January 10th, 2020
Vinyl Comes Clean
I’ve watched plenty of people turn their noses up at the mention of vinyl windows over the years. But I’m also digging into a memory bank that dates back decades and includes the clientele of high-end builders—many of whom are purists about wood. There’s plenty of data to suggest that some luxury markets still show a degree of preference for wood, but I suspect turning one’s nose up is a thing of the past—especially if they’ve seen the latest vinyl.
I’ll be first to suggest that things have come a long way since the jumbo-framed vinyl windows of the 1980s and some recent developments lead me to believe that we might be nearing the final frontier for aesthetics. As a bit of a purist myself, and as someone who’s researched and followed all of the various techniques for reproducing the look of wood, I’m going to suggest that there will always be a difference. But I’m also willing to think that—much like the best fiberglass—those distinctions will become extremely difficult to spot in vinyl and other materials.
I’ve written a lot about fiberglass doors that mimic the look of wood so well that you’re hard-pressed to tell the difference. And I can remember at least a few cases in which I had a very difficult time convincing someone that what they were knocking on wasn’t real wood. I’ve also seen my share of mouldings and other products made of finger-jointed pine, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), aluminum and other materials, covered in thin, real-wood veneers. Many of those products are amazing counterfeits, but they also don’t have to deal with some of the challenges associated with vinyl.
Perhaps no issue has dogged the efforts of vinyl windows to look like wood more than the distinguishable weld lines that cut across mitered corners. We may know these as the remnants of pinch welding, but for the average consumer, another baseline description might be “vinyl booger.” Admittedly, that isn’t the most professional description (if it isn’t downright crude), but I can honestly say that I’ve reverted to it from time to time in informal discussions, in order to get folks to understand what I’m talking about. And let’s be honest, in some cases that’s a pretty accurate description—especially for those instances where weld lines aren’t cleaned up in manufacturing. (I have some window units in my old test lab to prove it.)
I’ve been watching these weld seams for years, noticing that they’re getting smaller and smoother—in some cases to a degree that all that’s left is a line of discoloration. At recent tradeshows, I’ve noticed a few examples in which those lines have become so thin that you barely notice them. Add to that textured, woodgrain films and the number of products that can look like real wood goes up exponentially. Aluminum can do it rather easily because it can be joined without welding. As a result, miter joints often look just like the real thing: two pieces of joined wood. But over vinyl? Not yet. Or not on the majority of products, at least.
It looks to me like that’s changing.
I will refrain from “name dropping” in my blog, but let’s just say that I’ve noticed at least one or two companies deploying new methods for welding vinyl that clean up its act pretty significantly. I’ve also noticed a much wider selection of woodgrain, laminate films.
Add in new, thermally-broken designs for products made of aluminum and wood, and I have to say—I feel the competition between materials stiffening. Thankfully, I’m not in the mix of that contest, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m excited to watch from the sidelines.