By Wade Vonasek and Matt Warnock

Quality issues aside, many companies have found improvements in sustainability, material usage, productivity and profitability when upgrading their finishing operations.

As with the rest of the industry, it seems that the state of wood finishing is in flux. Environmental regulations, economic pressure to be more cost effective and the need to maintain the quality that customers demand are all factors that companies must keep in mind when upgrading their finishing lines.

Among the above mentioned reasons for updating a finishing line, sustainability is arguably the most recognized or sought after in the public eye. Consumers seek to purchase items that are not only made in an environmentally friendly manner, but do not emit VOCs, formaldehyde or other chemicals.

This goes hand-in-hand with increased awareness of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) regulations, as well as green building programs from other industry associations.

A recent survey of woodworking executives on our VIP panel indicates customers are requesting finishes with “no off gassing,” which in many cases means using water-based or UV finishes. Achieving and maintaining a high-quality finish is also a top concern among the Woodworking VIPs.

Listed below are three examples of companies that have achieved high-quality finishes on products while maintaining a high level of productivity, profitability and sustainability.

Improvements = Profitability

Long lauded for its environmental achievements, office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. continues to look for ways to improve its operations.

“We are continuously reinventing our finishing process,” explains Kevin Kuske, general manager, wood for Grand Rapids, MI-based Steelcase Inc. “In that process we have reduced emissions, lowered material usage while improving quality and eliminating added formaldehyde from our finish.”

When adding together all the reasons behind Steelcase’s continual improvement of its finishing line, the company has found an added benefit.

“As we have found, with all quality and sustainability improvements, we also improve our profitability.”

When Steelcase first began the process of updating its finishing line, there were several factors the company kept in mind. According to Kuske, the company wanted: a seamless transition, so that the only thing customers noticed was improved quality and service; a step forward in sustainability; improved applied cost; and improved work flow.

Today, Steelcase exclusively uses water-based finishes in its products. With it, Steelcase was able to reduce its costs because of decreased emissions control costs. Steelcase says the water-based finishes also have provided its customers with better indoor air quality without compromising the finish quality. Additionally, the water-based finishes provide a better working environment for the company’s employees.

Steelcase follows LEED guidelines for indoor air quality, Kuske adds, and supports 21 voluntary environmental programs.

While Steelcase might feel pressure for environmentally friendly finishes from its customers in the business and governmental sectors, cabinet companies are also having to face similar issues.

Improvements made by Kent Moore Cabinets to its finishing line have helped the company reduce setup time, increase capacity and decrease material usage, all while improving quality and eliminating added formaldehyde from the finish.

KMC’s Winning VOC-Reduction Plan

Within the last two years, Bryan, TX-based Kent Moore Cabinets has made improvements to its finishing line that reduced setup time, increased capacity, improved productivity and lowered operating expenses, according to John Trcalek, vice president of production. The company successfully reduced its emissions by more than 80 percent through the use of a water-based flatline finishing system.

These improvements have “increased our potential capacity, because the reduction in emissions allowed us to finish and sell more product under the VOC restrictions,” Trcalek adds.

Because the company has taken a proactive approach to making products that are environmentally friendly, it says it will be prepared for any regulatory issues that might pop up in the future.

“Any upcoming issues concerning finishing would only affect our company in a positive way, since Kent Moore Cabinets already has the most environmentally friendly finish available,” says Teresa Galliher, vice president. The company’s efforts have earned it Texas’ top award for environmental excellence.

As of yet, the company has not had too many requests for environmentally friendly finishes, although it has noticed protocols that are being explored in some areas, such as the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Galliher explains.

By taking a forward thinking stance on the composition and quality of its finishes, Kent Moore Cabinets has positioned itself to be ready for what changes might come.

Canyon Creek’s Automation and Optimization

Monroe, WA-based Canyon Creek Cabinet Co. has made numerous changes in the last two years to its finishing process, with the goal of reducing emissions, increasing quality, improving productivity and increasing profitability. According to Allan Mustard, finishing manager, the company has: switched from water-based to lower VOC solvent coatings; implemented continuous reformulation of coatings to improve quality through process control; installed proportioners to the clear coat booths; installed color changers on the stain lines that reduced the number of spray guns needed to spray all the colors from 40 per booth to two per booth; enhanced its fluid delivery systems for centralized supply; installed additional equipment to support glaze and finish enhancement processes; and purchased and installed the Pater Noster, a sophisticated pivoting tray conveyor finishing system. Canyon Creek also worked with the Pollution Prevention Resource Center to find and use the latest techniques and tools for training in finish spraying.

“Bringing this level of automation to a department that had otherwise been very manual and labor-intensive has helped us to improve our processing efficiency, overall color quality and consistency from job to job,” says Mustard.

Canyon Creek’s Pater Noster is the first in the United States and the largest in the world at 190-feet-long and 24-feet-wide, with 140 trays attached to a chain that serpentines around a series of gears. “The gears lead the 4-inch by 12-inch trays to 11 different manned stations, each with an electronic ‘finishing recipe’ associated with the cabinetry parts on the tray,” says Mustard. “When a tray arrives at each of the stations, a computer screen at that station highlights which portion of the recipe is to be completed there.”

For Canyon Creek, process control and finish quality were key factors it considered when upgrading its finishing line, Mustard says, the optimization has resulted in lower VOC emissions, higher throughput, less waste, and reduced labor and overhead.

