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disposable aesthetics

2008-02-12 18:06:11.953386+00 by Dan Lyke 11 comments

Over at the Festool Owner's Group, I asked some questions about cabinet construction, one of which revolved around trying to create doors that could be taken apart for re-finishing and regular maintenance in a decade or so. One of the commenters in that thread attributed to Marc Adams the observation that kitchen cabinets in the United States get replaced every 7.5 years. This in defense of using pocket screws in cabinets.

Of course my immediate response was that if you're using pocket screws in veneered MDF, then the average kitchen cabinet has to get replaced every 7.5 years. And since it appears that the kitchen in this house has survived for 60, the modern variation is probably a lot less than that.

Rafe ruminates on some related issues in Aesthetics In The Era of Disposables, or how beat up is becoming an "in" aesthetic in the age of shiny looking mass produced disposables.

[ related topics: Sociology Fabrication Real Estate Woodworking ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2008-02-12 18:40:48.70996+00 by: ebradway

Where does he get the stats of "replaced 7.5-years"? The only way that could be true is if he counts new kitchens as "replaced in 0-years". I have considerable trouble thinking of anyone I know who has EVER replaced their cabinets (I'm sure I could if I tried... but it's really hard), whereas I can easily rattle off everyone else I know who hasn't replaced their cabinets - EVER. And that includes the crappy veneered stuff from the 70s.

The trend among "flippers" is to gut the kitchen and replace with cherry cabinets and granite counter tops. But I'd suspect the actual build-quality and longevity won't genuinely match the initial appearance.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-02-13 02:16:50.325725+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yeah, I frequent several boards that have contractors discussing things like cabinet building techniques, and beyond the things I'd previously thought about "Home Depot"-izing a kitchen, granite countertops and cherry faced cabinets are immediate "you need to look deeper cues. Chances are really good there'll be sagging shelves and warping cabinet frames in the future.

And as my friend who's worked as a professional chef is quick to point out, when you've cooked dinner for 25 on a hot plate, stainless faced appliances and stoves from a brand with atrocious reliability records aren't much of an appeal, but if you don't actually know your way around a kitchen...

#Comment Re: made: 2008-02-13 13:21:01.363899+00 by: m

I suspect that the flippers are engaged in a bubble that is similar to the tulipmania of 17th century Holland. How badly that bubble is going to burst is a matter of conjecture at this point. Some 100 billion of bad debt is supposed to have been dealt with, primarily via foreign loans to prop up the banking system. An additional 200-400 billion is believed to remain to be dealt with over the next couple of years. After the dust settles there will be a significant distaste for the current home capitalization fad in both the owner and financial sectors.

As all too many are finding out, a home is a home, not a cash generating machine, unless you are in the business. Real estate values will probably beat inflation, but that doesn't necessarily make it a safe investment. Like shorting stocks, you can lose more than you "invest." This current bubble has been made possible by the amount of money pumped into the sector by cheap and easy loans. That spigot has been turned off, and that bubble is over. If you want to make money like that, then jump into the early stages of the next bubble, whatever that is.

I believe that the real value of a home is the quality of life is that of living in it. Being free to mold the physical space to one's own desires, and having the privacy of not sharing a wall with a stranger. Building equity in a home can certainly a meaningful part of one's economic life, but it can not serve as a springboard to wealth for the majority of the population. A paid off mortgage is a true asset.

Pass on the current fads as best you can, and update with your own satisfaction in mind. Yes, keep flexibility in mind, but this years colors and materials are likely to look dated in five years anyway. Enjoy your home.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-02-13 14:18:50.832219+00 by: m

Wood is not metal. The best cabinet and furniture making is done with mechanical joints held together with glue, and without the use of any metal fasteners. When a metal fastener is called for, the best to use (contrary to popular opinion) are usually nails, not screws. Repeated testing by a variety of sources have shown that most any decently made glued wood joint will fail somewhere else in the wood before the glued joint breaks.

The use of a metal fastener to hold a joint together creates problems because the wood moves, and will gradually enlarge the hole that the fastener is in. Nails are usually better than screws because the shaft of the nail will have some give to it, and will take some of the shearing force thus protecting the sides of the hole. All depends on the application of course. But even where screws are desirable, say as in attaching a table top to a base, wood movement has to be accounted for. To do this, the holes in the base piece are elongated perpendicular to the grain in the top piece, so that there is no lateral stress on the screws as the wood moves.

