A sea change has occurred in the way veneer face doors are being manufactured.

Traditionally, 5-ply door manufacturers glued veneer faces to their doors as a final, separate step in the production process. However, in 2003, the owners of Heitink Veneers Inc., a manufacturer of veneer faces for commercial door, kitchen cabinet and furniture manufacturers, noticed that several 5-ply door manufacturers were starting to build their doors with the veneer face pre-glued and pressed to a thin sheet of high density fiberboard that had been purchased from a door skin manufacturer. Essentially the product was a 1/8-inch-thick piece of 2-ply plywood.

"We saw the writing on the wall," says Jan Heitink, vice president and general manager of Bloomington, Ind.-based Heitink Veneers. "We knew if we didn't add value to our product, we would be at the mercy of supplying door skin manufacturers with our veneer faces at volume discounted prices. So we decided to take the plunge and go after the thin plywood market."

The plunge was an inevitable one, according to Gerrit Heitink, president of Heitink Veneers. "Customers want solutions," he says. "It is up to us to find them and give them what they want, and in this case they wanted 2-ply door skins."

As a result, in 2005, Heitink Veneers launched a separate sister company, Heitink Plywood Technologies Inc., which is currently producing thin plywood at a furious rate.

Making thin plywood

While the composition of thin plywood a veneer face attached to a thin sheet of HDF is simple enough, what is not simple is getting the resulting board not to warp or become a "potato chip." This warping happens in part because of the unbalanced construction of the plywood. According to Jan Heitink, one door skin manufacturer had some success in minimizing warping by stacking its door skins face-to-face for shipping, and the Heitinks were aware of another manufacturer that was adding moisture back into its door skin to control warping.

The Heitinks knew that if they were going to be successful in the thin plywood market, their product and process would have to be better than their competition's.

Test run

To test the viability of producing thin plywood, the Heitinks located an unused plywood plant in North Carolina, leased it and sent a team there in January of 2005 to find a way to create stable 2-ply plywood. The key to their subsequent success was in identifying the proper bonding agent to place between the veneer face and the HDF sheet.

"We worked with a resin manufacturer to develop glue resin that would help us create a warp-free door skin with minimal stress on the veneer face," Jan says.

Another upside to the glue the Heitinks chose is that it is urea formaldehyde-free.

While in North Carolina, the Heitinks were able to develop and fine tune their thin plywood production process and ultimately received UL certification for their door skins. While things went well for the Heitinks in North Carolina, they were prepared for any scenario. "If things hadn't worked in North Carolina," Jan says, "we wouldn't have gone forward with any further capital expenditures."

The process

The Heitinks worked out a straightforward process for producing their thin plywood. First, thin sheets of HDF go through a glue applicator. From there, the board goes to a lay-up area where a veneer face is carefully placed on the board. From there it goes to a veneer press to secure the veneer to the core.

The process allows the Heitinks to also produce 3-ply plywood, which consists of a veneer face, a thin sheet of HDF and a backer face. For 3-ply plywood, glue is applied to both sides of the HDF. However, for their primary market, door manufacturers, the focus is mostly on 2-ply plywood.

Once the boards are pressed, they are then moved to a stabilization area, where they're allowed to cure for 24 hours. They then go to a double-end tenoner line for cutting and to a widebelt sander for a light sanding.

A proposal

Once the Heitinks mastered the process of producing 2-ply plywood, they had to decide where to manufacture it. The Heitinks considered the facility they were using in North Carolina, but ultimately decided they would be better off located back in Indiana, near their veneer face plant.

At this point the Heitinks were approached by Stiles Machinery with a proposal. "They basically came with a proposal of a complete, turnkey project," Jan says. Stiles' proposal included a Wemhoner multi-opening veneer press, a Homag double-end tenoner line and a Butfering sanding line.

After considering the logistics and the cost of bringing used equipment to Indiana from the plant in North Carolina, the Heitinks opted to go with Stiles' proposal.

The new plant

In what appeared to be a stroke of good fortune, Hallmark Cards, the owners of the warehouse and office building next to Heitink Veneers, announced it would be downsizing. After extensive negotiations, the Heitinks came to an agreement with Hallmark to purchase the facility.

The machinery started arriving at the end of September and the Heitinks' goal was to be on-line by November. "Our start date had to be moved back because of a three-week delay in delivery of the press," Jan says. "We started testing the press right after Thanksgiving, and the first production panels were made Jan. 1, 2006."

Since Jan. 1, the newly formed Heitink Plywood Technologies Inc. has been increasing its capacity by 30 percent every month, with a goal of producing 2,500 panels per shift. Currently they are running two shifts.

The competition

Jan Heitink admits that the competition in the thin plywood market is intense. Currently, there are two major manufacturers of thin plywood in the North America market.

Furthermore, thin plywood, in addition to thick plywood, is also being manufactured and shipped in from China and the Far East, which Heitink notes is putting price pressures on everyone from log procurement to veneer manufacturers to plywood manufacturers.

"Chasing the labor dollar is futile," Jan says. "Our goal is to value add to our natural resources in the United States. In order to do so, we need to provide a superior quality product produced very efficiently that can be delivered with a combination of quick turn around, service and competitive pricing."

Other markets

The Heitinks have a number of customers that purchase both veneer faces and thin plywood from them. "That's another niche that we're building, becoming a one-stop shop.

"We're always looking at different market sectors since plywood has many applications," Jan says.

Competitive edge

Jan Heitink notes that their operations give them an edge over their competition. "Heitink Veneers manufactures the most important piece of the door skin construction, the veneer face. Equipped with state-of-the-art crossfeed splicers, Heitink Veneers Inc. is planning to increase its capacity.

"The competition has to rely mostly on other manufacturers of veneer faces," Jan says. "That, together with our UF-free glue, warp-resistant door skin and control of the technical quality of the veneer face, puts us in a position to become the next driving force in the thin plywood market."

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