Consumption of wood products in Europe has been rising to record levels. But they could be even higher if wood coatings could be made more effective in terms of durability and protection.
The latest United Nations figures on the European forest products industry shows that consumption of sawn softwood went up 3.4% to 95,669 metric tons in 2004 while with hardwood it rose 5.4% to over 19,000 tons.
In the key particle board market, which is a major generator of demand for coatings, production increased by 5.6% while in the first half of the year demand rose by nine percent.
Wooden flooring as an alternative to the use of carpets continues to be highly popular in many parts of Europe. Since mid-2004 wood flooring has increased its market share by 12% in the UK.
Not only are European consumers showing a growing preference for wood but the ecological arguments are working in favor of wood products.
The use of wood as a construction material results in the emission of less carbon dioxide than it would with other materials. The production of timber utilizes far less energy than the production of materials like steel or aluminium or even plastic. Furthermore, wood is renewable.
Nonetheless there is evidence that despite its spates of relatively strong growth, demand for wood could be faltering, especially in sectors like construction and furniture. Demand for particle board deteriorated sharply during the first half of 2005, although the decline was expected to have levelled out by the end of the year, according to the United Nations report.
Dyrup, the Danish coatings company which is a specialist in wood coatings in the European market, reported a 47% drop in operating profit in the first nine months of 2005 while it expected that sales for the whole year would be static. Its operating margin on sales dropped from 18% a year ago to 12% in the third quarter.
The company blamed weakened consumer confidence in the DIY sector and a "low level of activity" in the construction sector which prevented it from compensating for increased raw material costs through price rises. Dyrup has embarked on an efficiency improvement program to boost profitability.
A major reason for the loss of momentum behind the demand for wood coatings is the inability of the sector to accelerate its expansion in some segments of the European paints market.
One big difficulty has been that consumers want transparent coatings which do not hide the natural grain and patterns of the wood. This presents complications for producers of wood coatings for exteriors of buildings where they face major technological challenges.
"Outdoor applications of transparent wood coatings, as opposed to paints with opaque colors, have to cope with the problems of the sensitivity of these coatings to light and humidity which can lead to biological decay," explained Daniel Rogez, marketing manager for colorants and additives for decorative and industrial coatings at Ciba Specialty Chemicals. "Consumers, architects and designers want clear or light pigmented coatings but these inevitably allow UV light to penetrate the wood, cause degradation and limit its durability."
Progress is, however, being made in tackling some of the technological difficulties for clear wood coatings for window frames which have been limiting sales of wood paints in what is a key segment of the construction market.
PVC is now the predominant material for window profiles across much of Europe. In Germany it is estimated to account for over two thirds of the sector for renovated window frames. It has been making rapid inroads into the market in Eastern Europe where there has been traditionally a preference for wood in the housing segment.
"The target is to provide clear or light pigmented wood coatings for window frames with a guaranteed durability of ten years, which at the moment is not feasible," said Rogez. "But there have been a number of innovations helping to bring wood coatings much closer to this level."
Ciba, for example, has introduced a UV light absorber in combination with a photo-oxygenation inhibitor -a hindered amine light stabilizer (HALS)-to protect the wood lignin from degradation.
However, clear wood coatings will need more than UV absorbers and light stabilizers to mount a strong competition to PVC and other materials used on the outside of buildings. More progress needs to be made in fighting the effects of humidity, which at the moment is combatted through the application of one or more primers before a top coat.
There is still some way to go before a clear coat can be introduced for the window frame sector, which can be used in most conditions and also provide a ten-year durability guarantee, according to one wood coatings marketing manager. He said the best option at the moment is a clear top coat with a primer comprising iron oxide pigments and light absorbers.
In the large market for coatings for wood floorings, producers have to cope with a wide variety of consumer needs, as well as a requirement for high durability levels.
"In central Europe, parquet floors with a worn look are popular," said Paivi Vihtonen, an industrial wood coatings sales representative at Tikkurila Coatings. "Artificial wormholes have been made to the parquet surface and the wood grain pattern has been brushed out with a steel brush. In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, light-colored floors are popular."
Wood coatings technologies, particularly those used in the furniture segment, have also had to be changed to help users comply with new regulations on emissions of VOCs. This has bolstered sales of waterborne and UV coatings.
In the furniture market, however, the effectiveness of UV systems has been restricted by the three-dimensional nature of the objects to be coated. All parts of the furniture cannot be exposed to UV light without considerable technological difficulties.
Tikkurila, in collaboration with BASF, has developed a method of UV curing with an inert atmosphere or oxygen-free space. "Chairs can be coated at the same or lower costs as with solventborne coatings," said Kari Soljamo, Tikkurila's vice president of R&D.
Technological advances like these can help wood coatings not only maintain their market share in Europe but also continue to expand in other important segments.