Williams Lake Plywood has been operating at its Williams Lake location since 1953, but it didn’t start out as a West Fraser owned plant and it didn’t always make plywood.  It was originally known as “All Fir”- finishing rough lumber from the surrounding bush mills.

In 1958 it was purchased by Merrill and Gardner and produced its own finished lumber.  In 1967 it became Merrill and Wagner and veneer and chips started to be produced when two lathes were installed to peel logs.  In 1977 it was purchased by Weldwood of Canada.  In 1978 presses were added so finished plywood could be made from the veneer.

1993 saw a big transition for the site and its employees as the sawmill was phased out and 60 employees were transferred to a new sawmill in Hinton Alberta.  Many of those employees are still there today.  In 1997 a major capital upgrade to the plywood plant was completed to modernize the facility at a cost of $14 million.  West Fraser purchased Weldwood of Canada in 2005 marking a new chapter for the plant when it was named Williams Lake Plywood, a division of West Fraser Mills Ltd.

Each year smaller capital projects averaging approximately 1 million dollars per year are performed to replace aging equipment, or improve the efficiency of the plant.  That being said, the making of plywood is still a labour intensive operation employing four times as many people per cubic metre of wood going in to it than a sawmill.

Williams Lake Plywood has almost 350 employees and staff.  The employees are members of the United Steelworkers Union, local 1-425, formerly the IWA.  West Fraser also operates a sawmill just down the Soda Creek road that employs another 160 people making West Fraser one of the largest employers in the Williams Lake area.

Williams Lake Plywood consumes approximately 390,000 cubic metres of high quality logs each year.   This is less than half of what the West Fraser sawmill consumes in a year.  The plywood process begins with raw logs cut in to “blocks” approximately 101 inches long.  The logs are then heated in water spray vats to soften and condition the cells of the wood so they are easier to peel.  The water is heated using wood waste from the logs in West Fraser’s steam plant on site.  The water is recycled in a closed loop system.

The “blocks” are then peeled on a lathe into long sheets of veneer 4 feet wide and 1/8inch thick.  These are then dried in large dryers,  the same dryers that were built back in 1967.  The sheets of veneer are clipped to as many eight foot lengths as possible. These eight foot lengths are then glued together with shorter pieces of veneer alternating in orientation by 90 degrees. This cross lamination gives plywood its strength.

The veneer is then pressed into panels with heat and pressure causing the glue to bind to the veneer so it becomes plywood.  Plywood at the plant is made in thicknesses from ¼ inch up to 1 inch in increments of 1/8 of an inch.  It is then sized and graded and shipped to markets mostly within Canada.  Over 90 per cent of the plywood is consumed in Canada with some going to the rest of North America.  This is the opposite to solid wood products which are almost entirely shipped to the United States and to a lesser extent China.

West Fraser Plywood manufactures primarily plywood that is used for sheeting for construction for floors, walls and roofs.  Sanded products are also made for furniture and other high value applications.  Safety, cost control, and recovery are a big part of West Fraser’s business.  Recovery is the amount of product made from the wood harvested.

As wood supply diminishes, recovery becomes paramount to the viability and survival of Williams Lake Plywood. Ways to enhance recovery are explored through training, improvements in technology, and machinery refinements in an effort to make the most plywood from the resource at hand.  Cost control is about paying attention to both the big and small cost items.   Safety is paramount at West Fraser and one of the company’s core values.  Dust control has become a more recent focus for the company.

We have come a long way on mitigating dust since the two tragic dust explosions, in early 2012, at the Burns Lake and Prince George Sawmills, which claimed four lives and injured 42.  Even though the plywood process does not produce as much dust as a sawmill due to differences in the process and the need to use only green logs, much has been done in the plant to reduce sawdust in the plywood plant.

The first thing to be completed was a Hazard Assessment of our plant looking for where the dust comes from, how much is created and ignition sources that may set off an explosion.  Once the hazards were known, methods were explored to control or eliminate them. The first priority was to change some of our engineering controls to eliminate dust.  If it couldn’t be eliminated, then ways to control it were explored.  Some controls put in place were changes to conveyance systems, enclosing chip screens, putting hoods over chipping systems, adding fans to push dust to lower levels, and adding humidity to some areas, just to name a few.

We also educated management, supervisors and hourly employees on combustible dust hazards and the methods for controlling this dust. We have also developed some very specific methods for cleaning up any dust, such as using long poles with brushes to clean off high ledges and piping or adding a fine water spray to the air lances.

The addition of water to the air lances adds humidity to the air and also stops the fine, dry dust from floating around in the air. It makes the dust settle to the floor faster. Now, supervisors and employees routinely recognize areas of concern and quickly take care of the problems. Even though dust mitigation is a big part of our culture, we still continue to do formal weekly dust inspections to ensure we are staying on top of it.

West Fraser’s most important asset is its employees.  Without good and dedicated employees (and contractor’s), West Fraser would not have become what it is today.  West Fraser is a leading integrated North American woods product company producing solid wood,  plywood, medium density fibre board (MDF), laminated veneer lumber (LVL), pulp and paper, treated lumber and posts, and  bioenergy.  Each of West Fraser’s 5000 employees is an important part of the success of the company and West Fraser has always valued its employees and what they bring to the job each and every day.  Williams Lake Plywood and its 350 employees are a big contributor to the overall success of West Fraser.

Mauro Calabrese is a planning forester for West Fraser In Williams Lake who contributed this article for the Tribune’s National Forest Week Celebrating Forestry 2016 supplement.