Fasteners are amazing creations, and ones that can be easy to take for granted. For example, of the over 6 million parts that it takes to construct a Boeing 747 aircraft, approximately 3 million of them are fasteners—a staggering number, and that’s just for one aircraft. Everyone sees the sleek machine fly overhead, but few appreciate the tiny bits that hold it all together.
Likewise, in the world of lumber and building materials, it can be easy to overlook fasteners, but they’re the vital underpinnings of everything that’s constructed. And considering the accelerated demand for construction over the past twelve months, it quickly becomes obvious just how big of a player fasteners are in the LBM world.
This isn’t to say that fasteners sell themselves or that there haven’t been challenges for fastener manufacturers and LBM distributors alike. Of deep concern, fastener manufacturers say, are the growing shortages of raw materials, their increasing prices, and severe shipping delays. “These issues have contributed to rising costs and product shortages, and we are consistently seeing requests for products from customers who have been unable to secure product delivery from their normal suppliers,” says Robert Shirley, product marketing manager for fastening systems for Simpson Strong-Tie.
Robert Knecht, marketing director for SPAX, also sees these factors as major pain-points over the last year. “Raw material shortages and supply issues were a disruptor in the past year, although less so for companies like ours who rely on mainly domestic suppliers,” he says. “Our company continues to grow, which means adding new people, and labor shortages—especially in the skilled workforce—have been challenging. We are fortunate to have fewer challenges than most as a domestic manufacturer with most of our products made right here in the U.S.”
Shipping costs for those that rely on overseas materials and manufacturing have been especially detrimental and disruptive. Container costs have skyrocketed, and lead times often have more than doubled. Phil Lail, president of Pan American Screw Fastener Group (manufacturer of Deerwood Fasteners and Sure Drive USA), points to shipping—both in cost and in availability—as being one of his company’s biggest challenges. “For example, last year a 20′ container from Taiwan or China to an East Coast port in the U.S. was about$3,800,” he explains. “I just released seven containers to sail at just over $16,000 each in order to keep product flowing to our key customers. These increased costs have to be passed up the chain to the consumer, unfortunately. Lead times at certain Taiwanese factories have extended from 90 to 110 days out to 180 to 220 days due to raw material allocations, backup in heat treating, plating, protective coating, and painting processes.”
Aaron Anderson, general manager and fastener buyer for Steelhead Fasteners, echoes Lail’s comments. “For us, the biggest disruptions have been caused by raw material shortages and pricing and the never-ending freight issues,” he laments. “The freight issues start from the country of origin and extend all of the way to the point of delivery. Vessel space is at an all-time low and for some containers we are having to pay more than 100% of our contracted rates. In addition, the vessel delays are never-ending, causing some containers to have been rolled over multiple months before vessel space is secured. Then, when it finally arrives on the west coast, depending on port, berthing times for these vessels can be weeks before there is even a place for them to dock.”
Continued growth on the horizon
Based on these challenges, it would be easy to assume a bleak future is in the cards for fasteners. In fact, when the statistics are analyzed, the exact opposite appears to be true, with opportunity aplenty for the savvy LBM distributor.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, privately-owned housing starts in June of this year were up 6.3% from the revised May estimates of 1,546,000 and 29.1% above the June 2020 rate of 1,273,000.
Even more promising is the fact that lumber prices are finally returning to earth. According to the Wall Street Journal at the time of this writing, lumber futures were down nearly 70% from the high of $1,711.20 in May of this year.
Those strong building starts combined with the correction in lumber prices have manufacturers optimistic. “As lumber prices continue to come down, we believe we will see growth across the DIY, remodeling, and housing sectors,” predicts Simpson Strong-Tie’s Shirley. “Simpson Strong-Tie is continuing to develop new products to address customer needs and support growing sectors, including the launch of our SDPW Deflector family of fasteners designed to ease the installation full-height, non-load-bearing partition walls, as well as the introduction of several structural fasteners designed for Mass Timber construction.”
Other manufacturers agree with Shirley’s optimism. “We anticipate solid long-term growth for residential construction fasteners based on pandemic-driven lifestyle changes that have increased homeowner investments in improving their homes,” says Web Shaffer, general manager and senior vice president of FastenMaster.
Amelia Hubbard, category manager for Midwest Fastener Corp., agrees. “Consumers in 2020 were at home, focusing on their families and homes, remodeling and investing discretionary money towards their homes versus travel and eating out,” she says. “In 2021 with the upward trend in the housing market, homeownership is on the rise across the country, resulting in more opportunities for home remodels and new construction.”
