What do bodybuilding drink powders, some baby formulas and Vermont Natural Coatings’s (VNC) wood finishes have in common? They all contain whey protein, a safe, organic byproduct of cheese- and yogurt-making. But, where some industries use this complex compound for human or animal consumption, “We’ve patented a method for turning whey into a tough, flexible coating that is very low in volatile organic compounds, dries fast and applies like water-based varnish,” says VNC’s founder, Andrew Meyer.
The process for developing “greener” alternatives to oil- and chemical-based wood finishes all started around 13 years ago when Meyer was working on Capitol Hill for Vermont Senator James Jeffords. Meyer was a legislative assistant, and Jeffords was leading an effort to diversify Vermont’s economy with more sustainable and value-added businesses that could be tied to its rich agricultural base.
Meyer, who had grown up on a Vermont dairy farm in the little town of Hardwick, earned his degree in environmental studies and was working on environmental policy for Jeffords. “I loved that work,” Andrew recalls, “but I knew that eventually I really wanted to be back home in Vermont.”
Then came a fortuitous encounter with Dr. Mingruo Guo, a food scientist for the University of Vermont. Guo went to Washington D.C. seeking federal funding for his research in food packaging films. Guo had pioneered a process for converting whey protein into a tough, flexible polymer that could be used as a food-safe film alternative to plastic.
“I started to collaborate with Dr. Guo, who was also experimenting with whey protein as a possible wood coating,” Andrew says. “And there was real, practical value in that, because Vermont has a vital woodworking sector to its economy, along with agriculture.”
Guo had learned that when protein is extracted in high concentration from the other solids present in raw whey, which include lactose, fat, ash and casein, it can be converted into a strong but flexible polymer. That combination of attributes is hard to come by with other organic byproducts. A few companies have found similar performance characteristics from soy, but generally the easier solution for wood finishes is to start from a petroleum source. However, with petroleum comes the hazards of volatile organic compounds, mutagens and carcinogens: the stuff that makes oil-based finishes smell terrible, plus hazardous to the end user and tough on the environment.
“We realized that our approach to wood finish could be different,” Andrew says, “because whey polymer is a natural binder instead of a chemical binder. Its origins come from a food lab, not a chemistry lab.”
It took about three years for Meyer, working with Guo, to patent the new PolyWhey® technology and begin to manufacture greener alternatives to petroleum-based varnish. Meyer incorporated Vermont Natural Coatings in 2004 and put up an 8,000-square-foot facility right in his hometown of Hardwick. The company currently has 10 employees, and all aspects of research and production happen under one roof. “We still work closely with the University of Vermont, but we have our own laboratory, too,” Andrew says.
VNC makes four wood finish options with whey polymer: Heirloom Wipe-on PolyWhey, PolyWhey Natural Furniture Finish, PolyWhey Floor Finish and a new line of PolyWhey Exterior Penetrating Wood Stains. Of particular interest to woodworkers are the Heirloom and Furniture Finish options. The Heirloom product is the company’s alternative to oil-based or water-based varnish. Meyer says it’s formulated thin to wipe on like an oil and offer superior application control. It dries quickly and builds to a uniform coat. The nontoxic product creates a tough but still flexible film, due to the fact that many thin coats are required. The thinner the individual coats, the tougher the finish becomes. Heirloom is intended for interior use only; it contains no UV inhibitors.
PolyWhey Furniture Finish is a thicker formulation made for brushing. Both the Heirloom and Furniture Finish options “will stick to just about anything,” Andrew says, “including oil-based stain.” They are safe to use on any interior wood project and emit almost no odor during application. Cleanup is with soap and water.
VNC recently launched a new line of PolyWhey-infused exterior penetrating wood stains, too. Available in three color options as well as clear, the stains are semitransparent and contain a slight film that will not flake off as it ages. Eventually, when fading occurs, as happens with any exterior stain, “Ours will be easy to maintain: Just clean the surface and recoat to revive the color and protection again,” Andrew said. Three more stain colors will be added to the palette this summer.
The company also offers a non-toxic wood cleaner, interior painting products and several professional-grade floor finishes.
Hardwick’s woodworking community has provided a unique testing grounds for Vermont Natural Coatings’s products over the years. The development process for Heirloom PolyWhey, in particular, involved extensive end-user feedback. “Most of our local woodworkers were oil-based finish users. They wanted an easy-to-use finish that would impart a soft, nice tone to the wood. We set out to meet their expectations for creating a suitable alternative to what they already used and trusted. Their feedback, which was so important to us, helped us get closer and closer to the final formulations we use today,” Meyer said.
Aside from a ready supply of active woodworkers, Andrew says the larger Hardwick business community also has been the ideal home base for VNC. Around 10 local businesses are similar startup companies that, like VNC, are agriculturally connected. “It’s amazing to have so many business leaders in the same place who are like-minded about developing healthy, safer products from our Vermont agriculture.” A consortium of business leaders, including Meyer, have even started a nonprofit called the Center for Agricultural Economy. It offers a 15,000-square-foot building that serves as an “incubator” for new food-based, local businesses.
And, VNC tries to “act locally” as much as the Hardwick infrastructure can presently support. The company sources raw, wet whey from several local cheese makers, but also buys powered whey from elsewhere. He hopes that eventually all of VNC’s whey will come from two or three area cheese makers. The company also uses waste juniper berries from a gin distillery “almost across the street” to extract a strong preservative the berries contain. Juniper extract is part of the company’s new Penetrating Wood Sealer. It helps stabilize wood fibers by inhibiting moisture movement, mold and mildew growth.
With all of the affordable, conventional petroleum-based finishes on the market, selling a premium “greener” line of finish options can be challenging from a pricing standpoint. But, VNC’s products are only slightly more expensive, Meyer says. Being a small company, “it’s also tough to get the word out there about our products.” Currently, VNC sells through some 350 dealers nationwide.
But at the end of the day, Meyer sleeps well knowing that his company produces products that are safer, more environmentally friendly and competitive from a performance standpoint to chemical-based wood finishes. And, their key component, whey protein, is a renewable resource.
“We just need to show woodworkers and the finishing industry that there is a better and healthier alternative. That is our goal.”