Volume 33, Number 3, March 1998


Mirror, Mirror

Reflections on the Future of the Industry

by Helen B. Price

"Mirrors have the capacity to brighten, heighten, and lighten; they can expand an area, and they can double or quadruple ordinary space." John Matthews, vice president, industrial products, at Carolina Mirror Co. in North Wilkesboro, NC, was describing the aesthetic qualities of a product he obviously knows. He added that "mirrors can also bring the outside in" when they are placed to reflect the view through a window.

The architectural use of mirrors has changed dramatically over the years. In the beginning, its applications were primarily practical, allowing Dad to see his face when he shaved, for example. Over time the size of the silvered glass grew to cover larger wall spaces. Decorative uses popped up in dining rooms and other areas of the house. In the 1960s, mirrored bi-fold closet doors were the "in" thing in interior decorating. Today, the industry continues to find more uses and we see huge areas of mirrored walls in health clubs, dance studios, karate classrooms, and even in home workout rooms as the fitness craze spills over into private residences.

As these trends evolve, so too do the methods used to create mirror and to attach it to new and larger surfaces. State and federal regulations are driving changes in the backings and mastics used to adhere mirrors. According to manufacturers, backing paints and adhesives will have to be environmentally friendly in the future, without releasing toxic fumes into the atmosphere or depositing lead into landfills through discarded mirror products.

According to Jim Charles, director of sales and marketing at Binswanger Mirror in Memphis, TN, the mirror industry distributes product through three channels: custom fabricators or contractors who buy stock sheet to create custom-designed mirrors of various sizes and shapes; the furniture industry, which buys mirror and glass cut to size for tables, dressers, shelving, doors in china cabinets, etc.; and the distribution market, which buys mirror in bulk and redistributes smaller quantities to retail glass shops. "We supply mirror to all of these markets," says Charles, adding that "stock sheet is by far the largest category."

"The biggest trend we see is that more mirror is being installed in dance studios, health clubs, and gymnasiums," said Bob Cline, national sales manager for Gunther Mirror Mastics in South Bend, IN. "We think that trend will continue, and we’ll begin to see more and more installations in exercise rooms in private homes," he predicted.

Matthews says people buy smaller homes these days, and that presents an opportunity for the mirror industry. "People use mirrors to give the illusion of space," he notes, "and we rely on remodeling for a lot of our business. Remodeling is a $130 billion-dollar business. Also, the use of decorative mirror is growing and we do a lot of business there." For example, Carolina was recently licensed to reproduce designs in the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. Matthews says there are other similar opportunities in the remodeling marketplace on which industry participants can capitalize.

Making a Profit, Then and Now

Charles says he has seen sharp changes in profit margins over the years. "Twenty-five years ago, the stock sheet business was very profitable. There were many independently-owned companies and most of them were privately-held companies. But now, the independents are getting fewer and fewer," he observes. "The big guys are buying all the little guys and profit margins are getting tighter and tighter."

When asked why this might be happening, he replies, "Over the last ten years, the volume of production has outpaced the need." The time-tested laws of supply and demand have apparently proved themselves again. When more product than needed is produced, prices plummet and everybody’s margins get squeezed.

Charles notes that the use of mirrored glass is actually growing in square footage, "but the prices are about the same as they were in the mid ’70s, because there is so much production out there. We really need a ‘washout’ in the industry," he says, implying that the number of manufacturers needs to shrink.

Matthews estimates that "the industry is 40 percent over capacity right now. There are several glass manufacturers out there that have purchased smaller mirror companies and have added mirror products to their lines."

To distinguish itself, Carolina emphasizes quality and service in its marketing efforts. "We see mirrors as a value-added product, not a commodity item," Matthews explains. For example, "We tell our customers, ‘We can package that product for you, or we’ll frame your mirror.’ We offer stock sheet, and custom-fabricated mirrors with beveled edges, or patterns, glue chip, frosted . . ." The company will design, frame, package, deliver and provide as many services as possible, in an effort to set itself apart from competitors. "Our thrust is quality, service, and value-added product," Matthews reiterates.

As many other businesses have done, Carolina has looked inward for ways to increase profits. Last year it closed the Houston location following a decision to "right-size" overall operations. A major commitment to partnering is another competitive strategy. "We are determined to make our customers consider us not just a supplier of premium-quality mirror, but a partner. That is the key to our success—our partnership with our suppliers and our customers," says Matthews.

