When an executive of a wood composite panel business was asked what changes he had seen in the industry during recent years, his reply was "not many." That was shortly followed by comments detailing several issues that in fact have changed the landscape of the sheet goods industry and continue to do so today.
Years ago, long before big box stores existed, a trip to the local hardware store for a 4x8 meant walking out the door with a sheet of plywood. There really wasn't any other choice; it was the only game in town. But over time, products such as MDF, particleboard, OSB and hardwood plywood with various cores and faces emerged. Products from crops such as straw, wheat and bamboo are just a few other materials that have followed.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of products introduced during the last two to three years fall in the category of being "green" or "environmentally friendly."
For decades, formaldehyde has been used in the production of wood-binding adhesives and resins, most often urea formaldehyde (UF). The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified formaldehyde as "carcinogenic to humans" in 2004. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) approved an airborne toxic control measure (ATCM) to reduce formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products including hardwood plywood, particleboard, MDF, thin MDF, as well as furniture, cabinetry and other finished products. The first CARB emission standards, known as Phase I, were implemented on Jan. 1, 2009. Phase II, which consists of stricter regulations, will take effect in 2010 and 2011. The Phase II measures will be the toughest in the world.
• APA - The Engineered Wood Association,
• Composite Panel Association,
• Flakeboard. www.flakeboard.com
• Green Globes, The
• Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Association,
• Kerfkore Co.,
• Kirei USA,
• LEED -
• M.L. Condon Co. Inc.,
• Neat Concepts Ltd. www.neatconcepts.com
• Roberts Plywood Inc.,
• States Industries,
• Weyerhaeuser Co.,
The California ATCM does not apply to hardwood plywood, particleboard, MDF, and finished goods containing composite wood products that are manufactured, distributed, fabricated, imported, sold, offered for sale, or supplied for shipment and use outside of California. However, a bill based on the California regulations, the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Act, was introduced Sept. 11 in the U.S. Senate with the intent of having a national emissions standard for wood products and also clarifying some of the language of the CARB regulations.
"The green aspect in the last two years has certainly been the biggest thing, particularly the glues, particularly compliance with CARB and the impact of LEED criteria [a recognized green building certification system], which is to demand a NAUF [no-added urea formaldehyde] product," says Bill Powell, a spokesman for States Industries of Eugene, Ore. States is a supplier of natural wood veneered panels to consumers in the form of residential wall paneling as well as industrial panels. "A lot of people are still hanging on to UF resins and the UF resin people have continued to lower the amount of formaldehyde. That actually makes it less workable and there are shorter tack times. I think urea, which works very well - but is toxic and people don't want it - is kind of on its way out."
"CARB is going to force some technology changes," says Chris Leffel, vice president of sales and marketing for SierraPine, North America's leading manufacturer of MDF and particleboard. "It will force innovation, which I think is a good thing. Some of that has happened and there is more that still has to happen, particularly as it revolves around Phase II. Controlling emissions on MDF is much more difficult than it is on particleboard. And then you get into thin MDF and it is even more difficult. But I think that just about everybody in North America will be Phase II-compliant when the rule goes into affect in 2011. I do expect this to go national in scope, whether through the EPA or congressional mandate. But the key to the whole thing is enforcement."
"One of the major developments is how quickly the North American hardwood plywood industry has not only met the Phase I CARB regulations, but over two-thirds of the plants are at the Phase II level with a significant part of the production exempt," says Kip Howlett, president of the Hardwood Plywood and Veneer Association. "The hardwood plywood emission numbers are the lowest of the four regulated product types."
When MDF arrived on the scene, there was only one type of the wood composite product. The consumer now has a number of choices depending on the particular application.
"SierraPine acquired the Medite Corp. back in 1997," Leffel says. "Medite was one of the very first MDF producers in the world and that is where our culture of innovation spawned from. On the particleboard side, now you are seeing three or four different products that we offer for green building and we're not done. There is a lot of new neat stuff that we are looking at so we will continue to innovate, continue to introduce new products."