Changes in what consumers are buying is also driving growth for certain fastener segments. “We are continuing to see trends where screws are replacing nails, especially around structural applications and decking,” says Jacek Romanski, channel marketing director for ITW Construction. “Bulk nails are losing space on store shelves and being replaced by structural screws. This is also being fueled by the pandemic in which homeowners are updating their homes and outdoor living spaces. We are still hearing that contractors are backlogged with remodeling projects for the foreseeable future.”
Still, it’s important to remember that the record demand the market has been seeing can’t be sustained forever, manufacturers point out, but that doesn’t mean growth won’t stay in the black. “As long as construction and remodeling remain strong, we see the market continuing to grow at least 7 to 10%,” explains Pan American’s Lail. “We are growing by increasing our geographical footprint. We are adding three new salespeople to help grow the business in other areas of the country. Overall the market should continue to grow but we are forecasting somewhere along the way there has to be a post-COVID bubble burst. We have set sales records since May 2020 and the demand is still strong.”
Efficiencies lead trends
While good for the bottom line, all that aforementioned growth is straining builder and contractor resources. Extreme demand for their services, coupled with the continued shortage of jobsite labor, has pushed them to seek out products that offer time-saving benefits, and manufacturers are answering that call.
More than ever, fastener makers are focusing on product innovations that speed installation and decrease call-backs. “A key factor that many builders continue to focus on is the reduction of call-backs due to incorrect installations of walls and flooring,” says Simpson Strong-Tie’s Shirley. “When installed correctly, the fastening of subfloors to joists using screws reduces call backs related to floor squeaks. The Simpson Strong-Tie Strong-Drive WSV Subfloor screw enables fast driving with less torque when installing sub-flooring. Combined with cordless Quik Drive auto-feed screw driving systems, these WSV Subfloor screws provide more screw driving per battery charge due to this reduced driving torque.”
ITW’s Romanski agrees that efficiencies are key. “With the lack or shortage of labor, fasteners and power fastening tools need to minimize or eliminate any downtime on the jobsite,” he explains. “Pro contractors do not want to deal with the hassles of broken or stripped screws or nailers that jam, causing them to stop what they were doing to solve the issue. They want fasteners that get the job done right immediately so they can move to the next project.”
It’s not just efficiency that’s driving product development, however; the increasing use of mass timber construction is spurring fastener manufacturers to engineer new fasteners for these specific applications. As Shirley explains, “Mass timber construction has influenced new trends in fastening applications, methodologies, and the design of structural fasteners specifically suited for mass timber connections.” As an example, he points out Simpson Strong-Tie’s Strong-Drive SDCP Timber-CP, a large partially threaded fastener that he says is ideal for wall-to-wall, floor-to-floor, panel-to-beam, surface spline, lap joint, and ledger connections common in mass timber construction, along with the Strong-Drive SDCF Timber-CF, a fully threaded fastener designed for beam reinforcement, support beam connections and butt joints.
“I see a definite increase in the use of cross laminated timber and other structural wood products,” says Pan American’s Lail. “To fasten these timbers correctly you need to ensure you are using the top grades of carbon steel and proper heat treat specifications that allows the fastener to bend but not easily break. We have redesigned our Big Timber CTX structural lag screw to start faster and drive easier. Some of these structural fasteners are up to 16″ in length.”
Offer choices, provide solutions
New products. New applications. New building trends and techniques. When you add all of it up, the resulting sum can seem daunting to the LBM dealer who is trying to best serve its customers. To succeed in the fastener space, manufacturers recommend a few strategies for building supply retailers.
To start, they suggest offering a wide array of thoughtful fastener options. “Offering a variety of products, covering user needs is important when developing a fastener destination, complemented by knowledgeable and friendly staff is what creates a recurring customer,” says Midwest Fastener’s Hubbard. “It takes multiple positive experiences in a store to build trust, it takes one negative experience to lose that trust.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that the LBM dealer should overwhelm their customers with so many choices that store isles become cluttered or difficult to navigate. Rather, they recommend keeping things organized in a way that quickly offers solutions. “Often the fastener aisle can have a crowded or busy appearance with so many different suppliers, styles and sizes,” points out Josh Martin, national sales manager for SPAX. “Our recommendation is to feature clean, nicely merchandised displays with consistent branding and customer messaging to help reduce confusion and clutter.”
