Each tree on the Pioneer Log Homes Sugar Cane site in Williams Lake has a personality, and story to tell, just like the stars of the hit HGTV show, Timber Kings. I was recently passing through Williams Lake on a workshop tour, about 6 hours north of Vancouver, and I was invited to meet with some of the stars of the show on their home turf.
A Morning with the Timber Kings
Pioneer has been around for 40 years and has become the largest builder of handcrafted log homes in the world. They have 120 employees working at three construction yards and one office. Peter Arnold, Joel Roorda, and Beat Schwaller all bring decades of experience to Pioneer — Joel alone having been with the company over 20 years — and all have stories to tell about their dream job, crafting and building log homes for clients around the world.
Peter and Joel work at the Sugar Cane site, where our tour took place, just south of Williams Lake along highway 97. Beat is based at a second location, north of the city. The trio walked my group around the expansive site, where groves of trees lie horizontally stacked, each needing to dry out for an entire year before it can be used in a home. Some individual trees lay out on their own, like twisted ancient cedars that have been deemed unfit for the logging industry, which are the most prized pieces around.
The air was thick with the smell of cedar, an aroma that I revelled in but the guys said they tend to get tired of. “These trees are Mother Nature’s fine art, and the three of us are privileged to work with them,” Peter told me as we walked around a 1,000 year old tree that was as tall as me, as it lay on its side. Its bark was grey but Joel says that when it’s cleaned up it will be a rich, dark red.
The wealth of knowledge each possess goes far beyond carving, building, and assembling. With each home prebuilt in Williams Lake, then disassembled, shipped around the world, then reconstructed on site, the team needs to know everything from prying off bark by hand, to shipping logistics and international customs. I got a sense that the most valuable information, that drives the passion that each of these guys pours into their work, comes from each individual tree.
Peter says that you don’t have to become a Timber King to excel in your craft, whatever that might be, you just need to respect the wood. “Whether it’s a piece of plywood or lumber, or a 2×4. If you have that attitude in life, you can do anything — but really we have the best jobs in the world because we get to work with wood.”
Pioneer works with Western Red Cedar, mostly, from up and down the Pacific Northwest Coast and Vancouver Island. They have a very strict commitment to sustainability, and follow green procedures from start to finish. The guys tell me that they get so much out of one single log; from peeling to the last touches, and everything gets used.
For each tree they harvest, Pioneer plants seven more. To date, they have planted over 1.5 million trees. They also produce 60 truckloads of bark, chips and sawdust per year and incinerates the waste to produce electricity.
“I want my children’s children to be able to build log homes too. That’s the good part about the industry is that it’s renewable,” Beat says.
Peter says you can tell by the size of the tree what type of house it would be good in. As a builder, who works with a tree from hand peeling to construction and installation, he says it’s always rather emotional when you revisit a client’s home years later and get to check in on that tree. “There is a spirit there.”
About 60% of Pioneer’s customer base is Canadian but they’ve had some pretty epic builds abroad. They built a house that was 112,000 square feet in Colorado, and a recent build in Russia involved shipping 80 containers full of logs overseas. That’s not to say all projects are massive, they still build cabins, some as small as 320 square feet.
We walked around the site, getting a step-by-step tour of the process. Stumps in the ground form a temporary foundation, Peter showed us his “storyboard” for the layout of each house, then we get to peeling the logs, arranging the trees, building corners, hidden insulation, numbering each log for disassembly/reassembly, and many, many more stages.
- Rough peel to remove the bark.
- Final peel to expose the inner beauty.
- Rough scribe for all notched corners.
- Chainsaw to cut the log to size and rough cut the notches.
- Slick to shape the log and remove blemishes.
- Scribe to create precision notches so that each log will fit exactly on top of the one below.
- Final cut all notches and lateral grooves.
- Final slick and fit on the log wall.
- *All of these stages are completed by hand.
At the end of the day, Pioneer’s homes are 25-30% more energy efficient than a frame house, and they’re good in both cool and warm climates. Joel built a home in Hawaii, and they have many clients in Texas and Arizona.
Pioneer is currently all booked up this year and are currently scheduling projects well into 2017. Plans for expansion aren’t underway since they want to consistently focus on high quality. Beat says they won’t compromise and offer a low end product. “We get to go the extra mile and do elaborate projects for clients that aren’t boring, and they’ll last.”
After our tour, we all ended up at The Laughing Loon, a local pub that is often featured in the TV show. Featuring a patio and bar area made with familiar log construction, friendly service, and portion sizes fit for a lumberjack, it was the perfect way to end the morning.
The high-end, sustainable homes that Pioneer builds are on many bucket lists, mine included, and Beat says that’s what drives them to do their very best with each tree. “Money can’t buy that: The feeling of realizing someone’s dream.”
Follow the adventures of Peter, Beat, Joel, and the rest of the team including Founder & Owner Bryan Reid Sr., André Chevigny, and Bryan Reid Jr. on HGTV’s Timber Kings. Each episode features at least one build and one personal adventure for each of the men and their families.
Watch episodes on HGTV or stream online, and follow the Timber Kings on Facebook and Twitter to see their latest builds, get show info, and more. Stay tuned for Season 4!