This Workshop Builds Gorgeous Furniture From Recycled Wood Pallets
Kingston's Green Makers is transforming cast-offs into castles.
Photos By Joan MacDonald
Mark Anthony studied sustainable design at FIT because he wanted to create distinctive furniture with materials that did not harm the environment. However, he slowly realized that much of the wood considered "sustainable" is not as environmentally friendly as it could be.
That realization led to the creation of Kingston’s Green Makers, an imaginative store and workshop where Anthony, and other members of his cooperative, use cast-off wooden pallets to make everything from beds to tiny homes.
After working for companies such as Crate and Barrel and Restoration Hardware, Anthony noticed a few drawbacks to using some so-called sustainable wood. FSC or forest certified wood comes with an assurance that the trees will be replanted, but, according to Anthony, there’s no guarantee those trees will grow back given the effects of climate change. Also, much sustainable wood comes from India, China, or even Brazil. Transporting it leaves a big carbon footprint. Then there’s the price tag problem. While furniture made with sustainable wood offers an environmental advantage over furniture made with engineered multi-density fiberboard (MDF), such items can be prohibitively expensive for some.
“I thought there has got to be some kind of material we can use that is comparable with the mass merchandise made with MDF,” said Anthony. “That’s when I found pallet wood. Pallet wood is simple enough that, if we build it right, it can be the same price point as Ikea or Walmart charges for their furniture, but this is not MDF. It won’t fall apart. This is all wood. We can recycle it. If we build a table with this wood, we can recycle it and build something else out of it.”
There’s something satisfying about making furniture out of what is essentially garbage, so Anthony wanted to share the experience with the community. He offers workshops where people can create their own furniture with his help. Attending a workshop costs less than having Anthony build it, since customers contribute their time while learning and practicing carpentry skills.
“I mainly use the tools, but after a while I let them use them, after they see what I’m doing,” said Anthony, who began making furniture in 2008 while on a lengthy buying trip to Indonesia. After designing furniture in a corporate environment, he wanted a more community-oriented approach.
“The philosophy behind Crate and Barrel, Restoration Hardware, and Pottery Barn is how much of our furniture can we get inside each customer’s home. That is the design plan. I changed that. I say, how can people learn to make things on their own. How much can I support and show them that they can do it themselves? How many lives can I enrich when they become green makers?”
It’s not just adults he’s hoping to woo. Anthony, who grew up in a family of working artists, offers workshops children can attend with their parents. To inspire children, he built a treehouse in his whimsical workspace.
“The idea behind the upper level tree house, that’s like an Ewok village or Peter Pan’s Neverland, is that it looks fun and inviting to children. When children see this garbage, that is thrown out, turned into these castles that they admire, it changes the way they think. They no longer see that pallet on the side of the road as being something wasteful that needs to be thrown out. They look at it and say, wow, I saw that the other day in a store. It was a tree house. The wheels turn, and if the wheels turn for that, what else will the wheels turn on? I show them a little bit of a road map and it starts them on a journey.”
Learning carpentry can also be a practical, tangible way for children to improve math skills.
“Carpentry math is basically algebra, trig,” said Anthony. “There's even calculus in the design process when you’re building furniture. It’s math we never really get to apply in our schools because we’re taught a certain way. I believe we should be learning applicational math, where we look at measurements, we look at fractions, we look at the geometric shapes and angles and we can see the design of what we’re building. It's a faster way of learning math. It becomes almost a language.”
Working with pallet boards poses some challenges. Each board, usually pine, sometimes oak, is a different thickness and the presence of nails makes planing the wood time consuming. But pallet board also has a distinctive texture and look that’s increasingly popular.
Green Makers’ bestselling pieces are beds, but anything is possible. To get started, all that’s needed is an idea. Anthony will make a design. The wood is free, since Green Makers recycles it.
“If you go to the store to to buy that much wood, it would probably cost $40 or $50 for the material and that pallet gets thrown to the curb.”
While Anthony could be described as an artist or an entrepreneur, he sees himself primarily as an activist. His mission — and that of fellow cooperative members — is to show people how important it is to make things and why it’s important to do so with environmentally friendly materials.
“All I’m trying to do is make people aware that the system can’t work the way it’s going. We have to look for new ways. If we keep going this way we’re going to harm our environment and our children that have to live in it. We are activists in the sense that we know there’s an urgency, that we need to do something, but that urgency relies on what we should be doing every day to change, not on what anyone else should be doing. You can’t change what’s already in motion. You can only change your own self and then that becomes the change that changes everything else.”