Cabinet Manufacturer Bets on Formaldehyde-Free Wood

Having grown up downwind of several major paper and chemical plants, I approached Columbia Forest Products’ Old Fort NC plant with nothing short of a crinkled-nose expectation of breaking the record for how long a journalist could hold her breath during an interview. CFP used to glue its plywood layers with urea-formaldehyde resins — stinky stuff and, according to scientists, carcinogenic to boot.
But the employee-owned company tossed out that process a few years ago, and now sticks its plywood together with soy flour from Iowa (and a few other proprietary ingredients, none of which include UF).
So on a cool fall day, I stepped into Columbia’s Old Fort plant, and smelled … baking bread.
“You could eat it if you wanted to,” joked Steve Pung, CFP’s VP of Technology. “We use the same stuff they make tofu out of … soybeans,” he told me a few days before my plant tour.
He explained that CFP (and many others companies and industries) have been looking for alternatives to urea-formaldehyde for almost a decade.
With good reason: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) describes it as a “pungent” gas, present in numerous medical, construction and household products (disinfectants, cosmetics, plywood, permanent-press clothes, paper, shampoo, glues, decorative laminates and, of course, embalming fluid). OSHA quotes the Eleventh Report on Carcinogens of 1998, which classifies formaldehyde as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” High concentrations in wood dust (or simply from the outgassing of construction products and carpet in a home) can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat and lower airways, and possibly lead to nasal, prostrate, lung and pancreatic cancers, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded in 2004. Although study results have been mixed, the agency erred on the side of caution and classified formaldehyde as a known carcinogen. The EPA more cautiously concludes it “may cause cancer in humans.”
Columbia, founded in 1957 and the largest hardwood plywood and hardwood veneer manufacturer in North Carolina, apparently decided to err on the side of caution as well.
But the problem was that alternatives to formaldehyde-based adhesives were problematical at best.
Pung explains that although soy-based adhesives “were the glue of choice” as early as the 1920s, they were slow to cure, susceptible to water damage and expensive — problems that formaldehyde-based adhesives didn’t have, Pung mentions. After World War II, the petroleum-based formaldehyde adhesives became the standard in the plywood industry, he says. UF is used in interior-grade plywoods, composites and particle board, whereas PF is used in exterior grades, Pung explains. But UF, in particular, continues to release low levels of harmful gases over the life of the product, making it a probable source of indoor pollution. “We were getting more and more requests for formaldehyde-free products,” says Pung. “We wanted to eliminate it from all our products.”
Then in 2003 he heard a college professor — Dr. Kaichang Li of Oregon State University –speak of a new adhesive, based on soy flour. It would cost little if any more than the formaldehyde process. The professor needed financial backing to expand on his university’s patent, Columbia needed a viable option to UF, and a glue manufacturer in Delaware (Hercules, Inc.) provided the link: PureBond.
Trials started in 2004 and by 2005, Columbia announced it was converting all its plants to the new UF-free process. Thinking that the rest of the industry would embrace the green approach, Columbia officials said they offered to license the process at a low cost to other cabinet makers. Instead, the opposite happened.
Industry groups such as the Formaldehyde Council countered, in a May 2006 press-release, that it was “taking this unwarranted attack against wood products made using formaldehyde very seriously … We are fully confident in the safety of wood products made using formaldehyde-based resins, which have a long history of safe, proven performance. Indeed, all relevant scientific evidence regarding emissions from plywood is reassuring and should put people’s minds at ease when making purchasing decisions.”
However, formaldehyde has long been the major issue in indoor air quality (see sidebar), and the wood products industry has hung on to formaldehyde even though alternatives cost no more.
“We’ve had to fight our own industry,” said John McIsaac, former director of Columbia Forest Products’ public relations. Opponents of the green building idea were vehemently opposed to giving up formaldehyde. “They lied about our product quality,” McIsaac said. “They lied to the CARB (California Air Resources Board). They have these corporate doctors that say there’s no proof that formaldehyde causes cancer.”
“Here’s the kicker,” McIsaac said. “If you spent $25,000 on having your kitchen remodeled, you might pay $100 more over the total price” for formaldehyde free cabinets.
Meanwhile, Columbia, Hercules and Prof. Li won the EPA’s Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge earlier this year. In particular, the threesome won the Greener Synthetic Pathways Award, for the “Development and Commercial Application of Environmentally Friendly Adhesives for Wood Composites.”
That’s a mouthful.

