Locally milled lumber finds market

Hoonah company offers heartwood in cabin packages just short of a kit

Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2002

With only hand tools and a chainsaw, Ken Leghorn and a friend assembled a 12-by-14-foot log cabin on Shelter Island in two weeks.

Like several Juneau residents, Leghorn ordered a materials package from Icy Straits Lumber in Hoonah that included all the Sitka spruce heartwood timbers needed for the cabin.

"We wanted a log cabin and I didn't want to cut the logs and peel them and do a full-length notch, but also didn't want to get a log cabin kit from Whitehorse or Montana or someplace else outside Alaska," Leghorn said. "When I found there was a local log cabin package, I jumped on it."

Icy Straits Lumber, a division of Whitestone Logging, is owned and operated by Keith Walker. General Manager Wes Tyler said the company started in 1995, when workers sawed logs with a small bandsaw.

The company has since traded in its saw for bigger equipment, and now has a 56-inch headrig sawmill, edgers and trimmers.

"We can cut just about any kind of dimension you can dream up," Tyler said. "We can also cut large timbers and beams if somebody wants to build a small bridge."

Besides fencing, deck, railing and railroad tie orders, Icy Straits Lumber offers log cabin builders a custom materials package that is just shy of a kit.

"A kit would have everything in it, all the screws and bolts, windows and doors," Tyler said. "We're just providing a materials package now with good advice on where to get hardware."

Depending on the size of the materials package, log cabins from Icy Straits Lumber can cost from $8,500 to $10,000, Tyler said. The company has built a demonstration house it will bring to Juneau this summer.

According to Tyler, 10 percent of the Tongass National Forest yields high-grade timber products, which are cut and shipped to the Lower 48, where they are re-milled, dried and planed for companies such as Andersen Windows.

"The rest of the wood is low-grade and we can't compete with down south," Tyler said. "We add value to it by making things that are usable here like decking and cabin materials."

Using spruce or hemlock, Icy Straits Lumber runs logs through a planer to shape them for the cabin package.

"The lumber has no bark," Tyler said. "Our log cabins are made out of the heartwood centers."

Leghorn's materials were sent from Hoonah to Juneau on a state ferry on one flatbed truck, which he found very cost-effective.

"The entire shipping bill for about 20,000 pounds of wood was around $300," Leghorn said. According to Tyler, Icy Straits uses Reliable Transfer and cites the shipping cost at about $370.

"The actual logs cost more than lumber," Leghorn said. "But when you add in insulation and interior walls you would need on frame construction, it's probably the same price and much less labor."

Peter Bibb also used Hoonah-milled lumber from Icy Straits while building his cabin on Thane Road.

"It is extremely high-quality wood," Bibb said. "The beauty of the logs is they are four-sided planked, which makes them very straight."

Bibb likes the fact that when the cabin goes up, the interior and exterior are complete. Lumber included in the package has been milled in such a way that the erected building has a flat log wall on the inside and an outside with beveled edges.

He previously built a house with local timber, which he milled himself in his backyard with a rented sawmill.

"My father did the same thing, but he used a chainsaw instead of a sawmill," Bibb said.

Though Bibb said the project was fun, he finds it is easier to use Icy Straits Lumber than to go out and fell trees, and he is still using local resources.

"In the building industry you get a lot of exotic products," Bibb said. "But wood works. It belongs here, it breathes. And it is actually beautiful."

Leghorn, who is vice chairman of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, believes it is more environmentally responsible to use local products to support sustainable industries.

"I'm pleased to promote a good, local, value-added product that supports the local mills," Leghorn said. "Now that (the pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka) have shut down, Southeast residents need to do everything they can to support the small-scale timber economy."

Leghorn also has built a swing set and three fences with dimensional boards of Alaska yellow cedar from Icy Straits Lumber, and his wife, Susan, is building a sauna from the same materials.

The closing of the pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan has been detrimental to the forest products industry in Southeast Alaska, Tyler said. He said 40 percent to 50 percent of the wood in the Tongass has a high pulp content, which means the wood cannot hold together as a board.

"The only way that we can see to survive - we're a very small mill - is by adding value to what wood we can get ahold of," Tyler said.

Icy Straits Lumber, which can be reached at (907) 945-3626, is also putting in a dry kiln that will dry the wood and add to the value of its lumber.

"I believe we have one of the greatest wood piles in the world right here," Tyler said.

Emily Wescott can be reached at ewescott@juneauempire.com.

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