“It’s also important to us to be classified in a synthetic minor regulatory status, avoiding crossing over the VOC threshold into the Title V classification,” says John Earl, Canyon Creek’s environmental manager. “This reduces the amount of regulatory restrictions and monitoring, and gives us room to increase production.”

There can be significant challenges when converting a finishing line. Mustard says that some of these include the cost of the new equipment, depreciation of existing equipment and improving quality.

“In the design and development phase, be sure you have your modifications in priority, and an implementation plan that is incremental, rather than monumental,” Mustard says. “All scenarios in finish can be difficult to test for without production trials that are fairly large in scale. This can be expensive and must be controlled to ensure you are getting the results you predicted. As you develop a system, temper your enthusiasm for new technology to remain on the leading edge, but not the bleeding edge.

“Another huge challenge is the actual conversion itself, since at times it is not possible to run a new system in parallel to the old one,” Mustard adds. “Always have a backup plan available.”

With the challenges, though, also come the benefits. Mustard says that converting to a more efficient and environmentally friendly finishing line offers improved efficiencies, thereby reducing labor, overhead, waste, and lead-times both internally and externally.

“Environmental stewardship and compliance practices are easily implemented and adopted by staff and vendors, not only as cost-savings initiatives, but also as ‘doing the right thing,’ as responsible members of our community, locally and globally,” says Mustard. “These philosophies are very marketable to customers; they want their product in as short a lead-time as possible, complete and correct, with green processes and materials, at a price that fits their budget.”

“We are often asked, ‘How is your finish green?,” says Earl. “We explain how our finished products have little or no VOC off-gassing once the product is in their home.”
Canyon Creek’s plant was built in 1997 to accommodate water-based finishes. Earl says the company helped its supplier, Akzo Nobel, develop a water-based finish that gave Canyon Creek the quality of coating it required.

“We used this coating until 2006, when we changed to a low-VOC solvent coating, eliminating some of the VOCs from the water-based coatings, and giving us better quality and room to grow,” Earl say.

“We have been very successful with a hybrid system of water-based and low-VOC solvent base coatings,” says Mustard. “This gives us flexibility in the finish process, as well as the optimal coating for the specific color or finish desired.”

With the green territory also comes regulatory issues. Mustard says that one challenge in this regard is that the definition of “green” as it applies to coatings is not clearly defined for the woodworking industry.

“KCMA [Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers’ Assn.], through the ESP [Environmental Stewardship Program], is providing some structure to this, but no added urea formaldehyde (NAUF) at this point applies primarily to the substrate, not the coatings,” says Mustard. “While our coatings have only trace amounts of urea formaldehyde, the conversion to a system free of the material will be a challenge. Some of the available systems include urethanes, UV, and water-based coatings, that may have narrower application windows and longer cure times.”

Earl also sees additional issues. “Carbon offset will be a hot topic in upcoming regulatory legislation,” he adds. “We as a company will implement ongoing changes in our materials and processes to reduce our carbon footprint.”

An overview of finishes that comply with the new LEED EQ 4.2 requirements

LEED EQ 4.2 for New Construction requires that clear wood finishes applied to interior elements do not exceed the VOC content limit established by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) Rule 1113 for architectural coatings, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2004. These limits are: Clear wood finishes — varnish 350 g/l, lacquer 550 g/l; sanding sealers, 275 g/l, and stains, 250 g/l.

For a finisher wondering, “What are my coating and stain options?” here are some suggestions:

• Stains — Water-based or 250 g/l VOC stains are your only choice. Most coating manufacturers are currently offering water-based stains, so many options are available. Solvent-based 250 g/l are more limited in availability, as the options for available solvents to meet these restrictions are limited.

• Clear Coats — There are several options available to the finisher when it comes to topcoats and sealers: water-based, 550 g/l lacquers, 350 g/l conversion varnish and polyester coatings.

• Water-Based Coatings — The typical VOC range of these coatings is 100-300 g/l. Most water-based coatings use a solvent that is miscible with water to help with the coalescing of the resin system. These coatings have become easier to apply and make an excellent choice for on-site application due to their low odor.

• 550 g/l Lacquers — Nitrocellulose lacquers, water white lacquers, pre-catalyzed and catalyzed lacquers all can be formulated to fall into this category. Depending on performance requirements, using a 550 g/l solvent-based coating is a good option, as these coatings apply and perform similar to their higher VOC counterparts currently being used in many finishing shops across the country.

• 350 g/l Conversion Varnish — Even though most conversion varnishes are formulated for higher solids, they still are not formulated for the 350 g/l that LEED requires. However, a coating supplier can formulate a low-VOC conversion varnish to meet these criteria.

These popular coatings, typically used in the kitchen cabinet industry, make for high-quality and extremely durable coatings. However, if they are applied on site, their potentially stronger odor can raise other issues. The low-VOC formulated products tend to have a lower odor, due to the solvents used, making them a good choice for complying with LEED.

• Polyesters — Polyesters are very high-solids clear and pigmented coatings that can comply with LEED EQ 4.2. These multi-component coatings begin at 98% solids before application and, after adding the other components, apply at 77-84% solids, putting their VOC at approximately 160 g/l. Polyesters easily produce the “closed pore” finishes that are used in many high-end applications, and their durability is excellent. These coatings are best when they are applied in the shop. However, they can be applied on site by using plural-component application equipment.

Information in the above overview was provided by Tim Woolery, vice president of marketing and product development, Gemini Coatings. For additional information, contact him directly at (405) 345-2032 or timw@gemini-coatings.com.

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