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Why sourcing, milling and finish quality matter

Article By: Ken Ryan – http://www.fcnews.net

By the time a hardwood floor is installed, the final product has endured a lengthy journey that includes harvesting, transporting, milling, finishing and selling.

There is risk for error at various points throughout the hardwood production process, which is why responsible sourcing, precise milling and proper finish are crucial factors in ensuring a quality product is delivered.

“What distributors and dealers are looking for when selling a hardwood product is peace of mind,” said Luc Robitaille, vice president of marketing at Boa-Franc, makers of the Mirage brand. “No one wants callbacks due to product defects or low quality.”

Harry Bogner, senior vice president of hardwood at Unilin, a Mohawk company, said the importance of sourcing, milling and finishing becomes clear at various stages of the manufacturing process.

“From the manufacturer’s perspective, high quality milling and finishing ensure that a product will fit together correctly and perform,” he said. “As a manufacturer, I always want to provide a high quality product so I have happy customers who will buy from us again and who will go out and tell all their friends, ‘I have a Mohawk hardwood floor and it is great.’ Also, manufacturers obviously don’t want claims coming in, and quality milling and finishing help avoid that.

“For the consumer, what a hardwood floor really comes down to first and foremost is color,” Bogner continued. “The most important thing to a customer is that the color she ordered is the color she received. After that, it is about durability; is the floor going to hold up? That is where the milling piece comes in.”

Following is a closer look at the important steps that go into a finished hardwood flooring product.

Sourcing

Several flooring companies have joined the National Wood Flooring Association’s (NWFA) Responsible Procurement Program (RPP), a joint initiative between leading environmental groups and industry manufacturers committed to producing and promoting wood floors that come only from environmentally and socially responsible sources.

“Everything we have in our line, whether we manufacture it or it is sourced elsewhere, has to come by verified sources,” said Dan Natkin, director of hardwood and laminate for Mannington, which is a member of the NWFA RPP. “You have to be thorough in this process. The thing is, we have to put our name on these products. We are not some fly-by-night brand.”

Mannington’s mantra, “Make first, source later,” reflects how the company does everything it can to make products in its own facilities. When it has to go outside, it puts its sources through a rigorous stress test—from the financial stability of the company to supply chain and third-party verification.

Other companies, whether affiliated with NWFA RPP or not, are taking similarly proactive approaches. Max Windsor Floors, for example, looks for quality, reliability and responsibility when sourcing hardwood products, according to Peter Spirer, CEO. “Factories in China are priced pretty much alike, so cost isn’t the issue in how we judge suppliers,” he explained. “We don’t depend on the factories for creating new product lines. We prefer to submit the specs and colors for matching. What we need is on-time shipment and maintaining original quality standards. Additionally, the factory management must accept responsibility for manufacturing defects, should they arise.”

To ensure the best quality, Max Windsor uses independent inspectors to check for product color match and construction as the production materials are being packed. Spirer’s management team visits suppliers at least once a quarter to review all issues and plan for new products.

“We are building constructive relationships with our suppliers which extend far beyond the norm,” Spirer said. “The lifeline and ultimate success of an importer is reliant on its factory suppliers. Period. It almost doesn’t matter whether the factory is owned by the importer or is supplying on an OEM basis. What matters most is the continuing dialogue with factory management. Call it brainwashing, training or anything else. It’s the continuity of message that will win the day.”

Ron Oliver, vice president of sales and marketing for Hallmark Flooring, said raw material sourcing has been a significant problem for manufacturers. Hallmark is facing back orders for the first time in five years, primarily for walnut and hickory. However, according to Oliver, the company is better positioned than others to deal with the issue.

“Unlike many others that source in China, we provide the raw material and our own quality control people work in the factories, keeping an eye on the production,” he explained.

“For us, the strength is being able to buy our own logs and lumber, which we have been able to do for the last number of years. To the saw mills, we are not some invisible player; we are actually someone who isScreen Shot 2014-06-17 at 10.50.04 AM buying directly from them.”

Oliver said there is roughly half the capacity in the market as there was five years ago. The reason? The extended downturn rid the industry of many loggers, saw mills and even transportation companies. “While the economy is improving, the diminished infrastructure is putting a squeeze on raw materials,” he said. “You look at ¾-inch solid. Some of the majors have had four, five and even six price increases. From a raw materials standpoint that constitutes a challenge for the industry.”

