The Finer Details

In a world of cookie-cutter subdivisions and deteriorating older homes, millwork is making a bigger push in the housing market as some consumers look for ways to make their homes unique and others take on the task of fixing up their historic homes. Not only is wood still a big player in the millwork industry, but synthetic materials are reshaping exterior millwork products and what can be done with them.

The wood millwork market is continuing to grow and the demand is boosted during low periods of construction by the remodeling/replacement sector. In 2003, the sales of millwork products reached $13.9 billion. This was an increase of 1.2 percent. Despite competition from other materials, wood millwork products are expected a continued rise of 1.2 percent until 2014 when it is estimated to reach $15.9 billion.

As mass produced neighborhoods have become a staple across the United States these days, homeowners are looking to find ways to distinguish their home from their neighbors. Greg Wolf, director of marketing for Fypon, a manufacturer of synthetic millwork products, is very aware of this trend.

"It's the types of houses being built right now," says Wolf. "People are looking for accent pieces to dress it up a little bit."

According to Tom Candito, custom shop division manager of Van Millwork, a New England millwork supplier, one of the reasons millwork is so big right now is because of the involvement of homeowners in the design process.

"People are building bigger more detailed homes custom designed to their tastes," says Candito. "They want it exactly how they viewed their prints — down to the smallest detail."

Restoration has also contributed to the exterior millwork's success. Van Millwork was able to work on an 1800s house in Beacon Hill, a historic neighborhood in Boston. The porch was deteriorating and the owners were looking to restore the home to its original design. After finding an original set of prints, Van Millwork's team went to work to duplicate the entire design and give the old home a face-lift.

In another example a builder who was renovating a Victorian bed-and-breakfast used AZEK Trimboards, another manufacturer of synthetic material millwork products, in to order deal with the problem of availability. After finding out that the Victorian crown molding that was rotting and crumbling from the building was no longer available in wood profiles, he had a mill shop re-create the product using AZEK Trimboards.

Inside the new materials
When it comes to exterior millwork products, synthetics are making big strides in the industry. As people's lives become busier, homeowners are looking for ways of building and maintaining their homes that amount to low upkeep. Ralph Bruno, president of AZEK Trimboards, believes he knows the two things really driving the market.

"One of the big dynamics pushing the market is consumers looking for products that don't require all the upkeep of wood," says Bruno. "Overall trim really defines the home, making it stand out from the monochrome vinyl wrapped house. Consumers really like the warm feel (trim) gives the home."

Mark White, president of Architectural Elements, a distributor of synthetic millwork products, agrees with Bruno as to why consumers are investing in man-made materials.

"We are in a time frame where older buildings are pealing and rotting," says White. "Consumers are driving the synthetic market for its low maintenance and longer life cycles. Homeowners also don't want to have to worry about painting all the time."

So just what are all those new products and technologies that are being used in millwork today? According to Architectural Elements, there are four materials used in a majority of processed millwork pieces: high density polyurethane, flexible moldings, GRG and PVC.

High density polyurethane is a foam that is expanded in a closed mold where the foam has no where to go causing a higher density product generally compared to that of white pine. Because polyurethane is a closed cell structure, it does not absorb or transmit water or water vapor and resists the growth of mildew and fungus.

A lot of high-density polyurethane products come from manufacturers with a primer applied to the surface. Usually latex or oil-based paint can be applied as a topcoat after a light scuffing of the primer coat. This type of millwork material can be used with basic woodworking tools, and nail holes can be filled with vinyl spackle or plastic filler.

On the positive side, high density polyurethane products have a relatively low installed cost per foot compared to wood. It can also be used to replicate pieces only available in plaster. On the downside though, if the project is looking for a natural hardwood trim finish, this would not be the product to choose.

Flexible polyurethane moldings begin much the same way as high-density polyurethane products; only the foam is allowed to remain soft and flexible rather than becoming dense. This flexible material can then follow any contours in a project for a flowing look rather then several cut seams.

Time and money is a factor with this product, in how much one will save using it. There is no delamination or separation of glue lines common in laminated wood products. On the other side of things, flexible moldings are much heavier than high-density polyurethane products, which adds to larger profiles being more difficult to handle, and can cost up to three times more than a rigid material.

GRG is a composition of fiberglass and plaster. Because of the materials used in GRG products, they are quite dense, obviously heavy and can also be constructed to offer moisture resistance. One coat of oil or latex-based paints can be used on GRG after a coat of primer.

Although GRG cuts with conventional tools, the use of abrasive disks or diamond tooling may need to be used for thicker profiled products. GRG gives the look and feel of stone at a lighter weight with a Class A fire rating. GRG works great for custom projects but is heavier and more expensive than polyurethane.

PVC is a low-cost alternative to pine trim that has a density very similar to wood. It is also a closed cell product that does not transmit water or water vapor and allows it to keep its painted finish much longer than wood. PVC works great with traditional equipment and uses PVC cement for welded joints.

The PVC material works great in all exterior flat trims like facia, soffits and corner boards. PVC can be difficult to handle in the long heavy lengths it comes in requiring, most times, that more than one person work with the material. Dark colors are also not recommended as a paint choice for this material because they don't take as well to this product.

Looking toward the future
"I think we are in the infancy of change," says Bruno. "Synthetics are becoming more popular, and we are doing everything people need to be able to use our product including working on International Building Code ratings."

Clearly, synthetics are making their mark in the millwork arena. White, who deals exclusively in these products, has watched them grow over the years.

"In 1992, no one knew what they were," says White. "Now they are taking over the market as consumers become aware of the product and their benefits. AZEK is to foam products and Fypon to polyurethane as Kleenx is to facial tissue."

On the other side though, Candito doesn't see wood products leaving any time soon. He indicated that 20 to 50 percent of the work Van Millwork does each year is in exterior millwork. Van Millwork tends to deal with high-end builders and homeowners who want traditional balusters and handrails. These are consumers looking for much more detailed custom work.

Across the board, those in the millwork industry see nothing but positive numbers for the future. They are producing more, selling more and seeing an increase of awareness for the products. As older architecture decays, the demand for reproduction, replacement and preservation becomes more prevalent.

"We are looking at a lot of more fabricated products and better assemblies," says Wolf. "The technology is advancing, and you'll see more things like PVC foam being fabricated into column covers, trim, porch arches and whole systems. This is especially the case as planned communities begin reviving the American porch."

White also indicated that pricing will continue to play a big role in synthetics' push in the future. As whole systems, such as balustrades which are a huge part of exterior millwork right now, homeowners are looking at offsetting some of the costs that can be $50,000 or more.

"Remodelers helped put us on the map," says Bruno. "Remodelers are the problem solvers looking for new ideas and ways of doing things."