Fred Priestley-Wright is one of those individuals who lie in bed at night trying to think of a way to build a better mousetrap, even though he is semi-retired and well into his 70s.
The owner of Purple Tree Lumber in Niton Junction is a former engineer who worked on the legendary Avro Arrow fighter jet program in the 1950s. Priestley-Wright went on to operate a highly successful engineering firm with 30 employees, only to sell that business because it was getting too big and wasn’t fun anymore. He moved back home to the family farm to raise cattle. It grew to a 300-head cow-calf operation, but like his engineering firm, it grew too big and so he sold the ranch and kept the home quarter.
Today, Priestley-Wright applies his grey matter to various types of lumber products manufactured from his one-person sawmill.
“About 10 years ago, I realized that there would be a lot more value in my wood if I value-added,” he says. “At that time, I was a county councillor and chairman of the Economic Development Committee, dealing primarily with small, independent sawmillers and loggers, trying to convince them to value-add. They essentially said, ‘Well, show me.’ So I decided maybe I’d better.”
He has sawn a lot of rough dimensional lumber, primarily for farmers and ranchers, over the years.
“I’m small, so I am really, really flexible,” says Priestley-Wright. “I’m also a workaholic and I just love working outside. I try to only work five days a week but sometimes I kind of go over that. What’s nice about doing custom orders is if my orders are pretty well caught up, I’m on schedule, and the fishing is good, I can turn the key off and go fishing.”
New use for tamarack
In addition to traditional pine and spruce lumber products, he also manufactures tamarack panelling and flooring, having conducted considerable experimentation and perfected his drying method for green tamarack lumber. Also known as eastern larch, tamarack is among the hardest softwood species and was traditionally used for fence posts and barn floors. Lately, it has garnered interest in residential flooring because of its attractive grain and hardness, Priestley-Wright says.
“I’ve got it now where it is profitable to work with it. It’s the appearance more than anything and the uniqueness of tamarack that attracts people to it. It has some beautiful grain. I have a tough time producing it at maximum because I spend too much time admiring the grain in the wood.”
Local logging contractors often let him know when they encounter a quality stand of tamarack, because sawmills would prefer not to accept this wood species at their mills. Because of this, the price for the tamarack is quite reasonable.
Priestley-Wright has also sawn lumber from aspen, although finding a source without centre rot is difficult. He’s also experimented with balsam poplar, which is a species he feels has considerable potential. He’d like to be able to manufacture solid-wood products from birch, but he can’t compete for the logs with local firewood producers.
Priestley-Wright’s penchant for quality attracts business. He doesn’t advertise, yet people still find him, many of whom are planning to build a cabin and are looking for ideas on what to use for construction material. Then there are the highly specialized orders, like one he filled for 200 pieces of planed 4×6 clear pine.
“That was a challenge,” he says.
If offering advice to other potential specialty sawmillers, Priestley-Wright suggests individuals start slow and explore niche markets.
“Man, there is so much niche market potential out there,” he says. “With a small operation, you can switch from one product line to the next product line in a matter of hours. You can learn where the niches are by what customers are asking for. I make a profit. I don’t make big dollars, but that’s my choice.”
He estimates the capital cost for new equipment in his type of setup at between $75,000 and $100,000, but it could cost a lot less by purchasing second-hand equipment.
“Man,thereissomuch nichemarketpotential outthere.Withasmall operation,youcan switchfromoneproduct linetothenextproduct lineinamatterofhours. Youcanlearnwhere thenichesarebywhat customersareasking for.”