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Nov 07, 2023


Graton, Calif. — Thermoformer Empire West Inc. has introduced 100 percent recycled PVC ceiling panels as its newest Ceilume-brand product line. While most Ceilume tiles and panels are white, the new

Graton, Calif. — Thermoformer Empire West Inc. has introduced 100 percent recycled PVC ceiling panels as its newest Ceilume-brand product line.

While most Ceilume tiles and panels are white, the new recycled line comes in shades of random gray, said President Ed Davis.

Even in a single shipment, content of the manufacturing scrap, rejects and return product can vary the color in the rolls of PVC that Empire West uses in thermoforming the recycled panels. No color or dyes are added in making the recycled panels.

Davis maintains that the batch-to-batch variation can make the recycled ceiling "truly unique" in appearance.

With care for cleanliness, Empire West granulates its post-industrial PVC scrap in Graton and contracts with Nan Ya Plastics Corp. USA to transform the PVC granules into rolls at a plant in Wharton, Texas.

The reuse converts the material into a finished product rather than having the scrap go to a landfill, he noted.

Empire unabashedly reaches out to educate the public.

About 20 years ago, the firm created — and continues to post — online "thermoforming tech academy" content to acquaint prospects with all technical basics of the process.

"We needed to educate customers," Davis said.

In 2011, Empire scored with The New York Times small-business columnist Kermit Pattison, who reported on its use of online video to deliver the Ceilume marketing message, often to the do-it-yourself market.

Empire's on-site video studio enables Davis to create YouTube messages. "We've got more than 3.5 million views on our YouTube channel and find that it is a good way for folks to get to know us," he said.

Upon request and within the contiguous U.S., Empire West will ship three full-sized sample tiles to a prospective customer wanting to check out the product.

Empire West says it operates the only manufacturer-owned ceiling design center in North America as a resource for interior decorators. The Portland, Ore., showroom of about 3,000 square feet employs three and opened in 2012.

On the professional side, Empire markets to architects, engineers and other members of the Construction Specifications Institute of Alexandria, Va.

Currently, Empire West is talking with Atlanta-based retailer Home Depot Inc. about marketing Ceilume in regional store displays with limited stock inventories. After examining samples, customers could place phone orders directly with Empire.

The path to ceiling tiles was not a straight line.

Empire West was incorporated in 1968 and started thermoforming a variety of handling trays and totes for the photo finishing and retail pharmacy markets.

In the late 1980s, Empire manufactured custom-made computer monitor bezels or covers to reduce glare and emissions from cathode ray tubes, but the firm was searching for a proprietary line.

Other custom products have included pressure-formed voice mail enclosures, a grocery chain's "bagging dexterity kit" and a convenience store's retail identity system.

In 2001, a friendly competitor, the now-inactive United Plastics Corp. in Oakland, Calif., was closing. Empire and United shared work for a customer. During a visit to United, the Empire team was walking out the door and saw an old ceiling tile product and an old forming machine with a 30-by-50-inch bed.

Bottom line: For $20,000, Empire purchased the product line, the material inventory, wood tooling and the old press, still in use today.

Viewed during an Empire West plant visit and identified on a tag as forming machine number 587, the unit was built by Auto-Vac Co., a division of National Cleveland Corp. of Fairfield, Conn.

In another development in 2007, Empire West acquired the Ceilings Magnifique line of classic decorator tiles from thermoformer Snelling's Thermo-Vac Inc. of Blanchard, La.

Now under the Ceilume umbrella, the paintable high-end Magnifique ceiling and wall panels with semi-gloss textures are handmade, individually inspected and found in homes, restaurants, banks, bars, stores and boutiques.

In explaining the history, Davis references the use of decorative stamped metal ceiling tiles in the late 1800s and early 1900s as an alternative to plasterwork.

The use of suspended ceiling panels increased in the 1950s with installers largely using mineral fiber panels or flat drywall, he said.

In recent decades, ceiling choices grew to include stamped metal tiles, glue-up plastic tiles and PVC drop-ceiling panels. As Davis said, "There truly is a ceiling treatment to fit every taste, every space and every budget, and that's a good thing."

Sales in the U.S. account for about 90 percent of Empire West's business.

A distributor operates in the Canadian market, and Empire West has started trials to qualify its Ceilume lines under the European Union's harmonized Euroclass system for building products' fire performance.

"We may use Amazon for distribution in Europe," Davis said.

Generally, the Ceilume line competes with inexpensive mineral-fiber acoustic ceiling tiles but, as Davis notes, Ceilume "is more beautiful, easier to maintain and a much better value than mineral fiber."

For a drop-down ceiling, an installer can place sprinkler heads above the Ceilume panels rather than use exposed sprinkler heads.

The Ceilume panels are certified to melt and drop from the suspended metal grid at 150º F. A fire temperature reaching the intermediate range of 175º to 225º F will activate most sprinklers.

Empire West employs 45.

"We hired two in technical, two for production and one for customer service," Davis said. One employee has more than 40 years of service at the company.

The operations in multiple buildings occupy 35,000 square feet on a 50-acre site.

Empire West operates nine thermoforming machines, including a new Sencorp. The oldest is the former that was acquired from United.

Empire utilizes surface foil lamination equipment from Voorwood Co. of Anderson, Calif., to apply copper-, tin- or bronze-surfaced film to rolls of PVC en route to production of its extensive Ceilume line of 40 styles of ceiling panels and tiles. The most popular are known as the Stratford, Westminster, Fleur-de-lis and Cambridge styles.

Empire West recorded 2016 sales of about $8 million, with PVC-based Ceilume ceiling tiles accounting for 80 percent of the business, glycol-modified PET Safe-Guard-brand optics packaging containers representing 15 percent for coaters and lens makers. The remainder involved custom vacuum formed products.

Davis projects 2017 sales of $9 million.

Davis owns 25 percent of Empire West. CEO and Chief Financial Officer Rich Yonash holds 50 percent, and his daughter, Controller Sonya Yonash, has 25 percent.

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Graton, Calif. —