Alfred Butterfield and Dali Lin are going against the grain in the BC forest industry.

While most of BC's forest companies are building bigger and faster mills focused on commodity markets, the two business partners have launched a small specialty mill in Cumberland focused on quality, not quantity, and one that operates at a fraction of the speed of most industrial mills.

“It takes 100 years for a tree to get rooted deep into the soil and rocks,”says Butterfield, the company's CEO. “Cutting trees on a 40-year rotation just destroys the topsoil and jeopardizes the long-term future of the forestry industry. We should cut trees at a slower rate on an 800 year rotation.”

That's bold thinking as the industry lobbies to have the rotation shortened from 80 to 40 years in BC.

If TF Sawmill bucks conventional wisdom, it also bucks its logs differently too.

Lin is the company's chief operating officer and is a third-generation temple sawyer. Originally from Taiwan, he has an abiding respect for the environment. His method of milling is to carefully select the right log and then split-saw it through the heart. This first cut presents a clear picture of the grain and begins the process of sawing lumber from the inside-out, rather than the conventional way of outside-in. The result is stable lumber of exceptional appearance.

The entire $4 million facility is designed with quality and accuracy in mind. So careful is the milling that lumber won't have any small dings or oil stains from leaky equipment. “The lumber has to be perfect,” Butterfield insists.

In June 2006, TF Sawmill opened its doors thanks in part to financing provided by Ecotrust Canada Capital, the Business Development Bank of Canada and Community Futures of Strathcona.

In its start-up year, the mill had one production line with 24 employees. The company hopes to expand to a second line with an additional dozen employees or so in the second year. Because of its emphasis on quality and perfection, the mill is more than 10 times more labour intensive than conventional sawmills.

About 50 percent of the mill’s production will go to the timber frame market in North America and 40 percent to Europe. The rest will go to the burgeoning Asian market.

According to Butterfield, B.C.'s yellow cedar (or cypress) is “an admirable substitute” for hinoki, a Japanese tree used in Asian temple construction. With Lin's experience milling components for Japanese temples and his family connections, TF Sawmill is projecting 10 percent of its production for Asia, but this may change as a booming China renovates and rebuilds thousands of temples neglected over the years.

The renovation of one temple alone, which could consist of 30 to 40 buildings, could keep TF Sawmill busy for an entire year.“China is such a huge market. The potential is unlimited,” says Butterfield.

The company also sought FSC certification as a chain-of-custody manufacturer in order to access the growing green building market in North America and Europe. The certification strategy is about diversifying their markets and demonstrating their seriousness about environmental stewardship. TF Sawmills is a member of Ecotrust Canada's FSC-certified chain-of-custody group.

“TF Sawmill is an example of a highly sustainable way of cutting timber on the coast,” says Butterfield. “We need to slow down our rate of harvest, and get more value from less volume of wood.”

This “get rich slow” approach will ensure that returns go beyond the financial bottom line with more jobs for communities and healthier forests in the future.