When the paint begins to fail on a wood balustrade, suddenly the price of polyurethane no longer seems so high.
“The only thing as certain as death and taxes is the fact that wood will rot,” remarks Eric Borden of ESB Contracting in Toms River, N.J. “End grain wicks water and rot sets in. That's the weak point of a wood handrail in our climate” he continues, explaining his decision to install Fypon balustrades on the traditional Shingle-style coastal homes he typically works on at the Jersey Shore.
The Economy of a Premium Product Most of the renovations that Borden does have big price tags attached — upward of $1 million — so the premium price for polyurethane is not such a shock to his customers. Hefty, 6-inch-diameter balusters cost around $50 each; top and bottom rails each run about $23 per linear foot. The alternative for Borden is custom-milled redwood or western red cedar balusters at $35 apiece, and handrail at about $16 per linear foot.
Although the wood prices mean a considerable savings on material, Borden feels it's not really substantial. For starters, the labor of installing wood is easily 30% more. A Fypon balustrade comes nearly ready to assemble out of the box. Dowels at the end of each polyurethane baluster are glued into the top and bottom rails, and the entire assembly is band-clamped together before it is screwed to newel posts.
The biggest labor savings are found in the reduced need for sanding and finishing, especially considering the myriad hard-to-reach parts of any balustrade. A polyurethane balustrade comes pre-primed. Only a light sanding, just enough to slightly rough up the surface, is needed before applying a second coat of primer and two top coats.
The real economy, Borden says, is found in the product's superior performance. Polyurethane is a dense, closed-cell material that resembles hard rubber and is completely impervious to water. It won't rot and tends to hold paint far better than wood. Paint can fail for many reasons, but two big ones are the bombardment by UV light and moisture pushing outward from a wet substrate. The combination is brutal for a paint job. Remove the moisture drive, and the result is tangible. “The UV is intense at the shore,” Borden says. “We can't do much about that, but take away the moisture from below and, four years down the road, a polyurethane handrail is still holding paint. In this climate, that's considerable, and really that's what will matter to the customer. Less maintenance is less hassle.”
Upselling Performance In a high-end market, Borden argues that he should be upselling customers on better products. “It's not a matter of leaving money on the table,” he explains. “It's about providing the best possible service money can buy. At the rates my clients are spending on their homes, they expect the best. In exterior handrail, polyurethane is the best yet.”