli ARL-150, is produced in Switzerland and has a 72-inch depth of cut.
Unique in B.C. and extremely rare for its size, the bandsaw allows JCI Touchwood to maximize their use of the quality spruce wood, explained Gavronsky.
The saw was introduced by John Lammerts van Bueren, a co-owner of the mill along with Warren Gavronsky and Warren’s father, Percy.
John Lammerts van Bueren said that instead of cutting the wood to a set size in order to fit it into the mill, the massive bandsaw keeps the wood long and cuts the boards around the knots and cracks to preserve the largest and best pieces.
“Say we have a board 30 feet long,” he said as an example. “The knot is at 10 feet, so we can get a 9-foot and a 21-foot (board) out.”
“It’s the opposite way of thinking,” Gavronsky added. “You’re not saying, ‘I’m going to cut this out of this log.’ [Rather,] you’re asking the log, ‘what are you going to give me?’”
Once the timber is analyzed and cut for maximum use, it’s shipped to Vancouver where it’s dried and loaded into 40-foot containers.
From there it travels via train and ship to Schijndel, Holland, to a remanufacturing plant called Touchwood BV, which is also owned by Lammerts van Bueren.
When the Terrace wood reaches the Holland plant, it’s run through a planer and sized to suit particular uses.
The first step is getting rid of all the blemishes.
“We make sure we have all the sides of the board visible and clear and clean (no knots or cracks),” said Lammerts van Bueren.
After that they analyze each board, deciding how many of the multiple specialized products they can make from it.
“Along that edge is a bit of aircraft spruce, and what’s in there is a piece of sound board material, and there’s a piece for a mast,” Lammerts van Bueren said.
“There’s about 30 different products that we take out of that spruce.”
Sitka spruce is light weight but very stiff, and is perfectly suited to amplify sound in a stringed instrument like a guitar or piano.
Plucking a string in an open room does nothing, noted Lambert van Bueren, explaining why the spruce is vital.
Pressing the keys of a piano prompts hammers inside the instrument to strike the strings and create musical vibrations. But that sound needs to be amplified to be heard.
“A good piece of sounding board spruce is super light, so that if that pin hits that key, it starts vibrating with very little [effort],” explained the Dutch producer. “And it’s so stiff that it amplifies [the sound] right to back of Carnegie Hall.”
Certain grains of wood are better suited to musical instruments then others, and that’s how mill workers decide which pieces of a board to designate for each use.
Another use of Terrace’s Sitka spruce is for pieces of wooden aircrafts.
Parts are cut and sold to museums and restoration companies who repair displays of the wooden aircrafts used in the two world wars.
But they’re also sold to private owners who still build and fly small wooden planes.
“There’s a small market of people who build their own wooden planes,” said Lambert van Bueren.
He added that one of those wooden aircrafts is called the de Havilland Mosquito, which was one of the fastest used in the Second World War.
There are only two still flown today.
“It’s got 5,000 horsepower hanging off of a wooden wing,” said Lambert van Bueren, explaining that Sitka spruce is used for the wing spars which hold the weight of the plane.
“The biggest piece in that wooden wing is a 2×3 (inch board), and there’s 5,000 horsepower hanging off that,” he emphasized.
Safety and strict rules demand a very specialized market for wood like the Terrace-grown spruce – lightweight, stiff and strong.
“These guys fly their little wooden airplanes and they fly at three kilometre heights — if that spar breaks, we’re in trouble…. There’s an incredible amount of rules you have to adhere to and meet on quality control,” said Lambert van Bueren.
The third main product made of the Sitka spruce is ship masts, which require long pieces of the same strong and lightweight wood. The JCI Touchwood grew out of the demand for these specialty products.
After the three men decided to partner, they combined the special bandsaw owned by Lammerts van Bueren, with Warren Gavronsky’s Just Cut It sawmill and Percy Gavronsky’s PMG Sawmilling.
Development of the new enterprise started in November 2015 and JCI entered a testing phase with the new equipment in November 2016, gearing up to full production this year.
JCI Touchwood also cuts other high quality types of wood, including cedar, cypress and hemlock which is used for bridges, beams, ships, and helicopter drill pads.