NWFA Expo Review: Exhibitors exude cautious optimism with new releases – June 2023
By Jennifer Bardoner
With the theme of “Make it Happen,” the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) Wood Flooring Expo welcomed nearly 3,000 people last month to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the annual convention and show had been scheduled to be held in 2020 before being canceled amid the pandemic. While other event locations have been a draw in and of themselves, the Midwest is a strong hardwood market, and the halls of the Wisconsin Center were crowded with attendees visiting the 200+ exhibitors.
In his opening speech, NWFA president and CEO Michael Martin said members are cautiously optimistic. He reported that roughly 40% anticipate an increase in sales this year, while another nearly 40% expect sales to be flat and only 5% are worried about sales being down significantly. Still, there are concerns: most notably the economy, supply chain challenges, an ongoing labor shortage and the global political climate.
While there was energy on the show floor, new product releases seemed somewhat reined in, focused largely on rounding out color palettes and price points-particularly on the more affordable side-while also promoting innovations of the past few years. Many members have faced not only supply chain challenges brought on by the pandemic, but also availability issues with Baltic birch, traditionally a backing for engineered hardwood products, and European white oak, still the preferred visual, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting sanctions. Though supply chains have now largely righted themselves and alternative sources have been found, the uncertainty led to an over-inventory among many manufacturers, which must work its way through the sales funnel. Meanwhile, NWFA members cite increasing encroachment from lookalike resilient products, which most expect will get worse in the coming years.
To promote category sales, the NWFA recently signed a contract with the Magnolia Network, headed by home renovation stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, to advertise on the network. Wood products may also benefit from lobbying by the Hardwood Federation as the Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization. Hardwood Federation executive director Dana Lee Cole said the trade association is pushing for additions that would federally recognize the carbon benefits of wood products and provide funding for research on the benefits of using hardwood building products, for professional and consumer education, and to increase the country’s hardwood exports, among other things.
In the meantime, NWFA members report that they are working to streamline their operations while adding new product categories, lines or services and growing their teams. The expo offered the chance to network and share best practices while learning from more than 30 speakers on a variety of topics.
Next year’s expo will be held April 16 to 18 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
NWFA chair Julie Russell cited the labor shortage as one of the most significant issues facing the industry. Stephanie Owen, NWFA vice president of education, said some manufacturers have had to shut down their evening shifts due to a lack of workers.
To help expose a new generation to the opportunities offered through the hardwood flooring industry, event organizers and member representatives hosted the second annual NWFA Expo Student Day. This year, more than 100 local students signed up to participate in a related craft, walk the show floor and visit with exhibitors.
In addition, this year, the NWFA bestowed its first-ever Emerging Leader Award, which went to Luis Perez of Atlanta, Georgia-based Hero Flooring.
While Brian Parker, AHF Products’ vice president of product management, said solid hardwood is holding its own, with an anticipated growth rate on par with the general flooring industry, AHF focused most of its new product releases on engineered hardwood offerings. Able to offer a wider variety of price points and features, engineered hardwood is expected to grow around 10% over the next five years, said Parker.
In showcasing AHF’s new collections, AHF vice president Milton Goodwin noted the preference for engineered wood installed over concrete slabs and in dry climates. Post Side and Seaboard offer a beefy 4mm veneer “for more discerning customers,” said Goodwin. The company also previewed a more entry-level version, which has yet to be named, that combines best-selling colors with a 1.3mm to 2mm veneer, similar to Dutton Pass. Launched earlier this year, Dutton Pass will soon gain a sixth color.
AHF also promoted its new reactive stain collection, Mystical Woods, which debuted at Surfaces. While previous reactive stains continuously interact with the tannins and chemicals in the wood, Mystical Woods stops after 24 hours, according to the firm, so the product will maintain its look while offering unique colorations. Ten colors are due out in July in a 1/2” thick and 7-1/2” wide format.
Later this year, AHF also plans to release a commercial version of its engineered Dogwood densified wood, a natural yet waterproof product offering superior dent and scratch resistance that Parker said is in line with porcelain’s durability.
Using the year to enhance its lineup of European white oak, Mannington featured several new collections, along with additional colors in others.