There is a lot of literature on the how and why of cabinet making. Fine Wood Working (Taunton Press) is a good source on this sort of thing. They have a terrific online subscription service with all their articles in a searchable database. The paper magazine is available in most libraries and news stands. I have both electronic and dead tree subscriptions, but will drop the paper sub when it runs out. There is a recent article by Norm Abrahams on making cabinets (think it is the current one). Norm is a carpenter, not a fine woodworker. In his early shows he did not account for wood movement, and people who built according to his directions often had their pieces tear themselves apart. That said, I wish I had his skills and abilities. Anyway, he has significantly improved his furniture making designs. Some time spent in this database will be well worth the money and time.

I believe that we have somewhat similar formal backgrounds. Education and early work in the hard sciences, followed by a transition to programing, analysis and design. As a hasty generalization, we tend to deal in abstracts where there are a fairly limited number of variables, build our mental model, commit it to glass or code, then observe and refine. Woodworking on the other hand is built more from a tradition where the variables were not really well understood, and the models were built up over centuries. I can't think my way to new and better joints, "only" use them to express a functional and hopefully aesthetic goal. The technology, unlike what you and I are used to, is essentially stable. But, it also has a process and rewards that are sufficiently different from our professional fare to make it a great hobby.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-02-13 18:24:52.820735+00 by: Dan Lyke

On the bubble...

Violent agreement here, people discovered housing as something that was easily leveraged, and in an up market it feels really good to be way leveraged.

I have to admit I underestimated the impact of that sense of being able to customize and build a nest. There's something about being willing to screw the mahogany into the wall because, damn it, I'm not going anywhere, and not worrying so much about making everything portable.

But that's also about how I'm trying to plan out my future lifestyle as well, buying a house, especially in this market, was a statement of "not moving, Northern California is my home", and that's a commitment to a place that I wasn't willing to make before.

On woodworking and long-standing techniques

My thought on the screw method was to put the screw in from the back side to pin the tenon in place. Thus the screw would only be in about 5/8" of wood, and the whole point would be that I could yank it for maintenance in a decade or so, so some creep wouldn't be a problem. But the dowel idea is much better because it'd provide more width to the restraint and be less likely to tear through the tenon.

And, of course, I've no idea whether that'll let the joint creep, but to that...

True, I'm used to playing a world where there's still low hanging fruit and it's easy to come up with a new way of doing things, and where the feedback loop is fairly tight, and I'm spoiled by that, on the other hand I grew up with the Eric Sloane books: There are a lot of techniques out there that have fallen off largely because they're not commercially viable. The evolution and changes in ways that people build cabinets have clearly changed a whole bunch in the past few decades in cabinet techniques. And I'm having a heck of a time finding good resources on some of the fringe techniques; I doubt I'll build a drawer out of anything but plywood, but if I did I'd build it without glue, and I know that people have both done this very successfully, because I've seen some of that furniture, but that it doesn't seem very well documented.

I also grew up in a house that was 200 years old, and that's colored both my expectations for the longevity of my work and my views of making things: I keep thinking "pinned mortise and tenon joints work for house frames, why not cabinet faces?", among other things ignoring some of the issues that changes in materials have brought. If you happen across foot by foot chestnut nowadays, chances are good you're not going to use it to build a house...

My searching about has lead me to Danny Proulx books on kitchen cabinets that look like a good starting point for current techniques and trade-offs, especially for the things that are hard to re-invent, like hanging the carcase. Off to the book store it is.

#Comment Re: Pinned mortise and tennon joints made: 2008-02-13 23:33:44.956286+00 by: m

Absolutely a high quality and long lasting technique. Some even fake them for aesthetic purposes on rails/stiles that are not mortise and tennon joined.

The Proulx books are a good starting point, though he repeats a lot of the information from one book to another so it is not worth buying many of them.

There are a lot of changes in the way that cabinets are made, primarily with the importation of of European concepts and hardware. But for Euro concepts a lot of the focus is on aesthetics and production requirements, with a heavy emphasis on production needs. Some of the Euro hardware is great. I particularly like the Euro hinges because they can be hidden from the outside in both overlay and inset doors, and give a very clean appearance. They are easy to install, and most allow for door adjustment in three dimensions, which helps to make up for minor errors in construction. I am more than willing to pay the price in terms of the clunky interior appearance which I don't see all that often. But while some Euro type cabinets are top grade, in general construction quality and lifespans tend to be lower. Some Euro construction techniques require significant expenditures for jigs and equipment, which do not make sense for anything smaller than a cabinet makers shop.

