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Morton Alder Mill Supplies Unusual Cut Stock for Pallet Manufacturers
Morton Alder Mill: Pendu-equipped Oregon mill carves niche as supplier of special components for pallet, crate, and other packaging manufacturers
By Jack Petree
Date Posted: 12/1/2000
WILLAMINA, Ore. — In recent years large companies have come to dominate the Pacific Northwest’s alder scene, yet small mills continue to survive and thrive by being creative in responding to customer needs. Morton Alder Mill is one of these smaller sawmill businesses that has achieved notable success.
Morton Alder Mill manufactures 2.5 million board feet of grade material annually. It also supplies cut stock to the wooden packaging industry, and this part of its business has grown significantly in recent years. It supplies more than 3.5 million board feet of cut stock annually for pallet manufacturing.
Morton’s niche in the cut stock marketplace is to be the supply source of pallet, crate, and other packaging manufacturers when they require something unusual. Because large companies do not like to do take on specialty work, which typically offers limited production runs, Morton Alder has been able to serve this niche and grow.
Morton Alder Mill was founded in the town of Willamina, about half-way between Portland and the Oregon coast, by Willard Morton and a partner in 1952. The two men milled fir and alder with a portable mill, operating in the woods near the town. Willard bought his partner out in 1956. In the early 1960s he established a permanent location, the same site the mill sits on today. At about that same time the company shifted emphasis to alder and maple grade lumber.
The company began cutting pallet stock out of both species in the 1980s. Under the leadership of Terry, Willard’s son and now the owner and operator of the business, the mill added a whole log chipping operation in 1995. Willard retired in 1990 but came to the mill every day and continued to be a guiding hand until his death in 1994.
Terry began to work in the mill and learn the business at an early age. "I literally grew up here," he said. "I started working on the mill pond when I was 10, and I’m 42 now, so I’ve got more than 30 years invested in this business. I still appreciate and enjoy it."
Morton Alder Mill has three business operations coordinating with one another and functioning on a single site — the grade lumber mill, pallet stock facility, and whole tree chipping. The three complement each other and allow the company to completely utilize the wood that is available to it. The three operations also provide stability to the company.
Morton Alder Mill markets to customers throughout the West. Chips are sold to local pulp mills. Furniture and other specialty lumbers are supplied to secondary manufacturers.
Morton Alder Mill sells pallet stock to pallet manufacturers in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and California. About half of cut stock production goes to pallet companies in California.
Morton Alder Mill employs 30 people. They are the most important resource the company has, said Terry. Some employees have worked at Morton Alder Mill for 25 years.
Alder and maple logs delivered to Morton Alder Mill are weighed and then sorted for optimum use.
Small and disfigured stems are sent to the chipping operation, which features a 22-inch Manitowoc debarker and a 66-inch West Salem Machinery stationary chipper. The wood is chipped into high-grade fiber for paper mills in the region.
Large material is sent to the grade mill for break-down and milling. About half the grade lumber production is sold green to companies that make a specialty product while the rest is kiln-dried, surfaced, and then sold to furniture manufacturers.
Stems that are too small for grade lumber but large enough to make pallet stock are broken down with a shop-built sharp chain system and CM&E chipping heads that square two sides of the log. The two-sided cant is sent to a Salem edger that flattens the other two sides.
Larger saw logs are processed through a shop-built carriage that is equipped with Salem setworks and a 52-inch circle saw. It is followed by an 8-inch Salem edger and a 60-inch Turner band resaw. Pallet cants are then processed through a Pendu 2400 cut-off saw with stops and a Pendu 8000 double-bay gang saw. The mill also is equipped with a Producto 79 resaw fitted with a planer head for sizing.
Mill waste is processed through a 56-inch West Salem Machinery chipping unit. A Rawlings hog grinds bark into hog fuel and mulch. Sawdust is sold to farmers for livestock bedding and a ground covering for blueberry fields and vineyards.
Morton Alder Mill’s operations and Terry’s leadership allow the company to offer pallet manufacturers something they may not be able to get from other, larger cut stock suppliers: flexibility. At Morton Alder Mill, pallet stock is not a mere by-product of the grade mill, sawn only as a way to use wood that cannot be manufactured into lumber. The company has made a considerable investment and devotes significant resources to manufacturing components for the pallet industry — particularly unusual or odd-size stock.
"One of our specialties is that we are real versatile," said Terry. "If someone needs stock that is 2 ½ by 4 7/16 by 40, we can do that. The bigger companies have a real problem with adjusting their lines to do the specialty sizes, but we do it all the time for our customers because pallet stock is a featured product here."
Morton Alder Mill also offers more grading service than most mills, said Terry.
"We pull a #1 board with no wane and no split as well as a #2 with wane and some defects," he said, "or a #1 product with a percentage of #2. That’s important for the customer who needs a really good board for machine production as there is no waste, and it is important for the customer who can put up with a lower grade board to save some cost."
Morton Alder Mill has developed an established base of accounts with pallet manufacturers. New customers are not always able to be serviced immediately, however, and it may be a while before they can be worked into the production schedule.
"Right now, Kerry Holmes, our pallet mill foreman and salesman, has us buried in work," said Terry. "But we have a fax network where we list, on a regular basis, what our inventory is and what is coming available. Most of our new customers contact us and get on the fax list and are then worked into the flow as inventory opens up. Once they come aboard we do everything we can to keep them happy, so we have a high customer retention rate."
The demise of the mid-sized producer has been much lamented in the forest products industry over the past several years. However, companies like Morton Alder Mill demonstrate that there is still plenty of room for growth in the industry for the mill that looks to serve the unfilled needs of the marketplace.