What Is Wood Composite?
Wood composite, a.k.a. engineered wood, is a man made lumber product or panel made from small wood particles or fibers, and a variety of other materials like glues and recycled plastics. They’re a relatively new material when compared to traditional composites like MDF or particleboard. They usually contain some amount of real wood, but the bulk of they’re ingredients are not natural, which is why they’re not considered a natural material. However, this makes them extremely strong and durable. One of the benefits to using wood composite vs. real wood is how durable and resistant to the elements they are. This is why composite wood decking is so popular.
Manufacturers make wood composites by mixing wood particles and recycled plastics with other materials. The North American wood composite market has exceeded $1 billion in sales for the last few years and has seen 200% growth between 2015 and 2020. Research shows that the US market for these products will experience 20% annual growth over the next decade. This is primarily due to how popular composite outdoor materials are.
People use wood composite to make furniture, cabinets, flooring, sheathing, and siding. Unlike hardwood, wood composite is less expansive and has excellent resistance properties that can withstand extreme weather conditions. A veneer is sometimes applied to the outside of the product in order to make the composite wood appear more real. In some cases these products need to be sealed or painted so check with the manufacturer when you use one.
As wood composite popularity increases, companies are developing new products, such as railings, trim, fascia, and door stiles.
Composites may contain harmful chemicals due to the non-wood materials used to manufacture them.
What Does Wood Composite Mean?
Basically, wood composite is a man made product that contains some wood. But it’s mostly unnatural ingredients. Think fake wood products like Timbertech or Trex decking. Not 100% fake like PVC decking but not 100% real either.
The real ingredients are generally some veneer, fibers or sawdust. But the bulk of the product is generally made from plastics, glues and other unnatural materials.
Using a fake product definitely has some benefits like more durability, resistance to the elements and no maintenance. However, there are some drawbacks too, like a higher upfront cost and a fake appearance. Although they’re getting better looking every year.
Manufacturing & Production
Generally, wood composite manufacturing follows a two-step process. Companies combine wood and thermoplastic, such as low-density polyethylene, high-density polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride in a dough-like consistency, a process called compounding.
Manufacturers use batch or continuous process to handle mixing. Besides the main ingredient, wood with grain size ranging between 20 and 60 mesh, manufacturers also add coupling agents, plastic, stabilizers, and dyes or foaming agents to enhance the final product’s properties.
For instance, manufacturers add lubricants to improve the surface appearance. Besides, companies use three forming methods for wood composite: Extrusion method, injection molding method, and mold halves.
The first one forces molten composite through a dye and the second one forces it into a cold mold. On the other hand, the third method presses molten composite between mold halves. Many companies use the extrusion process to produce wood composite because it uses a wide range of extruders, including single or double screw, to form the material’s final shape.
Properties Of Wood Composite
Wood composite’s physical and mechanical properties primarily depend on the interaction between wood and thermoplastic. Manufacturing companies incorporate a coupling agent to improve this interaction. Bear in mind that incorporating an additive is one of the most efficient ways to enhance interaction between wood and thermoplastic material.
Additives are an excellent way to improve compatibility between hydrophilic wood, leading to increase moisture absorption. Because wood composite has hydrophobic plastic with a lack of water affinity, it leads to the formation of single-phase wood composite that results in a stable product than solid wood.
Besides, traditional pressure-treated wood with chromate copper arsenate coating is becoming unpopular in the wood industry because of the toxic health hazards and reduced Eco-friendliness. The authorities have banned arsenic-based compounds in the U.S because they have direct contact with humans. These were mainly used in decking material, picnic tables, and playground equipment, leading to severe health hazards. Generally they have a greenish appearance when compared with un-treated wood.
On the other hand, wood composite is a relatively safe material. Thus, it is a popular alternative to treated wood products.