"As manufacturers, we do less advertising today than we used to," adds Charles. If a mirror is used in a piece of furniture, it’s the furniture that gets advertised, not the mirror. "If a mirror is in a frame, we usually try to promote the frame, not the mirror. Of course, the mirror has to be cut properly, and framed properly, and we can promote that, but in the stock sheet business, there is very little to promote," he notes.

Trends in Paint Backings and Adhesives

"Mastic manufacturers have to look at new chemicals that will comply with government regulations that limit the use of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs)," says Cline. "About a year and a half ago, we developed our first adhesive in the Gunther line that will pass those regulations," he added. While not all 50 states have adopted legislation that regulates these chemicals, many have, and Cline says it is only a matter of time before there will be nationwide laws governing their use.

"North Carolina is one of the toughest states in dealing with materials that go into landfills," Matthews adds, "and some mirror still has lead in it. Also, because of the solvents found in mastics, we have to report what we use, how much we use." He says these new and ever-tightening regulations have changed the way the company makes mirror products. In the 1960s, there was a large percentage of lead in the backing paints used. "Today, there is less than five-percent lead, and soon, it will be zero percent," he projects.

S.W. Palmer-Ball, president of Palmer Products Corporation in Louisville, KY, observes that asphalt-based adhesives are the "oldest and most versatile adhesives on the market, and they’re easy to apply." He adds, "With asphalt-based adhesives, if down the road you want to remove the mirror, it is possible to do so without breaking the mirror or damaging the substrate."

Describing rubber-based adhesives, Palmer-Ball feels that, "Rubber-based adhesives that are formulated for mirror installations should be used only on copper-backed mirror. Rubber-based products contain volatile solvents and present some shipping problems, particularly with air freight. Rubber-based products may not be used on plastic or acrylic mirror. They also may not be used on polyethylene safety tapes or films. "Rubber-based products that are not mirror adhesive may damage the backing on a mirror, and usually set to become very brittle and will not absorb shock or vibrations," he points out, making this an improper choice for mirrors installed in dance studios and similar locations.

Water-based adhesives are another newly developing choice, designed for use on raw (unprimed) porous substrates, such as drywall, masonite, or plywood surfaces. "The water will be absorbed into these surfaces, and it takes the product right into the raw material, forming a tough bond," Palmer-Ball explains. "What we are always looking for is an environmentally-friendly adhesive, without toxic ingredients. We are looking for the day when there will be no more flammable or toxic products in our adhesives, and there will be properly trained people to use and apply it correctly."

VOCs have also become a primary consideration for companies that manufacture mirror backing paints. "Whenever you use paints, you also have to think about solvents," says Dr. Sagar Venkateswaran, who is vice president of Peacock Laboratories, Inc. in Philadelphia, PA. "We have low-VOC high-solids coatings in which about 85 percent of the material sticks to the back of the mirror, releasing far less chemicals into the atmosphere."

Venkateswaran describes how a typical mirror is created. "A mirror is basically a thin sheet of silver sandwiched between glass and protective coating. The protective coating is usually made up of a thin sheet of copper and multiple coats of mirror backing paint. Today, the mirror backing paints are required to be lead-free and more environmentally benign," he notes. "All of our mirror backing paints, including the high-solids coatings, are lead-free."

When he looks to the future, Venkateswaran says he expects water-based coatings will also become popular. "We are currently developing water-based mirror backing paints and I expect to see these products, along with the high-solids paints we have today."

But what about the costs? Venkateswaran explains, "The costs are figured on how many pounds of paint are left on the mirror after the solvents have evaporated." If a high-solids coating deposits a high number of pounds on the back of the mirror, then it follows that the user could use less paint to do the job. So, while a gallon of backing paint might cost more, the user saves money because he or she does not have to use as much of the product. "When you factor in savings due to lower inventories and reduced environmental compliance costs, you come out ahead," he observes.

The Impact of New Distribution Channels

Years ago, mirrored glass was typically purchased only through glass distributors or mirror installation companies, and was likely to be already installed wherever it was to be used. Today, consumers can shop almost any discount store or mass marketer, such as Wal-Mart, Lowe’s or Crate & Barrel, to purchase a variety of mirror products.

"The quality is probably just as good in most situations, but the thickness of the glass might be different. It’s usually thinner," said Charles. "Products available are limited to door or vanity-type mirrors and are limited in size—you usually can’t get anything larger than 48 by 60 inches. Products used for custom-mirrored walls are not generally available through this channel."

The new distribution channels are not necessarily good or bad, according to Charles. "It hurts the small sales, the low-end products. If a customer is looking for something around 18 by 24 inches, the mass merchants serve a purpose. In fact, it has probably improved overall sales, because mirrors are more available now." He points out that people are more likely to think about using mirrored products, because they see them in stores when they are shopping for other things.

