Weyerhaeuser’s Columbia Falls, Montana plant is the world’s oldest medium-density fiberboard manufacturing plant

The office of our MDF plant in Columbia Falls, Montana, which is now the oldest MDF plant in the world. “We are well known for being number one in quality, both among our competitors and our customers,” says Sean. “It generates a sense of pride and loyalty among our employees. One thing we did before COVID-19 and I hope we can start again soon is take new hires for in-person visits to customers’ installations. Not only do they see our product at work, they hear all these wonderful compliments on the quality of the workmanship.”

In the 1920s, inventor William Mason was determined to find a use for leftover wood from lumber manufacturing. According to the story, one night he accidentally left a press running and returned in the morning to find a primitive sheet of what we now know as “masonite” or fiberboard.

Mason soon patented his discovery. Out of this came particle board, oriented strand board, plywood and medium density fibreboard. The first dedicated MDF plant opened in the town of Deposit, New York, in 1965. Five other facilities followed, including our plant in Columbia Falls, Montana, which began production for Plum Creek in 1974.

In 2020, the five MDF plants that preceded it closed, making Columbia Falls the oldest continuously operating MDF manufacturing plant in the world.

“The milestone is even more impressive when you know the same press has been in use the whole time,” says Tim Tadlock, who served as quality control supervisor at Columbia Falls for four years before recently moving to Grayling for a job. environmental manager. “It took a lot of care and innovative thinking over the years to make this happen.”

AT THE FOREFRONT OF ENGINEERED WOOD

Tim and Sean Connolly, Technical Director, uncovered the legacy of their factory after the previous record holder closed. This plant – in Plymouth, North Carolina – was once owned by Weyerhaeuser but was sold to another company in 2007.

“We were curious who was the oldest at the time, so we dug around and found a 1994 report from the US Forest Service,” Tim says. “It listed the location, size and production capacity of each facility. We were then able to determine which were still open.”

The Columbia Falls plant, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024, had a listed production capacity in 1994 of 70 million square feet. It reached 130 million square feet today.

SOME THINGS CHANGE, SOME STAY THE SAME

Remarkably, thanks to the care and innovation mentioned by Tim, the original factory press has remained in excellent working order, even though much of the equipment around it has evolved. Manual levers and other equipment that required constant operation and monitoring have since been replaced by computerized systems.

“At the center of it all is this 5-by-18-foot steam press from Washington Ironworks that has never been rebuilt and has never seen downtime,” says production superintendent Shiloh Keibler. “It’s the result of very savvy people coming up with all kinds of brilliant hacks to make it work. Because without a sister factory, they had to make this one work all the time, no matter what.”

Planned maintenance was crucial to keep the press running, and upgrades that included larger drying systems also helped. The factory got a second production line in 2000, and the original is now known as Line 1.

“My mother, Ellen Keibler, started working here in 1980 as a plant planner, so she’s one of the people who kept it going,” Shiloh says. “I’ve been running around this factory since I was a kid in the mid-80s and started working here in 1999. I’ve seen our product get better and better as safety increases by leaps and bounds. ”

The factory’s original press is still in operation today, thanks to the innovation of the Columbia Falls team. Every two weeks, the press goes through a maintenance cycle of 12 to 14 hours. Parts are lubricated, bearings are changed, other preventative maintenance is performed, and every component is rechecked.

“Security is a living thing that grows and evolves,” says Tim. “We constantly re-evaluate our protocols. Most importantly, we have involved every employee and invested in making the plant as safe as possible. Safety comes first. Production comes second.”

STRENGTH ROOTED IN CARE AND RESPECT

More than anything else, maintaining a factory at peak quality for almost 50 years requires the dedication of its employees. Everyone wants the plant to succeed, which is why teamwork between the sales, operations and maintenance teams is essential.

“We have 19 employees who have been here for over 30 years,” says Sean Connolly, technical director. “And some recent retirees had been here for over 40 years. I think that says a lot about us.”

A fixture of the small town of Columbia Falls for nearly half a century, the mill has also had a significant impact on the community. For decades, the plant has donated materials and funds to the United Way and local schools and organizations.

“Even beyond what we do collectively, I’ve seen employees make personal donations and sacrifices to neighbors in need, like bringing the Christmas hams we give them each year to the food bank,” says Sean. “We are very proud to be a leader in the greater Flathead Valley when it comes to giving back.”


Columbia Falls’ longest-serving employees (over 30!)

Randall Armstrong, 43

Peter Pesarick, 41 years old

Bruce Brooks, 41

Clyde Shipp, 40

Mike Lakes, 38

Tani Newton, 38 years old

Bert Peterson, 38

Mike Sweeney, 38

Tracy Haverkorn, 36

Scott Hansen, 36

Marvin Stevenson, 35

Jana Fields, 35

Melvin Nielsen, 35

Sean Reynolds, 33

Vern Engebritson, 33

Mark Sedivy, 33 years old

Vince Luce, 33 years old

Charles Mitsch, 30 years old

Jodie McIntyre, 30 in September

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