Advantages of Wood Composite
The primary advantage of wood composite are its eco-friendly properties as manufacturers use recycled plastic and waste wood material for its manufacturing. Wood composite also has a lower maintenance cost than solid wood. Low-life cycle cost is one of the primary reasons for the fast growth of wood composite.
Although wood composite decks have about 15% more production cost than pressure-treated lumber, it requires a lower maintenance cost. Similarly, the actual payback period is lower when compared to other materials, including pressure-treated decking. This increases over time since real wood can need a lot of care as it ages.
Wood composite has excellent dimensional stability with less variability, making it one of the best products for things like decks. A growing body of research evidence shows that wood composite has high durability, strength, and extended service life, making it an excellent material for indoor and outdoor applications.
It also has natural decay resistance against insect and fungi attack. Because wood composite has customizable makeup, the material can withstand harsh weather conditions, leading to less overall damage than other wood material. Therefore, this type of material will generally stand the test time for a wide range of construction projects with a lot less maintenance.
Unlike regular wood, fasteners, including screws and nails, can hold wood composite better, leading to enhanced durability, strength, and stability. Besides, wood composite has a reduced likelihood of breaking or splitting when you use screws near the planks’ end.
Disadvantages of Wood Composite
Although there are many advantages of wood composite, it comes with several downsides. Some products can rapidly absorb moisture or water vapors, leading to decay. However, the decay due to moisture is relatively slower than solid wood. If your using it to build something like a deck and your location sees lots of snow and rain, make sure you buy a composite that doesn’t have water absorption issues. Some products definitely due better than others in the area.
Research highlights that thermal expansion, time-dependent deformation or creep, difficult paint application, and high density are other disadvantages of wood composite.
Although wood composite is an excellent alternative to wood, it has a higher up front cost. Bear in mind that the added durability isn’t cheap. If you plan on using the material for only a few years it may not be worth the added cost.
Moreover, wood composite requires low maintenance, but they are not entirely maintenance-free. It’s also prone to fading and other types of damage.
Experts say that wood composite used in construction projects both interior and exterior usually don’t increase home value, leading to little or no return on investment (ROI) in this area.
Everybody know real wood products have splinters. Especially when it’s not cared for properly. As a deck ages, the wood starts to grey and break apart which can create lots of splinters. This can be annoying and painful to deal with.
Another big factor is the species you use. Pine splinters quite a bit. But harder species like bamboo or Ipe typically don’t. However with proper maintenance it’s not as big an issue.
But did you know composite materials can splinter too. And when they do it’s bad. I’ve been stuck with splinters from just about every product you can imagine. But composite decking is the worst. While it is rare to see. When it happens it’s painful. The splinters are like daggers that go in deep and can really hurt. Also I wouldn’t want a fake material stuck in my body for very long. I’ve had wood splinters stuck for a while that I couldn’t get out and didn’t worry much. But I wouldn’t feel the same about something unnatural.
Wood composite is made from some natural wood but mostly unnatural fillers, plastics, fibers and glues. Many manufacturing companies use bamboo, pulp, sawdust, peanut hulls, and bark to make it. But the other ingredients contain chemicals which can be harmful. These natural components are typically combined with plastic powders to manufacture the end product.
Although it costs more than regular wood, engineered products offer more durability, strength, and stability. At the same time, it requires less maintenance than other types of wood materials. Although regular wood is a common choice for decking, it does not last for a long time. And since treated decking contains potentially harmful chemicals too, many people consider fake decking to actually be a less toxic option.
It’s hard to say which is the better option. I prefer the look of real wood and like to use natural products whenever I can. But they require a lot of maintenance. If your the type of homeowner that doesn’t want to do any maintenance, then man made materials may be better for you. They definitely have a good long term ROI since you generally don’t have to stain or paint them every year. And they usually hold up really well outdoors. Although many products have water absorption issues.
Like most products, there are pros and cons. If your willing to do the maintenance, I recommend using real wood. But if your not then stick to the fake stuff.
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