Adding Wood to a Vinyl Window

The latest marriage of these two materials is seen providing a means for traditional vinyl window manufacturers to compete head on in the clad wood segment of the market

A couple of years ago, Dave Gerhardt of Atria Building Products, Inc., was sitting in his office, looking at one of his company’s vinyl windows. He thought to himself, like many manufacturers before him, “I wish I could put wood on the inside of that.”

He knew the challenges of doing that. The different expansion and contraction rates of vinyl and wood that make the design and production of such a product more complicated than simply screwing or gluing pieces of wood to the interior of a vinyl unit. Yet, for some reason, an idea hit Gerhardt that day. He would attach the interior wood pieces using the glazing bead, and allow the wood to “float” on top of the vinyl, enabling each material to expand and contract at its own pace. “I went out to the plant, talked to my shop supervisor and a couple of other people, and we came up with the basic design in a few hours,” he recalls.

Bringing together the benefits of a low-maintenance, weather resistance material with the warmth and aesthetics of a real wood interior is a concept that has been around for many years. Wood window makers for years have successfully added aluminum or vinyl cladding to their units. Vinyl window makers have tried numerous approaches as well, with varying degrees of sales success.

Woodgrain and paintable/stainable laminates may be the most common approach, and some extruders and manufacturers have even made use of real wood veneers. Other manufacturers, like Gerhardt, have used not just wood veneer, but actual pieces of wood. Like other vinyl window manufacturers before him, he now hopes to take Atria’s wood interior window vinyl unit, and compete directly in the clad-wood segment of the market.

It’s a market Gerhardt knows. He started Atria, based in Johnstown, OH, about 20 years ago as a producer of shop wood windows. Serving builders in central Ohio, he introduced a clad line shortly thereafter. It was only about 10 years ago that Atria, which employs about 60 people, added vinyl windows. During the past decade, he’s seen the vinyl segment of Atria’s business increase steadily to the point where it now accounts for about 70 percent of its sales. Yet, he knows some customers still want wood.

One such customer is John Donley, president of Donley, Inc. A builder of 30 to 40 homes a year in the Columbus, OH, area, he states that in his market, in the $325,000 to $350,000 price range his company typically builds homes, clad wood is the usual choice. “Wood offers the perception of quality,” he states.

A Builder's Perspective

Donley has been buying Atria’s clad wood line for over 15 years, but recently, he was approached by a national wood window manufacturers, asking him to consider its products instead. Although satisfied with Atria’s products and services, he stated there were reasons for considering a change.

“Much of our business is repeat buyers, people who may have bought from us 10 or 12 years ago and are ready to move up,” he states. “We’re looking to offer them different features, new things that weren’t in the house we sold them before.” Having a recognizable window brand name would have fit into that strategy, he explains.

Yet, Donley has instead chosen to use the Atria vinyl window with the wood interior. He was the first builder to install it in one of his homes, and currently plans to switch from Atria’s clad wood line to the new line when it goes into full production this month. An important factor in the decision, of course, is the successful long-term relationship is firm his company has with Atria, but he cites a number of other reasons.

“Feature for feature, it’s a better window,” Donley states. He points, in particular, to the ease of cleaning offered by the tilt-in function the new line, which he can demonstrate easily to potential homebuyers. Compared to the competitively-priced, entry-level clad window, the unit’s tilt function is much better, the builder states. Another feature he can point out to homebuyers is the interlocking rails of the two sash, something which is not found on the clad wood units.

As far as the brand name is concerned, Donley states there is certainly a value to it. In his area, he states, the larger tract builders, in particular, like to feature recognized name brand products in their homes, as they can add to the overall “perceived quality” of the home. That is true in his company’s case too, but, he notes, as a smaller business, it generally has more one-to-one time with potential buyers. “We’re able to talk to our customers and point out the quality features in the homes.”

In talking to potential buyers, Donley notes, the subject of windows may come up, but he estimates only about three out of 10 customers ever ask any particular questions. The customer, he states, is “buying on our reputation, not on the reputation of any of the products we use.”

