More and more, I’ve been building my pieces out of reclaimed lumber, and it got me thinking about the longevity of furniture. I like to build from reclaimed lumber for a number of reasons: The most obvious is that a lot of times it’s free. That helps me save money, which in a business with margins as thin as woodworking, that’s never a bad thing. Often old structures and even pallets are made from beautiful hardwoods, and because the cost is much lower, it affords some of my customers the opportunity to have hardwood when they didn’t think they could afford it. More than that though, I like reclaiming lumber because if I can repurpose a piece, then new lumber didn’t have to be purchased, which means less new materials have to be forested. I have had to reconcile that my hobby-turned business has an environmental impact, and wherever I can limit that impact, I will.
That fact got me thinking about sustainability, which lately has become a buzz-word, but an important one. That term mainly comes from biology, and looking at how ecosystems can remain diverse and productive. In essence, sustainability is the ability to endure. An issue I’ve run into with the woodworking business is trying to educate people on why custom made pieces cost what they do. People are often initially shocked at the price I quote, and some even argue with me that the price isn’t worth it. At first it annoyed me, because it seemed totally obvious to me that a custom furniture piece is going to be expensive.
The more I thought about it though, I realized that people have been taught by big-box stores that furniture is supposed to be inexpensive, easy to put together, fit instantly into any decor, and if you don’t like it in three years, replace it! Ikea-style furniture is nice looking (if you’re in to that sort of thing), and yes, it is relatively inexpensive. But have you ever tried to move it, even from one side of a room to another? It’s a dangerous game. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to re-nail the back of those bookshelves, because they popped right out of the particle board. Or re-tighten or reinforce the drawers in a dresser because pulling them open broke the piece. It isn’t meant to be moved. It isn’t meant to used forever. It isn’t built to last. It’s meant to last a little while then be replaced. More an more, we have become a throw away culture, because it’s so easy to be one. We’ve been taught that a bookshelf costs $79, and if it breaks five years down the road, who cares? It cost $79. It doesn’t owe you anything.
I have to explain to people that the reason a bookshelf or a table, or anything else I make costs a little more is because I want it to last a lifetime. I don’t want you have it for five years. I want you to have it your whole life and pass it on to your children. And their children, and so on. I sit at my mom’s dining room table, and know that it’s third generation. It was her grandmother’s, and someday, she’ll pass it on. I have eaten a thousand meals at that table, shared countless stories, arguments, jokes, and songs. I’ve done almost every homework assignment I was ever assigned there, spilled around 1500 glasses of milk, and drank more cups of tea with my mom than I’ll ever be able to count. The legs squeak, the leaves don’t even pretend to match, and every time I look at that table, I can feel every memory that has been stamped into the oak. That is truly a piece that owes our family nothing, but has given (and continues to give) for generations, and will likely give for a few generations more.
If sustainability is about endurance, then Ikea can’t compete with that. I want to build furniture that will have that kind of history; that every time you look at it, it gives you joy – not just because it’s beautiful or functional – but because the memories you shared with the people you love endure in that piece. Which brings me back around to building with reclaimed lumber. By re-purposing that wood, I feel there is a certain energy that comes from knowing that that wood had a purpose, then gets to have a new one. It could just as easily end up in a landfill or burn pile, but if I’m lucky, I can find a way to make that wood become part of the tapestry of someone’s home; their story, and all the stories that come after they’re gone. In that way, sustainability becomes a measure of the care I put into my work, and how my work contributes to the endurance of a home.