In the face of a tumultuous construction world, fasteners remain a solid player.
There’s a very old proverb that goes something like this: “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost. For the want of a shoe the horse was lost. For the want of a horse the rider was lost. For the want of a rider the battle was lost. For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”
Benjamin Franklin included a version of this proverb in his in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1758, using it as a way to express how important the little things were at a time when the American colonies were facing war against England. And just as it was true then, it’s the little things that matter the most—things like fasteners which, if overlooked, can weaken an entire structure.
But what, exactly, is the state of the fastener market these days? On the downside, new home construction took a significant hit during the first half of 2020. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, new housing starts were down by 4% compared to June of 2019.
But there’s good news as well. Because of the impact of COVID-19, many homeowners are focusing on interior remodeling and outdoor living space construction to make their homes more of a personal oasis. Because of that, fasteners have weathered better than many other building materials segments. “We are looking for continued growth in fastener sales as shelter-in-place policies continue to promote interest in do-it-yourself projects,” says Scott Park, director of fastening systems for Simpson Strong-Tie. “This extends to the decking segment as outdoor living spaces become more popular, and awareness of the need for safer stronger deck structures becomes more prevalent.”
As a result of these ups and downs, manufacturers were left to wade through unpredictability as they try to understand where the market may be going. “2020 has been an exceptional year for DeckWise even with the pandemic,” says Roderick Kabel, marketing director for DeckWise. “I think we are all scratching our heads in the LBM industry as to why, and waiting for the shoe to drop. Until then, we are full steam ahead.”
Mike Nelson, product portfolio manager of building products for MiTek, is also cautiously optimistic about the fastener segment as a whole. “As we saw through the first half of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced significant volatility, both to the upside, in the case of repair and remodel spending, and to the down-side, as we saw in the housing starts data during the early stages of the pandemic,” he explains. “Over the next 12 months, we anticipate continued volatility but are overall optimistic that underlying demand will remain strong.”
Phil Lail, president of Pan American Screw Fastener Group, has a similar take on the outlook for fasteners. “The past four to five months have been a whirlwind of opportunities for us with fasteners of all kinds,” he says. “Our hidden deck fastener sales and threaded exterior fasteners have been flying off the shelves of lumberyards and home centers across the country.”
Mike Tipps, general manager of Titan Metal Werks (the manufacturer of SplitStop screws and DeckEase hidden deck fasteners) shares that optimism. “A large amount of those locking down at home chose to use that time to repair and/or replace their decks,” he pointed out. “Our customer demand began to increase significantly, eliminating the previous month’s reduction requests and requesting shipments be increased as soon as possible.”
Fasteners respond to the world
An odd side effect of the current COVID-19 crisis—and one that would have been impossible to predict—is the impact it has had on the availability of pressure treated lumber. As lumber mills slowed and lumber treatment facilities decreased production to match, homeowners launched a wave of outdoor DIY projects, and the result is that pro builders and DIYers alike are now looking for alternatives to pressure-treated softwoods. “As pressure treated decking is in limited supply,” says Pan American’s Phil Lail, “we are seeing an increase in our fasteners and fastening systems for composite or alternative decking.”
Dani Zizak, vice president of marketing and branding for National Nail, manufacturer of CAMO fasteners, agrees about the impact the pressure-treated lumber shortage is having. “We’re seeing a rise in pricing and a scarcity of pressure-treated lumber, which impacts contractors’ bottom lines and job timelines,” she says.
In response to the treated lumber shortage, CAMO recently launched a new clip for metal framing. The CAMO EDGEXMETAL Clip is offered as a way to fasten any grooved deck board on metal substructure that can be installed easily by hand with the included Never-Miss Guide or up to five times faster with the award-winning CAMO DRIVE stand-up tool. Both methods use the contractor’s drill.
Because alternatives such as hardwood and composite decking often rely on hidden fastening systems, growth for that category of fastener is on the rise. “Fastening decks in general is a top-down screwing world,” explains DeckWise’s Kabel. “We are seeing lots of new install jigs and adapters for screw guns. However, our world is hardwood decking using edge groove hidden fasteners. While quick installations are great, quality and precise fastening of hardwoods is the key to a long-lasting deck.”
Bevan Wulfenstein, marketing director for Grabber Construction Products, Inc., agrees. “The continued growth of low-maintenance exterior spaces has lent itself to innovation in this area,” he says. “Products like Grabber’s UltraPro Ultimate Wood Screw fits this trend nicely with its ease of install and consistent, flush seating that won’t split the wood or create an ill-looking finish. We see this trend continuing, particularly with the impact COVID-19 has had on homeowner renovation projects.”
Because homeowners are spending so much more time in these new spaces, there is an increased importance on making those spaces as high-end and quality-driven as possible.
