What's a "Green" Cabinet?

Cabinetmakers discuss what makes kitchen cabinets environmentally friendly, and whether customers will pay for that. September 8, 2008

After 28 years in this business, I have just built my first eco-kitchen. Pre-finished maple interiors using Columbia's Purebond, Coco-palm doors and end panels with No Voc's clear finish, etc. The Client was very pleased and I started advertising in a local "natural awakenings" magazine that is widely distributed to health food stores and other natural shopping venues. I also Googled green builders and designers in South Florida as well as organic food co-ops and other alternate-life style forums.

Everyone was excited about the concept, but nothing has come of it. One designer told me her clients don't seem to take at all, as long as the price is competitive; which it is not as present. Formaldehyde free products are rare and expensive and items like Bamboo plywood are very costly as they are trendy. You would think that with a growth rate of a foot a day, this renewable resource would be cheaper, but the mystique makes it expensive. Has anyone had similar experience? Am I way ahead of the curve?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor D:
This is what irks me about "green" building. I’m all for it and we should take care of our planet - that's a no brainer. However, in order to be environmentally responsible you have to be rich, as all the products and methods come at a higher cost. Unfortunately a lot of the people with the money to afford it don't seem to care about being "eco-friendly". Lots of the people I've worked for actually make their millions from non-renewable resources/energy. Maybe that’s an indicator?

From contributor J:
I personally love using the bamboo plywood. The people I have shown it to all seem to love it as well. I've made cabinets, countertops, display cases, and furniture with the bamboo. Since more people are buying it there are more people getting into importing and selling it. I have a local guy that sold me a few sheets of the 3/4" x 4'x8' vertical solid for $117 each. He's bringing in another shipment from China soon as well. This is one Chinese product I have no problem buying.

I'm also currently working on a fireplace mantel using the 2"x30"x96" material from Totally Bamboo. It's also great stuff. What I like about the bamboo sheet material is that it's more like working with solid wood than a plywood. If you take a customer a piece of the bamboo and compare it to regular plywood they can easily see why it costs a bit more.

From contributor M:

Green Building has been pretty big here in the Pacific NW for the past decade. I have done several "green built" kitchens and various projects with a few different materials. I've used the Bamboo ply, wheat board with fir veneer, formaldehyde free MDF and salvaged lumber. Even the salvaged lumber is getting pricey these days. The MDF was quite affordable, and the wheat board with fir veneer was not that much more than nice VG fir ply.

From contributor S:
I’ve had a problem with bamboo for China warping. The bamboo from Taiwan is much better but more expensive. Others have said the same. I’ve been moving toward green and reclaimed lumber to compete in today’s ever increasing tough market. I had a request for lyptus recently also.

From contributor J:
I guess the terms 'eco' and 'green' are sort of subjective. Let me ask this - the materials we are using today that are deemed 'green' or 'eco friendly’, but what can be done with them when the useful life of the cabinets comes to an end? Are they biodegradable, the material and finish, or are they closed loop recyclable?

Most are neither and thus we are just essentially postponing the inevitable trip to the landfill. Not to cast a negative on your efforts here because you are at least doing something but what is the next level?

From contributor G:
I would suggest everyone look and think about what glues/other woods are used in the "green" plywoods and consider that "green" organizations do not think bamboo is so great, as people are cutting more and more forests down to plant....bamboo.

From contributor G:
You may not be as "green" as you think using bamboo. Depending on the definition of green, the board may be considered green but due to the cost to ship it here it may not be considered green anymore. We are looking into creating a green line but are having trouble coming up with what green is. And how green does your product have to be to be considered green?

From the original questioner:
Thanks everyone for your responses. It seems that the west coast is more with the trend as of now. Here in Florida most people do not seem to care. Everyone has a different view of what "green" is, as is obvious from the passionate responses. I will continue to offer it as an option for now, but not invest more time in pushing it.

From contributor O:
As a one-person shop, I keep busy building eco-friendly cabinets and furniture exclusively. While 'eco-friendly' can mean lots of things, for me it includes building with no-added formaldehyde (NAF) sheet goods, sustainably-harvested woods, and non-toxic finishes.

The NAF component is the simplest way, I think, for any cabinet shop to go green. With California's new air quality regulations limiting formaldehyde in cabinets and furniture sold there, most every sheet stock manufacturer now has some NAF option - generally, in my experience, at around a 5% premium. And with most everyone in the country having heard of the dangers of Katrina trailers and the health risks associated with long-term exposure to formaldehyde (a known carcinogen, according to the EPA), selling NAF cabinets is easy.

For wood, I use either Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified sustainably-harvested lumber (available from any of my normal wholesale suppliers, again at around a 5% premium) or locally-salvaged wood from a handful of guys I know with bandsaw mills (with prices starting at $1.50/bf, KD, planed, and straight-lined).

For finishes, I generally use Tried and True’s original formula of Danish oil and beeswax—no VOCs, no HAPS, no spray booth, no hazardous waste, no air quality permits, no off-gassing in clients’ homes. It’s cheap, simple and safe (if relatively time-consuming) to apply, and easy for clients to touch up and maintain.

I’ve never understood why green building has such a reputation for being expensive. In my experience, a $10,000 set of kitchen cabinets might include a $40 premium for NAF plywood and a $15 premium for FSC lumber. If someone is shopping for custom cabinets, they’re not exactly hobos. That relatively small upcharge makes them feel (rightfully) better about the job and reflects choices that are better for the environment, protect their family’s health, and help with resale.