Recent years have seen a steady shift in the molding market away from solid wood. Signs are that this will continue, driven by price pressure and evolving consumer tastes.
This shift comes during a six-year period when sales of moldings, like those of other building products, have been trending upward. A study by Wood Markets Group in Vancouver, British Columbia, predicts that the amount of product shipped will grow 6% to 8% this year alone, reaching 69% of the peak set in 2006—the year the housing bubble began deflating.
The same study found that while paint-grade moldings accounted for a consistent 85% of sales during that period, there has been a change in the mix of products sold. “Consumption has been growing, but not in pine,” says Wood Markets President Russ Taylor. “It has been growing in MDF.”
He says that MDF sales swelled from 25% of the market in 2006 to 38% in 2015; most of that gain came at the expense of finger jointed pine, whose share fell from 62% to 48% during those years.
The best-selling profiles also are changing. When we last looked at molding in this column two years ago, everyone we spoke with said that the growing popularity of mid-century modern and craftsman styling was eating away at sales of traditional moldings in most of the country. That has continued, and designers see no end in sight.
The reasons behind this trend range from cost-consciousness to a growing interest in simplification to the orientation of homes toward the outdoors. “People are looking for crisp, clean, modern detailing that doesn’t take away from the feeling of spaciousness inside the home or the views to the outdoors,” says Bud Dietrich, a New Port Richey, Fla., architect who works on projects nationwide.
Dietrich’s observations line up with the sales trends reported by distributors and manufacturers. “Craftsman style continues to grow, with fewer colonial patterns and more S4S,” says Al Delbridge of East Coast Moldings, a manufacturer and distributor in Wilkesboro, N.C.
Not surprisingly, this is having an impact on profits. “We’re finding that more board feet are being sold but that sales dollars are down, because square stock generally costs less per board foot.”
Wood Markets’ Taylor says that his company’s research shows a trend toward square stock boosting MDF sales. “With the growing fashion trend toward craftsman-style trim, producers now estimate that more than 25% of their current molding production is in flat, primed boards,” he says.
That percentage is even higher in some markets. “Square stock is probably the biggest component of the MDF we sell,” says Paul Geibel of Rugby Architectural Building Products, a distributor headquartered in Concord, N.H. “People want sharp, crisp lines on bases and casings.”
While Geibel believes that price plays role in the demand for square stock, it’s not only going into budget homes. “Even the higher-end homes are using a lot of MDF. Natural wood doors with paint-grade trim are really big now,” he says.
Of course, luxury builders demand high-quality materials, and MDF manufacturers credit their gains in that market with the fact that they have taken those demands seriously. “Board quality and the finish quality have both gotten better over the years,” says Shawn Perry of Alexandria Moulding, a manufacturer and distributor based in Alexandria, Ontario. He says that improvement has been a key to getting contractors who work on high-end projects to give MDF a shot.
Tradition is Also Changing
MDF isn’t the only non-wood option. How about plastic products like polyurethane? The Wood Products study found that the market share of these products has also grown, from 5% in 2006 to 8% in 2015. Although that’s not as much growth as MDF, it appears to be part of an overall move away from solid wood.
“Customers like it because the lines are crisper than MDF and it looks more expensive,” says Daniel Milkie of Ekena Millwork, a polyurethane manufacturer in Clarksville, Texas. “It’s fancy but not costly.” He says that most of polyurethane’s gains have come in markets where traditional architecture still dominates, such as the Northeast coast.
As for selling in today’s market, with product trends driving down profits, the only way to compete is on service. With square trim profiles, pro customers tend to value speed of delivery, but with more traditional ones the ability to help the builder’s customers visualize the end result is still a big deal.
Ryan Mulkeen, director of marketing at Kuiken Brothers, a pro dealer in Midland Park, N.J., (one of those local areas where Colonial trim still dominates) says that mock-ups continue to earn their keep because they let contractors send their homeowner customers to the showroom to see what’s possible.
But he cautions that choosing the right profiles to display is important. “You don’t want so many examples that homeowners feel overwhelmed,” he says. “You just need some core designs and a sales staff that’s up to speed on the different product lines.”
In other words, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the importance of a responsive, knowledgeable staff that can work with customers to help them make satisfying choices