The various materials
There are many materials used to build shutters, but for this article I’ve broken them down into four broad categories. It’s true that within each of these categories there are many subcategories, but generally there are four. They are:
1. Hollow vinyl
While there can be exceptions, Hollow vinyl is a low end material, which in my opinion is ill suited for shutters. It’s not that it’s a bad material for other purposes, and I often see it used in vinyl fencing and outbuildings. Fencing and plastic huts don’t have moving parts though generally speaking, and when they add vinyl gates and shed doors they don’t function well over time. Shutter manufacturers over-promote this material by giving it scientific sounding names followed by arbitrary numbers. Hollow vinyl shutters snap together or sometimes are fastened to an internal stabilizer such as wood or aluminum.
MDF stands for Medium Density Fiberboard. This is made by grinding wood into a fine powder, mixing it with a resin and extruding it into the shape desired. While a step up from hollow vinyl, it’s still a material best suited for when there are no moving parts. MDF is great for baseboards and crown mouldings but doesn’t hold up over time when there are moving parts. Have you ever had MDF furniture and the drawer gave out? Same issue. Practitioners of puffery call it Composite Wood or Hybrid.
It’s worth saying at this time that the hollow vinyl and MDF shutters are the best selling in the world. They are cheap and over promoted thanks to the protections of puffery. They are also the shutters we are most often asked to repair and the ones we are un-installing most frequently when people contact us for an upgrade.
3. Composite Polymer
When something is called a Composite it means it’s made from two or more things. Composite Polymers are a blend of complimentary polymers that combine to make a better material. They are better defined by its strength to weight ratio, UV resistance, and appearance. These materials have been around for decades and just like any technology, they’ve been improved over time. If considering a composite polymer shutter, make sure the product has been improved on over the years. You wouldn’t buy an iPhone 3 today so don’t buy a shutter from the company saying, “We’ve been using the same formula for 25 years.”
The newer composite polymers are very hard and strong and in my opinion are suitable for use as shutters on a limited basis. If you have a need for a waterproof or fire resistant shutter this is a material you should look at. But there are some limitations to keep in mind.
First, this material is very heavy so there are operational considerations at play. Also, the color selections are often limited to 3-5 shades of white and perhaps 2-4 faux stained finishes. These shutters are made in a variety of ways and are usually screwed together with long screws. Bottom line, this is a great shutter for use in a shower or bath area where ventilation is limited.
I’m asked frequently whether I recommend real wood shutters or not. Wood shutters can be made so poorly they make the plastic shutters look good. They can also be made so well that nothing else can compare. Real wood shutters, when made properly, are the standard against which all other shutters are measured. I’m going to teach you how to spot the quality wood shutters that will outperform and outlast all other shutters and avoid the poor quality shutters and their tricks.
When selecting a wood shutter you need to start with the raw material. Ask what species of tree is used in the shutters. If a company states they use “Hardwood” or “North American Hardwood” ask further. Hardwood simply means the tree is deciduous, that it loses it’s leaves in the fall. Softwood means the tree is coniferous, like a Pine Tree for instance. There are soft Hardwoods and hard Softwoods, so the term Hardwood is not a good descriptor nor does it tell us what we need to know. There are many good woods suitable for quality shutters and some very poor woods too. The reason you want to know the species is because different woods behave differently and require different tooling. If a company is vague about the wood used, it indicates a lack of specialization which may mean they buy whatever is abundant and cheap. A quality shutter can’t come from a company that skimps on something as fundamental as the raw material.
Next you need to understand if the wood is conditioned properly. Without getting into too many nerdy details, there are vast differences in the quality of lumber when shortcuts are taken during this important process. Most quality wood Shutters are made from lumber, dried to 6-7% moisture content (Lumber industry standard is 12% MC). These steps are very important to prevent any expansion issues with the wood shutter panels. The wood also needs to be very dry to prevent warping and to preserve the finish. When a shutter is placed in a window, any residual moisture will be exposed to the heat of the sun. The water will heat up and cause the wood to move to accommodate the expansion of the water. If the water does reach the surface of the wood it will cause the paint finish to fail. Warping components and failing paint finish are signs of a low quality shutter. Fortunately, many manufacturers get this vital step right.
By Shem Isaac, Home Living Windows