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Wood: Latest trends include less raw material angst

 Volume 28/Number 6; September 1/8, 2014

By Ken Ryan

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 9.50.28 AMAfter 18 months of quarterly price hikes among major domestic hardwood flooring manufacturers—the result of volatile increases in raw material costs—the last five months have seen relative market tranquility as lumber costs have stabilized.

While that is good news on the surface, prices remain at higher than normal levels, and there have not been any significant decreases in the past few months.

Milton Goodwin, vice president of hardwood products at Armstrong, said the conditions that sent prices soaring in late 2012 “are still potentially out there, ready to rear its ugly head.”

But, at least for now, raw materials costs have hit a ceiling and are not increasing as they were six months ago. “This is good news for all in our industry as things could not have remained the same without severe impacts on the overall sales of hardwood floors,” said Luc Robitaille, vice president of marketing for Boa-Franc, makers of the Mirage brand.

Drew Hash, vice president of hardwood, Shaw Industries, said raw material costs are always a key factor in manufacturing. “Engineered wood products represent a good option for more price-point-sensitive consumers,” he noted. “Technology offers new textures and visuals such as wire brushing and different scraping techniques.”

Wider, wider, wider

In terms of product trends, bigger continues to be better when it comes to wood planks. The reason is apparent, as larger, longer boards add visual interest to a room, as does combining multi-widths in one space, flooring pros said. “Planks aren’t limited to the floor, but rather are being used everywhere—from walls to ceilings, and even bedroom headboards,” said Pricilla Bergeron, communications manager at Lauzon Distinctive Hardwood Floors.

Whereas 2¼-inch strip flooring was once the standard, 5-inch strips are now in vogue, with 6- and 7-inch widths becoming the new upgrades, according to Dan Natkin, director of laminate and hardwood flooring at Mannington. “We are seeing widths as large as 10 inches; however, these are highly specialized,” he noted.

Made in America

The natural appearance and authentic look of North American species such as oak, maple and hickory is resonating with consumers who are choosing domestic over exotic and imported species in greater numbers. Robitaille suggested this is because consumers are looking for wood with more character and because they tend to purchase local.

Indeed, the Made in America movement (as well as Made in Canada) is gaining steam as a marketing advantage for domestic producers. Last month, for example, continuing a recent spate of onshoring developments, Armstrong announced it was closing an engineered hardwood flooring facility in China and relocating it to Somerset, Ky.

Armstrong, which has enjoyed success with its American Scrape collection, is readying a slew of 2015 introductions and will continue to tout its Made in America message.

Others are leveraging that message as well. “We are continuing to see consumers get behind the Made in America movement and self-limit their selections to products manufactured in the United States,” said Brian Greenwell, vice president of marketing at Mullican Flooring. “As a result, we are seeing significant consumer demand for four domestic species: white oak, red oak, hickory and maple. Considered to be traditional, oak has always been popular.”

Oak remains the popular domestic species due to advancements in wire brushing techniques, etching and distressed looks. “Harvesting improvements and the way manufacturers are able to craft and cut each board allow for more customization of the look and feel of oak,” Hash said. “All these things together have given oak a new look, bringing it to the forefront of the market once again.”

Design, color trends

The increase in consumer interest in the hickory and maple species can be attributed to the continued popularity of hand-sculpted textures, as most hand-sculpted business is done with those species.

Natkin said oak is seeing a tremendous resurgence, particularly the white variety. “Colors are becoming softer and more muted, and darker colors are fading in popularity,” he said. “Character in the wood continues to rise as the naturals trend continues. The types of knots and mineral that we were cutting out 10 years ago are now extremely desirable.”

Robitaille also noted that lighter colors are starting to reappear and are being combined with very rustic grading of wood with knots and dark mineral streaks—all of this on wide widths.

Some hardwood executives said smooth, high-gloss wood floors are losing ground due to their manmade, mass-produced appearance, while low-gloss or matte surfaces are the new favorite, especially those that have been scraped with a soft wire brush, revealing the true character of the grain.

Bergeron said neutral tones tend to reveal more of the grain pattern and create a welcoming feel in a room. “Mixing up the décor with multi-tone paneling adds additional dimension and appeal to any space,” she explained.

Michel Collin, director of marketing at Mercier, said while dark colors are fading out, replaced by lighter ones, “wide, textured and color variation are still in demand.”

Conversely, Greenwell said darker colors create what he called “a dramatic and stylish look throughout the space, accenting the wood grain while masking scuffs and scratches.”

Outlook

Several executives said the first half of 2014 was sluggish for the remodel market while builder remained quite strong. There is hope for a stronger 2014 finish for the remodel sector. “Based on the latest consumer confidence numbers—which are trending higher—we are hopeful we will see some improved remodel activity,” Natkin said.

And there’s no surprise in product trends: The hot style will continue to be wider widths, punctuated by hand-sculpted and wire-brushed finishes.