The modern environmental movement has been dominating discussion across the United States for over 50 years, with 1970, the first celebration of Earth Day (April 22), often cited as the beginning of this great revolution towards healthier and safer practices. The topic of clean living hit every industry differently, but for a sector like paints and coatings, it left every producer contemplating the same question, “If this is what we’ve always done, is there anything out there that can make it right?”

One solution on the leading edge of resolving this industry challenge is powder coating, one of the most durable, eco-friendly and customizable finishes available today. However, over time powder coating has undergone a significant evolution into the product it is today. Although the concept is not new, innovations and technological advancements since the 1970s have brought it to the forefront of painting and coating conversations, and with recent advancements in powder for heat-sensitive substrates, enough implementation and education, powder coating for wood, MDF and other heat-sensitive substrates stands to be one of the next great American innovations.

The History — Who Created Powder Coating?

Powder coating dates back to the late 1940s when it was introduced as a new manufacturing method for metal products. However, the initial techniques were quickly replaced by German scientist Dr. Erwin Gemmer’s fluidized bed application and subsequently introduced to the U.S. market in 1955. As the process continued its evolution throughout the modern environmental movement, Dutch scientist Dr. Pieter de Lange introduced his electrostatic powder coating method in 1960, which offered a long-term, safe solution to end wasteful and hazardous paint products. To this day, the process is the modern application of choice for powder coating.

This multi-stage process involves electrostatic spray deposition, which involves grounding the item to be powder coated and using the spray gun’s electrodes to charge the air and evenly coat the object’s entire surface. The item is then cured in an oven upwards of 400 °F to ensure the coating becomes a smooth, durable layer. Since the powder is drawn to the item through the electrostatic spray deposition, there is less potential overspray, making the process both efficient and eco-friendly compared to standard spray paint applications. However, until recently, the coatings industry had not been able to create powders that cure at lower temperatures and perform well.

Until the late 1990s, powder coating was available only for wide use on metal components, like appliances and automotive parts, due to the heat needed to cure the product. This left manufacturers who used wood and medium-density fiberboard (MDF) products easily burned by high heat to rely on less-sustainable alternatives like laminate and liquid paint. A more environment-safe solution was needed, and thanks to technological advancements in formulation, application and ovens, powder for heat-sensitive substrates was introduced as the answer.

While the application process is similar to traditional electrostatically applied powder, changes to the powder formulation and oven technology mean it will cure at much lower temperatures and in only a few minutes, making powder coating an option as a long-lasting finish to limitless types of wood and MDF products ranging from ready-to-assemble furniture to cabinetry and displays.

The Appeal — What Gives Powder for Heat-Sensitive Substrates the Edge?

Traditionally used as the most popular option for wood furniture across the U.S. for centuries, lead-based paints are known now most notably for their negative health and environmental effects, leading to their regulation in 1978. Because of its ability to accelerate dry times and produce long-lasting finishes, lead once made up more than 50% of paint before being limited to the now-standard 90 parts per million (ppm) or 0.009%.

Although the regulation was a necessity in the industry, most liquid paints, now often made up of latex or acrylic, meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards but chip easily, dry slower and still release an abundance of solvents. In fact, according to The Institute of Specialist Surveyors and Engineers (ISSE), although solvent emissions in a gallon of paint are less than 90% than 20 years ago, canned paints and spray paints can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for 30 days post-application and in some cases, for even up to a year. As long as concerns for the environment and human health continue to increase, people will be led to the clear and better choice — powder coating for heat-sensitive substrates.

Powder coating for heat-sensitive substrates has five distinct characteristics that set it apart from traditional paint, especially for wood products — its ecofriendly nature, speed, durability, efficiency and customizability.

Environmentally friendly — With the lowest carbon footprint of any industrial coating, powder coating doesn’t contain any solvent or harmful chemicals, making it one of the safest, if not the safest, product to use for both the manufacturer and the end user. Additionally, unlike liquid finishes, powder coating releases no discernible VOCs into the environment, which is a new advantage for the wood industry dealing with eco-conscious designers and consumers.

Speed — Compared to traditional paints, which, depending on if its latex or oil-based, can take each layer up to 24 hours to dry and the painted item up to 30 days to cure fully, the powder application process takes approximately 10 minutes from start to finish, depending on the size of the product.

Durability — Powder for heat-sensitive substrates coating produces a higher-quality product, forming a chemical bond that creates a flexible finish that is resistant to chipping, fading, scratching and wearing, regardless of indoor or outdoor conditions. Since the process creates a durable finish, the product, if cleaned and properly cared for, can last well beyond traditional paint, which tends to begin fading and cracking within five to 10 years.

Efficiency — Unlike with spray paints, where overspray is lost, powder overspray is reclaimable up to 98%. Over-sprayed powder can be easily reclaimed and repurposed, limiting damage on other products and the need for waste disposal. The powder coating process can save coaters time, energy and money through the quick, efficient application process and single coat requirement.

Customizability — Powder coating comes in a myriad of options, from finishes with anti-microbial properties and outdoor durability to smooth and textured effects. The finishes also come in a unique blend of colors and can color match virtually anything needed.

Beyond these notable characteristics, powder for heat-sensitive substrates can meet and exceed a range of technical performance tests. One of the tests to prove a powder coating cure is to boil water for approximately five minutes, pour it onto the powder-coated item and leave the cup on top of the product. The powder coating will remain flawless, while if this were performed on a wet coat finish, the product would be stripped and destroyed every time. Additionally, powder coating cures can be tested through a methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) test, which applies MEK to the surface for observation of decreased adhesion or degradation of the product. Wet coat finishes would see a change in the coat within 1 to 2 wipes of the solution, whereas powder coating finishes remain unchanged.

The Truth — Why Isn’t Powder Universally Adopted?

Currently in the U.S., powder coating for heat-sensitive substrates is not widely used among large manufacturers. Despite the long-term value, durability and environmental benefits, the relatively new technology and upfront investment for powder coating equipment has meant a slow adoption process among manufacturers across the country.

However, one established manufacturer, Paris, Texas-based Rodgers Wade, one of the longest continually operating fixture manufacturers in the industry and one of the oldest established businesses in the State of Texas, became involved in producing powder-coated products for heat-sensitive substrates in 2021.

After witnessing how the new technology and its ability to create antibacterial finishes were being utilized in hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodgers Wade purchased the oven technology and, nine months later, bought a plant to accommodate the usage. Since the purchase, Rodgers Wade has been perfecting the process on individual wood pieces used to construct fully assembled furniture fixtures for national beauty store chains and early childhood learning centers. In the coming months, Rodgers Wade plans to introduce powder coating production across its portfolio of clients, which includes numerous Fortune 500 companies in the clothing, footwear, beauty and food retail sectors.

While the process of powder coating, specifically powder coating for heat-sensitive substrates, saves time, money and energy in the long run, the initial investment needs to be overcome. However, as the demand for sustainable products continues to saturate the supply chain, manufacturers who wish to meet their customers’, and in turn consumers’, conscious-buying standards will adapt to the benefits of powder coating.

The Future — How Do We Make it Mainstream?

In the end, in order for powder coating to become mainstream, manufacturers, businesses and consumers will need education on the process and its benefits. Some of the largest companies worldwide are realizing the future of powder coating, and this is the time for manufacturers to capitalize on this inevitable change for the better. Although the industry is hard to predict, the next few years will be a true testament to what powder coating can offer the wood furniture and fixture businesses. As long as the industry begins to increase testing, there is no reason why powder coating for heat-sensitive substrates won’t be the next great American innovation.