Chicago is one the greenest cities in the country, with numerous green buildings sprouting up, including the city’s first green school, Tarkington Elementary, on the Southwest side, rooftop gardens and green landscaping. A hub of the city’s green movement is based in the Chicago Center for Green Technology. Located in this cutting-edge building, which features solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, energy-efficient plumbing and prairie grass landscaping, is Whitney Wood Works, a green and woman-owned woodworking company.

Owner Christine Parkinson says that she wanted to start her own company, so she opened Whitney Wood Works in 2005. It just so happened that a good friend of hers, an architect, was involved in numerous green building projects. It was this connection that sparked her interest in the green market.

“That’s how it captured my imagination,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why not just start a business that is focused on green woodworking only — kitchen cabinets and custom millwork.’”

Parkinson says this was her business plan, in a nutshell, but early on she was lucky enough to pick up work from Milwaukee-based Outpost Natural Foods. She credits that client with getting her business off the ground. “I was hired by Outpost to do a whole bunch of millwork for the store it was opening. They wanted it to be made from recycled or reclaimed or green material and finishes. So we started almost right out of the gate,” she notes.

Even though Whitney Wood Works was a new company, Outpost discovered Parkinson’s work because of furniture prototypes Parkinson featured at a local green retail store. “There are very few stores like that, but they walked into the store and saw the stuff, got my information and called me up,” she adds.

This project in many ways confirmed Parkinson’s reason for starting a specialized business. “It was a burgeoning market, and I thought that as a brand new business it would be helpful to have a niche. Second, I loved the idea of getting into a business I could believe in and doing something good in the process. There are a million cabinetmakers, but there were, at the that time, hardly any green cabinetmakers,” she says.

Once Parkinson had the demand for her products all she needed was to find the equipment and to find the perfect location for her shop. After starting in her one-car garage, Parkinson ended up moving her business to the Chicago Center for Green Technology, which is owned and operated by the City of Chicago.

“So not only do we build green products, but also we build them in a green building,” says Parkinson. “We are manufacturing with green energy — renewable energy — so that makes it even more appealing.”

The Center has a select group of tenants on the premises; only green businesses are considered. So Parkinson applied and was selected, helped in large part because she not only has a green business, but it also is a woman-owned business.

“So now we have this beautiful space with great windows and great lighting,” Parkinson adds. Her shop is approximately 2,500 square feet. She has about two to four employees, depending on the workflow.

Whitney Wood Works fabricates kitchen cabinets with eco-friendly materials, including FSC-certified and reclaimed lumber.
The above kitchen features charcoal stained bamboo.

Reclaiming Chicago Trees

Whitney Wood Works uses a number of green materials including FSC-certified products and reclaimed wood. Much of the local reclaimed wood comes from Horrigan Urban Forest Products Inc., located in Skokie, IL.

“Bruce Horrigan recycles trees from the Chicago area that have died,” Parkinson explains. “Normally, a tree dies and an arborist takes it down and grinds it into mulch, and that’s it. What he did – what his passion is — was to save those trees and use them for lumber. We can get a 100-year-old (board) because Bruce saved a tree and turned it into lumber.”

Currently, Parkinson says her shop is working on a walnut kitchen and a maple kitchen with recycled and reclaimed lumber from Horrigan’s company. Not only does this material allow for the reuse of something that previously died, but “you get a really beautiful piece of lumber out of it,” Parkinson says. “It has a lot of character.”

Parkinson also uses recycled barn wood from American Barn Co. for her projects. “We did a bench out of beautiful reclaimed timber from a barn for the Outpost Natural Food store,” she notes. However, Horrigan is her main supplier because he is local. Although plywood for Parkinson’s cabinets comes from further away, it is still eco-friendly because it is formaldehyde-free.

“This is good for us and it is good for our customers. That’s a standard thing we do, because the price difference is not significant using a formaldehyde-free board versus a standard board.”

