Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, but for company owner Kern Hendricks, the founding mother may well have been frustration. Hendricks, a chemical engineer by training, started System Three Resins, Inc. in northern California in 1978 along with a partner, the late Tom Freeman. At the time, Kern was building a wooden boat. Apparently, he was less than satisfied with the epoxies he was able to buy, so he developed his own.
That first formula evolved into System Three's general purpose marine epoxy, now called STR. He designed the original resin to work with three different hardeners that cured at three different speeds. That, in turn, gave rise to the company name: System Three.
These days, the company resides in Auburn, Washington, where some twenty employees make about 20 different products, many of which are epoxies. Although epoxy is synonymous with glue to most people, in reality, it is a general category of a very large and versatile class of materials. I asked John Bartlett, the vice president and technical director, to help out with an explanation:
"Epoxy is a plastic polymer that consists of two liquids that cure to a solid when they come in contact with one another. How fast that happens can be controlled, to some extent, by the formulator. The advantage is that epoxy does not require oxygen to cure, and no volatile materials are given off. As a consequence, it does not shrink or change volume. That means it is gap-filling, strong, and tolerates a wide range of material surfaces, including many troublesome woods."
Although epoxy adhesives share certain chemical similarities, they can be formulated to have entirely different properties. Most have high resistance to water and chemicals, but they can also be made more or less flexible, and both the viscosity and cure speed can be manipulated. They can also be made to stick to resinous woods, metals, glass, pearl, or almost anything else, but not all epoxy adhesives will do all these things.
"We got into woodworking through boat building," Bartlett went on to explain, "where problem woods are the norm rather than an exception. Rather than a chemistry set approach to epoxy that asks the customer to take one base resin and modify it to make it suit his or her end use, System Three creates specific formulations for each use. Our products are more end use specific, and hence, easier to use."
While many of their products seem very similar at first glance, that is really not the case. "For example, our number one selling adhesive is T-88," Bartlett continued. "It's a waterproof structural adhesive with a one-to-one mix ratio that glues virtually anything to anything, short of a few plastics, such as Teflon® and polyethylene. Like all System Three epoxies, it can be used in an enclosed area with no ventilation or respiratory protection required. Once mixed, you have about a half hour to an hour of working time, and eight to 24 hours of cure time. Heat speeds the cure."
If you need a faster cure, they offer Quick Cure 5, a clear epoxy that gives you only five minutes of working time. "Although it is faster and works great for wood," Bartlett explained, "it does not work as well for some other materials." There are also 15- and 30-minute working time versions of Quick Cure, and gel versions for non-drip application. All of them, including the T-88, are available in cartridges that fit their Goof Proof self-mixing dispensers, for those of us who would rather not have to measure or stir.
Several products appear in kits containing everything you need to solve a particular problem or do a specific job. Their EndRot kit is a good example. It contains Rotfix, an epoxy designed for sealing and solidifying rotten wood. That, however, won't eliminate the cause of rot, nor keep it from coming back. To cover those bases, the kit also includes a handful of nontoxic wood preservative Impel Rods, and a powder, called Board Defense, that kills the fungus that causes rot. Each time exterior wood gets wet, the rods start to release more sodium borate. Neither rods nor powder will hurt plants or animals, so Board Defense can be dissolved in water and sprayed or painted onto exterior wood.
Sculpwood, a two-part epoxy putty that mixes in a one-to-one ratio, also appears in the EndRot kit, but it is a popular material all by itself. The putty itself feels like a cross between marshmallow and modeling clay, and is both easy and curiously satisfying to use. Once mixed, the tan and white components appear medium brown, so they look quite a bit like wood, and cure overnight. The cured putty can be carved, sanded, stained, finished, and will even hold screws and nails.
Quick Fair, a thinner version of Sculpwood that is closer to the consistency of joint compound or semi-paste putty, is designed to be troweled into crevices and defects. It cures in about four hours, and unlike the others, mixes in a two-to-one ratio.
In addition to epoxies crafted as glues and putties, some are formulated as finishes. Mirror Coat, for example, is a pourable, self-leveling liquid used to make those ubiquitous, thick, bar table finishes you frequently see encasing coins, coasters, and other flotsam. Unlike epoxy adhesives designed for gluing, Mirror Coat cures crystal clear and glossy.
Clear Coat is a thinner version of Mirror Coat. While the former is best for pouring or casting, the latter can be brushed on like a varnish. System Three also offers a spar varnish that adheres well to epoxy impregnated wood, something most exterior varnishes will not do, and two waterbased high performance marine paints.
I asked John about coloring epoxy, or mixing it with wood dust to use as an invisible patching putty, something many woodworkers do. "Within limits," he said, "you can color epoxy by adding small amounts of wood dust, or other dry pigments, but add too much and the epoxy won't stick." For serious coloring, System Three sells epoxy pastes in a variety of basic colors. They can be added in almost any amount to the resin portion of the epoxy before it is mixed with its hardener.
Bartlett was quick to boast of System Three's impressive customer support, something that sets it apart from many other companies. Their web site has a wealth of helpful information in addition to an extensive FAQ section that covers everything from "can I salvage epoxy that has turned white" to "can I use epoxy to repair a gas tank?" The company also maintains a live telephone support line, as well as technical support by email. John summed it up most succinctly, saying, "We listen and respond better to our customers."
It's certainly nice to hear of an adhesive company that will stick by you when you need help and information.