A decently made floating tenon joint that has been glued, especially if pinned with a dowel, is likely to outlast your lifespan even in the kitchen environment. A well made joint will last into the 22nd century. The birch that you are planning on using is a fairly soft hardwood, and will be beat up long before the joints fail.

Maintenance is not the issue with cabinets that it is with software. The finish is the major problem not the joints, and if you don't let that go until the film loses integrity, then refinishing is not terrible. You would need to clean the surface, rough it up a bit with an abrasive wool, depending on the finish selected possibly put on a binding coat, then add a layer or two of finish. If you wait until the seal is lost on the original film coat, then you may have to strip the finish and do a lot of sanding. That is painful. Regular use of a real wax will significantly add to the lifespan of a finish.

A sealing coat or two on both the inside and outside your carcases is also useful for extending their lives (it also makes cleaning easier). You may find that at some future time you only want to replace the external doors, drawer faces and face frames if any. If you can reuse the carcases it is a big savings in time and money, especially for the homeowner who can make the replacements at leisure without sacrificing functionality.

I know that you have a problem with glue, and are concerned about the ability to clean the assemblies. If the joints are glued then there the surfaces are bonded together into a single piece (at least on a macroscopic level). Sanded and finished, no significant amount of dirt collects. Contrast this with a joint that is held together mechanically only. As the wood moves back and forth with changes in temperature and humidity a small distance will open up, dirt will get into these cracks. With more movement the crack will get wider and hold more dirt. Cleaning out the crack on any regular basis is impossible without complete disassembly.

#Comment Re: Plywood and drawers made: 2008-02-13 23:56:05.918447+00 by: m

I would never make a drawer bottom of anything but plywood. Plywood sides are great too, just make sure you have a decent plywood that doesn't have voids that show and/or weaken the drawer.

Drawers take a real beating, especially the front joints. it is really important to have strong mechanical and glued joints in the front of the drawer. In addition to the glue, you will need mechanical support both parallel and perpendicular to the drawer travel or large glue surfaces. The G shocks are high even if the absolute forces aren't overwhelming. The strongest joints are box joints, even though everyone, myself included, likes dove tails. Lock miters and drawer lock joints glued and pinned with nails provide much simpler, but quite strong joints as well. The back joints can be sliding dovetails if you are feeling fancy, but glued and nail pined dados are just fine and much easier. The sides of the drawer should extend a bit past the back of the drawer.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-02-14 00:04:50.546448+00 by: Dan Lyke

My only problem with glue is that I wanted to be able to remove the panels from the door fronts for refinishing and serious cleaning, because the gunk that can get down there in the interface between the panel and the door frame can get pretty gnarly. It's been pointed out to me, though, that the right way to deal with that may just be to pre-finish the pieces, then give a coat or two after assembly.

The wood for the kitchen is trending towards maple for the frames and mahogany for the panels (We now have about 200bf of each). It looks like a western broadleaf maple, so it's not some northeastern rock hard maple, but that should be harder than birch. The mahogany faces would be a bit softer, but faces are more protected than frames.

You and the FOG participants are making a pretty good case for gluing, so I guess we just need to enforce a serious heavy cleaning regime to make sure that we catch those gaps before too long. Probably also spend some serious bucks on a quiet stove exhaust fan. At that point, pinning glued Dominos becomes an aesthetic decision.

Thanks for the heads-up on the duplication between the various Proulx books. I'm also starting to wonder a little bit about the Euro style, I'd kind of assumed that those were the state of the art in hinges, but as I look around a bit more I'm realizing that I'm trading lots of irregular intrusion into the opening for the clear door fronts. I think that may be a decision to punt off to Charlene.

I could go for Euro style shelf supports, but Charlene associates them with cheap particle board shelving and would much rather go for inset rails. We may compromise on Dominos in Euro style holes.

I actually hadn't even considered that we might not seal the carcase, so it's good to have you reaffirm that decision.

