Metal dilemmas

Extrusions and hardware challenge the best shower enclosure companies
October 3, 2011
RETAIL

From Carolina Glass & Mirror’s showroom: Walls clad with back painted glass, bonded standoff mirror with sandblasted edge and Duravit European plumbing fixtures

The challenge: Matching inconsistent finishes

Some metal products have always been a challenge. Take those with an oil-rubbed bronze finish. While popular with consumers, this hardware finish can be a shower installer's nightmare. The color varies from light to dark brown, depending on the manufacturer, and is tough to match with plumbing fixtures sourced by others in the building trade.

Trend watch

IN

  • Stainless steel extrusions and hardware
  • Longer door pulls andsliding barn doors
  • Longer towel bars on center at 12-14 inches vs. 6-8 inches
  • Offset plate that offers more space; three screws vs. four still works

OUT

  • Aluminum
  • Brass and white powder coat

STATUS QUO

  • Frameless enclosures
  • Chrome and brushed nickel enclosures
  • Oil-rubbed bronze hardware 

Then there's satin and brushed nickel: interchangeable terms for an alternative matte finish to polished nickel. The color and shine varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, and sometimes, even among lots from a single company.

Yet, consumers want their water faucets, towel bars, shower framing and hardware to match and don't realize these products are usually sourced separately. David Fitchett, owner of Carolina Glass & Mirror, capitalized on this need by purchasing a decorative plumbing and hardware business. "We've redone our showroom so that our bath enclosures and the plumbing hardware appear together. Interior designers and builders love it," he reports.

The challenge: Combating increased costs

Faced with material price increases North American aluminum suppliers are trying to pass higher costs onto retailers. In response, some shower enclosure specialists are considering a transition to stainless steel, marketing it as a more contemporary finish.

Shower door hardware manufacturers also are using more stainless steel for products such as handles and hinges, at a cost 30 percent lower than that of plating over brass, according to David Miller, partner, Portals Hardware. At a presentation to retail glass company owners last spring, Miller described how the physical vapor deposition process—which improves components' durability and abrasion resistance—can use stainless steel as a substrate. Historically, this method, along with electroplating, has been used for brass that otherwise tarnishes.

In coming months, shower enclosure companies also can expect hardware costs to rise. Miller notes that almost all North American and European shower hardware currently comes from companies located within a 100- mile radius in Southern Asia. And while he says it's not  coming back to America to be manufactured, costs are still rising. Miller expects an 8-10 percent hardware price increase in the next 12 months, following the 12-15 percent increase retailers have seen over the last 12 months.

The challenge: What to do with all the shiny "Donald Trump" brass extrusions gathering inventory dust?

At Mr. ShowerDoor, Owner Tom Whitaker is slowly refinishing his leftover stock with oilrubbed, colored powder coatings, though he notes, "white is about as dead as brass."

That said, if bathroom trends follow fashion, it's just a matter of time before bell-bottom-wearing consumers decide they like brass again after all.