That new-construction-smell might actually be a slurry of chemicals being released from the particle board used in subfloors and walls. The air might also be heavy with guilt about using valuable and slow-growing trees in your building projects.
Sometimes called chip or fiber board, composite building materials typically consist of overlapping and interlocking chipped wood that is held together by a resin binder.
But a new building material might help clear the air—both figuratively and literally—by using renewable hemp instead of trees for particle board.
Hemp pioneer Lawrence Serbin, president and owner of Hemp Traders, has led the development of a new hemp-derived particle board. It’s called CannaBoard and it uses hemp fibers and a non-toxic, formaldehyde-free resin as a binder. It can be used anywhere you use particle board, from furniture to subfloors, the company says.
CannaBoard was available in small quantities, and slated for a large production run in 2020 when COVID-19 hit, Serbin said. The pandemic broke down the supply chain—the original production factory in Idaho had to scale down their work during the lockdown.
“When COVID hit, they sort of circled their wagons and didn’t want to concentrate on anything but their core business to stay alive,” said Serbin.
But with interest in local, sustainable, non-toxic, hemp fiberboard increasing in the United States, Serbin is pushing forward on his plans—he’s looking for another factory to tackle the production. He is confident that consumers will see that hemp particle board is a strong, renewable, and American-made building product that can compete with any engineered wood board.
Hemp Products are Old Hat
Serbin is no stranger to industrial hemp. In 1993, he founded Hemp Traders, one of the first hemp companies in the United States.
“Almost from day one, I loved the idea of hemp being able to replace wood or trees for lumber,” he told HempBuild Magazine.
Serbin has worked with hemp for nearly three decades. In 2018, he opened CannaGrove — a
company that creates a number of building products, including CannaBoard. All the hemp used by CannaGrove is grown in the US, and the board is American-made. CannaBoard mimics its wood-derived cousin, but instead uses the fiber of the hemp stalk instead of chipped-tree wood.
Environmentally Sound, Exceptional Properties
Hemp is a fast-growing annual plant, which makes it perfect for creating building materials, noted Serbin.
“It’s going to be better for the environment rather than having to go out and harvest a tree that has to grow for 30 years or more—easily more,” said Serbin. Replacing this valuable resource with hemp keeps the forests intact.
Beyond the renewable hemp fibers, the binders used in CannaBoard do not contain any formaldehyde. On their website, Hemp Traders stated that traditional binders used in engineered wood products like particle board, contain formaldehyde. When used inside a home, that chemical, a carcinogen for humans, is released into the air.
CannaBoard instead uses organic-based isocyanate as a binder. Currently, the board comes in thicknesses of ½” to ¾” and can be used in place of medium density fiberboard (or MDF). Serbin noted that it’s possible to scale the thicknesses from ¼” to 1 ½” thick. It is a smart option for construction uses like subflooring or molding, or for building cabinets, shelving, or other simple wood structures, the website says.
Hemp fiber board isn’t just environmentally-friendly, it’s also robust and diverse.
“If we made a [board] with hemp at a particular density, and we made a wood particle board in the same density, the hemp would be stronger,” said Serbin, adding that the hemp product would also be lighter in weight.
“Hemp is also very absorbent, so it allows us to very easily add things to it… like water repellent or a fire retardant,” he explained. While wood particle board can also be treated, the hemp absorbs additives much better, Serbin said.
Is Hempboard Cost-effective?
As of July 2021, CannaBoard was priced between $45-60 per board (depending on thickness and bulk amount purchased). In comparison, a home improvement store priced MDF between $33-44 a board.
“Ultimately I'm going to be able to produce hemp particle board cheaper than wooden board,” Serbin said. He added that before the recent spike in lumber prices, CannaBoard was close to the cost of wood, but now he expects the price of hemp board will beat that of wood.
While he hunts down a new factory for producing hemp fiberboard, Serbin has switched gears to working with American farms growing hemp for industry.
“We're growing hemp for the first time this year in California and have set up a factory in the Central Valley for growing and processing,” he said. “The good thing about that is that I’m going to create a situation where anyone who does want to do any type of building material will have a reliable supply of fiber at a low price.”
Michigan-based Sarah Derouin is a geologist and science writer and editor and contributor to the Big Picture Science radio show.