The decision to go with the new Atria product is also based on his other needs as a builder. Demonstrating how much he can rack a clad-wood window sample in his office, Donley notes that there is nothing wrong with the window and it can perform quite well if it is installed properly. The fact that it can be put out-of-square so easily, he adds, however, presents a greater potential for improper installation. “We have good carpenters, but mistakes are made. That unit could go in slightly off, and create problems down the road,” he states. “The welded vinyl frame is much sturdier. It’s much easier to install and there’s less need for fiddling around.”

Gerhardt reports that in general, response from builder customers to the new line has been positive, and that several others are planning to start using it once it goes into full production. As a result, Atria is now planning to discontinue production of its original aluminum clad window in favor of the new line.
Gerhardt, however, sees more potential for the product than his 60-firm company could ever meet. As a result, Atria has partnered with its long-time vinyl supplier, Veka, Inc., to offer the design to other window manufacturers also. With Atria licensing its patented design of attaching wood to the glazing bead, and Veka supplying extrusions and other technical support, the two companies have attracted interest from numerous companies about producing the line, he reports.

“It can put vinyl people in the wood window business without any problems,” Gerhardt asserts. From a production standpoint, he notes that it the design is produced the same way a standard welded vinyl window is produced, with wood pieces cut to length in a separate operation, and then attached at the final assembly phase. The process is suitable for both standard size new construction products, like Atria manufactures, as well as custom sized units. As a result, Gerhardt sees a great deal of potential for vinyl replacement window manufacturers, because traditional clad wood windows are not often available in the custom sizes necessary in these types of applications.                     

At Atria, Gerhardt notes, the time it takes to produce the vinyl and wood windows is less than that for its aluminum-clad line. With larger, more automated manufacturers producing this type of window, he predicts they will be able to become even more cost competitive. The wood does not represent a major expense, he notes, as window manufacturers can find numerous suppliers to provide the wood profiles. His company uses poplar, which is popular in his company’s market. He expects other manufacturers will go with other wood species, and may refine the shapes of the wood profiles to create their own unique looks.

An Extruder's Perspective

Ian Shearer, Veka’s vice president of sales and marketing, foresees the line being offered by a limited number of larger manufacturers in the near future. The company then hopes to roll out the line to additional fabricators. Showcasing the product at the Builders’ Show in Atlanta this year, he reports it attracted positive response from many builders, including some of the largest in the nation. Numerous window companies also expressed interest in producing the line, he notes.

For vinyl window manufacturers, it provides an opportunity to compete head-on in the clad wood segment of the market, but Shearer emphasizes that the new design is “far from being another generation of clad-wood product,” pointing out it is about 90 percent vinyl and 10 percent wood. Unlike the majority of clad windows, the frame, sill, and sash of the DH-37 (Veka’s name for the system) window are made up of fusion-welded rigid vinyl shapes. “So you might say, ‘great it’s another vinyl window, but what’s so special about that?’ Well, the interior aesthetics are part of the reason why the DH37 is different,” he states. “When viewed from the inside, it looks like a wood window with a real true wood interior.” It is designed with real wood extension jambs that match up with real wood sash interiors that readily accept wood stains or paints. “The objective was to recreate and tap into the natural appeal that’s intrinsic to wood created through grain and color. So what better way to do this than to use real wood itself,” Shearer notes. “Strategically we had been thinking this way for years. We’d voiced the opinion many times that different fenestration materials had their own unique applications that they are best suited for,” he states.

Currently, the window design is targeted at new construction applications. In addition to the double-hung, Veka also plans to develop complementary casement and picture window products in the near future. Shearer also sees huge opportunities in the replacement window and door industry, and the extruder plans to develop those types of product lines as well. “We can only imagine how the in home sales presentation might embrace a patented real wood interior.”

The concept of building a window “that’s vinyl on the outside, with wood on the inside” may not be revolutionary, he admits. It’s been done many times over by strong, focused brand managed wood corporations that still dominate a good percentage of the window market. As a vinyl extruder, he continues, it would be foolhardy to try and compete with them at what they do best.

Yet, the company is very enthusiastic about the new design’s prospects, Shearer concludes, pointing not only to its cost competitiveness with traditional clad wood products, but the many features it offers. “Even after the tremendous growth that the vinyl industry has seen in the past decade,” he states, “it’s not often you feel the excitement when you really might have something special.”