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Increasing productivity: five profiles in membrane pressing.

The use of membrane presses is slowly gathering steam in the United States as more wood products companies begin to understand their potential.

Membrane presses are versatile, productive and expensive. The latter element has stymied their widespread use but the former two characteristics are helping to generate considerable interest among wood products manufacturers, especially in light of solid wood price increases and increasingly stringent finishing regulations.

The versatility of membrane presses lies in their ability to work with both veneers and vinyls and to conform these overlays to shaped and contoured substrates.

This article explores how five U.S. firms are using membrane presses. Four of the five are mainly using their presses with vinyls. The fifth, Hayworth Panel & Roll, is currently using its press exclusively with veneers.

'The surface has just been scratched'

PrimeWood Inc. of Wahpeton, N.D., is a U.S. membrane press pioneer. Founded in 1977 as a manufacturer of solid wood millwork, PrimeWood's CEO Edward Shorma was drawn to Europe in the mid 1980s to investigate options for recycling shorts using veneer wrapping technology, according to Joe Beyer, director of operations. "Basically, we were looking for a way to stretch the raw material," Beyer said.

During his European excursion, Shorma saw his first membrane press. After returning to the United States, Shorma and his crew set about converting a rubber vulcanizing clam shell press into a membrane press to press veneers. That press went into operation in 1987.

The company expanded its membrane pressing capabilities in 1988 when it purchased a Wemhoner press to apply rigid thermal foil as an alternative to painting cabinet doors. Most of the doors are five-piece construction but the company also manufactures one-piece MDF doors.

Today, PrimeWood has nine membrane presses, four built in-house for pressing veneers and five purchased from Wemhoner for pressing foils. Depending on the volume of work-in-progress orders from customers, mainly OEMs and kitchen cabinet manufacturers, productioncrews operate 16 to 24 hours a day, five or six days a week. The company's sales eclipsed $16 million in 1991, up 69 percent from 1990 and good enough to place PrimeWood at the top of fast-growth companies with sales exceeding $5 million in Wood & Wood Products 1992 WOOD 100.

"We're currently running all white for the rigid thermal foil product -- one matte and one textured," Beyer said. "But were looking at adding woodgrain patterns. Our customers have not expressed much interest in high-gloss vinyls. They are not in as great of demand for cabinets. They are more difficult for the consumer to maintain because of the way they show fingerprints and smudges.

"One of the nice things about membrane pressing," Beyer added, "is that it can achieve the white painted look without the headache of finishing emission VOCs. It also has an advantage over melamine in that you can create a raised look in the door.

"I think the surface has just been scratched for membrane presses in the woodworking industry," Beyer added. "There has been a stigma attached to the use of veneers and foils as being low and mid-range quality only compared to solid wood. But I think they represent a superior product. Compared to solid wood products, membrane-pressed veneered products can be made defect free and are more dimensionally stable. You don't get splits and checks like you do with solids. And the rigid thermal foil products are at least as scratch resistant as a painted door, are very stain resistant and are more environmentally friendly."

Learning to successfully use the presses for applying rigid thermal foils was a much more lengthy learning curve than for veneers, Beyer s aid. "There are so many variables involved, including the quality of the substrate and the vinyl. "Most important, though, is the people. You have to have good people to operate them."

'I almost sent it back'

Philip Ast Cabinet Shop Inc. of Kewanee, Ill., is a 16-man operation that purchased an Iberpress from Veneer Systems Inc. after seeing it at IWF '90 in Atlanta. The 40-year-old company manufactures doors for both its own products and for sale to other cabinet shops through a marketing agreement with Great Lakes Wood Products of Northfield, Ill.

"For nearly 40 years our specialty has been making custom cabinets for residences in our region," said Joe Ast, son of the founder. "I became interested in membrane pressing after we started routing one-piece cabinet doors from an MDF slab. At first we painted the doors because I couldn't figure out a way to get the foil into the rout. Then I started reading about membrane presses in the trade magazines. It really got my interest."

Ast said his company purchases 3/4-inch MDF panels, with thermofused melamine on one side, from Panfibre. The panels are machined into raised panel doors on a Thermwood CNC router. "We do standard rounded corner routs in our shop and an outside contractor routs the five-pass square corner raised panel doors for us," Ast said.

Ast said he tries to press enough cabinet doors to fill three to four custom kitchen cabinet orders a day. The Iberpress has a 3-foot by 6-foot table and is a two-shuttle machine. Thus, parts can be loaded on one shuttle tray while another batch is being pressed. Press cycle times average one minute and 20 seconds, Ast said.

So far, Ast has worked almost exclusively with 16-mil white matte vinyls from Reneer Films and Jowat water-based urethane glues. Plans, though, include using Riken and C.I. Kasei high-gloss vinyls in white, black, maple burls and other woodgrains for home entertainment furniture doors.

