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May, 2007

In Depth: Fasteners

Booming deck projects, stricter building codes, and new products are all driving explosive growth in this market.

By Craig A. Shutt

A wide range of projects require fasteners—and sometimes a multitude of them. As deck products expand, building codes grow tighter, and new products enter the market, building material dealers need to know which fasteners will work best for any project—and have those fasteners in stock.

"There are so many fabulous products out there, and they’re maintenance-free and beautiful,” says Kim Pohl, marketing director at Maze Nails in Peru, Ill. "But many of them are more costly than past products have been because they provide so many more benefits. Dealers have to understand these benefits, know what manufacturers recommend, and explain the products well to customers so they can ensure they get the right fasteners.”

Selecting the right fastener for the right job has become more critical with the rise of composite decking products, as well as the introduction of new pressure treatments for wood decks. (For more on these products, see the April 2007 LBM In Depth feature on Decks.)

"A screw for pressure-treated wood and one for composite decking are hugely different in how they work,” says Mirco Walther, president of GRK Fasteners in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.

A wood screw cuts wood fibers, while a composite screw pushes plastic away, creating the "mushrooming” or "volcano” effect that fastener companies (and contractors) have to handle. "These fasteners are designed for vastly different materials and need entirely different approaches,” Walther says. "The only thing they have in common is a recess in the head and a thread. After that, there’s nothing similar.”

New pressure treatments entering the market may help contractors ensure they don’t have interaction problems between materials. "The recent transition had a huge impact on fasteners,” says Pohl. Some of the alternative treatments that replaced CCA (Chromated Copper Arsenate) were more corrosive, and required specific types of fasteners to ensure a long-lasting project. "There are still issues and concerns over which nails and screws will work with [which] treatments,” she adds.

The variety of coatings and claims for compatibility with these treatments made it difficult for contractors to ensure they had what they needed in each situation, says Walther. "A lot of companies say their fastener coatings are compatible with ACQ, but they aren’t always. But now, with the treatments changing, the coatings are changing, too.”

Indeed, all of the treatment companies have new products arriving on the market that could solve many of the interaction problems, they say. "The new treatments sound as if they will be less corrosive,” Pohl says. "We keep in close contact with the companies, and they give us wood blocks to test to see how our fasteners will work. But we have no long-term results to look at yet.”

Premium Fasteners Expand

As a result, high-end fasteners with premium coatings and stainless-steel construction are selling more strongly, notes Scott Baker, president and CEO of National Nail Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Our premium-screw products continue to grow because contractors realize their importance with pressure-treated wood,” he says.

Stainless-steel options also can reduce the "volcanoing effect in composite decking,” says Bill Tucker, sales and product development manager at Swan Secure in Baltimore. "More people are buying high-end stainless-steel products because of their attributes,” he says. Swan Secure has added a new thread configuration to its products to work better with composite decking, he notes. Maze’s Pohl agrees. "Contractors who never would have considered stainless-steel fasteners have been using them to ensure they don’t have problems later on,” she says.

"When to use hot-dipped fasteners and when to use stainless-steel options seems to be the question in our industry,” she adds. "In a nutshell, you should know the chemical-retention level of the wood treatment. The treated-wood suppliers provide this vital information on their products.” Another important guideline? Don’t mix materials. "If you’re using stainless-steel connectors, use stainless-steel fasteners,” Pohl says.

Simpson Strong-Tie has developed a five-step process to help dealers and customers ensure they select the proper connector. The steps focus on evaluating the type of project, the environment, the type of pressure-treated wood, and following recommendations from both the fastener and treated-wood suppliers. Simpson Strong-Tie also provides suggestions for which situations require premium-level connectors.

"We’re always looking at new coatings,” says Tom McClain, core products manager for Simpson Strong-Tie in Pleasanton, Calif. "There is a lot of stuff out there now because everyone has pumped up their options.”

Stainless-steel options have become popular, but a shortage of nickel is curtailing production in some areas, says Dave Martel, vice president of Tiger Claw Fasteners in Bristol, Conn. With composite products taking market share from the traditional treated wood market, the demand for fastener materials may shift.

Composites don’t have issues with corrosion, but these new materials have their unique challenges. For example, contractors often decide to pre-drill holes for composite screws because of the material’s hardness. "We’ve seen guys gun-nailing composite decks, which they shouldn’t do,” says National Nail’s Baker. "We’ve put increased attention on creating a fastener that doesn’t need to be predrilled but can be just driven into the decking.”

Hidden-Fastener Systems

Certainly the growing popularity of hidden-fastener systems for decks has spurred new types of fasteners to enter the market. "Hidden deck fasteners are definitely growing rapidly,” says Tiger Claw’s Martel. "A number of major composite-deck companies now are offering designs that feature grooved boards, which make it easier to design hidden-fastener systems for them.” Those systems are growing as contractors and homeowners see the benefits, he adds. "You can install them twice as fast, and they’re nail free. That’s an attractive option.”

