Furniture as Revolution.

This is Part 3 of Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking.


Small-scale DIY solar arrays are neat. Vigilance in chemical exposure risk is a valuable habit to develop. Selecting local materials and responsibly-sourced wood can ease your environmental burden while bolstering creativity. But these are not particularly paradigm-breaking expressions of an environmental ethic. It is the furniture itself that is the most profound manifestation of that ethic.

Creating a piece of functional, practical art that can last for generations is a radical departure from the current trend of disposable fast furniture made of particle board and held together with camming nuts, cheap dowels, and that one textbook that you can never read lest your bookcase collapses under its own precarious weight. Stores like Ikea have done an impressive job making attractive, modern furniture accessible and affordable, but it has done so at significant environmental costs.

Although fast furniture stores, and especially Ikea, have made huge strides in environmental compliance and sustainable production, their core business model is centered on the idea that furniture is disposable, that people want to “refresh” their living spaces every few years, and that the transience of fast furniture is part of its appeal. People want to go furniture shopping. Ikea gives you a reason to. 

The life-cycle of fast furniture is grim. By design. 

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Getting a handle on workworking chemicals, or sometimes we all need to vent.

This is Part 2 of Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking.


Walk into any woodshop and you find a shelf full of chemicals. Solvents, paints, varnishes, lacquers, oils, glues, and a host of other exotic and not so exotic solutions are a staple of the craft. These compounds are used to join, clean, prepare, and finish most woodworking projects, as well as maintain your tools. Do any amount of woodworking, and you’ll almost certainly accumulate a shelf of assorted, half-used, chemicals of your own. 

What’s almost certainly not present in most woodshops, especially hobbyist woodshops, are the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for these chemicals. MSDSs tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the hazards associated with commercial chemical compounds. For many common woodworking products, the MSDSs are pretty intense. 

I’ll be completely honest here. I have never had MSDSs in my workshop. It was only while doing the background research for this article that I realized I needed to pay more attention to the assorted chemicals involved in the craft, and started compiling all the potential hazards. I suspect that the vast majority of hobbyist woodworkers are the same. 

Woodworking chemicals contain irritants, release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are cut with heavy metals, and are often just plastic. They can be bad for your skin, bad for your lungs, and bad for your brain. When produced, disposed of, accidentally discharged, or as they break down through regular wear, they can release harmful compounds into the environment. If not disposed of correctly, some of these products will spontaneously burst into flames.

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Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking

I make things. I make weird electronic things. I make scientific instrument things. And I make things out of wood. I make a lot of things out of wood

When I’m not working on marine conservation technology, educational programming, or high seas policy, I’m usually out back in the woodshop, building furniture, functional art, and other woodcrafts. This probably isn’t a surprise. For the last eleven years, one of the most popular articles at Southern Fried Science has been How to build a canoe from scratch on a graduate student stipend

Every few years, I turn an analytical eye on my hobbies, assessing the lifecycle of the materials I use, the sources of inefficiency, and, most importantly, how the practice of the craft aligns with or deviates from my personal environmental ethic. In other words, I do a sustainability audit on my recreational activities. For the last year, I’ve focused on understanding and improving the environmental impacts of my woodworking.

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