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Reinventing Wood

During my research into the topic of engineering new materials that imitate wood, I came across a really interesting company that I believe exemplifies the best of entrepreneurship and American craftsmanship. It is an extremely impressive family-owned and operated small business: Schafer Hardwood Flooring Company in Tecumseh, Michigan. What does this company have to do with composite decking? Absolutely nothing. But since composite decking tries to look like real wood, this company that, not only understands wood, but also does an awesome job of explaining it, is exactly the resource I needed. And, by the way, if you want to install the best (real) hardwood flooring, you should check out their web site:
The composite decking companies have developed a variety of ways to make the surface texture of their product emulate real wood. They talk about different types of grain, such as "Cathedral," but do not explain it.
Pressure Treated decking board
Notice in this photo of (real) Pressure Treated wood decking that the left side of board has one kind grain, and the right side has a different grain appearance. Every tree has growth rings. Here they show very clearly in the crosscut end of the board. The cut of this board intersects the growth rings at different angles because of what part of the log it was cut from. The left side shows what woodworkers call "vertical grain." The right side shows what they call "flat" or "horizontal" grain. This board has both.
Flat Grain vs. Vertical Grain
The grain in the above board photo is explained by the "some of each" placement in this illustration. Composite deck companies frequently use this model to make their decking look like the real thing.
Fortress and Modern Mill decking
The photo above shows simulated grain texture in samples of Fortress (left) and Modern Mill (right) composite decking. Here they are imitating "some of each" type of grain.
Trex Cathedral grain composite decking
The photo above of Trex Select shows a flat grain pattern, which some companies as well as woodworkers also refer to as "Cathedral" grain pattern.
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Plain Sawn Lumber

Plain Sawn

In most cases, logs are cut into boards with a pattern referred to as "Plain Sawn" shown here. The log is held in place at a constant roll angle and passed through a large saw blade, then moved over one inch or whatever the desired rough width is, and passed through again. This is the easiest, most efficient, and most economical way to cut a log into boards. Very little of the log is wasted. So, naturally, this is the way most boards are cut. The result is that the board will intersect the growth rings at several different angles. The center of the log yields the strongest boards because the grain is mostly vertical. All the years I have been buying pine boards for making things, I never paid attention to the angle of the grain. A smart shopper will check and choose accordingly. This applies, not only to pine boards, but also to 2x4's, 2x6's, etc. used for construction, and also to pressure treated decking boards like the one at the top of this page. As a side note, you probably know that a 1" thick pine board is really 3/4" thick. A 2x4 is really 1-1/2" by 3-1/2". This is because this type of wood is planed for smoothness after it is rough cut. So a 1" pine board is rough cut to a thickness of 1", then planed, but the board is described by its rough cut dimension. The exception is pressure-treated decking boards that are typically described by their planed dimensions, typically a little over an inch thick and 5-1/2" wide. Composite decking, that became popular after pressure-treated pine had been the standard for years, generally sticks to that size.
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Quarter Sawn

Quarter Sawn

To get boards that are stronger and more dimensionally stable, saw mills slice the log in a process known as "quarter sawn." First, they cut the log into quarters. Then they plain saw each quarter. This results in boards that intersect the growth rings at an angle between 90 degrees and 60 degrees. The result is boards with vertical grain or almost vertical grain. This process is more expensive, and there is some waste.
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Rift Sawn

Rift Sawn

If you want to dissect a log in a way that produces only boards with vertical grain, you use a process known as "rift sawn." It takes longer and results in a lot more waste, so these boards are going to be more expensive. The log is first cut in quarters. Then each quarter is rotated so that the saw blade is perpendicular to the log's core. How exactly they do this is a mystery to me. However, very smart people have been figuring out complex ways to work with wood for centuries. For example, dovetail joinery was used in Roman times. Now here is something that I learned from the Schafer Hardwood Flooring company: Rift and Quarter sawn flooring boards can be used together ( I assume to achieve a more interesting look). That kind of hardwood flooring is known as "rift and quartered." This is worth mentioning in this article in the "composite decking" section of this web site because composite companies are starting to find ways to vary the decking texture to get a more interesting looking deck. I don't know if any company is offering rift and quartered surface texture, but it is something I will keep an eye out for.
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Simulating Wood Texture

So imagine you are composite decking company and you have to figure out the best way to make the surface texture and coloring of your decking look like real wood. I believe that is only part of the challenge. The other part is making it look appealing, which may or may not be making it exactly like real wood. It is not an easy task, and each company needs to be congratulated on what they have accomplished. They don't say (of course) exactly how they do it. They have some kind of embossing press or roller that puts texture into the plastic surface while it is still soft. And not only that, they have to dribble in the coloring to get variegated or "multi tonal" colors with realistic streaking. Below you see some close-up examples. It would be a mistake to decide on your favorite based on these photos because what really counts is what the whole deck looks like, not a 5-inch sample.
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DuraLife Decking Garapa Gray
(Above) Duralife, in this example, is simulating vertical rift sawn grain with some streaking.

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Trex Lineage Decking
Recently, Trex introduced its Lineage collection (above) which also simulates vertical rift sawn grain. They don't describe it as vertical or rift sawn grain because most people would not relate to that. This product on the web site shows more obvious color streaking.

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Trex Transcend
This photo (above) of Trex Transcend in Tiki Torch color shows the texture that Trex is best known for. It is this texture that you will see on most installed Trex decks. The texture is characterized, not only by the deep grain, but also stress marks, like pock marks.

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Deckorators Decking
In these three samples of Deckorators decking, you can see that the company is representing wood grain, coloring, and texture in interesting and different ways.

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Fiberon Armorguard Decking
Fiberon (above) has a number of different ways of imitating wood texture. Shown here is Fiberon Armorguard Sand Castle. Check out other Fiberon wood textures on this site.
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Trex Tiki Torch
This close up of Trex Transcend Tiki Torch offers a better view of classic Trex wood texture. This same texture is also used for Trex Enhance, its economical line.
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Millboard Weathered Oak Decking
English company Millboard has taken a radically different approach with its Weathered Oak line of decking. They made a mold of the floorboards of a 100-year-old railroad car. The result is the most deeply textured imitation wood on the market.
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Zuri decking imitates wood in a way that is different from other brands but common with laminate flooring and office furniture. Its wood appearance is an actual photograph of real wood. The surface is relatively smooth, but it looks like real wood because it is a photo of real wood.
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Note: The photos and illustrations on this page are by Phil Dickinson and are covered by standard copyright law. Any use should at least acknowledge the source. I am grateful to the Schafer Hardwood Flooring Company and their web site for much of the information on this page. I was tempted to just use their illustrations, but decided it would be best to create my own, using theirs as a model.