Tiger Claw has partnered with a variety of suppliers of composite decking to create systems that the suppliers sell with their decking under a separate brand name, and which Tiger Claw also sells under its own brand. "We give up some margin to manufacturers to work that way, but we get a lot of volume to offset start-up production costs, and we don’t have to pay the costs for advertising, warehousing, sales, or marketing,” Martel notes. "We just ship the products to them. It gives us a nice, even sales base.”

"A lot of people want hidden-fastener systems today,” agrees Swan Secure’s Tucker. His company also is working with manufacturers to create proprietary systems. Some of the systems can be mixed and matched with decking products, notes National Nail’s Baker, "but if a supplier indicates a particular fastener was designed for use with their product, most people will use that.”

Fastener suppliers also are working with composite-deck manufacturers to create painted screws that match the composite coloring, helping the fasteners blend into the material. That cooperation extends to siding options, too, says Maze’s Pohl. For instance, his company offers pre-finished painted nails that match all of James Hardie’s Colorplus Technology fiber-cement siding and trim to ensure that no unsightly nail heads can be seen on the façade. The company also works with Azek and now supplies both hot-dipped and stainless-steel fasteners pre-finished in white to match Azek’s decking.

Pohl says contractors tend to err on the premium side with all types of projects, figuring the extra cost more than makes up for any callbacks. "The few dollars more spent initially can make a huge difference in the lifetime of the project,” says Pohl. "With these new attractive and more expensive sidings, decking, and trims, it just doesn’t make sense to use cheap nails that will rust prematurely.”

Building Codes Bring Changes

Tighter building codes also have contractors looking more closely at their fasteners. "Contractors are aware that building codes are changing and that more jurisdictions are adopting tighter requirements,” says Simpson’s McClain. "How stringently they’re enforced is another thing. California is very tight, but not all are.”

One of the reasons fasteners aren’t under the microscope more often is due to their performance in the Gulf Coast with Hurricane Katrina and other hurricanes. "Katrina grabbed a lot of attention, but most of the damage was caused by water surge, not by wind,” McClain points out. But if houses aren’t protected, the damage can be severe. "When the roof comes off, it can be devastating,” he says.

The biggest problem is that meeting codes doesn’t necessarily also meet homeowners’ needs. "Codes are written to prevent catastrophic loss of life and to allow survival, not to prevent damage to the home,” he explains. "The code may allow the building to survive intact, but if so much damage was done that the home has to be condemned, it wasn’t much help.”

Many companies are heavily marketing products that meet Miami-Dade County standards, the toughest in the country. "These products can be sold in many other areas, because contractors recognize that if they meet that standard, they’ll meet their local standard,” says National Nail’s Baker. Local jurisdictions also take that approach, he notes. "From the Carolinas to Houston, we’re seeing local areas say that if a certain standard works for Miami, it should be good for us, too.”

Market Slowdown Offset

Those concerns have helped boost the premium end of product lines. "There is added cost for these products, so we do get some pushback from builders and contractors,” says Baker. Explaining the benefits is critical to ensuring the customer understands the value versus the initial cost. The expansion of those products, especially for deck projects, is helping marketers see a bright future this year, even as the housing market slows.

"There has been a slowdown in the market, but we’re excited because we see our screws for wood decks are still throttling up,” says Baker. "Decking is a good remodeling project, and those are still going strong.”

Tiger Claw’s Martel agrees. "Most of our sales are to remodeling projects, because most new homes have pressure-treated wood decks that are just nailed down. Then after a few years of being in the house, the homeowner wants to expand the project and do more.” That can happen especially as maintenance needs grow, and the consumer starts to consider options, including composite decking.

"Certainly, the market is affecting everyone,” says Simpson’s McClain. To counter that drop, the company has put more emphasis into diversification, expanding its commercial lines. "Sheet-metal projects are hurting, but decking has picked up, so it’s good to have something to offset any downturn.”

The building industry overall is down, especially Rust Belt markets such as Michigan and Ohio, says GRK’s Walther. "We don’t think it’s going to be an easy year for anyone, but we expect we will better last year’s numbers by 5% because of the variety of products we’ll be introducing.”

New Products Grow

Indeed, companies are expanding their lines beyond the demand being absorbed by new deck options. National Nail, for instance, has just introduced a coated staple that can be applied with a hammer-tacker, for use with housewrap and roofing felt, says Baker. "It’s doggone clever. It’s the only cap and staple that can be applied with a $49 delivery system.” Maze likewise has expanded its painted-nail options to include both coils and hand-driven options to ensure they can work with any system the contractor uses.