"That distribution channel has certainly added capacity for the industry," Matthews agrees. "There is more mirror to sell because of them. It’s middle-end mirror, not high-end. They have added another dimension for the industry, but I’m afraid sales in those locations will hurt the ‘mom-and-pop’ stores in our industry."

Installation Issues

As trends evolve into mirror products that cover larger and larger surfaces, it follows that the mirror installation industry is going through changes as well. While there are no hard-and-fast rules about installations, some common techniques continue to apply. "Every installation is different," Charles points out. "It’s dependent on the size of the glass, its thickness and weight, and what surface it’s being attached to." He emphasized that installers must be well-trained in how to install and maintain the glass for safety reasons "In my opinion, there needs to be both mechanical and adhesive techniques used whenever mirror is being installed."

Palmer-Ball agrees. "If I was installing, especially on a wall, I would want mechanical bottom support—which may or may not be visible—with sufficient mirror adhesive to ensure that no large pieces would fall out if the mirror was broken. Ceiling applications require both adhesive and mechanical fasteners. You need both, and you need to know what you are doing to do it right," he emphasizes. Too many companies, wanting to get more jobs, perform installations without really knowing what they are doing and it can end in disaster if a large piece of mirror falls from a wall or ceiling. "It just has to be very carefully installed," Palmer-Ball says simply.

He recalls that, when Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of Florida, unqualified people "jumped in trucks with their bags of tools and went in to repair damaged mirrors in victims’ homes. Many of them just didn’t know what they were doing and it really was a shame, because they cut out a lot of the qualified installers that had been working in those communities for years. That never should have happened."

Palmer-Ball feels very strongly about this issue. "People (consumers) really need to rearrange their thinking. Installing any kind of glass is serious business. The workers who do it should be licensed, just like plumbers and electricians. Otherwise, people can get hurt, if it’s not installed properly."

He says that some industry associations are working on developing accreditation programs that would certify companies or individuals as properly trained installers, "but, unfortunately, it’s not going too well," Palmer-Ball laments. "We really need to go to legislators in all states and get some laws passed that would require standards and safeguards."

"You really have to be careful," Cline agreed. "If they are being installed in exercise rooms or dance studios, they have to be installed to absorb the deflection from the floor to the walls," he pointed out. A mirror that falls because the floor vibrates from people’s activities could spell disaster, not to mention lawsuits, he notes.

Jeanne Jersic, assistant manager at Glass America in Clarendon Hills, IL, adds her voice to the chorus. "When we install, we use a channel on the top or the bottom of the glass, or both, or we use mirror clips. That’s in addition to mastic," she describes. "It’s too easy to break, especially if it’s in a large project, on closet doors, or a large piece on a wall. People may accidentally hit it, bump into it or crack it. You can’t be too careful."

Jim Dittrick, owner and president of the Glass Brokerage, Inc. in Grand Junction, CO, likes to use J-mold when his company installs mirrors, particularly if they are large pieces. He recalls a master bedroom where a client wanted an entire wall mirrored. "It had a vaulted ceiling, and it was about 14 feet at its peak and about 28 feet wide. We used seven or eight pieces of mirror in that installation," he remembers. He also had to cut the mirror to allow for light switches and electrical plugs in the wall.

Moisture in bathrooms presents an installation challenge and Jersic says Glass America, like many other installers, offers no guarantees covering product installed in dampness-prone areas. But in these rooms, mechanical fasteners become doubly important. Jersic adds that her company has never been involved in a lawsuit over glass that fell after an installation.

She doesn’t foresee a lot of change for the future. "The sizes of mirrors may change a little, because styles change. We are not seeing full walls of mirror (as decorative touches) like we used to." But, if not as decorative items, "the demand for mirrors in gyms, steam rooms, dance and karate classrooms, etc., is likely to continue," Jersic predicts.

When Dittrick looks ahead, he foresees a time when tempered mirror will become a requirement in all public buildings where mirrors are used, for safety reasons. He describes a tempered glass mirror, encased in tempered clear glass, installed in an elevator in a hotel in Las Vegas. "They shattered just the mirror—not the tempered glass on the outside—just the mirror in the middle. It is absolutely beautiful," he claims.

It seems likely that mirror products, in one form or another will continue to heighten, lighten and brighten the spaces where we live and work. And the best part is that the materials used in their creation and installation will grow more environmentally friendly in the process.


Helen Price is special projects editor for USGlass magazine. She specializes in writing about glass-related topics.


Copyright 1998 Key Communications, Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.