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How the Timber Kings became a TV success

It’s a long way from Williams Lake, B.C. to New Zealand. Or Russia. Or Germany. But that doesn’t stop the burly builders of Pioneer Log Homes of B.C. from making the largest handcrafted log houses in the world. And then taking them apart log by log; packing them into shipping containers and sending them to well-heeled dreamers across the planet.

They’re a talented and tough crew, the guys who build these homes. But if you watch Timber Kings, the No. 1 hit show on HGTV Canada, you already know that. Because somewhere along the way, these log homebuilders have become a reality show sensations with a top rated show, now in production for its third season.

Shot on location in Williams Lake, deep in the interior of British Columbia, Timber Kings follows Pioneer’s master builders on site in as they create these often-gargantuan homes from giant B.C. timbers. They often race against the clock to pull the timber castles together for demanding clients for whom they are literally building a dream. There are long days, plenty of weekend work and often-dangerous conditions. And lots of cussin’.

Natural goodness

Critics and fans agree that the allure of the show is the authenticity – and the crazy beautiful houses.

“People love seeing something real being constructed from start to finish,” says André Chevigny, the general manager of Pioneer Log Homes and the Timber Kings. “It’s the romance of the natural elements. The texture of the wood. The creativity. That’s what makes it special. And the client and the audience see that. They feel it.”

Pioneer Log Homes is a real, 40-year-old company, founded by Bryan Reid Sr., a regular on the show. The company has 120 employees and three construction sites in Williams Lake. In other words, the family company was building homes long before HGTV caught wind of it and comes by its authenticity honestly.

Family business

“At its core, Timber Kings is about the men and women of Pioneer Log Homes – the challenges are real, the stakes are high, and the achievements are huge,” says Christine Shipton, senior vice-president content for Shaw media. “Combine the gorgeous houses with the big personalities at Pioneer Log homes and you have a hit television show.”

The houses themselves are showstoppers. They come in all shapes and sizes – all hand-constructed from western red cedar. Though the average home they build is 2,500 square feet, the show often showcases houses that are massive beyond belief. The designs are dreamed up with the client and the builders – sometimes over the course of years – and constructed onsite in Williams Lake using joinery techniques, wooden screws and not one single nail. Then the homes are taken apart and shipped to the customer.

European craftsmanship

The scale makes them unique, of course. But so does Pioneer’s unique blend of European craftsmanship with traditional log-building techniques.

“When we started implementing all the knowledge about trusses and joinery, stuff that was more than square timber, it made the product so much better. And in the end, that knowledge took the product to where it is today,” says builder Beat Schwaller who brought European techniques with him when he came to Pioneer from Switzerland on a 1993 craftsmen’s exchange program. He never looked back.

Naturally, they’ve got plenty of stories to tell. You can almost feel the windchill as Schwaller recalls one harrowing build in northern Ontario that involved getting 100-ton trucks across a 34 km ice bridge to a remote island location. First thing to know: it can’t be done.

“We’re coming across Canada with 102,000 pounds in our trucks from British Columbia to Kenora. Then they said the ice isn’t thick enough for those trucks, so we have to break the truck loads in half,” says Schwaller.

Harrowing, thrilling and really tricky math

“You can imagine, when we take this house from William’s Lake and we load it onto our trucks, we load it in a certain order. So now, I’m having to pull off and put it on another truck – it’s all out of order,” he says; adding that the trucks couldn’t go over 20 km per hour lest they create a submerged wave – and they couldn’t pass each other. All this while having three cranes on standby to receive the load and piggyback it up a hill passing the logs from one crane to the next. The challenge is to keep all the expensive equipment working all the time – and stay alive.”

So, how does a Timber King do all this with a camera crew following him around? Does it slow things down? “Big time,” says Chevigny. But the guys got used to it and now, in season three, it’s as familiar as packing a measuring tape or hammer. Of course, they’re pleased with the recognition. Not because they want to be famous – which they now are – but because they’re proud of what they do.

“Lots of people drove past the log yard in Williams Lake and I would say 90 per cent of those people never knew that it was always a different house we were building,” says Schwaller. “It’s nice to actually be able to show that, even to the people in Williams Lake, because they didn’t really know what we were doing.”

The results, which are in the ratings and in the long list of folks around the world queueing up for Pioneer Log Homes, speak for itself.

“When we deliver that package the quality of the fixtures and finishes is unbelievable. It’s almost a living breathing organism,” says Schwaller.

“You know there was no book written about this,” he adds. “We wrote the book.”

Photo Credits: Kevin Clark, Kevin Clark Photography