Momentum, a 3/8” sliced-face European white oak, represents a new spec for the company. It is available in lengths up to 75” and a range of six colors, and is 7-1/2” wide, which is hard to find at entry-level price points, said senior director of wood and laminate John Hammel. The launch replaces a rotary-peeled red oak product that previously represented the “good” tier for Mannington’s oak offerings.
In line with the trend toward midtones, the firm rounded out its “better” Latitude line with two new colors in its best-selling Prospect Park collection, which offers 1/2” thick planks that are 7-1/2” wide in varying lengths up to 83”.
Mannington also showcased new hand-stained and handscraped offerings from a new supplier in Central America: Chateau, a new collection under its “best” Maison collection; and six new colors in its “premium” Sanctuary collection. Maison comprises 9/16” thick planks with a 3mm veneer, while Sanctuary offers 5/8” boards with a 4mm veneer. Hammel said Chateau’s new Ultra Matte finish-rated at a 3 versus the existing line’s 7 to 10 gloss level-and Sanctuary’s 9-1/2” wide format help showcase the hand-staining, which offers unique colorations and elevates the grain patterns.
Mirage hit on both current and emerging trends with its new releases, expanding its DreamVille collection with new colors that seek to provide red oak with a white oak look, while also adding a new maple color to its Flair collection to combat the “white oak fatigue” that marketing director Jerome Goulet said is starting to emerge.
The three new DreamVille colors (Bow Valley, Loveland and Tofino) are midrange browns-another trend, said Goulet-and can be specified in a 5” wide engineered or a 4-1/4” wide solid format, the latter of which is a new offering for the collection.
Patina in the Flair collection represents Mirage’s first maple release in several years. It is available in multiple engineered formats, as a solid, and in a herringbone format.
Seeking to appeal to more architects and designers, Mirage also launched a new Chevron collection in a 5” wide engineered format with its TruBalance construction of a wood lamella over quarter-sawn SPF (spruce-pine-fir) fingers. The collection includes 11 colors, and the combination of left- and right-facing boards allows for five different patterns.
Calling Nordic Naturals Mullican’s biggest introduction in several years, distribution sales vice president Neil Wenger said Northern Lights and Glistening Pop, which sit at the lighter end of the color scale, have been the most popular since the collection launched earlier this year. The line offers a white oak look in solid 3/4” red oak, which traditionally has a pink undertone. In addition to being more expensive and less abundant, white oak is seeing demand from other industries as well, Wenger said, for example, for use in whiskey barrels.
He said the company chose to focus its new color technology on solid wood since there has been less innovation on that side. Additionally, solid accounts for the majority of the Tennessee-based producer’s business, and Wenger noted large renovations projects in the Northeast, a market that tends to prefer hardwood. Solid hardwood enjoys more demand in remodel, he added.
Having acquired Somerset in May 2022, Boen shared a booth with the Kentucky-based producer on the show floor. Dan Natkin, North America CEO and managing director of parent company Bauwerk, said the company expects a replacement for retiring Somerset interim CEO and president Paul Stringer to be announced this month.
Though the two brands will remain separate for now, with Boen primarily serving the European market and Somerset focused on the domestic market, Stringer said the two may collaborate more in the future. The goal of the acquisition was to establish a North American manufacturing hub, said Natkin.
The focus of the show was Somerset’s relaunch of its Character collection, which has been updated to focus on hickory, in line with what Natkin believes is an emerging trend away from white oak’s super-clean visuals toward “wood that looks like wood.” In addition to interesting color play and visual character, hickory offers the benefit of a predominantly North American supply. The collection’s seven “design-leading” colors primarily focus on light to medium hues, and the gloss level has been lowered, Natkin noted. Character is available in both solid and engineered formats.
With red oak more abundant than white oak, especially in North America, Preverco launched four new colors that tint red oak to look more like white oak. Joining the two launched six months ago, the color palette hits on creamy browns and darker midtones.
All of Preverco’s colors can be applied to any format: solid or engineered; 2-1/4” to 7” wide; maple, birch, oak or ash; clean (Nuance) or character (V+) grade.
The Canadian manufacturer also previewed three new colors, seeking customer feedback before deciding which to launch. Midwest territory manager Justin Iovino said they were well received, and the new red oak colors “have been no-brainers.”
