Neil Kelly Cabinets' Sustainable Woodworking

By Sean Lechowicz | Posted: 09/15/2013 8:56AM

 

In the world of cabinetry, there is green. Then there is Neil Kelly Cabinets green.

Based in Portland, OR, Neil Kelly Cabinets has been a manufacturer of premium custom cabinets since 1966. It began as a division of Neil Kelly Design/Build Remodeling Company, one of the leading home remodeling companies in the Pacific Northwest. Also known for its commitment to green and the environment, Neil Kelly Design/Build Remodeling is celebrating its 65th year in business.

Since 2001, Neil Kelly Cabinets has been a stand-alone company that offers unique, mid-range to-high-end kitchen cabinets. Award-winning designs and styles in six different product offerings include looks inspired by the arts and crafts movement, the Pacific Northwest, Asian and Native American styles, traditional and mid-century modern.

For nearly 15 years, green has been a part of the world of Neil Kelly Cabinets on a daily basis. In 1998, the company introduced its Naturals Collection, a line of cabinets created from sustainable, non-toxic components. Today, all Neil Kelly cabinets are produced to the exacting standards established for the Naturals Collection and meet national and international air quality standards, including California emission regulations.

President Mark Smith explains that the company’s philosophy is simple: to deliver stylish, environmentally-smart cabinetry that contains no toxic substances, improving the indoor air quality of the buildings in which the cabinets are installed to help create healthy homes.

“Our customers receive a green product, even if they purchased the cabinets for their style and function and not for the sustainability factor,” Smith said. “Even if green is not important to them, it’s important to us. It protects our customers, our employees and the environment. We spend a lot of time with our customers to help educate them about our products. There is no compromise in materials or quality. I sleep well at night.”

The length to which the company goes to be green is reflected in the products it uses to manufacture its five cabinet collections, such as formaldehyde free agriboard (a product made from recycled applications and managed forests) for cabinet bodies and drawers. Cabinet faces are made from wood harvested in compliance with the sustainable forestry standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council. Glues, adhesives and finishes used have low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Developing supplier relationships to partner in this green initiative has been a key component of the program.

It’s also reflected in company Neil Kelly Cabinets keeps. The company’s 1998 entry into green began by attendance at a seminar conducted by The Natural Step, a non-profit environmental education organization that works with businesses and communities to build an ecologically and economically sustainable society.

Neil Kelly Cabinets learned how to develop a system to become green incrementally by reviewing every decision with the environment in mind. As a result, the company became a founding member of Natural Step in Oregon. The company is also a member of the Forest Stewardship Council, the U.S. Green Building Council and Columbia Forest Product's PureBond Fabricators Network.

click image to zoomNeil Kelly CabinetsNeil Kelly Cabients Declare Label lists contents of a cabinet - panel, lumber, glue, finish, hardware, etc. - just like a food label. One of the company’s most recent activities was to work as part of a pilot team of 30 leading building product manufacturers to test and improve the Health Product Declaration Open Standard (HPD). This voluntary format discloses product content and related health concerns that may not be reported, even when a product or building is “certified green.” Neil Kelly Cabinets will be one of the first companies to use the new HPD label on its products.

Smith acknowledges that the market will only pay so much for green products. “It’s a huge learning curve, and we work hard to ensure that our customers understand our level of commitment,” he said. “Some cabinets on the market may be certified green inside, but not outside. Some products use recycled steel, some don’t. Some customers want to know the sources of the wood. We talk to them about all of these, as well as the finishes we use on our cabinets.”

Finishes that meet the need

The finishes the company uses are a key component of its commitment to green. Neil Kelly Cabinets began a working relationship with Sherwin-Williams through its Product Finishes Division over 20 years ago.

Smith, whose background is in production and maintenance – (“there’s not a piece of equipment in our shop that I haven’t touched”) – had just come on board. “Sherwin-Williams came in and introduced a conversion varnish product, and I was impressed,” he said. “It made sense to me, because of the improved durability of that finish as compared to the lacquer products I had seen in the past. It didn’t shear off doors, cause delaminations or any of the other problems I had encountered. Just like all of the products we use -- anything from hinges or substrates -- I expect these all to last beyond what is normally expected.”

Smith also cited a service level that continues to this day. “Sherwin-Williams is there when we need them,” he said. “Little things mean a lot; if we’re trying to dial in a color, they do whatever is necessary to help us get it just right – adjusting the stain, working with our processes and the type of wood we’re using to make it work in our shop.”

When the company went “green” in 1998, Sherwin-Williams offered a new fast-dry water white varnish that offered low VOC. In 2008, a water white varnish with significantly lower VOC was introduced, and that product has now become the standard for the majority of Neil Kelly Cabinets’ product lines.

The new product was one of the lowest VOC finishes on the market at the time, and remains so today,” Smith said. “It’s a straight, sprayable finish that provides faster curing times. It has helped us realize some savings on the spray line; we also added new high volume, low pressure (HVLP) spray guns at the time, so we can get more fluid on the board and less spray wasted in the air.”

More recently, Neil Kelly Cabinets was one of the first manufacturers to use Sherwin-Williams’ new formaldehyde free conversion varnish – one of the first such finishes on the market. Formally introduced in 2011, the new finish is now the standard product used on Neil Kelly’s Naturally Northwest collection.

The company also used the formaldehyde free finish when creating the cabinetry in Portland’s June Key Delta Community Center. The building is a unique community center developed by African American women to support their community. Situated on a former brown field, the building’s owners – the Portland alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. – are working to have the building achieve the Living Building Challenge designation. Perhaps the world’s most stringent building standard, the Living Building Challenge’s sustainability tenets were developed by the Cascadia Green Building Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Challenge.

Smith believes that it is only a matter of time before formaldehyde free finishes become a standard. “As the economy comes back and the demand for cabinets grows, consumers will start to learn more about formaldehyde – and we believe that they are going to demand it,” Smith said.

Worth the effort

Going the extra mile to be “green” naturally has its costs – sourcing the right products, painstaking production to meet exacting standards and even the marketing of such products.

Smith believes that it’s worth all the effort. While some customers come to Neil Kelly Cabinet Co. because they demand green products for their homes, others have come because of direct need. He referred to cases where parents were concerned with chemical off gassing from cabinets potentially harming their children’s health.

“We also have projects that were created for chemically sensitive clients,” he said. He cites one project in the southwest in which the homeowner was literally living in a tent instead of her home because of the off gassing from the cabinetry. Neil Kelly Cabinets provided new, low-toxicity cabinets that allowed her to return home.

In 2009, the company introduced its Simply Naturals Collection, a product line that meets all of its sustainability standards while meeting the budget challenges many homeowners face. Simply Naturals is offered in a limited edition and produced in an efficient manner that allows faster delivery and lower cost.

Today, Smith said that the company uses guerilla and word-of-mouth marketing tactics to help spread the word on low toxins and the availability of formaldehyde free finishes. “We target demographic areas where we feel our product fits into as a niche,” he said.

The company sells through a dealer network spread across 20 states, and most of them actually sought out Neil Kelly Cabinets because of the green aspect, according to Smith. “They are on board with the message and relay it to their customers,” Smith said. “Because of our reputation, our dealers and our customers look to us to be a leader.”


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About the Author

Sean Lechowicz

Sean Lechowicz is a writer for the Woodworking Network and Closets Daily. He can be reached at slechowicz@vancepublishing.com.

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