Finishing Up

Whitney Wood Works uses a variety of low-VOC finishes on its projects. Parkinson says that she has been using the products since she started her company, so she has a good sense of what works.

“I started early enough in the process that I was able to see the evolution of the low-VOC finishes and the quality of them,” she says. “They are getting better all of the time. We’ve used everything from a water-based finish made by BioShield Paints or Safecoat to a good old-fashioned natural oil finish.”

Parkinson says that she prefers the oil varnish because it has a “beautiful natural finish and you get a nice build” on the wood. However, it is not the most price-conscious choice, she warns, because it takes a longer time to dry. “But it is a beautiful finish,” she notes again with a laugh.

Developing a Clientele

Whitney Wood Works’ customers are primarily from the Chicago area and suburbs, with the occasional client from out of town.

“Most people who contact me have a concern about the environment or are concerned about their health,” Parkinson says. “There are a lot of folks who have an environmental illness and need a cabinetmaker who can supply them with things that are not going to make them sick.”

Parkinson says that they have a great deal of experience dealing with chemically sensitive clients. She often tests materials with these clients by giving them small pieces of products to live with for a period of time to see if it negatively affects them.

Education is a key part of the process. According to Parkinson, when she initially talks to a client about a kitchen, she tells them how important it is to have the boxes made of formaldehyde-free plywood. “The finishes will off-gas faster, but the boxes leech for a longer time, years,” she adds.

Greenwashing?

With the growth of the green movement, more companies are providing green products. However, the question of ‘What is green?’ is being asked more frequently by companies and customers alike.

“Everyone is jumping in, and I think that people don’t understand what green truly is,” Parkinson says. “A lot of people are saying that they are green, but they are not necessarily all that green. For instance, all of these folks coming out with bamboo doors — bamboo is a sustainable product, however, it is traveling from China to be here. You have to look at all sides of the equation. Certainly, I will do a bamboo kitchen for someone if they want it, but I always talk to people about ‘How green do you want it to be?’ because it can mean so many things to so many people.”

Although a lot of people are “jumping” into the market for a variety of reasons, Parkinson says that she still thinks that it is a good thing because they “are driving attention” to the market. Parkinson adds that her clientele tends to be well educated on green, “so they know that being green is also about buying local. It’s about supporting small businesses; it’s about more than just a sustainable material that you can use.”

Green Processes in the Shop

Whitney Wood Works’ shop is filled with what Parkinson calls “basic stuff,” including a Powermatic table saw, a Powermatic panel saw and a Mini Max edgebander.

Parkinson purchased the table saw and panel saw over the first three years. She later added the edgebander when she learned that the “greenest way to make cabinets is to make frameless cabinets. Why have the extra wood if you don’t have to?”

Other elements of Whitney Wood Works’ manufacturing process that are eco-friendly, besides fabricating frameless cabinets, include grinding and reusing waste, as well as using optimizing software to reduce waste.

Whitney Wood Works fabricates high-end custom planter boxes for a Chicago-area green landscaper.

Surviving the Downturn

The economy has proved challenging for many businesses, including Whitney Wood Works. One way Parkinson has dealt with this challenge is by working with another green company, Christy Webber Landscapes.

Parkinson became friends with Webber after working on her kitchen. “She wanted a beautiful green kitchen and we got to know each other after that,” she says. “When my business began to slowdown, she said, ‘I could really use your help, and I would like you to make beautiful wooden products for my business.’ It has worked out very well.”

Those “beautiful” wooden products include high-end planter boxes and outdoor furniture, which have become very popular.

Parkinson notes that fabricating outdoor furniture is “a challenge, because it has to hold up to the weather and be stable. It’s not easy to have all of that and have a nice-looking product.” Yet, Parkinson says that she enjoys the work and has been able to make some really nice high-end custom pieces. She has not only researched various types of wood that are more sustainable outside, but she also has tried to translate the construction of interior woodwork to exterior wood.

“It’s been a really fun challenge,” she says.

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