The even greener aspect of the new adhesive is that Prof. Li says he got the idea while walking the beach and musing about the mussels he saw: The mollusks stick to rocks, boats, piers — all kinds of wet and irregular surfaces. Li and his Oregon State colleagues found a way to modify the amino acids in soy flour to emulate the sticky mussels, and they patented the process. In his comments about the research, Li emphasizes that formaldehyde adhesives are petroleum based and thus “naturally limited,” and that “hazardous compounds … may be emitted in the production and use of wood composites bonded with PF and UF resins.” He aimed to create a “commercially viable, formaldehyde-free wood adhesive from renewable natural resources.”
Hercules Inc. provided a “critical curing agent,” Iowa had the soy flour, and Columbia provided the wood.
“It’s the right thing, the smart thing and a good business decision,” says Jeff Wakefield, Plant Manager of Columbia’s Old Fort facility. He acknowledges the resistance of some in the industry, but emphasizes, “We’re showing that it can be done.”
The new breadly process has turned out to be “cost-neutral,” says Wakefield: “We’re saying you can have this great product without formaldehyde, and you can have it at almost the same price.” The Old Fort plant, in operation since 1982, needed a few changes in its glue-making batch equipment, but essentially very little had to change at the plant, Wakefield explains.
Plywood making, in fact, is an old process that resembles paper manufacturing (it dates back, in simple forms, to ancient Egypt). At the Old Fort facility, Wakefield demonstrates, it starts with poplar logs purchased from a variety of property owners in a 150-mile radius of the plant. Poplar, he mentions, used to be viewed as a low-grade hardwood, but it holds screws strongly and bonds well with adhesives (other Columbia plants use species native to their respective areas, such as fir in Oregon and aspen in Canada).
The logs are sorted for quality outside the plant, the most suitable ones stripped of their bark, cut to 8-foot lengths and soaked in hot water, which makes the next process easier, he continues. “Peeling” creates a long, continuous sheet of hardwood veneer that rolls out like Paul Bunyan’s newspaper sheet. It gets cut down to a 4-foot by 8-foot size, then dried in a wood-fired kiln that looks like a super-sized pizza oven. “Any of the waste off our product — we chip it up and it’s used to fuel the fire,” says Wakefield (and the bark, incidentally, is sold for mulch).
The cut sheets look like giant sheets of yellow paper with just a little curl around the edges and towering overhead. Workers bustle about, moving materials around on forklifts, moving waste wood to the proper bins, supervising a batch of PureBond in the big blenders, pulling sheets off the adhesive rollers, and inspecting the final product. The main safety gear are ear plugs and safety glasses. Plywood, Wakefield notes, is made by layering these sheets at right angles to each other for strength. He scrapes up a dab of PureBond and invites me to squish it in my fingers.
It’s the brown of cafe au lait that’s mostly lait. It smells like dough, feels a bit stretchy but not too sticky. I don’t take Pung’s offer to taste it, having seen a little bit of some other powdered chemicals that went into the batch upstairs in the mixing area. But I note, thankfully, that it, won’t take a host of harsh chemicals like mineral spirits to remove it from my fingers (my years in the flooring business have closely acquainted me with some unpleasant adhesives).
Wakefield agrees it’s easy to clean up, but notes that after a pressing and heating process, PureBond turns almost rock-solid strong. “We did bake it once [at super-high temperatures] to see what would happen,” says Wakefield, and testers boiled the heck out of it, too.
PureBond stood up to the tests.
Products like it, say Pung, “keep your paper towels from turning to pulp” and U.S. paper currency from turning to mush if washed. He would like to see other industries using formaldehyde adhesives switch to PureBond (or something like it). Formaldehyde-related emissions at Columbia plants are down any where from 40 to 90 percent, Pung reports.
“I’m not going to give you the recipe,” he says, a la Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “But we’re going to use a lot of soybeans.”


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