Health-Conscious Kitchen Cabinets
Why a pediatrician mom chose nontoxic kitchen cabinets for her young family's vintage home
Great house, shoddy kitchen. That about sums up the attitudes of Penelope Sheely and her husband Sean after buying their 1907 Colonial Revival in Dobbs Ferry, New York. While most of the place was dressed in handsome millwork, the kitchen's original solid-wood cabinetry had been ripped out in favor of flimsy laminate boxes. "They were these 1970s cheapo cabinets—the kind I grew up with and always disliked,"says Penelope. They had to go.
The Sheelys wanted traditional-looking, well-built replacements. But most important, they wanted ones that would minimize their environmental impact and help safeguard their family's health. They considered cabinets made with salvaged lumber and ones finished with nontoxic paints. And they weighed the 20 percent premium they'd have to pay for such green credentials against the benefit of keeping their consciences and their indoor air clean. After months of research, the Sheelys finally found the perfect cabinets. To help streamline your search for eco- and health-friendly cabinetry, This Old House asked Penelope to share her best sleuthing advice.
Q: What were your must-have qualities for green cabinetry?
A: I'm the mother of four children, but I'm also a pediatrician. I wanted kitchen cabinets that wouldn't off-gas harmful chemicals. Kids are bombarded with toxins everywhere they go, so I wanted our house to be a sanctuary. The cabinets had to be free of the formaldehyde typically used in adhesives, and the off-gassing VOCs found in lots of paints. Being locally made was also important so that they wouldn't have to be shipped too far.
Q: That's a tall order. How did you find a cabinetmaker to fill it?
A: What saved us was a design firm called Green Courage in nearby New Paltz, New York. The owner turned us on to Breathe Easy, a company only 30 miles away from here. Their custom cabinets are made with ¾-inch plywood held together with water-based adhesives. For the doors, we could go with solid wood, bamboo, or no-formaldehyde medium-density fiberboard (MDF).
Q: You can get green cabinets at Lowe's. Why go custom?
A: We wanted something specific: nontoxic, traditional, locally made cabinetry. So we knew we'd have to pay extra. Ours cost about 20 percent more than regular custom and considerably more than stock. But considering how well they're made, and how we maximize the space in our small kitchen, it was worth it. The delivery time was also quick—just six weeks.
Q: Was it tough finding cabinets in a period style to match your old house?
A: We definitely needed something old-fashioned-looking. Bamboo wouldn't do. But since Breathe Easy cabinets are custom, we got a traditional stile-and-rail door with a white painted finish that wouldn't clash with the kitchen's exposed wood trim. For the hardware, we used salvaged glass handles.
Q: How have your green cabinets held up to the inevitable leaky sink pipes or tomato-sauce splatters?
A: Our cabinets have a limited lifetime warranty, which gives us peace of mind. In retrospect, we might have asked the dealer if we could contact former customers to check how theirs were working out. But as far as messes go, our doors have a low-VOC clear coat that protects them from kitchen disasters. But even without the extra finish, the eco-paint should hold up.
Q: Did you save the 1970s cabinets—for garage storage, perhaps?
A: They were pretty much shot. But we did restore an original built-in hutch. Once I pried off the fake-wood paneling, it was really beautiful. I'm so glad we could salvage something. After all, preserving what's already there is the greenest thing to do.
TOH Pro Advice: Alan Baker, green contractor, New Paltz, New York, says, "Rather than buy new cabinets, you can give your existing wood boxes an eco-friendly makeover by refinishing them with a low-VOC primer and paint."