Following the successful North American launch of Woodura, Iris Meana Prada is taking over as Välinge’s North/South America region manager for Lennart Thalin, who is leaving the company to become managing director for Nolato, a plastics producer. “I kind of see it as mission completed,” he said, noting the March merger of Bjelin and Välinge under the Bjelin brand.
Woodura is now being marketed under Bjelin, while Välinge remains focused on innovation and the licensing of its technologies, including Woodura. The decision to produce Woodura products gives Välinge a vehicle to help showcase other technologies, like the included 5G locking system.
Due to the product’s density, which derives from the infusion of wood powder and melamine that fills any cavities in the wood and tightly bonds the cells, Woodura is able to support a super-thin veneer of 0.6mm, in addition to larger plank sizes. East Coast residential sales manager Bob Naida said visitors to Bjelin’s booth were drawn to the size-the largest, XXL, is 10-3/4”x94”-as well as its waterproofness. The price point was another draw, as was its sustainability story. Woodura retails between $6.99 and $7.99 per square foot.
While Kelly Owens, director of marketing for Välinge North America, noted the affordability of the existing XXL and XL (8-1/4”x37”) offerings, especially for such large plank sizes, Bjelin is adding a small format (6”x46”) that should be available by the end of the year. In addition to customers seeking solutions for smaller spaces, the new size will target builders, which are becoming extremely price sensitive.
Thanks to its new partnership with Floorcloud, announced earlier this year, Wagner Meters now provides contractors with complete monitoring of site conditions in order to help them accurately plan their installation of flooring on top of concrete slabs. The True Remote Monitoring System measures temperature, ambient conditions and concrete relative humidity, and communicates them via Bluetooth, alerting project managers if conditions exceed specifications.
Additionally, Wagner Meters’ Floor Sentry monitor, introduced at Surfaces, can be embedded in wood flooring at least 1/2” thick to monitor relative humidity in the pocket of air just below the subfloor, providing eight years’ worth of continuous data. Via an app, it has an option to alert the homeowners when optimal conditions are exceeded. Especially with products that have to acclimate, such conditions dictate the success of an installation, and sales manager Jason Spangler said problems are common-though it’s often hard to assign blame.
Nydree, which focuses on acrylic-infused engineered hardwood, debuted a magnetic offering that can be specified on any of its products. Gravitate utilizes a floating magnetic underlayment and metal-infused plank backing to create a bond rated for commercial environments while still allowing for easy replacement. The sides, which are angled for ease of installation and a seamless look, are sealed to offer moisture resistance.
Noting the challenges in the labor market, Nydree sales and marketing vice president Jason Brubaker said Gravitate has been well received due to the speed of install, repairability, and fact that it requires basically no skillset. Nydree is adding capacity at its Pennsylvania plant to accommodate the new offering. The manufacturer also recently debuted an OEM chevron product, cut in-house, and is now sourcing its own wearlayers and cutting them in-house, said Brubaker.
Traditionally seen more in high-end residential applications, cork is seeing an uptick in commercial environments as designers and architects seek more environmentally friendly products, said WeCork owner and president Tina Wicander Crossland. The Serenity collection, which carries an AC5 rating for high-traffic environments, will soon grow with the introduction of new visuals, though Crossland said natural-looking cork options still account for the majority of company sales.
In addition to its sustainability story, WeCork’s products also offer a shorter supply chain, as most of the offerings come from Portugal. Crossland said material typically arrives within two weeks.
Triangulo vice president of sales and marketing Philip Key said the Brazil-based manufacturer’s exotic hardwoods are seeing an uptick in demand. “When you go into a showroom, you’re looking at a sea of the same, and, to make it worse, LVT and laminate knocked off the best looks,” he said, adding that customers are beginning to seek something different.
Offering subtle yet more pronounced graining than traditional white oak, the Nordic Brazilian white oak collection has been the most popular. Debuted three years ago, the collection recently gained four new colors, primarily grey-leaning lighter hues.
Sustainably farmed on the family-owned company’s 160,000 acres, Triangulo’s products meet Lacey Act production and chain-of-custody standards, said Key.
Focused on upper-end offerings for the past few years, QEP’s Naturally Aged Flooring brand sought a balance between high-end looks and affordable price points with its new releases, a response to current economic conditions and uncertainty, said vice president of product development Tom Williams.
