Getting started in Green Cabinetry

Part 1:  Building a better box


As the recession starts letting up
a bit, many lumber yards have begun casting a closer inventory of their own abilities. If they're already providing custom moulding, pre-priming or pre-staining, and pre-cutting dimensional lumber… how big a leap would it be to start building cabinets in-house?

In today's market, there are plenty of ways to get started. For instance, you can start by building the boxes and outsourcing the doors and drawer facings. Depending on your intended price points, the boxes can be made from particle board or you can build from hardwood plywoods. But if you are just beginning, going green makes a great deal of sense for two very sound business reasons. 

First, because green kitchen cabinets carry a little extra value-added clout: most people would be willing to spend a little extra to store their Wheaties in a cabinet that's not emitting toxic gases. And second, because new regulations are likely to take the industry green in the near future, adapting green standards from day one means you won't have to readjust in a year or two.

The most significant changes are coming from the west coast, where the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, is phasing in new air quality rules for hardwood plywood, particleboard, and medium density fiberboard. The term CARB-compliant has become recognized as the strictest in the nation, and there are hints that California standards will soon apply nationwide. Phase 1 took effect in January, 2009, and Phase 2 begins taking effect next. 

The industry responded to CARB-1 and CARB-2 requirements by creating a whole new set of industry acronyms. One approach to compliance is to replace conventional adhesives with No Added Urea Formaldehyde (NAUF) adhesives. Other options are the use of Ultra Low Emitting Formaldehyde (ULEF) or No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) materials. 

The response at Sierra Pine was to introduce a NAUF particleboard called Encore to meet CARB-1, CARB-2, and LEED standards. There's also a moisture resistant variety called Encore-MR, and a Class-1 Flame retardant version dubbed Encore-FR. The Encore family is principally used for cabinet boxes and counters. 

For cabinet doors, Sierra Pine offers a NAF MDF material called Areiss. “With a one-piece cabinet door, you'll be routing out the raised panel design on the door and you need MDF to do that,” said Chris Leffel, VP - Sales & Marketing for Sierra Pine. “In terms of finishing an MDF door, there are generally two ways to give it a decorative surface. One way is to paint it, which you can do in-house. The second is to use a vinyl product that is membrane which is pressed onto the door.”

Another option is to construct a 5-piece cabinet door that has stiles and rails on the outside edges and a panel on the inside. The materials can be a mix of solid, veneered, and hardwood plywood. “Depending on how sophisticated you want to go, that's where the craftsmanship comes in,” said Leffel. “A lot of the custom cabinet guys will offer a 5 piece cabinet door as an upgrade, but they're working with solid wood oak, maple, or what have you.”

The ‘what have you' is what Jeff Hunt of EarthSource Forest Products is known for. “We supply all the forest products that go into building a cabinet, including hardwood plywood and hardwood lumber, MDF, particle board, bamboo, all the different composite boards that are out there,” he told us. 

But Hunt is best known as a source for FSC certified tropical hardwood. “In veneers, we have genuine mahogany, sapele, santos mahogany, some machiche, and that's just on the faces that are ready to be made into plywood,” he said. “Bamboo has been pretty popular, but most of what we sell is going to end-users who are do-it-yourselfers who might be building a bathroom vanity or something small like that. Bamboo veneer on the box, and melamine or pre-finished maple inside.”

But large clients, locally and nationally, are routine for Hunt. “We're working on a big job right now that includes 4 by 8 sheets, 4 by 10 sheets, quarter inch, half inch, three quarter inch. It's all CARB compliant and FSC certified, so it's a good job that will end up in a public institution.”

Hunt has over twenty years in the industry, and he stays alert to changing tastes. “The latest trend here has been towards the darker woods,” he said. “Walnut has become quite popular, mahogany continues to be in demand, and sapele is another dark wood we've had orders for lately.”

CollinsWood likes being early adopters of new eco-technology. “We were one of the first companies that went CARB-1 compliant, and our FreeForm is still the only FSC CARB-2 compliant pine particleboard available,” said Mike Shuey, who manages particleboard sales for Collins. 

Pine offers some interesting performance differences. “Pine fiber is more forgiving to shop equipment,” Shuey contends. “One of our claims to fame is that we provide longer tool life to our customers That's because pine is a finer fiber and it just machines better. 

“The other thing Collins does is add sander dust from our sander back into the mix of our fiber. We've been doing that for about 15 years or so,” said Shuey. “It was difficult for us at first because it turned out that you need to add more resin to handle the greater surface area. But that gives it a more MDF-like surface, which really stands out in the particle board market.”

According to Shuey, cutting the urea formaldehyde has been popular with consumers. “The homeowners and end-users are becoming more educated, and it's surprising how many calls we get from homeowners and end-users asking about formaldehyde,” he said.

For doors, Lee Jimerson of Collins suggests their FSC-certified Pacific Albus hardwood (photo, above). “It is softer than Ponderosa Pine, so it does have a pretty low Jenka rating,” he said. It's a lighter weight, lower density material that tends to work easier than some other hardwoods. Jimerson suggests finishing it with a protective coating like Varathane and using hardware pulls rather than notched pulls.

Elemental is the brand on States Industries' NAUF veneered decorative wood panels. While the product was created to comply with California regulations, customers in the other 49 nine states are clearly interested as well. “In most of the country there is a demand for NAUF either for a LEED project or just because people want NAUF products,” said Bill Powell, an executive with the company. Elemental uses a mixture of soy-based glue and a NAUF product to bond the face to the substrate. “When we use a particle board or an MDF substrate, we are purchasing those substrates on the open market. They may not be soy, but they still qualify as an NAUF product,” Powell said.

 

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