Getting Great Green Results from a Cabinet Shop

While the conventional furniture market is dominated by large manufacturers selling nationwide, most green furniture is made in small, local workshops. That fits well with the green ethos, but how can you make sure you get what you want when ordering custom green furniture?

Don’t take references at face value; go out and see finished products to make sure they meet your expectations.

No one is going to give out a reference that would reflect badly upon their work, so take it with a grain of salt. It’s a good sign when a reference gives thoughtful answers and is not simply effusive. But the most important thing a reference can say is “Come out and see for yourself.”

You most likely have in mind quality standards and a picture of what you want your furniture to look like. The only way to know if the workshop will meet your expectations is to see the work. You may talk with a person who’s effusive about their furniture, then, when you see it, think “Why would anyone allow that in their kitchen?” or “Geez, I hope they didn’t pay good money for that.”

In large shops it’s common for the more experienced craftsmen to do the selling and then hand off construction to a B team. Confirm that the person you liked and bought from will actually build your green cabinets.

When you talk to references and see finished products, make sure you find out who within the company was responsible for their production.

We gravitated toward smaller companies when building our house; we knew that the person we spoke with actually “swung the hammer.” There are big companies that do great work, but most have an A team and a B team, and sometimes even a C team. If you meet with the A team, see the A team’s work, talk to the A team’s references, and pay for the A team, make sure the A team builds your furniture.

Ask references: “Who did you work with?” “Was he a project manager?” “Do you know who actually built the cabinets?” Ask the cabinetmaker: “I went to look at the Jones’ cabinets, and I really like them. I understand they worked with Bob’s team; I’d like to work with Bob’s team also—is that possible?” This way, you’ll increase the chances that you’ll get a product of like quality.

When selecting a furniture maker, prioritize high-quality work and trust over green experience.

We have several sets of built-in green cabinets in our house—kitchen, bathroom, and living room. The cabinets are made from a variety of materials, including urban salvage elm, recycled fir, FSC-certified plywood and formaldehyde-free medium-density fiberboard (MDF). We went about getting our green cabinets in two different ways.

In one instance, we limited ourselves to shops that marketed themselves as green cabinet makers. For some people, that’s a great way to go—designing furniture can be a very time-consuming process, and not having to worry about appropriate materials and finishes can be a great time-saver. A green furniture maker may be way ahead of the curve on working with the newer or more exotic green materials. Green furniture makers may also put special effort into waste reduction (though most quality shops keep waste to a minimum, because waste costs money). Of course, you should verify that the shop you pick is building green products.

The second strategy we employed was using a traditional cabinetmaker and specifying materials and finishes, locating green suppliers ourselves. If you are not lucky enough to live in an area with a number of qualified green furniture makers, this can be a great way to get the green furniture you want. It is a little more work, but for us it was well worth the adventure.

When going this route, you have to be upfront with the furniture maker and make sure he or she is on board and flexible. Like any experienced trade professional, a furniture maker will have preferences and prejudices that may not be in line with your program. I ended up finishing our cabinets because the finishing subcontractor balked at using a product he was not familiar with. Also plan on doing some extra legwork. Though our cabinetmaker was happy to face the cabinets with recycled fir, he did not have any suppliers. We not only found the supplier but acted as a go-between. The cabinetmaker and the wood supplier, both extremely experienced, simply worked in different ways, and we had to smooth the communication path.

Price too high? Ask for options.

If you are budget constrained, the design stage is the first step in making sure your furniture is affordable. Maybe the door design you prefer is labor intensive, or the number of drawers versus doors will drive up the cost, or one of your materials is hard to work with. Go over your drawings with the furniture maker and ask, “Do you see anything in this design that makes the cabinets unduly expensive? Are there any design modifications that could make the furniture more affordable?”

If you are specifying materials and suppliers, ask your furniture maker if you can purchase the materials directly and have them delivered. Most shops add a percentage to the price they pay for the materials, so you may be able to save a small amount here.

The largest cost in your furniture is likely to be labor. You may be able to reduce that cost by requesting that your cabinets be delivered unfinished, and doing the finishing yourself. We finished the doors on our living room cabinets with an easy-to-apply oil wax finish and saved. Beware, though: finishing wood is not easy, and you’ll have to live with the look once you are done.

Also ask about installation options. Hiring a cabinet installation specialist can be less expensive than having the cabinetmaker install the cabinets.

Finally, if you want green cabinets for a remodeled room and new ones are out of your reach financially, you can ask a cabinetmaker to build new green doors and drawer fronts on the existing frames. You can have the frames cleaned up and finished with a nontoxic, low-VOC finish before the drawers and doors are installed.