Success and failure in British Columbia's softwood plywood industry, 1913 to 1999




Griffin, Robert Brian

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British Columbia's plywood industry between 1913 and 1935 bore little relationship to the industry of the post-World War II period. In 1913, the Canadian Western Lumber Company's Fraser Mills plant manufactured Douglas fir plywood, but until the late 1930s the largest part of its production was used in door manufacture. Two cottonwood plywood manufacturers, Laminated Materials Company (1913–1931) at New Westminster and the British Columbia Veneer Works (1928–1945) at Nelson, sold their plywood for interior wall paneling and specialty uses such as packing crates. The opening of the H. R. MacMillan Export Company's (MacMillan Bloedel) Vancouver plywood plant in 1935 and its Alberni plant, built in 1942, began a new era of plywood production. Sanded Douglas fir plywood dominated sales. The major producers (MacMillan Bloedel, Canadian Forest Products, Crown Zellerbach, British Columbia Forest Products, and Weldwood), assisted by the Plywood Manufacturers Association of British Columbia, targeted customers and created demand for waterproof Douglas fir plywood. The major producers established a network of wholesale warehouses across Canada and used these warehouses as a competitive strategy to develop and influence sales. The major manufacturers after World War II used the high profits generated by Douglas fir plywood to assist their expansion into integrated forest products. Each company chose a different strategy of expansion and adapted its plywood production to suit its corporate goals. Plywood became one product among several and declined in importance for each company. By the 1970s substitute products such as oriented strand board were being promoted as replacements for plywood. Cheaper production costs and the use of waste wood fibre, instead of high quality Douglas fir logs, meant that government and industry favourably viewed the substitute products. The high value of old growth Douglas fir logs and increased costs in all aspects of production resulted in the closure of all but one coastal plywood plant, Richmond Plywood, by 1999. Exports were a small percentage of total plywood sales and did not compensate for declining domestic demand. The interior plywood industry was re-established in 1951 with the opening of Western Plywood's Quesnel plant. A number of plants, scattered throughout the interior, produced plywood using small logs and species other than coastal Douglas fir. Production was mainly sheathing used to clad building floors, roofs, and walls. The scattered nature of plant location, cheaper log costs, small log processing technology, and different harvesting tenures contributed to the success of interior plywood production. The large producers closed their coastal plywood plants arguing that production costs were too high and that other products were replacing plywood in the marketplace. The prosperity of interior plywood manufacturing suggests that the coastal industry stopped production because neither government nor manufacturers saw any reason to seek viable alternatives. The forest industry's diverse nature and its perception of future, based on past activities, supported the closure of the coastal plants and the continued survival of the interior plants within a new forest economy.



Plywood industry, Softwood industry