Milling

Milling is a key step in ensuring a precise fit and easy installation. On the technical side, expertly milled boards should fit together perfectly, with no noticeable variations in thickness. “Milling is extremely important in maintaining consistency and to ensure there are no over-wood issues,” said Drew Hash, vice president of hard surface product marketing, Shaw Industries. “The milling process also gives our floors the structural integrity needed to create a quality hardwood product.”

Bogner added that precision milling is especially critical to ensure planks of click-wood products—such as those from Mohawk, Q-Wood and Columbia—fit tightly together for a strong, lasting connection.

While hardwood manufacturers each utilize different methods for milling, most use digital calipers, a precision instrument that accurately measures internal and external distances.

Mannington uses a tool called Smartscope, which measures profile conformance. Originally designed for high-precision steel work, Smartscope has been adapted for use in flooring. “This system is accurate to the thousandth of an inch and allows us to be extremely consistent from run to run,” Natkin said.

Using a more traditional method, HomerWood employs Amish craftsmen as part of its millwork process. “Quality is everything here,” said Kathy Barker, operations manager at HomerWood. “The differentiator is the hands-on approach, the number of people we have involved in the process, and the speed … which is slow.”

From beginning to end, a team of inspectors (as many as 74) are involved in the millwork. They each make mental notes and physical decisions during the process. “All of our employees are cross trained,” Barker said. “They have a full understanding of the inspection process, and they make decisions every step of the way that affect the final product. From the time it comes in—even when it is unloaded—we have testing and criteria that have to be met. There are checkpoints at each step of the process.”

To assure color consistency, Mohawk vigilantly monitors the color processing during each production run. Trained eyes continuously match to a color master board to ensure that the resulting color is within variance. “Use of improved color booths that simulate multiple light environments also helps ensure that customers can rely on our hardwood to be the most consistent products on the market when it comes to color,” Bogner noted.

Also concerned with meticulous production, once Armstrong’s trees are harvested, the company puts the product through a process that ensures the board has the right moisture content and proper grading. The company’s manufacturing method includes dozens of inspection points, from the moment the wood touches the line until it goes into a box.

“We have 70-plus pairs of eyes look closely to make sure [the floor] meets spec,” said Milton Goodwin, vice president of hardwood products. “We also spend a lot of time on the front end; it starts with the ability to buy quality lumber. The tree we use [in the Appalachian region] grows slowly and has a beautiful look to it; it’s in a part of the world that has no chance of being overharvested.”

Finish

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 10.51.01 AMFinishing hardwood is a crucial point in the milling process, often the determining factor in the purchase decision, as well, executives said. Whether it is to reduce scratches or add beauty, the R&D behind finishes continues to evolve with many companies marketing their own proprietary products.

The European tradition of using oils and wax to create natural wood flooring surfaces is one trend illustrated by the U.S. market. Gary Keeble, product and marketing manager at USFloors, said that at one time USFloors and DuChateau Floors were the only U.S. companies with oil-based finishes. “That was [around] 2007 and 2008; we were it,” he said. “Now I can count at least 10 companies with oil-based finishes.”

Keeble explained that an oil finish provides a “uniquely distinct” look when compared to an aluminum oxide finish. “Oil penetrates into the wood, not on top. The more you oil it, the more it will develop a richer look.”

He added that a disadvantage with aluminum oxide is that it develops micro scratches. “Over time it refracts the light and makes it look dull. Oil doesn’t leave micro scratches; that is one unique benefit it offers.” A floor with an oil-based finish is also usually sold at a higher price, providing dealers with greater margin opportunity.

Among the companies touting new oil-based finishes is DuChateau, which markets a proprietary Hard-Wax Oil finish, described as a non-pollutant, non-toxic, ultra-low VOC product with no biocides or preservatives. According to the company, the special features of the finish allow the oils to penetrate deeply into the wood pores to enhance the look while the wax remains on the surface to maintain a natural matte finish and create a protective layer.

Mirage uses a product called Nanolinx for its prefinished wood flooring. Robitaille said the finish is made of the smallest particles possible. “Nine times smaller than a hair, the crosslinked particles make the finish more flexible to preserve the floor’s original appearance and prevent cracking,” he explained. “Each particle molds perfectly to the shape of the hardwood floor and this creates the clearest finish in the industry. Therefore, it avoids a plastic-look effect that is seen too often with competing products.”