The history of Slave Lake’s first OSB mill

It was one of the first of its kind in the world

(Marc Ducharme of Slave Lake came to Slave Lake from northern Ontario in 1980 to help set up Weldwood’s OSB (oriented strandboard) mill. He has played various roles in the mill since then, under several different owners, and recently was lured out of retirement to oversee the demolition of the mill, which has been idle for over a decade. Ducharme wrote the following history mainly in 2007, with a few later additions towards the end.)

Marc Ducharme
For the Lakeside Leader

For those of you who are not familiar with the OSB industry, I will take you back to its origin, before we venture into the history of the Slave Lake site.

The original invention was described by Elmendorf (1949) and patented in 1965. Dr. James D’arcy Clark of Potlatch Idaho patented Waferboard in 1950.

Elmendorf in the US came up with a version of oriented strandboard that looks like particle board with oriented ‘toothpicks.’ Subsequently the first two waferboard plants come on line in Canada (Hudson Bay Saskatchewan in 1961, and Weldwood of Canada, Longlac Ontario in 1973).

Construction of Great Lakes Waferboard (Thunder Bay) and the Slave Lake site was finished shortly after in 1975. The transition to OSB from waferboard was initiated in the late 70s by MacMillan Bloedel with their own research in Thunder Bay, and Weldwood of Canada working with Siempelkamp, and Grant Forest Products with Shenck in Germany.

The Slave Lake mill is the fourth or fifth OSB mill built in the world, which makes it one of the pioneers of the industry.

1970s

Alberta Aspen Board was built by a group of local business interests and the Alberta government in 1975.

After six months of the startup phase the company folded due to lack of operating capital, when the main hydraulic tanks for the press sprang a leak and emptied into the press pit.

The site lay dormant for five years and at one time was flooded with two feet of water over the entire mill.

1980s

In 1980 (in other accounts it was 1977), Weldwood of Canada purchased the site and negotiated the largest Forestry management Agreement in Alberta. That September I arrived on site and helped with the commissioning of the mill. It was a steep learning curve for the people, as only four or five of us had any experience in the panels industry, and all of it coming from particle board.

By December of that year, it produced its first press load and started continuous operations in February of 1981. By this time there were 11 mills in Canada and the US, and we were the only one serving the west coast. It was tough going, since the main competitor was plywood, which was fully entrenched in the western panels market, of which Weldwood owned zero per cent.

The first major upgrade came two years after start up, with the installation of a new blending area and new dryers with green screens. Also the first version of the present-day green and dry bins, including the first pond forwarders in OSB, was incorporated into the site.

By 1986, new eight-foot mills with twice our capacity were coming on line fast and furious, and we now had more competition to contend with. So that year another major upgrade was started. The blending and resin system was replaced again, in addition to the formers with orienters.

The wood room also underwent many changes, getting one more waferizer and the beehive burner being replaced with an Olivine burner.

Also, to be more competitive, we installed screens in our press to help compete against Pelican Board which had built two new OSB mills in Alberta. (Drayton Valley & Edson.)

1990s

By the start of the decade we were still not cost-effective, Weldwood had little to show as a return on their investment, and with a new CEO at the helm, a new corporate strategy affected the Slave Lake site.

The mill was first offered to Weyco (Weyerhaeuser) at a bargain basement price if they would commit to keeping it open. Weyco turned down the offer.

As a member of the site lead team I had to help plan and deliver on the plant closure; it was one of the hardest and most thankless assignments I ever had.

After being mothballed for two years Weyco came back and purchased the site and FMA from a new owner (better known as a flip).

In 1992, we were back at it again, commissioning the site and converting our finishing end and installing new pollution controls equipment.

Four years later (1997) we took the mill down to install a whole new wood room and a slasher deck as we converted from short wood to tree-length delivery in our yard.

Six to eight months later the market prices took a nose dive and we were again asked to prepare a shut-down plan if the markets kept dropping. Thankfully the markets came back and we became a viable, profit-making site once more.

In 1997, we had to find other ways to reduce costs and stay competitive.

By 1999, our training and implementation program was starting to see results.

Between 2000 and 2004, the strategies we had adopted paid off big time. We were able to rise from the bottom of the bottom quartile to the second quartile in cost to produce, over five other eight-foot and 12-foot OSB mills in our company. A huge achievement for a four-foot line, to be in the mix against larger sites.

2004

In 2004 corporate strategies dictated our fate again, as Slave Lake became the newest addition to the Tolko family on the first of March.
That same year, Tolko began to plan a huge expansion to the Slave Lake site.

2006

Construction begins on the present Athabasca site (the one located west of the Mitsue Industrial Park) to build a 750 mm 3\8 OSB\LSL plant with the longest continuous press in the world.

2007

The housing market in the United States crashes. The Slave Lake One plant (the older one, now being demolished) is one of the first to be shut down. Very few of the SL1 employees are asked to go to the new site. The OSB industry loses a huge amount of trained people.

2008

Tolko shuts down the High Prairie OSB site, and employees are bused to the Athabasca site to help with construction of the new site.
The Athabasca site starts to ramp up production and produces its first commercial product.

2009

The OSB industry is in a major crisis. Two thirds of the industry is shut down, 51 sites have curtailed production by this time, and Tolko announces the shutdown of the new Athabasca mill.

2012

Tolko announces the startup of the Athabasca plant and prepares to go into full production.

2013

Athabasca site producing commercial products and working on a ramp-up plan.

Awaiting removal

The old OSB press awaits dismantlement in what’s left of the building that housed it. Marc Ducharme, who is supervising the decommissioning of the old mill, says it’s a “first-generation” press, of a type no longer used in OSB production.
The multi-story structure is slated for demolition, but the big wood room building to its left will remain warehouse space for Tolko, as will the warehouse at the other (east) end of the former mill complex. Everything in between is to be removed, along with all the equipment that was inside the two buildings that will be left standing.
One of the leftovers of the oriented strandboard-making process at the old mill is an industrial-sized ball of wax, used as an ingredient in making the panels.

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