“Quality! You truly get what you pay for when it comes to fasteners,” says Lisa Martin, director of marketing for Maze Nails. “Nails are one of the essential parts of a building project but are often overlooked. If the incorrect fasteners are used it can turn into very costly callbacks for the builder. Deck failures, rust stains, and lost shingles and siding are just a few of the repercussions of using inferior nails.”
As Uli Walther, president of U2 Fasteners, explains, “For some reason, when building an outdoor structure, patio or entertainment area, people tend to think about fasteners last, but when corrosion or rust appears they forget that they went with the cheapest screws. In 2020, when more people are spending time at home and in their back yard, the next time they have a project they are going to choose a fastener that will last as long or longer than the material they used.”
Along with that desire for quality is a renewed push for domestically-manufactured products, and fastener makers see this as a good thing. “Higher quality made-in-the-U.S. products will outpace import commodity growth,” explains Jim Winn, president of SPAX. “Outdoor living is becoming a very important aspect of new home design as well as home upgrading. There are more options in decking materials than ever; treated select and colored options, exotic hardwoods, trendy composites, plastic, aluminum options, and more. Fastening the decking materials is no longer a matter of a hammer and a nail; LBM contractors/ customers are demanding the fastening solution be structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing.”
Specialty fasteners to the rescue
Beyond the shortage of pressure-treated lumber, fastener manufacturers are responding to changing trends in building materials by creating fasteners to match the increasing use of mass timber, specialty concrete applications, and the growing need for structural rated fasteners. “We see the growth of mass-timber construction as an opportunity to develop and improve upon heavy-duty connections, and modular assembly,” says Simpson Strong-Tie’s Park.
As U2 Fasteners’ Uli Walther explains, “We spend a lot of time on test-ing structural values of our screws for applications. We talk to a lot of contractors who do repetitive jobs who are looking for fastening patterns and spacing to meet engineering needs. With the testing documents, we see increases in common sizes that follow along with those applications. Once contractors are familiar and comfortable with U2 Fasteners they come back for more. So I would say structural rated screws have the most potential for growth.”
MiTek’s Mike Nelson shares similar insights. “We continue to see movement away from the use of larger lag bolts and screws and toward our smaller diameter structural fasteners. This is driven by our benefits of faster and easier installation, lower profile/ concealed fastening while providing the needed load values.”
Shifts in building methods with concrete are also causing fastener manufacturers to change their approach and develop new products. “There is a growing trend in the use of mechanical anchors over the more traditional cast-in-place anchors such as threaded rod and anchor bolts,” explains Nelson. “Pre-casting these rods and bolts is slow, tedious, and prone to error. The use of screw or wedge anchors, however, is much more efficient and desired by contractors. The unique design elements of the MiTek SACH screw anchor and the MiTek WAC wedge anchor provide improved experience for the installer while also meeting the highest cracked concrete code requirements.”
Efficiency and quality top the list
All LBM dealers understand the importance of providing their customers exactly what they want. The trick, of course, is knowing what their customers want. In response to that question, manufacturers all say something similar: builders, contractors and homeowners are seeking out anything that can increase productivity, whether that’s a faster installation method, a fastener that’s easier to drive, or one that provides better performance over the life of the product. “When it comes to fasteners, builders want products and systems that aid in the productivity and efficiency for their sub-con-tractors and aid in the longevity of the building structure,” says Grabber’s Wulfenstein. “They certainly don’t want shortcuts on fasteners to be the reason for a call-back.”
In order to better identify what contractors need most, Pan American recently conducted a study to answer that very question and identify what key indicators determine why a particular system is chosen. “Builders seem to be looking for something that is easy to install, has a proven performance in the field and does not negatively affect the decking manufacturer’s warranty,” says Phil Lail. “Builders seem to be looking for something that is easy to install, has proven performance in the field and does not negatively affect the decking manufacturer’s warranty.”
Don’t be tempted, however, to equate efficiency with speed of installation. “All builders are on a time crunch and want to use products they can count on to perform,” says Maze Nail’s Martin. And as DeckWise’s Kabel points out, “With our fastening method, install speed is hard to increase. Contractors with customers that plunk down big dollars for hardwood decking also understand a quick-installing fastener doesn’t mean a job well done.” MiTek’s Mike Nelson points out that builders are looking for solutions that increase output while reducing total lifecycle costs. “Builders want solutions that help them overcome labor shortages, reduce waste, reduce callbacks, and deliver superior performance in application” he explains. “In the fastener category, this doesn’t just mean screws with efficient thread patterns. Like any other structural element, true efficiency is achieved when the holistic design of a structure is planned from the start.”
