The classic five-piece cabinet door, with cope and stick or mortise and tenon joinery, has been around forever. With a raised or flat panel, this door style in solid hardwood is the staple of custom woodworkers and mass producers alike. But there is a new five-piece door set to make its debut in the US. Its popularity in Europe has spread through Eastern Canada, gaining momentum as it moves into the North American market.
This new product is not made from solid hardwood, although most consumers won’t know the difference. Instead it is made from profile-wrapped MDF moldings that are usually finished with vinyl films or polyester post impregnated paper, although oriented polypropylene films (OPP) are also used. Polyester is currently the dominant wrapping material for composite five-piece door construction due to the high print fidelity and versatility of décor paper. Printed papers from suppliers like Interprint, Suddekor, Schattdecor, Toppan and others can either be saturated in melamine resin for the production of TFM or saturated in polyester, a more flexible resin, for the production of profile wrapping material. Using the same paper design for both processes ensures the stiles and rails (mostly cut at 45 degree angles) and insert panel are perfectly matched. Not only are composite five-piece doors convincing and consistent, they are generally made with materials, techniques and equipment already in use in the panel processing industry
THE NEW CLASSIC
So what’s so special about these doors? Fidelity. The printed surface patterns are perfect, as is the defect-free face of the composite substrate. This translates to very little waste and improved yields, which positively impacts the bottom line. An old time woodworker from North Carolina used to say, “God grows trees, so we have to accept grain variations.” Not any more. The advanced printing technology of the digital age makes photo-realistic products that eliminate grain variations and flaws. Multiple color-ways of any given pattern only enhance kitchen designers’ options. Once these doors are installed side-by-side in a kitchen, the clean lines of perfection create an entirely new look, which can range from contemporary to traditional and anything in between.
The Europeans have known the benefits of the composite five-piece door for a long time. In recent years Quebec has exploded with multiple manufacturers, including Concept Avanti, Prestolam, Meralis and others. Currently the North American market is confined to Quebec and eastern Canada, where the five-piece door has as much as 30% of the door market. Remarkably, in Ontario it is less than 2 and in the US less than 1%. That is likely to change. “Seven to eight years ago, many of the manufacturers in Quebec were small operations serving their local markets,” says Don Hambly, president and CEO of Olon Industries, Inc. “Those manufacturers have matured and are looking beyond their own boundaries. Now their market share in Quebec is impressive. Composite five-piece doors could easily capture a similar market share in Ontario, not to mention the Untied States. The potential is enormous.”
“We are seeing increasing interest in five-piece door production in Ontario and the United States. Our goal is to stick with our initial strategy – remain solid partners with door fabricators.” -Don Hambly, President and CEO of Olon Industries, Inc.
SUPPLYING THE TREND
Successful proliferation of the new five-piece door depends on coordinated industry players. In eastern Canada the key suppliers have programs to serve the door makers. The TFM suppliers like Tafisa, Uniboard and Flakeboard have all worked closely with Olon to match TFM designs with the polyester wrapped moldings.
As the largest supplier of polyester wrapped moldings in North America, Olon is at the heart of this growing phenomenon. “We are seeing increasing interest in five-piece door production in Ontario and the United States. Our goal is to stick with our initial strategy—remain solid partners with door fabricators. We’ve made some acquisitions and integrated vertically upstream to insure that we have the latest technology and productive capacity to effectively serve the market,” says Hambly. “Stevens Industries in Teutopolis, IL is a great example of an early stage program. They’ve acquired the mortise and tenon equipment, have the systems in place and their sampling programs are established. They have the capacity to grow very quickly.”
The five-piece door market is not limited to the polyester wrapped moldings/ TFM insert approach. Vinyl and other synthetic 2DL laminates are also very viable options. PVC is an excellent wrapping material, and in combination with 3DL membrane-pressed raised panel inserts, this combination offers more “dimensional” styling options. PVC also offers a perfect match, but requires separate printing cylinders for each pattern. The paper based polyester-TFM approach has far more design options because the saturating grade paper can be shuffled and shared between HPL and TFM companies, as well as the polyester saturators. While both options for producing five-piece doors will succeed, it is the wide range of available prints…and therefore possibilities… which will likely drive the sales of paper based products higher. Nevertheless, “insurmountable opportunities” exist for everyone.
PROCESSING TECHNOLOGY IS KEY
The homework has been done. Considering the level of technology and talent invested in the production of the key “ingredients” of five-piece door manufacturing, the complexities of fabricating the doors have been minimized. While there are many proprietary techniques employed by the seasoned manufacturers, much of the trial and error has been eliminated. A large percentage of the five-piece construction is 45 degree mitered stiles and rails with mortise and tenon or bore and dowel joinery. There is a wide range of processing equipment available to fabricate these parts, including Accusystems, Unique Machine, Koch and others, but according to Hambly, “from what I’ve seen, Balestrini equipment (sold and distributed by Solid Wood Systems, Inc.) is the defacto gold standard in Quebec.”
The “barrier to entry” for composite five-piece door production is also rather low. TFM insert panels and MDF wrapped profiles for the stiles and rails are really the only material ingredients. Although processing equipment is a significant investment, many companies in North America already possess the technology necessary to manufacture the components. Other critical costs that must be considered include sampling, sales, marketing and advertising. Neglecting these crucial facets of business will inevitably lead to the failure of the endeavor.
WHAT ABOUT DEMAND
The remaining, and most important, question surrounding the composite five-piece door is this; will the American consumer share the same appreciation for this product as the consumers in Quebec? It’s true that residents of Quebec City have more in common with the European sense of style and design. But domestic manufacturers have historically underestimated the American consumer’s desire for high style products. For those who question the above statement, please refer to the IKEA website. While American consumers typically have difficulty defining their preferences, they know what they like when they see it. There is a very good chance that when America sees the classic styling of five-piece cabinet doors, created with the consistency and fidelity of composite materials and matched decorative surfaces, they will like what they see. For the American market, it is less a question of “Will the demand will arise?” and more a question of “Who will be the innovators that truly capitalize on the new five-piece door phenomena?”
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