"Originally I thought the membrane-pressed doors would only be used for lower-end cabinets, but I'm finding that they are being used in high-end cabinets, too," Ast said. "People like them because the vinyl requires low maintenance. To the untrained eye its hard to tell the one-piece MDF door from a five-piece painted solid wood raised panel door.

"Learning how to use this technology is not easy," Ast added. "It took us many months to get going. I was tempted to send the press back because we would get wrinkles or little cuts -- things that would just drive us up the wall. We probably took a dump truck full of doors to the landfill at first. We kept working on adjustments, fine tuning our press temperatures, pressures, cycle times and such. When I look back now it all seems so simple. The key is you have to be handy and patient, willing to learn from your failures, keep the press room clean and make sure you have good lighting to check for surface bubbles," Ast said.

'Combatting higher lumber prices'

Hayworth Roll & Panel Co. of High Point, N.C., custom manufactures fancy face veneers and custom plywood components for the furniture industry. "We're very big into cherry, red and white oak, white pine, maple, crotch mahoganies and burls," said Mark Trexler, Hayworth's president and CEO. "Fancy face tops are our specialty."

The 88-year-old company employs 240 production workers and a slew of veneer presses. Customer options include straight face veneer, sketch face veneer, single ply face, two ply face in a host of patterns including book match, slip mach and reverse diamond match. In addition, value-added operations like shaping, CNC routing and boring, and edgebanding are offered.

New to the company's veneering equipment arsenal is a Buerkle membrane press installed by European Woodworking Machinery about four months ago. "The way I see it, membrane pressing is a way of combatting higher lumber prices for making raised panel doors for entertainment centers and other furniture part," Trexler said. "Cherry lumber has gone sky high and oak is way up. I think we're going to see more companies switch from solids to veneered products. With a membrane press you can shape a substrate and then lay up three-piece veneer construction."

The Buerkle is a feed-through press with a 5-foot by 10-foot press opening. Even though the press can be used to thermoform vinyls, Hayworth is using it strictly for pressing veneers. "We might do vinyls later," Trexler said.

Because veneer is being used the company is able to use particleboard instead of MDF panels. "If we were using vinyls, we would have to switch to MDF to prevent telegraphing," Trexler said.

The company sizes particleboard on an Anthon CNC panel saw; rectangular panels are shaped on all four sides using a Stefani combination machine. Dimensioned panels are run through a glue spreader and then fed into the press. "After the veneer is laid up and pressed, we sand the shape by hand and sand the front and back on a Heesemann widebelt sander."

Trexler said his company's decades of experience in veneering shortened the learning curve but did not eliminate it. "Some of the things you have to learn include getting the exact cut veneer so it fits the substrate. Thinner veneer like 1/50 inch is easier to press because it is more pliable but it requires more careful sanding to avoid sandthrough."

"We also discovered that cherry and maple are two of the most difficult species to press successfully because of their tight grain patterns. When pressing on a contoured piece, oak has a tendency to move and contract but cherry and maple, with their tighter grains, have to be handled more carefully. In my opinion when you get to the point that you can press maple and cherry, you have accomplished a lot," Trexler said.

'Price, look and performance'

Of the five companies profiled here, RKS Laminates Inc. is the only one that owes its very existence to membrane press technology. That's because since its inception last year, RKS Laminates has been solely devoted to manufacturing one-piece and five-piece thermoformed vinyl MDF doors, machined on one of two Motion Master CNC routers -- one with two heads, the other with four heads -- and pressed on either a Sorbilite or a Seibu membrane press.

RKS Laminates operates as a separate company but has close ties to Rider's Inc., a manufacturer of doors and mouldings based in McKees Rocks, Pa. Britt Wells, marketing manager for both companies, said RKS serves a niche that Rider's does not address. "There is a high demand for white raised panel doors and we make them at Rider's, but not at as low of a cost as we can at RKS. Also, because of the one-piece construction, there are no seams. The price, look and performance contribute to its popularity for lower and medium-end uses," Wells said.

According to Wells, Rider's years of experience working with laminates was a decided plus in learning about how to use a membrane press. "There is a lot to learn through experience, things like the proper amounts of heat and pressure to apply and timing cycles. It's not as if you can plug the machine in and start right away. Thermoforming is a process different than anything we ever did at Rider's. But in terms of understanding polymers, our experience of laminating, softforming and profile wrapping worked to our advantage.

Addressing the learning curve RKS operators experienced, Wells said the Sorbilite press was a good introduction to membrane pressing "because it is relatively inexpensive."

As product orders from small and medium custom cabinet shops and cabinet refacers grew, so did the company's press capacity requirements. About three months ago, RKS Laminates added the Seibu, distributed by Baxter Woodworking Machinery.

The Seibu has a press opening of 4 feet by 8 feet. Because RKS does not offer a stock program, all doors are custom made. Pantry doors up to 7 feet tall are also pressed on the Seibu.

