Eco-friendly kitchen renovation: premium cabinets from salvaged wood

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Green Renovations

kitchen mid-renovation

The kitchen before renovation

It's been seven years since we started the restoration of our folk-Victorian home. Our house screams traditional. When we finally started our kitchen renovation this summer, we wanted to prove that premium cabinetry made by hand from locally salvaged urban wood could be elegant, simple, and traditional. Too often when the words "eco-friendly" or "salvaged wood" are used, people imagine a modern or rustic style, which is not what we (or the historic preservation office) were going for.

Really, we just wanted to return to old school integrity and craftsmanship. Maybe even improve upon the integrity of yesteryear. After all, those Victorian cabinet makers were sourcing much of their lumber from clear-cut old-growth virgin forests.

Following the standards of the Living Buildings Challenge, we made some straightforward and common sense choices for our kitchen remodel:

  1. The materials should have no toxic materials or adhesives.
  2. The wood should be harvested locally only from trees that were down or downed from a storm; all plywood must be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifying that none of the wood came from clear cut forests and that it was sustainably harvested.
  3. Knobs and draw pulls should be reclaimed or antique.
  4. The cabinets should be made nearby, by local craftsman with as little energy input as practical.

When I called Anna Gordon at Branch Hill Joinery I was thrilled to hear that she had a large stock of solid ash lumber that was harvested from trees killed by the emerald ash borer.

Ash wood for cabinets

Ash wood for the cabinets

The emerald ash borer has killed approximately 200 million trees including virtually every ash tree in lower Michigan. It seems odd that we still clear cut forests when there is so much quality lumber available in our local forests, parks, and roadways.

cabinets being constructed

Cabinets in the shop

For our butcher block countertops we went to a local sawyer - Tervol Wood Products. They had solid cherry in stock from four logs that were salvaged from 50 year old cherry trees.

Branch Hill's eco-chic street cred didn't stop at the sourcing of the wood. All their cabinets are handmade by Amish woodworkers in traditional Shaker, Craftsman, and Mission styles (they custom build contemporary styles too). They use only non-toxic finishes and natural oils.

hand operated drill press

A hand operated drill press in an Amish woodworking shop

They assemble the cabinets in a shop on their farm that has no electricity, which means they must use old-fashioned hand tools to do much of the work.

Hand tools

Hand tools in an Amish woodworking shop

They do ride their buggies over to Anna's farm down the road and use her panel saws and other power tools to cut plywood and such, but the energy input is mostly from calories rather than coal-fired electricity.

Amish cabinet shop

An Amish cabinet shop with no electricity

Zero nasty chemicals. Nearly zero production energy. As Wendell Berry says, "When going back makes sense, we move forward."

Learn more about Urban Wood salvage: http://urbanwood.org/