When I arrived in the UK from my country of birth, Austria, in 1982 I was concerned about the public perception of wood-based panels, especially chipboard. Also known as Weetabix at that time, chipboard was not regarded as a quality product by the public. Formaldehyde emissions, smoking chimneys, loggers cutting down prime forests. These were just some of the things mistakenly associated with the material.

Today, wood-based panel products are part of our everyday life and everyone appreciates the advantages of these versatile materials which represent real value for money.

More than this, the consumers of products made from chipboard, MDF and other panels understand that they are environmentally-friendly. Waste from sawmills, recycled timber, forest thinnings, material that would previously have ended up in landfill, are used to manufacture a truly versatile substrate that can carry decorative surfaces, be made into flooring panels, all types of cabinet and other furniture and many other everyday items.

Organisations such as EMB (European Association of MDF Producers), FIDOR (Fibreboard Development Organisation), the European Panels Federation, and the Wood Panel Industries Federation have helped to develop a wider understanding of our industry. And television programmes about home improvement have shown MDF’s versatility. Today it is available in standard, moisture resistant, low formaldehyde, zero formaldehyde and many more grades. It is environmentally attractive not only because of its base material, but also as a finished product.

After many years in the board industry I now work with companies combining MDF and PVC to produce furniture components. PVC doors with an MDF core are found in kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, shopfitting applications, schools, banks, hotels – in every private and public building in every country in the world.

Print quality

The print quality of PVC wood-grain designs makes it difficult for the consumer to differentiate it from solid wood or wood veneered panels. Solid colour PVC is available in every shade imaginable. The surface textures and a variety of gloss grades enhance the finished panels further.

Solid and veneered wood is, of course, still used in the production of furniture fronts and this should and will always be so. However, for the commercial volume market, thermo-formed PVC woodgrain prints on an MDF substrate are becoming an increasingly acceptable alternative, moving solid wood and veneered doors to the correct price level.

During the past 15 years, some production of PVC furniture fronts has moved to the Far East and eastern Europe and these regions have seen considerable investment in volume manufacture. But it has been encouraging to see the trend reversing somewhat during the last few years. More focus on design, lower lead times, lower stockholding and a considerable push by European manufacturers to improve efficiency have encouraged customers to look for supply closer to home.

I may be biased, but I firmly believe that the combination of MDF and PVC as a decorative product has a long future. For example, kitchens in private homes used to be a long-term investment. Partly driven by the relatively high cost in the 60s and 70s, kitchens were usually changed only when a house changed ownership. Today, kitchen units have developed not only into hi-tech furniture, but also into a fashion statement, to be changed much more frequently.

Biomass competition

However, I have one concern: competition for raw material is driving up prices. Biomass plants will produce part of our future energy requirement but I hope we all realise that supporting and subsidising certain market segments often has dire consequences for other products reliant on the same raw materials.

Our attitude towards the environment, the challenges we face to ensure climate change does not become an even greater problem, are being taken much more seriously today. The timber industry as a whole, and all of us converting a first class ‘green’ material into finished products, have the opportunity to play a major part here and should feel privileged to be able to make a valuable contribution to our planet’s future.

Now for the “crystal ball” bit. Furniture grade PVC for 3D applications has come a long way from wood-grain prints trying hard to look like the real thing (and mostly failing). Today’s high quality prints can fool even experts.


Predicting the outlook may be a little challenging. For the short and medium term, one trend seems set for success: matt is the new high gloss. A range of low gloss, paint-effect colours is being launched by several producers of PVC foils. With matching melamine-faced chipboard and MDF available, furniture manufacturers are launching attractive new frontals for kitchens, bedrooms and living room furniture. The colour tones tend to be earthy browns and greys. New woodgrains follow this trend, allowing the option of mix and match.

New PVC foils in high quality wood-grain prints in light oak, walnut and olive are about to enter the market, as well as deep texture wood-grains in pine, oak and “drift-wood”. I expect these foils to be very successful.

Interzum 2011 in Cologne will be the first showcase for retro designs. Don’t be surprised to see grey linen and beige leather making a comeback! As is the case with many products, PVC foils are strongly influenced by trends in colours and fabrics, soft furnishings and the fashion industry in general. Without doubt, PVC furniture foil producers have to be very proactive during the difficult economic climate but, considering the progress made in designs, colours, textures and new surfaces, the future looks very positive for our product.