What's your feeling on finishes for the kitchen? I'm leaning towards a water based poly, mostly because it's clear and I can get it in a fairly matte finish. I like the environmental properties of shellac, but the yellowing and the gloss seem a little extreme when there'll be so much exposed wood, and a oil and then waxed finish seems like a lot of maintenance work.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-02-14 00:12:29.662793+00 by: Dan Lyke

Drawer-wise, I was going to blind-dovetail everything, mostly for aesthetics, and glue them because as much as I like the purity of a fine piece that's got pinned dovetails or some other way to avoid glue, a kitchen is about utility.

If the budget allows, I was tending towards Baltic Birch ply (which, frankly, may be the only way to get a plywood I trust these days). If the budget doesn't allow, I was going to do edging strips on the top edges of the ply. We'll have to see how that flies as I get into the new job.

I was going to just try to find a good 3/4" veneered ply for the carcases themselves and edge it with maple strips, but I do need to find a source for good void-free wood.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-02-14 00:40:46.250398+00 by: Dan Lyke

Hmmm... looks like the NOVA™ pre-finished plywood in Maple is the way to go for both carcase and drawers, maybe even the deeper shelves (the cupboard is going to be a wall of 9" deep shelves).

#Comment Re: made: 2008-02-14 21:27:43.907281+00 by: m

Finishes for the kitchen are a significant issue. Shellac can not be used as a top coat in the kitchen because it will be damaged by water (white marks) and dissolved by alcohol. But shellac has good qualities that can make it an undercoat. It is a good sealer, it can really pop grain, and almost everything can be used as a finish over it if using dewaxed shellac. Different colors of shellac are available from garnet to ultrablonde, so how much yellowing you will get is a matter of choice.

There are three types of yellowing involved. First the color of the finish, second is aging of the finish, and third is the aging of the wood. There is little that you can do about the aging of the wood except to keep it away from air and light, primarily UV from the sun. Eventually (a couple of centuries) most woods will turn a yellowish reddish brown.

The color of the finish on what you are working with can only be demonstrated when actually applied to material in question after it has been sanded to the final grit you expect to use. This can be significant, the tendency for endgrain to change color more than face grain can be somewhat ameliorated by sanding the endgrain two or three more grit levels.

Color change from the aging of the finish itself is best determined from personal experience, and lacking that by asking those who have the experience.

If you are going to use broadleaf western maple and mahogany, you may accept or want some yellowing. That is an aesthetic issue -- many explicitly want their work to be warmed up.

The best finishes are sprayed catalyzed lacquers, which are not suitable for the hobbyist. Lacquers as a rule do not brush well over any significant surface area.

I made a set of kitchen cabinets from oak which my wife then pickled (frosted). She wanted a clear coat, and the one that best suited her eye was water based minwax polyacrylic. There was a blueish tint that became slightly more blue with time, but the finish did not stand up well at all. That was about 10 years ago. Since then there has been significant pressure to eliminate or reduce the volatile organics in finishes, and I would have to think that there is some improvement in the quality of waterborne finishes. Some say that solvent based finishes may only be available for the next 10 years or so. I can't speak to the longevity of such.

My wife has decided to renew the inner walls of our pine log cabin. She has sanded a wall down to bare wood (Festool dus1t extraction made this possible). This was still a little dark and a bit blotchy (pine, cherry and some other woods have this problem). So she has gone back to pickling, which is just a wash with a pigment, in this case a diluted latex white wall primer. Her object here is to brighten the wall, but with such a low affect that it is not apparent. We then tried out a dozen or so "swatches" of the wood, sanded and treated the same way, with a variety of clear finishes, including some that we had to send away for. In the end her preferred finish on the basis of (lack of) color was the polyacrylic. The walls will not be subject to the wear that kitchen cabinets are, so I am not as concerned about the finish standing up over time. Its her project, so she gets to make any decision which is not an obvious disaster.

Personal taste is king here. There are some general rules, but enough contradictions to muddle any mind. Finishing is even more tradition bound, biased and subject to internecine warfare than the religious battles fought amongst the Algol spawn.

Now there are waterborne polly's, danish oils, and so on.

The best thing to do is make up some "swatches" of the wood to be finished. Sand as the cabinets will be, then obtain small quantities of a variety of finishes and see what you like the best. I don't like stains and dyes, so I have little experience with them, but sometimes they help a lot. A grain popper like shellac or tung oil can as a sealer can really do wonders. Polyurethane will almost always bond well with both, but it is best try out combinations to see if they work together physically, but you are already doing that to test their aesthetics.

More later.