If the trees align at F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company, the oldest family-owned lumber company in Montana may be on the cutting edge of figuring out a better way to build.
Stoltze announced last week that it is joining forces with a group of key partners to form Stoltze Timber Systems, Inc. to build North America’s first mass timber production facility aimed at using small-diameter trees to build large format, cross-laminated timber panels.
Stateside production is slated to begin early next year with a phased-out, integrated manufacturing plan emulating the practices of mass timber production that has shaped European buildings landscapes for decades, while Stoltze’s existing sawmill will be used to process the supply of small timber — which has little value at the lumberyard — to produce large-format mass timber.
With a record of innovative forestry stewardship, the century-old family-run company has operated within the standard sawmill timber commodity market of processing board stock material to regionally service Northwest Montana and beyond for decades. With this strategic move, Stoltze aims to bolster the relevance of its existing sawmill by adding value to the glut of small-diameter timber coming out of Montana forests.
Currently, Montana forests are saturated with small-diameter timber. In terms of resource management, this is proving problematic — the majority of timber sales require the timber’s removal as a fuel-reduction measure, but the over-supply isn’t matched by a readily available or economically viable marketable demand. The intent of Stoltze Timber Systems, Inc. is to use Montana’s vast supply of small-diameter trees to create large format panels and, ultimately, green and efficient building systems with high demand.
“The timber industry has been struggling for years to find a viable matched end-use for our high-value wood coming out of Montana because we’ve been operating in a commodity-based market when in reality our Montana timber is far superior,” Paul McKenzie, resource manager at Stoltze, said. “With our new plant, we’ll be solving many problems across many interest groups as we’re helping to mitigate the overabundance of small-diameter timber in our forests that currently have limited marketable value, for one. Secondly, we’re offering a whole build system that is efficient to construct, sustainable for the resource, and fundamentally a better way to build. The effort of removing that small tree is now mirrored by a superior, high-value product with high demand.”
Things really started to click for Stoltze Timber Systems when Pat Clark entered the picture.
Clark, owner of Wooden Haus Supply, has been educating himself on the European building practices for years and trying to tailor those practices to buoy Montana’s flagging timber industry.
While using cross-laminated timber (CLT) is a common building practice in Europe, the engineered wood product is still catching on in the United States. In Columbia Falls, SmartLam is running one of the first CLT production facilities in North America, whereas builders in Austria have been studying and using CLT for residential and commercial building for decades.
The benefits include high efficiency, longevity, minimal upkeep, and using a renewable resource — wood — instead of steel. The building style also removes the need for drywall in many cases, because the CLT is not only structural but also the inner finish of the home.
Clark has spent the past decade establishing relationships with builders overseas to learn more about such engineered wood products, and recently received a Wood Innovation Grant from the U.S. Forest Service to continue developing and studying a new method of using smaller diameter trees and lumber for CLT projects.
Typically, CLT projects use 2-x-6 or 2-x-8 planks, meaning trees that can produce those diameters are in high demand. And while that’s good for the sawmills’ bottom lines if they have such product in stock, the forests are still full of smaller trees.
“We wanted to figure out how to make CLT from really small pieces of wood, making the product fit the forest,” Clark said. “[We’ve found a way] to make these products out of the small-diameter timber that needs to come out of the forest.”
Clark’s proposal was one of 34 projects to receive federal funding totaling $8 million. The grants come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s attempts to expand and accelerate wood products and wood energy markets. Previous grants supported the successful blast testing of CLT, which allowed the U.S. Department of Defense to use it for on-base hotels, while another grant allowed researchers to perform a feasibility analysis for new CLT facilities in the U.S.
Having imported European mass-timber products for his own buildings for years, Clark has gathered baseline data to determine strength capacities in different qualities and worked to replicate that same product from wood milled from Montana forests at Stoltze’s mill.
What he’s found is that small-diameter Montana timber can replicate similar or superior quality, due in part to the state’s slow-growing species, which yield tighter growth rings and a stronger grain.
“If you’re using our fir from around here to build a home, you couldn’t knock it over with a D-8 [Caterpillar],” Chuck Roady, vice president and general manager of Stoltze, said.
Julie Kies, wood innovations program manager for the Forest Service, who helped administer the grant, said the long-term goals of Stoltze Timber Systems align with those of a well-managed forest.
“What’s exciting about what Stoltze Timber Systems is they would be taking small-diameter material and making mass timber out of that,” Kies said. “Currently, there’s not a big market for that small stuff. So that’s huge. It gives a whole other market to that underutilized material, even though we need it removed from our forests. Right now, it makes our Forest Service sales less competitive when our contractors have to consider that non-marketable smaller diameter wood, but with this development that could change.”
Kies said she was impressed by Clark’s work, as well as that of his partners Matt Brown and Sammi Johnson, while the agency’s relationship with Stoltze has deep roots, all of which gives her confidence in the venture.
“It’s great to see an established mill expanding and diversifying to include a value-added product,” Kies said. “It also gives us confidence that they are in this for the long haul, and that they’re trying to make themselves as competitive as they can in the modern market place. That is an assurance that we have some strength in our industry.”
She continued: “Their heart is in it all the way, and so are the hearts of all of the other partners as well.”