Love and cabinets

Paul Jacobs makes furniture from the good wood

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

Back in another life, I knew a man who split massive Western red cedar trees with a wooden mallet he fashioned himself. He’d split plank after plank like this, without the help of an electric chainsaw. He worked deep in a forest, in places so hidden no one else besides a forest ranger could possibly find them, splitting pieces of wood off logs that had fallen naturally from storms or old age. This man would eventually help build a house with the hundreds of planks he’d assembled. But not just any house. He would build a longhouse, a sacred gathering place for the members of his American Indian tribe living on a reservation in western Oregon.

The labor-intensive work was backbreaking. It took up to three hours to split a single tree. But he expressed no disdain for the work he did, only love. Love for his cultural traditions and for the way the power of a 40-foot-long tree reverberated through his body when he struck down with the mallet. He loved the cedar’s rich smell when the tree finally split wide open and the moistness inside.

In this life, I know a man who reminds me of the plank splitter. He loves the work he does, building cabinets made of bamboo plywood and sustainably harvested wood in the garage of his Sacramento house. This man, Paul Jacobs, appreciates the materials he cuts and nails and shapes into unique custom-made pieces, each cabinet infused with centuries’ worth of craftsmanship.

“When you make something by hand, you have more respect for that piece because it took a lot of time and effort,” he explained.

Although Jacob’s business, Grass Cabinetry, has only been around for four years, this modern-day craftsman grew up with woodwork pumping through his veins. Born and raised in Santa Rosa, Calif., he graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in fine arts but never completed any formal cabinetmaking training. He learned the tools of the trade from his dad and grandfather, both woodworkers themselves.

But Jacobs does things a little differently. Not from the cabinetmakers that came before him, necessarily, but from a modern industrial system that mass produces products like there’s no tomorrow, with little consideration for natural resources or people exploited along the way.

Jacobs, on the other hand, only uses sustainable, reusable and recyclable materials, which can be traced back to their point of origin to ensure they were grown, harvested and manufactured in an environmentally and socially responsible way. He builds cabinets out of bamboo—a rapidly renewable resource—and lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which he buys from a hardware store down the street. He also uses salvaged lumber from local construction sites.

Every morning around 4:30 a.m., Jacobs rises from sleep, drinks his coffee and checks e-mails before heading out to the garage to work on cabinets and sometimes doors and other furniture items. He listens to music all day long—the Doors, Chopin, Primus, Beethoven—periodically taking breaks to play hooky with his two young children.

“Basically, it’s a minimal amount of work interrupted by four hundred phone calls,” he said, laughing. At night, he catches up.

He keeps busy with projects, each one taking about three weeks to complete, give or take, depending on size and complexity. He builds cases so they can be reused and refigured and not eventually thrown out. The hardware is metal-based, not plastic. Cabinets may have no finish or use natural stains, dyes created from minerals, natural oils, water-borne varnishes and sealers or nontoxic milk paint. He cuts through wood with machines, but also with hand tools, which he often finds more efficient.

“When you think back over the years, hand tools are all woodworkers had,” Jacobs said. “And when you’re powering something yourself, you make it as efficient as possible.”

It’s this historical knowledge that makes Jacobs unique and part of what spurs his appreciation for his trade and the resources that make it possible. He knows how at the end of the 19th century, large groves of Cuban mahogany trees were clear-cut, the devastation driven by the era’s burgeoning furniture, cabinetmaking and shipbuilding industry. Nowadays, hardly any of these trees remain. And Jacobs doesn’t want history repeated.

“Hunters do their part to sustain wildlife,” he explained of the logic that governs his business. “Woodworkers have that same relationship with trees.”

Imagine: the Cuban mahogany, bamboo, western red cedars and all the other trees that have supported human life since the beginning, whenever that was, and the belief that we should return the favor. Incessantly loving and respecting that which sustains us as Jacobs does when he builds cabinets.

“I have had quite a few jobs and done lots of different things, but this is the absolute happiest I have been,” he said.

Love and respect. How simple.