The weather was just right for our tour of the Idaho Cedar Sales mill in Troy, Idaho last Friday. It was overcast and rainy, just the weather that produces thriving Thuja plicata, the largest tree species in the U.S. east of the Cascade Range in Washington. In fact, the largest known Western red cedar is just an hour or so east of Troy near Elk River, Idaho. The cedar and doug fir forests of north-central Idaho are a must for young explorers and this is a great place to start or to return to. While you’re there be sure to get some huckleberry ice cream from the General Store. I digress.
Founded in 1963, the Troy cedar mill produces split rail fencing and posts as well as a gate package that can be purchased to use with the fencing. Idaho Cedar Sales will be celebrating fifty years of operations this August.
We were treated to a hard hat tour of the mill operations and also given a product education in the warehouse. Our hosts and tour guides, Brent and Randy (both 20+ year employees of the mill), gave us a fantastic overview of operations and insight into the commercial ins and outs of the business.
A post mill and rail mill operate simultaneously and in concert at the Idaho Cedar Sales site. We watched as logs were brought to the deck saw, cut to length and sent via conveyor to their respective splitters. The future rails and posts were then split (length-wise) and trimmed with a variety of knives (really big mechanical knives) and saws controlled by the men at work. The posts then went to the drill where two mortises were drilled by a pressure-sensitive drill. Correspondingly, the rail scarfer cut the tenon on the rail ends. The rail ends then fit hand in glove into the post at a 90 degree angle.
The mills utilizes every bit of the wood they receive, most of the scrap going to the University of Idaho steam plant as wood chips. In the past they have used white pine, tamarack, and fir species and have found that the cedar, due to its softness, durability, and ease of splitting is by far the best tree for the job.
Let’s learn a bit more about this amazing organism.
Western Red Cedar
The mill uses culled (“dead wood”) red cedar, that is, cedar that has already begun to rot from the inside out. Though it is a softwood, its chemical properties make it incredibly durable and long-lived. In fact, an untreated cedar post can last 20 years or more in the ground. Researchers remain puzzled by the cedar’s extreme decay and insect resistance. They report that, “the extractives in the heartwood affect its properties far out of proportion to the amounts present.”(1)
Western red cedar is a member of the Cypress family of gymnosperms (Greek = naked seeds). Cone bearing trees or conifers are the largest group of gymnosperms and the Cypress family is the most widely distributed across the globe.
Rather than bearing needles like many conifers, the western red cedar has smooth, waxy overlapping scales and small, delicate cones. It is a graceful and stately tree and it provides a number of ecological benefits many of which are still being uncovered today.
This brings me to the infinite complexity that we uncover and find joy in by simply studying (observing and researching) any aspect of Creation. In fact each and every created kind is so complex in and of itself that we are limited in our understanding of it only by our own abilities. The chemistry and ecology of the Western red cedar are truly remarkable, as an example of infinite complexity both at the micro and macro level. Study of the chemical extractives in the heartwood of the tree reveal high concentrations of both natural fungicides and insect repellent chemicals. These qualities explain the popularity of using cedar to line blanket chests.
Zoom out several orders of magnitude and we see the importance of the tree as a food source for black-tailed deer populations in the coastal Pacific Northwest and as a winter food source for deer and elk throughout the Northern Rockies (2). Studies of the plant communities associated with Western red cedar have revealed beneficial relationships between this plant giant and the diminutive and very rare moonwort species (a rare fern species).
The Western red cedar is a fantastic example of the Lord’s holistic provision (clean air, water, wood, forage for game species, and much, much more). Thanks to everyone who was able to join us in learning more about this tree and its usefulness last week in Troy. A special shout out to the Bloms for joining us from Cheney, WA!
Please stay tuned for June’s field trip announcement. You can find out the latest HIS, Inc. information and see more pictures of the cedar mill tour on our facebook page.
1. J.S. Gonzalez (March 2004). Growth, properties, and uses of Western red cedar (Thuja plicata).
2. Don Minor (February 1983). Western Redcedar, A Literature Review.