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Cabinet Construction

by Gene Martin, prov4ge@chatlink.com
and Betty Bridges, bcb56@ix.netcom.com
June 1997

[Editor note: both articles are in response to a poster asking about "safe" wood, treatments, and sealers for kitchen and bathroom cabinets.]

by Gene Martin prov4ge@chatlink.com

We have found wood to be a very individual thing. Go to a cabinet shop, hardwood store or the like and get some scraps of woods you may be interested in. Take them home, sand them (in an open, well ventilated area) then close them up in individual jars. The sanding is to remove the surface oxide and masking smells from other woods. Wear cotton or other tolerable gloves throughout the process. A respirator wouldn't hurt, either.

After the wood has been sealed in a jar for a couple of days, open the jar and smell it. You will find out whether the wood is tolerable.

Vicky (my wife) can handle maple and black walnut. The black walnut is becoming questionable. Any oily wood will probably be a problem.

Specify untreated wood. Many hardwood farmers and the US Forest Service regularly spray for beetles and other insects. There is a place in Ashland, OR called the Rogue Institute (named after the local river, not the business practices of the place) that deal in woods grown with sound environmental practices. They are at (541)482-6031 and may be able to help.

Wood stains will most likely be a problem because most are petroleum distillate based and all are chemical. An alternative is to put on several coats of real strong tea. Make it about 5 tea bags per cup and let it steep for quite a while. Blond wood lacks tannic acid and the tea will add tannic acid.

For a really great stain, have a friend or professional place the tea coated wood in a SEALED container with an open bottle of ammonia for about a day. The ammonia fumes react with the tannic acid. Do not go anywhere near this process yourself. After a few days of outgassing there is no ammonia smell at all, and the wood is spectacular.

Sealers will again be a problem. AFM sealers have given Vicky bronchitis. We tried five different sealers for our floors. When we settled on one we thought was safe, we used it. The sealer continued to outgas and made Vicky sick, so it wasn't safe after all.

You will need to put something on the cabinets to seal them, but it is going to take a lot of homework. Remember that your house will be closed up during the winter so there is no place to ventilate anything still outgassing.

Resorcinol and aliphatic glues contain formaldehyde. There isn't much exposed glue on a cabinet, and you will probably be sealing it, but it is one more chemical assault.

For shelving, consider this as an alternative. Go to a local sheet metal or heating/air conditioning shop. They can make shelves out of .040 stainless steel sheet. Take the edges and break them over 1/2 to 3/4 inch and you have a shelf thats a lot stronger than you would believe. It's also low maintenance, doesn't require sealers and is waterproof. Just screw in shelf holders on the sides of the cabinet and drop the shelf in. No glue, even.

You might also consider glass doors on your cabinets. Doors are usually made out of plywood or glued up planking. It really isn't an interior design statement, but again cuts down on exposure. It has the added benefit of knowing almost immediately what item is what shelf when you need it.

If your house has a forced air unit, make sure that all the ductwork is sealed off when your remodeling is done. That will keep sawdust and other unwanted things from being recycled through the house later.

That's about all I can think of off the top of my head, so enough for now. If I can answer anything else or help with anything else, let me know.

[Addendum 1/23/98: Since then we have found that Vicky also tolerates poplar as a wood. We still haven't found a safe sealer.]

by Betty Bridges bcb56@ix.netcom.com

I would suggest maple over oak, if you are going to do any sanding on it. Oak sanding dust tends to be irritating. Maple is one of the woods that is often used in cutting boards and things with food contact so it is considered pretty safe, is not an oily wood, and is pretty stable (does not warp or twist).

You can tell the contractor you want unfinsihed, ready to finish cabinets. This would mean the sanding has been done and they are ready for the finish to be applied. We use wood glue (Elmer's yellow glue) and nails and staples to build the cabinets. You can check with the shop doing the cabinets to see what is used.

Just for general information so you will know what questions to ask. Often the unseen areas of the cabinets are made from particle board. You will want to specify "no particle board" and you will need to specific what materials you want used in its place. Luaun is often used in place of particle board. This is probably not a good choice. It is imported and has probably been sprayed with who knows what in transport. And it often has a very strong odor. Birch or maple venner core plywood would probably be a better choice. But these plywoods do have the layers glued, that may or may not be a problem. You can ask for samples of the materials that will be used before hand and see how they effect you.

If your cabinets are custom made you should be able to get what you want. But you have to be very specific. If you don't specify then the shop will use what ever their standard is. It would be better if you were able to meet with someone from the cabinet shop and the builder together. This would help in making sure that everything was understood.

But be prepared. Special stuff will usually cost more and may take longer to get. And if the cabinets leave the cabinet cabinet shop without a finish it may void the warranty. We do not warranty cabinets that we do not apply the finish. The finish is critical in preventing doors from warping. And an improperly applied finish can cause problems.

It is going to be extremely difficult not to have some formaldehyde in the glues that are used in the plywood. But there is not as much in it as there was even 5 or 10 years ago. You can request MSDS sheets for all the products that will be used in the cabinets. I know they are available on the plywoods.

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