RKS uses G-P MDF that has thermal-fused melamine one one side. White matte and semi-gloss rigid vinyls, in thicknesses of 16 mil or 30 mil, are purchased from Reneer Films and others. "We're looking into offering high-gloss vinyls and occasionally we get requests for other colors or woodgrains, but the volumes of the requests are not great enough at this point for us to be able to do that," Wells said.

'Machining is one of the most crucial steps'

Production is as busy as a beehive at Ellstrom Manufacturing Inc., a custom panel manufacturer based in Seattle, Wash. According to Erick Ellstrom, vice president, the company has been operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the last six months to keep up with orders placed by customers large and small, who mainly manufacture kitchen cabinets, furniture, store fixtures and marine products. In addition to North America, the 33-year-old company exports product to Canada, Asia and other parts of the world.

"Hong Kong is a large market for membrane-pressed products," said Ellstrom of one of his company's newer specialties. Before purchasing a Wemhoner membrane press two years ago, Ellstrom Manufacturing had built its business on manufacturing both high-pressure and low-pressure laminate parts and wood veneer panels, with the added ability to cut-to-size, drill, rout and edge treat panels to customer specifications. Membrane pressing has opened new windows of opportunity, Ellstrom said.

"It has always been our goal to be a leader in technology and to adapt new and innovative ideas to our business. We view membrane pressing as a market that is far from being fully established and we think we are on the ground floor to help create a market for new products," Ellstrom said.

Currently Ellstrom is using the Wemhoner press to mostly produce white matte and high-gloss thermo-formed vinyl cabinet doors, plus whitewashed maple and natural oak vinyl doors. Vinyl thicknesses range from 0.4mm to 1.5mm. "We produce thousands of membrane pressed parts every month," Ellstrom said. In addition, the company is making parts for the marine, furniture, computer and aircraft industries.

"There is a lot of potential to be tapped," Ellstrom added. "I think the furniture industry will become a big player because membrane pressing lends itself to design creativity. Parts can be pressed in intricate detail." In Ellstrom's case, the "intricate details" are machined on three Heian machining centers purchased from Stiles Machinery, all with multiple heads and automatic tool changers. The machining centers are outfitted with Gladu diamond tools.

"The cabinet doors we make are one-piece MDF construction," Ellstrom said. The Heians can rout the rounded corner doors with two tools or handle more complicated square corner doors with eight tools. Each router can machine up to four doors simultaneously.

"The machining of the substrate is one of the most crucial steps. A membrane pressed vinyl door will show any flaw created by any other process so the door that goes to the press must be done exactly," Ellstrom said.

"Today we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg for membrane pressing; tomorrow we hope to change that. The market can only dictate based on what it sees. The market has to be educated to what is available."

If that is the case, then Ellstrom is positioning itself as a high-level instructor. It has two more Wemhoners on order, including the 100th sold worldwide that Wemhoner will display at the Anaheim Woodworking, Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair, Sept. 9-12.


Given a choice of colors, patterns and woodgrains, most customers of products made on membrane presses choose white.

Perhaps the biggest reason for white's popularity is that a majority of the companies who are using membrane presses with vinyls originally got turned on to the technology as a way to achieve a white-painted door look minus finishing emission problems.

Wendy Steed, marketing manager of Reneer Films, said her company currently offers 12 styles of thermoforming vinyls. "We're seeing a tremendous interest in these products. Vinyl for membrane pressing is our fastest growing product line; sales this year have tripled our estimate."

Because of the increased interest in membrane pressing, the Laminating Materials Assn. has formed a committee to develop a voluntary standard for thermoforming vinyls. In addition to Steed, Diana Roman, marketing manager of American Mirrex, is a member of that committee.

"People ask us what colors we offer but they only buy white," Roman said. "The market has really not evolved yet to a second color. The market is still relatively small but it is growing rapidly as more companies buy membrane presses. I think that once the furniture industry begins to use this technology, it will help drive color choice."

Steed added, "Kitchen cabinet people were the first to recognize the advantages and now others like furniture and electronics manufacturers are looking at it. They won't be happy with just white."

Special foils, special glues

Steed said thermoforming vinyls are more rigid than conventional flat laminating vinyls -- 16 mils compared to 6 or 7 mils -- to prevent distortion of the film under high temperatures. "The temperature requirements of the membrane press require the use of a different compounding than is found in flexible vinyls," she said.

On the adhesive front, Rudy Spitzer, vice president of Jowat Corp., said some polyurethane water-based emulsions have been specially formulated for membrane pressing of vinyls to a variety of substrates including MDF and particleboard. He said one property of these adhesives is that they can be heat reactivated at relatively low temperatures (as little as 140F) so as to prevent heat damage to the vinyl.

Spitzer also said that by adding a catalyst, these specially-formulated glues crosslink. Crosslinking the glue line increases heat reactivation levels to 210F or more.

These glues are generally applied by spray or knife coater. Spitzer added that glue films represent a third application method but are still in the developmental stage.

"There is definitely an increased level of interest in membrane pressing," Spitzer said. "There is a lot of untapped potential for business."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Christianson, Rich
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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