Changing for the better
June 30, 2010 | 7:00 pm CDT

In the early 1990s, a fine from the Indiana  Environmental Protection Agency spurred  Nickell Moulding Co. to change the way it manufactured its products.

"We thought we were being on the up and up and reporting everything, and we reported that we were over our limit on solvents," says George Nickell, president of the Elkhart, Ind.-based company.

"We were trying to correct it, but we didn't think anything would happen. Well, they hit us with a $900,000 fine."

Nickell Moulding contested the fine, got it reduced to $55,000 and paid it. Then the company decided to change the way it finished its products. "We made up our mind at that point that we were not going to mess around with any more solvent-based finishes," Nickell says.

"Whatever it took to switch everything to water or something green, we would do that, and that's what we did back in 1992."

The transition cost Nickell Moulding close to $1 million, according to Matt Kent, creative and sales director.

"We switched everything over from doing a lacquer finish to water-based finishes, put in all new equipment," he says.

"And so basically it's all water-based stains, paints and topcoats no chemical solvents."

Trial and error

Because water-based finishes were not common 16 years ago, Nickell Moulding had to rely on trial and error.

"It's a whole different learning curve with water-based finishes," Kent says. The company tried alternating coats of different finishes, but that didn't work.

"I bet you we ruined hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of mouldings just trying to find the right combination of material," Nickell says.

Nickell Moulding eventually achieved the desired finish and application method. As a result of those efforts, the company received the State of Indiana 1996 Governor's Award for Excellence in Pollution Prevention.

Half of Nickell Moulding's business is producing components and mouldings for the residential and commercial markets, including rails, stiles and trim for the kitchen and bath industry. It's a stocking manufacturer for Merillat Cabinets and supplies components to office furniture manufacturers  Hon and  Sauder.

The other half is stock and custom picture frame manufacturing for three types of customers: large OEM companies that produce art or photo frames for the hospitality market, small OEM companies and picture frame dealers through a stocking program of 120 picture frame mouldings, and a distributor network to which it sells a higher-end line of picture frame mouldings.

Expanding the green

Nickell Moulding has continued to evolve as an environmentally responsible manufacturer.

"Everything that comes through the plant is green," Kent says.

"It's all manufactured basically the same way. It doesn't matter if it's a rail or a stile or a cabinet door or a picture frame, it basically goes through the same process."

The company starts by buying sustainably grown and responsibly produced raw materials. Some of the mills belong to the  Forestry Stewardship Council, the  Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the  National Hardwood Lumber Assn., the  Indiana Hardwood Lumber Assn. and  Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Inc.

It also buys medium density fiberboard from suppliers that have already complied with the reduced-formaldehyde requirements of the  California Air Resources Board.

"So the raw material coming in, both solid wood and MDF, is all government regulated and made responsibly," Kent says.

He describes Nickell Moulding's manufacturing process as "a closed system." The material coming in is green, the manufacturing is green and the wood waste is captured by a large dust collection system, loaded into semis and hauled 20 miles to a company that converts it to wood-burning pellets.

"So it's green in, green out and whatever waste we make in the plant is turned into green energy," Kent says.

Voluntary steps

Kent points out that the company has taken these steps voluntarily. "It's something we've been doing since 1992," he says.

"As the industry gets more green, so do we, but this isn't something we were forced to do."

In another voluntary move, the company has signed up for  Indiana's Environmental Stewardship Program.

"We set goals and (the state) sets goals for us to be even greener," Kent says. The company also is looking into other environmental programs, such as one sponsored by OSHA.

"We're not waiting for governmental agencies 10 years down the road to dictate regulations," he says.

Customer response to the green initiative has improved as Nickell Moulding has stepped up its marketing. "In the past we hadn't really marketed that aspect of our manufacturing . . . but we are now and they love it," Kent says.

"(For) some of our large manufacturers that compete with foreign companies, that's a big deal to be able to say it's made in America, with environmentally friendly finishes and materials. They're using that for their marketing, too."

Greener still

Nickell Moulding will keep improving its water-based finishes, and is looking into water-based UV curing.

"There are very little emissions, if any, with the UV coating," Nickell says.

"We're looking into what they call cool UV that doesn't have the danger of the heat that is used in a UV curing oven. It does it with a cool light, which is really phenomenal."

The company currently recycles its water-based overspray. "So we have virgin material and non-virgin material," Nickell says.

"The non-virgin material is usually what we put down as a first coat and the virgin material, which is brand new material, goes on as the last coat." Nickell Moulding also is considering different types of spray guns and pumps that create less overspray and therefore less waste.

"We are trying to reduce even the amount of packaging material that we use here and that our customer has to throw away," Nickell says.

The company requires that its suppliers are environmentally responsible, and that any packing material can be returned, recycled or reduced.

Ultimately, the switch to green manufacturing has been good for Nickell Moulding's business.

"We got into it and saw that there were a lot more savings attached to it that people didn't realize," Nickell says.

"And not having to deal with all the cotton-picking permits is a big deal."

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

About the author

George Lausch was a staff writer and editor for FDM and CabinetMaker magazines. He wrote feature and news stories for the magazines.