A Better-Burning Byproduct

Local woodworker invests in making wood briquettes out of sawdust and other woody material destined for the landfill

By Molly Priddy
Dan Macfarland of Montana Wood Briquettes at his workshop near Columbia Falls on July 3, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Businesses evolve for many reasons. It can be a plan, a matter of circumstance, or a mixture of both, but when the time comes to change or fade away, it’s up to the business leadership to make the decisions.

For Dan Macfarlane, that moment came for his business, Highline Door and Millwork, as the recession continued to bring down the economy around builders’ and contractors’ ears.

He was crafting and installing high-end doors in expensive building projects, and when the recession hit, his business dried up.

“When it went down, I really felt it,” Macfarlane said.

But instead of dropping the woodworking business altogether — he’d just built a 10,000-square-foot shop with a state-of-the-art machine to cut trim and moulding — Macfarlane evolved. Doors largely disappeared from his work, and Highline Moulding and Millwork was born.

“It’s more profitable to do moulding and millwork,” he said. “We basically got out of the door side of things seven years ago, and it was bittersweet.”

Highline survived, and its newest iteration is just emerging: Instead of getting rid of his sawdust and woodchips and other leftover woody materials by taking them to the landfill or giving them to a post-and-pole operation, Macfarlane invested in a wood-briquette machine from Germany.

Now, all that wood is recycled into briquettes that work like traditional firewood, just without the pop and snap of sap and sparks. The resulting product is Montana Wood Briquettes, a business that has caught the eye of outdoor enthusiasts of many kinds.

The machine compresses the leftover hardwoods — walnut, white oak, poplar, maple, and alder are often used — at a rate of 28,000 psi, creating even, solid bricks of wood made without any additives or glues. And since their densities are all the same, the BTU is essentially the same across all types of wood.

One of the biggest perks of the wood briquettes is the consistency. They don’t pop and spark like campfires built with traditional firewood, which is a constant safety and environmental concern in Montana during the summer.

Macfarlane has been making the briquettes for three years, more than 200,000 in all, and has found some successes early on. The briquettes stack cleanly, unlike traditional firewood, and take up much less space. For these reasons, the elderly population in the valley has taken to the briquettes, he said.

“If you took a cord of pine and turned it into briquettes, it would take up about one-third of the space,” Macfarlane said.

The wood bricks have also found a home with river rafters, who, depending on the side of the river on which they land, might not be able to harvest firewood where they are. Macfarlane said folks will travel with a splitting maul and firewood in their rafts, but these briquettes — encased in a plastic bag which also includes a fire-starter — take up less space and weight on the boat.

The key is keeping them dry, Macfarlane said.

Glacier National Park has taken interest in the briquettes due to their sustainability and lack of spark, as well as the delightful aroma the briquettes can issue forth when burned.

“The idea is that it’s a local product but also it’s safer,” said Matthew Folz, the director of risk and sustainability for Xanterra, the concessionaire for the park’s hotels and other services. “The smell, the walnut — not a lot of people are burning walnut in their campfires. It adds something else to it. It’s just nice and it’s warm and it’s local.”

Macfarlane’s main business takes up most of his time, but he said he’s ready to get the briquettes moving. Currently, they are available for purchase at Super 1 Foods, Ace Hardware in Evergreen, Snappy Sport Senter, Kelly Rae’s convenience store west of Kalispell, and the Midway Mini Mart in Happy Valley.

Despite his busy schedule, Macfarlane is also working on a new prototype for a collapsible fire ring to complement the briquettes. Like the first investment into the briquette machine, Macfarlane thinks it makes good business sense.

“(The machine) made good sense,” he said. “It’s using a byproduct, and we’re helping the environment.”

For more information on Montana Wood Briquettes, visit www.mwbfire.com.


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