Non-toxic cabinetry

Kitchen cabinets can off-gas formaldehyde and countless other chemicals for years after they have been installed. Here is a price comparison of some safer alternatives for better indoor air quality (IAQ).

custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks
Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks © Ecohome

In an effort to improve the air quality of your home, ask your cabinetmaker to price different materials that will help achieve that goal. The results for your health will be great, and the price probably won't be as bad as you think.

Market demand is such that as more people demand healthier and more ecologically responsible building materials, the cost comes down considerably. 'Eco' products are mainstream now, so they are consistently becoming more affordable and easier to find. 

What we hope to illustrate here is the cost difference between a standard kitchen and a much less toxic one, showing that going green no longer comes with the financial sacrifice it used to.

So where can we go green?

Countertops aside, there are three main materials that will determine the health effects and cost of a kitchen:

Rail and style kitchen doors
rail and style kitchen doors © Ecohome

Melamine: This is by far the most commonly used material for the 'carcasses' or the cabinet boxes themselves that go into a kitchen. Generally, white melamine is used but a wood grained melamine to match the wood doors is not at all uncommon.

Wood doors: We will be working in this example with maple 'Shaker' style five-piece doors with a flat plywood centre. This is by far the most popular and affordable wood door in our shop. The five pieces are the two rails (horizontal), two stiles (vertical) and the panel (centre), which are commonly referred to as “rail and stile” doors.

Stain and lacquer: These greatly affect the finished product. While they are not always considered  'materials' of a kitchen, they do affect air quality, durability and cost, so they bear some examining.

A kitchen comparison:

Here is an example of a kitchen built the 'old' way, costing the client $14,900 before the countertop and before taxes. For the same kitchen built the 'green' way, the cost to the client would be $16,250, an increase of only $1,350, or 9.1%.

Let’s break down the price difference:

  • Melamine: The melamine we used for this kitchen was Hard Rock Maple. Regular Hard Rock costs about $40/sheet, whereas the Nugreen (formaldehyde-free) product runs about $54. We used around 30 sheets of melamine for this job, so that the increase in the cost of the melamine was $504.
  • Wood Doors: The clients chose maple for their kitchen, and we purchased the doors from a door manufacturer for $2040. The same doors in an FSC* wood would cost (we are assured) not more than 20% more, possibly less. Depending on the species of wood of course, this price difference could vary quite a bit. For the purposes of this article, the doors in FSC lumber have been penciled in at $2448.

* FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) wood products do not affect indoor air quality. FSC is a certifcation progam that ensures wood was sustainably harvested.

Lacquer:  The old solvent-based lacquers cost a little less than half as much as their water-based counterparts – about $100 per pail for the former and $220 for the latter. We pegged the solvent-based lacquer for this kitchen at $45 and the water-based lacquer at $100.

Stain: Here we are actually saving a bit of money. Since a gallon of oil-based stain can run to $90 for a custom colour, we have used that as a base cost. In the water-based stains we use aniline stains found at Lee Valley. These cost about $12 apiece, and since we ended up using less than two packets to achieve the colour the client wanted, we have put $24 down for stain cost.

Each of these increases or decreases represents the projected difference in cost to your cabinetmaker. They will change once the mark-up is applied and will vary depending on that percentage. In this case we have applied a 30% mark-up on material purchased.   

It is worth noting that not all materials change greatly in price as they get greener, and other materials change dramatically. Regarding melamine alone, a sheet of white can run as little as $20 per sheet while the “green” version of white is double that.

The Hard Rock Maple melamine we looked at  cost $40 for a regular grade and $54 for the green, an increase of 24%. For some strange reason, comparatively, 'green' almond melamine cost only 15% more than the regular grade. At the time of press, it was possible to buy ¾ inch FSC poplar plywood for 2% less than the regular grade.                    

Sourcing Materials:

While these numbers may seem encouraging for those wanting to go green, there is another consideration to be allowed for, and that is how soon do you want the kitchen? Not all  materials will be readily available at all times, and searching for them let alone waiting for them may affect the lead time on getting your kitchen when you need it. It can be wise to plan farther ahead when choosing green.

It is also possible that there will be a minimum purchase or special order required to get the material you want and that depending on how much is required for the job, the minimum order may be prohibitive, ignoring the fact that wasted material is never green.

Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks
Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks © Ecohome

Featured kitchen :

The custom kitchen renovation in this article was made with 'regular' solid maple and standard white melamine for the interiors of the boxes, but all wood components are finished with water-based lacquer.

Particulars of this kitchen include:

  • 2 lower end units with 30’ angled side panels (one opening)
  • 1 lower microwave unit with 2 drawers
  • 1 blind corner sink unit
  • 1 five-drawer unit (two top drawers side by side, three below)
  • 1 three-drawer unit
  • 1 single-door unit with two sliding shelves inside
  • 1 @ 8” deep pantry with two doors (depth of which the client loves)
  • 2 @ 60”wide x 40” high, 3 door upper units with 30’ angled side panels
  • 2 single-door upper units, 20”wide by 40” high
  • 1 @ double-door unit above stove, 30” wide x 20” high
  • 1 @ full depth double-door unit above fridge, 34 x 20”, with two sliding shelves
  • 2 full height custom fridge panels
  • 2 @ 34” high custom stove side panels
  • 2 @ 40” high custom fume hood side panels
  • Solid maple crown moulding throughout
  • All hinges are Blum with integrated blumotion
  • All slides are Blum Tandem undermount with integrated blumotion
  • All drawer boxes are solid maple dovetailed construction with plywood bottoms
  • Installation
Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks
Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks © Ecohome

Prices do not include:

  • Countertops
  • Handles (chosen and purchased later by client)
  • Tiling
  • Removal of original kitchen

The summary to all these numbers is this:

A greener kitchen should not cost more than 10 or 12% more than a kitchen made of standard products. If you have asked a cabinetmaker for a price comparison and it is more than that, ask for a breakdown of the price difference. If you are unsatisfied with the answers, call us for an estimate so we can see where the discrepancy may lie. And interestingly, the higher end a kitchen is the less of a difference it can be to go green percentage-wise.

RIVER WOODWORKS    

For the record, we at River Woodworks have been using water-based stains and lacquers for over a decade and have found the results to be equal to, and in some cases better than, the more toxic products available in the industry. As the cost of the finishing material is so minimal compared to the cost of the whole job, we see no reason to even consider any alternative.

 

John Zeitoun is a master cabinetmaker based in Wakefield, Quebec, with 25 years of experience in both commercial and residential millwork. In addition to cabinetmaking, John is also a boat builder specializing in traditional handmade birch bark canoes. For more information, please visit riverwoodworks.com.

Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks
Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks © Ecohome

Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks
Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks © Ecohome

Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks © Ecohome
Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks © Ecohome

Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks
Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks © Ecohome

Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks
Custom kitchen renovation by River Woodworks © Ecohome