Leffel points out consumers need to realize there is a difference between NAUF products and NAF (no-added formaldehyde). NAF products have no-added formaldehyde, as the name suggests. NAUF products, which CARB regulations cover, prohibit emissions containing urea formaldehyde. SierraPine introduced its Arreis product in 2006 which has NAF technology and is competitively priced with standard MDF.
"I think MDF keeps getting better and better," observes Scott Roberts of Roberts Plywood, a wood products wholesaler and retailer in Deer Park, N.Y. "There are more types of MDF that we see nowadays. There's the regular, there's some formaldehyde-free, there's fire-retardant, there's FSC-certified, there's the ultra-light, moisture-resistant, exterior. We do some particleboard ... there are some people who just prefer it and I think it may have something to do with that's just the way they learned to do woodworking."
The world of plywood is also changing. Different grades are available, core materials vary and, outside of California, the types of resin and glue used may differ depending on the manufacturer. For hardwood plywood dealers, a national standard would bring some consistency to the business and control products from overseas.
"One thing that has been coming in a lot has been these inexpensive imports and I stay away from them like it's the plague," Roberts says. "Most of the plywood that we have is proudly produced in the USA."
"In substrates I see more imported cores coming in," says Ray Wimbert of ML Condon Lumber, a full-service wood products company in White Plains, N.Y. "However, there are some [domestic companies] like Columbia Forest Products, which we deal a lot with, which just sticks with the poplar core. You also have the Chinese imports. You saw it before, but not to the same degree where people are using it like they are now, especially the birch plywoods. It's all cost-driven."
Several wholesalers reported an increased amount of customers switching from plywood to MDF products because of its stability as well as the environmental and quality issues associated with plywood.
States Industries has offered its ApplePly product for more than 10 years and, in recent years, the FSC-certified plywood was converted to a mixture of birch and alder inner plys with phenolic glue. ApplePly was followed by ArmorCore, which is available as NAUF- and FSC-certified. The company is in the process of launching its Versa product, with melamine on one face and the user's choice of veneer on the other.
"Face veneers have gotten thinner; we can't control that," Powell says. "We would like to have them thicker, but we can't get them that way. We buy them from the face veneer suppliers and, as they get thinner, any discolorization or imperfection in the cross banding is telegraphed more than even before."
"The advantage of thinner veneers is, obviously, you get better yield out of the log so there's a challenge there," Howlett adds. "The forest is yielding smaller diameter trees and you want to improve the utilization off that log. The technology is emerging that you're able to accommodate that."
"The closet industry, the store-fixture people, they're big into melamine, although some of them are now upgrading to more and more prefinished plywoods," notes Roberts. "I stock a prefinished maple, a cherry, a red oak, walnut, sapele and wenge. So the growing list of what is available prefinished is increasing."
The marine plywood industry remains relatively unchanged. Lauan (also sold as meranti), okoume and Douglas-fir remain the top sellers for many dealers.
"I think it is more price-driven than before; the marine plywoods have gotten so expensive," Wimbert says. "Some of the Dutch product, the Bruynzeel Regina, which was the Cadillac of marine plywoods ... has just priced itself out of the market. People are now willing to switch over to a lower okoume. That's something you never saw before."
Engineered wood products are primarily associated with the construction industry and include exterior plywood, OSB, I-Joist, Glulam and LVL (laminated veneered lumber). They are exempt from CARB regulations.
OSB may be the most familiar engineered wood product and is used for sheathing and underlayment. It is available in 4x8 panels and tongue and groove panels, usually 1/4" to 3/4" thick. OSB is occasionally used in frames for upholstered furniture.
"They [structural wood product manufacturers] are required to use moisture-resistant glues, so they can't use urea formaldehyde, not prescriptively but [because of] performance," explains Steve Zylkowski, quality service director for APA - The Engineered Wood Association. "Ureas could never give them the performance you need for those wet uses. As a result of that, they are also very low emitting. We haven't changed anything. The adhesives are the same. It's phenolic adhesives and because of low emissions they were exempted, so they pretty much got a bye on it."
