What Exactly is Polymer?
An early example of structural composites showing high strength combined with low weight were the papier mâché panels used to form furniture. Gypsum plaster and coarse weave jute or hemp layered into moulds or built up on wooden armatures were extensively employed for the realization of complex architectural interiors and even entire exhibition buildings. Such ‘fibrous plaster’ or ‘staff’ filled the functions of what is today commonly called ‘fibre-glass’.
Fibreglass is a rather misleading term for resin and glass-fibre composites more properly called glass reinforced plastics or GRPs. Such composites use glass fibre in the form of cord, cloth or randomly oriented feltlike matt which is impregnated with thermosetting resins such as phenolics, epoxies and polyesters. They are very strong, relatively light in weight and have been used to manufacture furniture since the 1940s.
Paper-based composite laminates have also found extensive use in furniture as surface coverings. Laminates such as Formica®, based on paper and melamine resin, have been used to copy every variety of wood and stone. Synthetic polymers had a revolutionary effect on the textile industries and synthetic fibres were quickly brought into use in upholstery. Polymer foams can be thought of as composites of resins and gas bubbles. Until now, of such material is made plastic drawer slides. They can be made either soft and flexible or hard and rigid depending on resin composition and bubble size.
Polymers that become soft or fluid when heated have had various applications in moulding and casting. Historically they have been used to produce rigid moulds. Decorative plasterers have used mixtures of waxes, resins and fillers to produce moulds for repeat patterns. Many nineteenth-century moulds for composition ornaments were made of pitch mixtures enclosed in a strong frame and squeezed, while hot and pliable, over an oiled carving. Gutta percha was also used as a mould material. Modern synthetic resins can also be used in this way. Dental impression compounds have been used in picture frame restoration to make small squeeze moulds for the replacement of lost composition ornament. Commercial mould-makers and sculptors have used poly(vinyl chloride) ‘hot melts’ extensively for large flexible moulds.
Additional resources: furniture hardware heavy duty drawer slides.