In this global economy, companies all around the world are finding they have to play by new rules. Governments mandate some of these, while others are imposed by economic reality.
For example, it’s now possible to manufacture a product on one continent and ship it to another, where it can compete successfully against domestically produced versions. In part, that’s because gigantic oceangoing barges are constantly making shipping more and more tenable. Currently, the largest ocean deck barge is an incredible 845 feet long – that’s almost three football fields. The economies of scale associated with a platform that large mean that freight is no longer cost-prohibitive.
Bottom line: it’s getting awfully cheap to ship engineered panels across oceans. This, in turn, has allowed inexpensive labor in other countries (such as China) to create product that is competing with North American manufacturers, but it has also opened up new possibilities for woodshops here.
Take, for example, Lioher Furniture Components. Founded in Spain in 1965, its parent company, Grupo Alvic, manufactures Luxe engineered panels with low emission cores that are California Air Resources Board CARB Phase 2-compliant. The panels feature lacquered and highly scratch-resistant surfaces, with a high-gloss finish on one face and a decorative coated paper on the other. The product comes in 53 designs, including intense solid colors, wood grains and pearl effects, in nominal 3/4” thickness and 4’ x 9’ panels. Matching edgebanding is available and the company offers a cut-to-size program through its website at www.lioher.com.
Formaldehyde and vinegar
Sometimes the shrinking globe allows North American panel manufacturers to set world standards. Columbia Forest Products is a good example. The company manufactures hardwood plywood using a formaldehyde-free adhesive that was derived from food-grade soy flour and a wet strength resin. The glue was initially developed for printed currency and milk cartons. Columbia’s PureBond hardwood plywood brand, which adds no formaldehyde during the manufacturing process, is compliant with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, so it meets most green rules worldwide, too. PureBond earns one point for LEED’s EQ Credit 4.4 for low-emitting materials/composite wood and also satisfies the emissions standards of CARB Phase 2 regulations.
But beyond esoteric or mandated strictures, there is a really good practical reason to take a look at formaldehyde-free products. PureBond’s soy-based adhesive process is price-competitive with older, formaldehyde-adding processes that were developed in the U.S. and have been copied by developing economies overseas.
A British company called Accsys Technologies PLC is spearheading another advance in core technology – the acetylated wood panel. Acetylation, according to Accsys, is a process used to render softwoods (and hence panels using softwood cores) more stable and less susceptible to moisture. The process replaces hydroxyls, a chemical functional group that contains an oxygen atom connected by a covalent bond to a hydrogen atom. Softwoods are rich in hydroxyls, which essentially allow them to import and export moisture and thus shrink and swell at pretty dramatic rates. The moist nature of hydroxyls is also an inviting environment for disease, mold and cellular decay, according to the company.
Acetylation infuses acetic acid (vinegar) into panel components such as fibers, dust, chips and strands. The subsequent chemical reaction replaces free hydroxyls with acetyls and this dramatically reduces the amount of water the cells can absorb, the company states. The result is a product that is reputedly more stable, less susceptible to moisture, insect or mold damage and more environmentally conscionable. In that vein, Accsys has developed Tricoya acetylated wood elements, which are used in the manufacturing of exterior panel products. Woodshops might look at acetylated wood panel options for areas such as kitchens, baths, patios, signage and other applications where furniture or casework is exposed to humidity and moisture. To learn more, visit www.tricoya.com.
Because many woodshops build personal spaces such as bathrooms and kitchens, sales in our industry are quite sensitive to public opinion. End users have become very fond of tags such as recycled, renewable and low VOCs. Unfortunately, they have also developed some aversions that can be a bit mystifying. For example, many homeowners think less of the structural integrity of plywood than solid wood. Negative connotations can be underscored when mainstream publications run pieces on engineered panels and this augments the wood industry’s image challenge regarding formaldehyde.
Even unrelated stories that lead with the “F” word can stir public feeling about wood components and these are becoming more prevalent with globalization. Post-hurricane gypsum board, imported from China and used to rebuild New Orleans, tested high in formaldehyde and reinforced the misconception that any engineered product can pollute the inside of a home. Given that, the perception that a specific manufacturer treads softly on the planet has become a viable marketing tool. And that has coattails: when a woodshop can say that its cabinets are made of formaldehyde-free panels, that statement has value.
The formaldehyde issue is front and foremost nowadays, but there seems to be some progress. In the latest issue of “Building Green,” reporter Paula Melton notes that “composite wood is becoming less of a problem over time for indoor formaldehyde emissions due to regulatory action and industry vigilance.” It’s not a ringing endorsement, but it’s still a positive note. Melton goes on to say that formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products will soon be strictly regulated in the U.S., but that questions remain.
She is speaking, in part, about California’s CARB Phase 2 regulations, which encourage the manufacture of engineered panels to use NAF and ULEF resins. NAF means no added formaldehyde and ULEF requires the use of ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde binders that, according to Building Green, “are proven through laboratory testing to emit very low levels of formaldehyde.” A third regulatory category is NAUF, which addresses no-added-urea-formaldehyde in resins.
By questions remaining, she is referring to the difficulty of establishing global or even regional standardized rules.
“Regulatory agencies around the world haven’t agreed about how much formaldehyde is too much,” she says. “The lack of consensus can make this a difficult substance to regulate.”
Alternatives to formaldehyde-enhanced panels abound, but not everyone agrees that they perform as well. However, some proponents of change argue that new core products, derived from annual crops, can outperform traditional sheet stock. That argument is beginning to look a lot like earlier battles over oil- and water-based finishes. It goes something like this: crop-based rather than wood-based cores are made of bamboo and other grasses, hemp stalks, straw (rye, wheat and rice among them), sugarcane and other vegetable fibers. These options have at least augmented, and even at times replaced, traditional cores made from low-grade hardwoods or wood waste that has been mixed with resins that contain formaldehyde. The new cores have one thing in common – unlike hardwood trees, they can usually be renewed annually. That is, a crop takes one year to grow, as opposed to the decades required to raise a forest. That makes them more sustainable unless we run out of cropland.
If you’re looking for a somewhat green alternative to faced hardwood or lacquer panels, check out the website, www.windfalllumber.com, of Windfall Lumber in Tumwater, Wash. The company offers engineered panels in various reclaimed softwoods, such as one that is made with Douglas fir and hemlock that has been reclaimed from solid and glue-laminated beams or lumber that came from deconstructed industrial, agricultural and residential buildings in the Pacific Northwest.
For more information
The Engineered Wood Association (www.apawood.org) is a non-profit trade group that operates a 45,000 sq.-ft. research center. It works with manufacturers to advance engineered panel technology and also encourages industry innovation.
The Composite Panel Association (www.compositepanel.org) publishes an annual Surface & Panel guide of product information. Members include 30 manufacturers of particleboard, MDF and hardboard, which account for about 92 percent of the total manufacturing capacity in the US, Canada and Mexico.
Woodshop News also has an extensive listing on panel products in its online Resource Guide at www.woodshopnews.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue.