Researchers at Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick have devised a way of using a laser that transforms medium density fibreboard (MDF) to give it a surface finish that looks like expensive wood grains.
The "LaserCoat" research project is a collaborative research effort between eight academic, research and commercial organisations and part-financed by the Technology Strategy Board.
University of Warwick WMG researcher Dr Ken Young said MDF was a highly versatile material, easy to work with and cheap.
It is usually made from waste material so it is kinder to the environment than using more real wood. However, it normally looks rather dull in its raw state and until now there has been no way to liven it up other than painting it.
"Using lasers to produce a wood grain in MDF could help bring a more natural quality into homes and businesses without the financial and environmental cost of having to use new wood," said Dr Young.
The technology is expected to have great commercial potential as MDF is very hardwearing and can be used for flooring or other applications where cost is an issue but where looks are important too.
The process can mimic a vast range of real wood grains, produce logos, decoration, or even coloured and shaped decorative surfaces using a powder coating version.
Mick Toner, factory manager of Howarth Windows & Doors, the UK's leading manufacturers of high performance softwood windows and door sets, said he could see significant benefits to his business from the new technology.
"We would love to use MDF for the glazing beads in doubling glazing but customers do not like the look of raw MDF.
"This LaserCoat technology will provide a grained look that will delight our customers, give us much more manufacturing flexibility and cut the cost of the raw materials four fold," he said.
He added that MDF was also an ideal material for providing the thermal insulation required for modern doors.
"Our customers are increasingly using translucent coatings on their doors which are not aesthetically pleasing on MDF panels - the LaserCoat technology cuts through this problem providing an attractive surface for MDF no matter the coating used," said Mr Toner.
The 'LaserCoat' project is supported by the Furniture Industry Research Association and the Timber Research and Development Association. It is part-funded by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Other partners include Sonneborn & Rieck, a major producer of innovative, high technology coatings for wood, metal and plastics, Norbord, one of the world's largest producers of engineered wood-based panels, Exel Industrial UK, which supplies paint and powder application equipment, and Granwax, which manufactures floor finishes and maintenance products.