The vast majority of APA member's products are certified by programs such as Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council and Canadian Standards Associations. The products start at the log form whether they are veneers, strands or lumber and are obtained from sustainable forests.
"The various programs - LEED, the NAHB Green Building Standard, and Green Globes - are all increasing questions on our members' products," Zylkowski says. "We have very good documented environmental footprints dealing with low embodied energy, biorenewable, and we're working with those types of programs to recognize those benefits and life-cycle analysis proves out those benefits."
One sticky issue of late has been alleged formaldehyde emissions from structural plywood used in government-issued trailers following Hurricane Katrina. On Sept. 24, a federal jury rejected claims by a New Orleans family that the FEMA trailer they were living in exposed them to dangerous fumes. The government was not a defendant in the case, but further litigation in other cases is pending.
A new take
There are a number of companies that have emerged in the last few years that offer an assortment of items new to the United States. Kirei USA has been in business for five years and offers four products that qualify for LEED credits - Kirei board, Kirei bamboo, Kirei wheatboard and Kirei coco. Kirei board is a substitute for wood and is made from the sorghum plant.
"Kirei board is our flagship product, that's the product that we started with," says company spokeswoman Teresa Cooney. "The plant is woven, then compressed and then sliced into sheets. The top half of the plant is a food source, so it is used in animal feed, it's a sweetener, and the bottom half is the stalk. That is what we use and it is a rapidly renewable resource. It's normally thrown away or burned in landfills, but now we make a sustainable product out of it. It's a very durable product."
Kirei board is sold in 1x6 and 3x6 sheets and suited for furniture, cabinets and millwork - basically anything you would do with wood. The bamboo plywood is used for millwork, furniture, table tops, retail displays and cabinetry, and grows in China's Moso forest. Kirei recently added 4x8 sheets of chocolate-colored bamboo that goes through a carbonization process to achieve the color.
One of the more unusual products is Kirei's coco, which comes from Indonesia and is manufactured in China.
"Most people are just ecstatic about this product," Cooney says. "These are handmade from coconut shells and, as you can see, there are about 12 different styles. Some of the styles are really rough, others are more polished down, and some are completely sanded down and are actually a complete flat surface and they are filled in with a resin. They currently have a plywood backer. We may be switching to a mesh backer shortly, which will make it flexible."
Flexible panel products have been around for years, with Kerfkore and Neat Concepts among the companies offering a variety of curved structures. Green has entered the curved market as well, as Kerfkore has added NAF Kerfkore Green for radius work in production environments and NAF FlexGreen for architectural panels and other radius applications.
A changing business
Some of the larger publicly held companies such as Weyerhaeuser, Georgia-Pacific and International Paper have streamlined operations and no longer offer as diverse a product line as they have in the past. Weyerhaeuser, for instance, sold its North American composite panel operations in 2006 to Flakeboard America Ltd. The sale included six mills with a combined annual production of 1.1 billion sq. ft. of MDF and particleboard.
"What that has meant is private companies like us and the other major players in this business now control the vast majority of the production capacity in North America," says SierraPine's Leffel. "What that means, as a privately held company, we can make decisions much faster and we have more innovation into the market."
"I think the formaldehyde issue is kind of behind us," says HPVA's Howlett. "The thing that we're looking at - and we're very supportive of - is the federal formaldehyde rule because we want it to apply to imports since over 50 percent of the U.S. market is supplied by offshore producers. With a federal standard you bring in U.S. Customs and U.S. EPA to be able to federally enforce the standard to imports."
"With the demand for fiber now heightened, our producers now have to look at whole log chipping to get enough raw materials to run their plants versus staying with a truly recycled and recovered approach," Leffel adds. "That's one issue and, of course, the other is formaldehyde. Obviously, when it comes to building, the main segment interested in this has been commercial. We're just now starting to see residential construction adopt some of the green building practices the commercial guys have been pursuing for the last six or seven years, but it is still in its infancy. I think there is a lot of confusion out there."
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.