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Green Woodworking


In so many cases these days, it costs MORE money to be “green” – to eat organic foods, to purchase products made from recycled or reclaimed materials, to live a life that is kinder to ourselves and our planet. That isn’t necessarily always the case, however.

My Green Shop…
In building my new shop, I tried to to be as earth- and human-friendly as I could, without spending an obscene amount of money or taking it to an obnoxious extreme.  As we remodeled other parts of our house, I held on to some things I knew I might be able to reuse in the workshop. The three can lights along the back wall were pulled from our hearth room (we replaced those lights with insulated units to reduce air flow between that room and the attic space above it). Some of the wall outlets came from other rooms that were renovated within the last four years. Once I get it installed, the trim will be painted with trim paint left over from another renovation project.

After we replaced the can lights in the hearth room, we wanted to add extra insulation to our attic spaces. Working in the hazardous waste field, my wife is all too familiar with VOCs and how much formaldehyde an additional 13″ of fiberglass insulation might put into our house. So we spent some effort to locate a company in the area who would use formaldehyde-free fiberglass insulation. It ended up costing us a third less than comparison bids we received for regular insulation!

When it came time to insulate my workshop walls, I didn’t want to just go out and buy pink fiberglass insulation after we’d spent so much time trying to get the rest of the house insulated properly. Unfortunately, the company we’d previously used only had formaldehyde-free insulation in the loose, blown-in form, not in paper-backed batting. But after lots of Google searching and quite a few phone calls, I finally located the same brand of insulation, in craftpaper-backed batting, in my home town! It, too, was cheaper than what the same amount of pink insulation would have cost. And I found out, with a bit of work, I could fit seven such bundles inside my Xterra (man, was that a quiet ride home!).

With the walls insulated, drywalled, taped, and mudded, I wanted to get a few coats of paint on them. If you go to your big box store or a painting specialty store, you can buy special low-VOC paint. But it costs a lot more per gallon than regular paint. Fortunately, I didn’t need to spend the extra money! As it turns out, most of the VOCs are found in the colored pigments added to the base paint. By painting the walls a slight off-white color, I used paint that was already low in VOCs without spending the extra money.

Last, but not least, in my workshop renovation was the floor. I’ve had concrete floors in my workshops for years now, and it’s never been comfortable. It certainly wasn’t easy on any tools that might have been dropped or rolled off the workbench. So I started looking into what might be easy on the feet and back, kind to my errant tools, inexpensive, and eco-friendly, to boot!

I called a life-long friend of mine, who also happens to own a flooring store, and he set me up with a fairly new cork floor product! It is a click-install floating floor that comes in 4″ wide planks, like an engineered or laminate floor. It is comfortable to stand on, easy on my tools, and properly harvested from a renewable resource! The normal price was very competitive with engineered floors; I got it for a somewhat better price because he’s my older brother’s best friend.

My Green Woodworking…
There are several ways one can go about doing green woodworking.

You can reduce:
Every woodworker I know already reduces their waste. They call them “scrap bins”, but… I doubt most woodworkers actually think of the wood in them as scraps. They save any piece of wood more than 6″ long (in some cases, like my expensive and difficult-to-obtain bog oak, I save pieces smaller than 6″ long) and often are able to find a use for it in a later project.  To put it simply, use as much of your wood as you can; leave very little for the trash or burn pile.

You can reuse:
Rehab antique tools instead of buying new ones!  They are often of better quality construction than any tools made today that aren’t high-end (and expensive) and they are readily available in most locations. More than 75% of the tools in my workshop are antiques (rehabbed or still in as-found condition). Even some of my big boy power tools are more than 50 years old (a Rockwell drill press and a Rockwell scroll saw, both from the 1950’s, and an 8″ Wallace jointer from the 1930’s).

My big focus, when it comes to reusing, is the wood itself. The main wood I use in most of my boxes is reclaimed white oak. If you look at my gallery page, you’ll see that in most of the boxes posted (all, at the time of this writing, actually). This is some wood I have in abundance, and I enjoy using it! It all comes from an old house that was on a farm owned by my family. My brother built a house on that farm and, when his children got old enough, the old structure became a safety hazard, so we had to tear it down. Let me tell you – if we hadn’t used hammers and saws and (eventually) a tractor to take it down, that sucker would still be up for another 150 years. It was framed with green white oak, every nail clenched, and then the outside of the frame was sheathed with green white oak lumber, mostly 10′ long and averaging 8″-10″ wide. Each board was clench-nailed to the frame three times across the width in no less than three different locations. Then the outside of the house was further covered with cypress clapboard siding and slathered with several coats of leaded paint.

The end result is that after more than 40 hours of hard work, I had upwards of 50 or 60 boards of straight air-dried 1x white oak (after carefully unclenching several thousand nails – lordy, but that did a number on my wrists!) and a good 20 or 30 boards of true 2x dimensions and even a few larger 4x and 6x boards.  This isn’t “weathered” barn wood, which really isn’t that desirable, because of a high silica content from years of exposure to elements and sand and grit and dirt; that stuff is brutal on planer and plane blades. Instead, this wood looks just like any other stack of air-dried wood that is 10 years old – until you plane off that top layer and you see the tight old-growth rings that set this wood apart from most contemporary white oak lumber you might buy today.

I also use bog oak, which is one of the ultimate woods, when it comes to “reusing”! Much of the bog oak I have didn’t actually come from a true bog of Ireland, but from the city of London in England. During their occupation of the city, Romans built docks to access the Thames river; they supported these structures by driving oak log pilings into the mud. This lack of moisture and exposure to water saturation acted, in essence, like a bog, as far as the wood was concerned. 2000 years later, these logs surface during construction projects and some thrifty soul collects them and turns them into lumber. The waste from the drying process is about 70% (if you think that is a lot, try drying wood that has 100% moisture content for 2000 years and see how well you can do), which makes this stuff the opposite of cheap. Add the shipping costs from the UK and I don’t even want to know what the board foot cost would calculate out to be if it did come in plank form (it is mostly in smaller blocks not larger than 8″ in length and 5″ in width). But I use it as accent pieces, so a little wood goes a long way. And considering I don’t pay for most of the primary wood I use, I don’t mind the higher price for this premium reclaimed wood.

In my shop, awaiting use, I also have some ancient Kauri wood and some old growth mahogany. I’m blessed to live just an hour away from the Greener Lumber mill, in Mexico, MO, and when I finally get into a more productive mode, I plan on taking advantage of that for some of my premium boxes.

A lot of the other wood I get is generally re-purposed or considered “scrap” by one of the major lumber suppliers here in St. Louis (anything less than 3′ long). I can also sometimes get African Mahogany and walnut from my little brother, who works in a cabinet shop that does custom doors, windows, mouldings, and cabinets. The shop tosses anything under 36″ into their dumpster and the employees pull it right back out at the end of the day and bring it home. If I put in a “request” with him, and sweet talk him enough, he’ll usually come through with five or ten boards of it every few months, which is enough for several boxes.

You can recycle:
I have a fireplace. Any dimensioned lumber that is too short to be used in a box gets split into smaller pieces with my old Eastwing hatchet and used as kindling. If I have a pile of just domestic wood shavings, I’ll put it in my yard waste container, which gets turned into mulch at the local recycling center.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 16, 2015 11:25 pm

    Ethan – The shavings make great tinder, for the dimensioned lumber kindling. We love starting our woodstove with shavings.

    Liked by 1 person

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