That search for efficiency drives contractors’ desire to have access to products with strong overall product quality and performance, and LBM dealers need to be able to provide fasteners that deliver. “When contractors open a box of screws, they want to be able to grab any screw and know that there is not coating stuck in the head, the screw will not break or strip,” says U2 Fasteners’ Walther. “They want to work efficiently and not get called back for rework because of failing fasteners.” Says National Nail’s Dani Zizak, “With the rise of composite and PVC decking, they are looking for beautiful, low-maintenance, natural-looking deck surfaces unmarred by visible fasteners that typically crack and splinter boards. Hidden fastening systems are being used more frequently to achieve a seamless look, which CAMO EDGE Screws or EDGE Clips deliver with any deck board material. We also warranty our fasteners in every installation, no matter the deck board manufacturer.”
Simpson Strong-Tie’s Scott Park agrees with Zizak on the importance of performance. “For many applications, builders look for load-rated fastener solutions per building codes,” he explains. “Simpson Strong-Tie has invested heavily in testing our Strong-Drive structural fastener product lines and has also tested several of the Deck-Drive premium deck fastener product lines to develop ratings for withdrawal, pull through and shear resistance. These are all highly engineered products to meet the demands of specifiers and building engineers.”
Sell smarter by being smarter
Let’s be honest: there are a myriad of fastener product lines in the market— almost more than is possible to keep track of. And with the day-to-day demands from builders, it isn’t always easy for an LBM dealer to stay on top of product information. But it’s because of these many fastener options that it’s more important than ever for LBM distributors to serve as a reliable source for product education.
“There is an abundance of new information available in regard to new products and technology that contractors need but often have a difficult time keeping up with themselves,” explains Grabber’s Wulfenstein. “I think it is wise for the LBM dealers to be the go-to experts in as many product segments as they can, and at very least the first source of direction and information for the contractors since many dealers have direct access to manufacturers.”
Simpson Strong-Tie’s Scott Park agrees with this sentiment. “LBM dealers can assist in educating their customers by helping make [manufacturer] resources more available,” he says. “Simpson Strong-Tie has a resource library that contains technical guides, engineering letters, instructional videos and educational courses that are available to the public. LBM dealers who provide access or refer to these resources can become an information conduit for their customers, which can ultimately lead to increased business for themselves.”
Part of being a reliable source of information is knowing what fastener should—and shouldn’t—be used for any given application, and be able to recommend a product based on the customer’s performance needs. Says MiTek’s Mike Nelson, “All fasteners aren’t equal. As a category, fastener products are becoming more and more specialized and LBM dealers will need to have key understandings in what product should be used for many applications and be able to demonstrate what makes one product perform better over alternatives.”
For example, LBM dealers can help their customers see the potential of a fastener type across materials, points out National Nail’s Zizak. “LBM dealers could highlight the excellent marriage between all decking boards and hidden fasteners to save time and labor, while delivering an improved aesthetic—whether the job is grooved or non-grooved square edge,” she explains. “Cross-selling can help the contractor improve their margins and move from one job to the next.”
It’s understanding that product differentiation can make all the difference between selling a customer just once or building a customer for life. “It is sometimes easy to ignore this need with the ‘busyness’ of day-to-day tasks,” says Wulfenstein, “but I think this is the area of improvement for dealers to build relationships that forge a barrier with their competition.”
Technology is your friend
Staying atop all of that product information can seem like a daunting task, but manufacturers strive to make it as easy as possible through providing technology solutions to help augment an LBM dealer’s knowledge base. “As the complexity and specialization of the category increases, keeping track of every product in the category will be more and more challenging,” says MiTek’s Nelson. “Relying on suppliers and manufacturers that provide sophisticated software for an accurate selection of fasteners will help alleviate that challenge.”
In the case of MiTek, it has transitioned to virtual and interactive training programs and events to deliver product solutions directly to the customer no matter where they are working. And for Simpson Strong-Tie, its aforementioned resource library offers technical guides, instructional videos and educational courses that are all available to the public.
For Pan American, along with installation videos for its Mantis Clip on the company’s YouTube channel, it is researching the launch of online training programs that would allow participants to complete training at their own pace. As a reward, upon completion participants would earn points that could then be redeemed for various branded products such as hats or jackets.
“Pairing products with installation methods and techniques and educating the LBM staff on what brands you have chosen to carry—and why—is very important,” says Pan American’s Phil Lail. “The builder looks to the LBM employee as the expert. How can you recommend a product if you don’t take the time to know how it is better or unique?”
Staying at the front of technology—just like keeping well educated on products—is just part of the equation for success when it comes to fasteners. Understanding the bigger picture of how the small details like fasteners can yield great victories can, like Benjamin Franklin pointed out, make the difference between defeat and victory.
Michael Berger is the former managing editor for HANDY Magazine and has been writing about home improvement and construction for the past nineteen years.