Simpson is focusing its efforts on the ICFVL Ledger Connector System that it introduced last year, which solves the challenges of mounting wood or steel ledgers to insulated concrete form (ICF) walls. "That created a better mousetrap for the market, and it’s being absorbed now.” As with all new products, he notes, there has been some resistance, requiring good educational efforts by dealers.

GRK has a number of products planned and continues to expand its marketing efforts for the Caliburn concrete screw that it introduced last year, which features a "vicious” thread design, Walther says. "We needed a design that was clearly our own and better than what existed,” he says. Later this year, the company will introduce a new multipurpose screw with a new feature designed into its head to aid its gripping ability in hardwood, as well as melamine. It’s also updating the thread design on other products and introducing a new line of composite screws this summer.

The variety of new products requires new merchandising pieces to introduce them to the market. As the product lines expand, new displays and packaging are needed to categorize the products to help ensure contractors find the right pieces for each project.

Swan Secure, for instance, has updated its merchandising pieces this year, adding brand-specific headers with logos that better identify the products and draw attention to them, says Tucker.

Suppliers agree the array of new products will continue, as new applications, new building materials, and new technologies emerge. "Even in a down market, we know we can’t cut R&D, because it’s vital,” says Simpson’s McClain. "We’ll come through this downturn and still have new products coming out all the time.”

Swan Secure’s Tucker agrees. "We have to keep coming up with new products for the market. Fresh products are critical, because once you mature and bear fruit, that fruit starts to rot.”

CRAIG A. SHUTT, senior contributing editor of the magazine, has nearly 30 years experience covering the LBM industry.

SIDEBAR Merchandising Stays Fresh

The volume of new products and complexity of fastener systems—which contractors may not recognize—requires merchandising and packaging systems that simplify the selection process and educate on key points. Suppliers are continually updating their programs to ensure they help dealers meet the customer’s needs in the store.

Tiger Claw, for instance, has revamped its packaging to create small packages that can supply a smaller-sized deck. They provide a better price point and expand the options for buying the proper amount for any project, explains Dave Martel.

The company also has created a full package that includes 2-in. stainless-steel screws. Those used to be sold separately and were difficult to find. "We’re now including those in our package, at a higher price point, but one that’s much cheaper than if they had to be bought separately,” Martel says. Including the screws adds $4 to the package cost, compared to $10 to $12 to buy them separately. "They provide a better value and a better price point.”

Tiger Claw also has revamped its packaging to make it more modular. An outer box contains enough screws for 500 sq. ft. of decking, but inside the box, the screws are segmented into 10 individual bags that each cover 50 sq. ft. "That way customers can buy as many smaller bags as they need without having to have fasteners left over,” he explains. "The customers are loving it.”

GRK has revamped its packaging too, adding a plasticized coating to its cardboard containers to allow for new, brighter graphics. Label changes will be introduced this summer, says Mirco Walther, with an updated, refined look to make all the products consistent.

The company has introduced a flexible merchandiser that allows dealers to expand the display space and create new options for locations. "Our line is broadening, and the existing pieces limited the options,” he explains. "When something new was added, something else had to come out. We wanted to provide a piece that could be configured to different lengths and used as an endcap if desired.” The new piece can be extended beyond the basic 4-ft. inline space to create an entire aisle, he notes.

"Our products are higher-priced, so we want to help the dealer focus on value and explain the benefits they receive with these products,” says Walther. "There are a finite number of fasteners to be sold in any year, and you want to make sure the customers have the best ones for the project they’re doing. That helps the customer create a better project and gives the dealer a better margin.”

INTERNET INFO: To learn more about these and other fastener products, check out these web sites. (Note: companies in bold participated in this article.)

  • Arrow Fastener: www.arrowfastener.com
  • Bostitch: www.bostitch.com
  • FastenMaster: www.fastenmaster.com
  • GRK Fasteners: www.grkfasteners.com
  • Grabber Construction Products: www.grabberman.com
  • Maze Nails: www.mazenails.com
  • National Nail: www.nationalnail.com
  • PrimeSource Building Products: www.grip-rite.com
  • Simpson Strong-Tie: www.strongtie.com
  • Spotnails: www.spotnails.com
  • Sure Drive: www.suredrive.com
  • Swan Secure: www.swansecure.com
  • Tremont Nail: www.tremontnail.com
  • USP Structural Connectors:www.uspconnectors.com HIDDEN DECK FASTENERS
  • Deck Clip: www.deckclip.com
  • Deckmaster: www.grabberman.com/deckmaster
  • Eb-Ty: www.ebty.com
  • FastenMaster IQ: www.fastenmaster.com
  • Invisi-Fast: www.invisifast.com
  • Lumber Loc: www.lumberloc.com
  • The Ipe Clip Company: www.ipeclip.com
  • Tiger Claw Fasteners: www.deckfastener.com

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