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History of the Forest Products Laboratory

Interview #920: McDonald, Kent A. (June, 2009)

View all of First Interview Session (April 10, 2008)

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00:24:42 - 00:39:00 Projects

projects, plywood, northern Minnesota, aspen, Canada, paneling, Ultrasonic Testing, computer, Ponderosa Pine, moulding, millwork, sawmill, Alaska

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00:24:42

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LB

I guess to go back then, were there other interesting projects that you worked on?

KM

Oh many, many. We got involved in one project, and that was in the early 60s, where there was interest from a company to---at that time we were making sheathing-grade plywood, and a lot of the plywood came from some of the better timber, Douglas Fir. And in the very beginning, it started at that time, turning yellow pop, excuse me, Southern Yellow Pine into, into plywood. There was interest in northern Minnesota about turning aspen into plywood, sheathing-grade plywood. The company, in a sense, paid for the research to find out if [we] could make plywood out of aspen.

We went into northern Minnesota and sampled aspen trees and graded the logs, so if we ended up with some success that they could go back and say ok, an aspen log with this grade, and so many knots, and the distribution of the knots and so forth, and the log size, that it would be the best to make aspen plywood. So, it turned out, we were lined up to go to a mill, and that mill in Canada. And it was a mill that was accustomed to peeling birch and turn that into paneling. But that mill burned down, so we had to change, and they found a mill up in Edmonton, Canada, and so they hauled many train-car loads of aspen logs to Edmonton, Canada. We went up there for three weeks, and at night from six o'clock at night when the day-time mill was shut down, we turned, peeled aspen logs into veneer and then graded all the veneer that came out of that. And then put it in their ovens, and then they [glued] it into plywood.

Well what they found out, what we found out, was that the grade was so high, of aspen, that they could make paneling. They had enough clear sheets of veneer out of the aspen that they could make a high-grade paneling out of it, which was worth a lot more than sheathing. And, so that was the end result of that project. The company then could not get the aspen material they needed out of northern Minnesota. There were too many of those that said that they didn't want to see the aspen cut. So, because availability of material wasn't there, they didn't go into that venture, building a plywood plant. But it made some very nice looking paneling. And it would have made excellent sheathing plywood as well. But at that time there was plenty of product being made elsewhere. Now, nowadays that probably would be a good adventure, a good venture to get into, maybe just an adventure too.

LB

Need some of those, too.

00:29:03

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KM

So, and then there [pause], well none of the others in particular come to mind as far as which ones were interesting. All of them were, we, later on we kind of carried the ultrasonic scanning to a certain point, and we thought, enough so that it would stimulate industry to go in that direction. But industry, at that time, had no problem getting wood, really. But they were interested in improving their utilization. And [industry] found that they could improve it by how they cut the logs using the computer. So, the log scanners were [developed] where they just did a profile scan of the log and took the actual size of that log into the computer and then made the sawing decisions from that. And we saw some big growth in the kinds of saws that would break down a log. And I wasn't directly involved with that, but kind of parallel to that.

00:30:24

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LB

And about when was that?

KM

That was probably in the middle 80s. And about that time there was another shuffle in the Laboratory here, and I was [hired] into a Wood Engineering [research project]. And, at that time, we were finishing up some work with the Ponderosa Pine [moulding and millwork] industry. They were quite interested in getting better utilization of the very expensive material that they were cutting up for door and window trim, and things like that. And we did some extensive work with them to show what a computer could do for them [to process] wide Ponderosa Pine boards [in] a mill. They were just telling the operator to rip it into strips. And they had a certain combination that would fit within whatever width [a] board was. And they would rip it without respect to where the defects were.

We could show them that with the computer program they could get a twenty percent increase in their yield, if they would know where the defects were and make the best decision as to where to rip it. Well, that, to some of the engineers, that, they look at that in the industry and they say yeah that's sure a headache to try to build a machine to do all that. And, I was at a big window manufacturer one time, and it happened that there was a company's accountant was [sitting] in on that meeting. And, when I said twenty percent the engineer was just yawning, like oh yeah, how're we going to do that? That's going to require a change in the assembly line and the breakdown, and we've been doing it this way for thirty years. Well, they were at that time, consuming fifty million board feet of Ponderosa Pine a year, and having it shipped from out west to Minnesota. And the accountant translated what a twenty percent increase was right away, on fifty million board feet a year, of which they were probably paying, at that time, 300 to 400 dollars for 1000 board feet. And he just leaned back in his chair, practically fell out of his chair. And, because he could see that [it] meant a lot, and you could put a lot of engineer time into investing in equipment to recover that. And that was a fun study. We did that with a lot of the different mills out west [cutting] Ponderosa Pine, and measured the defects and [other characteristics].

The interesting thing at that time was that we got involved with the moulding and millwork industry. And that was a big industry where they were consuming Ponderosa Pine, which is a very valuable wood, but also was one of the woods that they wanted. It turned out that they did want to take [it] out of the woods because they're big, nice-looking trees.

But one of the interesting things, that was a real lesson was when we went to a mill in the Sierras, just outside of Reno [where we would] have access to their lumber. Well, through their association, we met the president of that company, and it was not a huge company, but they processed a lot of lumber. And the president said sure, we'll go along with it, you can use our mill. So you just go there and talk to the vice president and he'll know where everything is at; he'll know how to, what you can do and where to go and so forth---he'll help you. So, we went to the vice president and told the vice president what we wanted. We wanted access to certain grades of Ponderosa Pine, which they brought in in shipments, and they'd be in big bundles, and we wanted help setting those out so we could measure them.

Well that vice president [said], well, I don't have any idea what's out there. The person you want to talk to is the manager of the mill, the production mill where they cut all of this material up. He knows what's going on. So we went to the manager and he looked at us rather blank, and he says, I don't have any idea what's out there. He said, the guy you want to talk to is the guy that runs the forklift truck, and he's the one that brings all the stuff that we need into the mill from the big warehouse. So we went out and talked to the forklift driver, who was kind of the yard foreman, and he as much said the same thing. He [said], I don't have any idea what's going on. He said, all I do is when the mill doesn't have any lumber set and ready to go in the input door, I go get some more and set it there. He says when the trucks come in and when the railroad cars come in, I go out and unload them and I set them in the warehouse. So, none of the four key people, or the five, including the president, had any idea how this company was operating.

And that was just as very typical example of how a lot of the industry ran. Sawmills were the same way. And they made money and that's all that counted. And gave people jobs, and hopefully nobody upset the apple cart. But it was quite a lesson when we found that out.

00:37:25

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KM

Then we got into looking at different species of wood, and what kind of structural properties they had. We looked at Red Maple, for example, as an underutilized species, and to see if it had structural properties. So we sampled that. And one of the studies that we got on was going up into Alaska and [looking] at [dead Alaska] Yellow Cedar. Because there were standing dead trees of Yellow Cedar that happened to be this [big], where we went was Wrangell Island. And the buyers of the product, the Yellow Cedar, only wanted live trees. [They did not] want anything that's dead. So, we [to Alaska] to find out whether the dead cedar was worth something, if it still had structural qualities. And it turned out it did. But that was a fun study to work on. I spent some time in Alaska.

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