Artisan Peak is a new collection with four colors in a 3/8” thick engineered format. The 1.2mm sawn face veneer is smoked, typically a more premium surface treatment that uses ammonia to darken the wood and highlight the grain without the need for stain. The 6-1/2” wide planks come in mostly lighter colors, though Williams expects the collection to do well and grow.
The brand also introduced new natural and light colors in its Wirebrushed series, a moderately priced offering with a 2mm veneer. It, too, celebrates the wood’s graining without overly dramatizing it. Williams said whitewashing woodgrain has been popular, but he’s seeing that change.
The new introductions should become available in July, and Williams expects them to be popular with builders and large construction projects, in addition to stocking dealers.
Taylor Adhesives announced a new lifetime warranty on installations by NWFA-certified installers using Taylor’s Signature and Essentials wood adhesive products. The warranty covers not only the Taylor products, but also the flooring material and labor costs, should an adhesive-related failure occur. Additionally, Taylor is offering those interested in becoming a NWFA-certified installer $100 off the cost of the training.
Seth Gladden, flooring division marketing director for Meridian Industrial, Taylor’s parent company, is on the board of Unite, a nonprofit aimed at tackling the shortage of qualified flooring installers. He hopes to help address that problem through incentivization rather than penalization, and he and Unite founder Robert Varden encourage other companies to follow suit, noting the reduced liability that professionally trained installers provide for manufacturers.
Gladden said the installers in attendance were drawn to Taylor’s new wood-flooring repair kit. Launched several months ago, Repair includes everything needed to remedy hollow spots and is competitively priced.
MP Global used the show to help build momentum for QuietBoard, launched earlier this year. Developed in response to customer requests for a subfloor-boosting alternative to plywood, the fiberboard product offers moisture mitigation and acoustic properties, while helping fill the gap left when replacing carpet with many hard surface flooring products. Weighing two and a half pounds per square foot, QuietBoard is easy to maneuver and install, as it can be floated. Deanna Summers, director of marketing and business development, said it saves money not only through installation time, but also in materials, obviating the need for common acoustic-mitigating materials in multifamily environments. She sees multifamily and other commercial applications as big opportunities for the product, as well as for the company in general.
Following its acquisition of DriTac in March 2021, Sika now offers a full complement of installation materials for wood and resilient flooring and has finished the process of streamlining and differentiating its offerings, said marketing director John Lio. “To be in that upper echelon of providers, you need a full complement of products,” he added, noting the peace of mind and ease that comes with a single-source provider and its complete warranties.
At the show, Sika promoted MB EZ Rapid, a moisture mitigation system compatible with wood and resilient flooring adhesives that allows for nailed or gluedown installation three hours after application. Released earlier this year, the roll-on moisture barrier, adhesion promoter and substrate consolidator can be used in basements and crawl spaces, in keeping with recent NWFA standards related to the replacement of felt paper in such applications.
Bostik market manager Jake Stadler said Roll-Cote garnered the most attention at the show. Launched a year ago, the water-based moisture barrier simplifies the installation process in several ways. Since it does not contain harmful additives or VOCs, occupants do not need to be cleared from the space, and its fast drying time allows for installation in as few as two hours following application. Additionally, the single-source product rolls on black, offering a helpful visual to ensure adequate coverage and alert the installer, should anyone walk across the floor before it’s dry. Roll-Cote is compatible with all of Bostik’s resilient and hardwood flooring adhesives, save for Bostik Best.
Mullican’s Wenger believes designers and architects understand the challenges that white oak is facing and are beginning to explore alternatives-which manufacturers are releasing in force, both through alternative species and new stains. Preverco’s Iovino noted that 90% of the Earth’s oak is red oak, which elevates the cost and price point of white oak offerings. Additionally, red oak is more dimensionally stable, he said.
Consumers, meanwhile, are simply looking for a visual that resonates with them and a product that meets their lifestyle needs. This has left red oak in the lurch as the preferred aesthetic moved to clean looks and lighter colors, but many suppliers are meeting that with new stains that seek to dull the undertone inherent in red oak. Even Bona, focused on hardwood flooring prep and enhancement products, recently debuted a related offering, Red Out.
While red oak also has a more pronounced grain structure, many cite color as the number one driver. “When you get the color right, I don’t think the grain matters as much,” Wenger said.
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