As well, it’s vital for the successful LBM dealer to maintain strong lines of communication with their customers so that they can best serve their needs. Too often, they say, simple questions get skipped which can lead to frustration on the jobsite. “They need to better understand their customer base in terms of construction, i.e., multi-family or single-family,” explains Steelhead Fasteners’ Anderson. “This alone is going to narrow down the type of fasteners that they might need, as basic sheathing nails for plywood will be totally different depending on what is being built. In addition, talk to the customers about the specific job in relation to needed fasteners and timeframe. If you need a special fastener but fail to ask the customer the total amount they will need for that job, it puts everyone in a real tough position when we are out of stock with none coming in for months, but the customer needs to finish the job. Absolutely no one likes to be put in that position, but if the salesperson found out this pertinent info from the beginning it could have been addressed and a solution found.”
Of course, part of the communication plan needs to include talking with your suppliers. As Pan American’s Phil Lail points out, “In today’s climate, with industry wide shortages and extended lead times from Asian manufacturers, I’ve heard it said that ‘Inventory is king.’ Working with your supplier and keeping them aware of trends and increases (or decreases) of certain key products in your individual markets is invaluable for a supplier to be able to react properly.”
And of course, manufacturers stress the need for education. By staying on top of the fastener space regarding new products, proper applications, and product benefits, LBM dealers can serve as a trusted resource for their customers, one that they’ll return to again and again. “LBM dealers that can offer better product education to their pro customers will have a competitive advantage versus their peers who cannot,” explains Simpson Strong-Tie’s Shirley. “Unlike generic screws, lags and nails, premium fasteners are designed for performance, ease of installation, time savings, and in many cases, for specific applications in specific environments. Providing education to customers regarding what fasteners are ideally suited for which applications and level of corrosion resistance is key to ensuring that jobs and projects are built for safety and are built to last.”
More training, more options
Because of the need for LBM dealers to serve as educational resources for their customers, manufacturers have long provided product resources and training. The post-pandemic world, however, combined with the continuing labor shortage challenges, has brought about the development and release of new educational programs delivered in new and innovative ways. “The shortage and high turnover of labor has highlighted the importance of on-going and distributed training,” says FastenMaster’s Shaffer. “It’s critical to ‘train the trainer’, creating a broad network of product experts that aren’t lost every time personnel changes.”
For example, at their regional training centers, Simpson Strong-Tie offers workshops and classes on proper specification, installation, and inspection of connectors and structural systems. “We remain committed to opportunities for classroom instruction as well as hands-on installation workshops for Simpson Strong-Tie products,” says Simpson Strong-Tie’s Shirley. “Available to engineers, architects, dealers, contractors, and inspectors, our training courses often qualify for professional development hours (PDH) and continuing education units (CEU) through a variety of states and organizations.”
As well, the company also has launched its Builder Learning Center (training.strongtie.com/builder) that hosts curated training sessions on topics such as product installation, building codes, builder software and industry trends. “The site offers plenty of on-demand training, including self-paced online courses, videos and recorded webinars, explains Shirley. “While nothing can replace in-person hands-on education, it has been an exciting and rewarding challenge to find ways to serve our customers.”
In the case of SPAX, it is investing in a new training center in Bryan, Ohio for its employees, and they have increased the number of live video demos for their dealers which demonstrate product applications, features and benefits. “The SPAX team is working hard to educate customers with videos, digital advertising and social media,” says SPAX’s Martin. “We’ve mobilized a team of SPAX Ambassadors who are avid users of the products and enjoy sharing their experiences and applications on social media. We also have a huge focus on providing Technical Evaluation Reports to educate customers about code compliance, appropriate applications and usage of our products.”
For the Pan American Screw Fastener Group, it has updated its sales literature and product catalogs to help educate the end user about the specific applications its fasteners can be used for. As well, it has added QR Codes to all its sales literature and product labels so customers can easily download Technical Evaluation Reports when needed for building inspectors or project managers.
And for Midwest Fastener Corp., it has updated its approach to training and education with more online materials that can be accessed from multiple locations at any time. “These updates have allowed Midwest Fastener to maintain the highest level of communication with our internal employees, sales team, suppliers, and our customers,” says Hubbard.
In the end, it’s all about providing solutions. Even for simple jobs, the successful LBM dealer will be a resource for their customers not just for product but for advice that goes beyond technical data. And every step of the way, the manufacturers are there to help. As Midwest Fastener’s Amelia Hubbard says, “Our mission is to exceed expectations by being our retailers’ partner in their growth. We create fastener destinations that make the customer shopping experience as easy, as quick, and as thorough as possible, helping the store owner solve problems by offering everything needed within their fastener aisle.”
Michael Berger is the former managing editor for HANDY Magazine and has been writing about home improvement and construction for the past 20 years.