I'm always telling homeowners to look beyond the lipstick and mascara -- the finishes. But finishes are important to many homeowners. It's what they see and live with every day.
I get that. And I like finishes, too. What I don't like is when they're used to hide problems or distract homeowners on the important issues. But as a contractor, I'm proud of my finishes.
With custom finishes, you get exactly what you want as long as you hire the right pro. When you go to a big-box store, you're stuck with what they have. But a custom piece for your home is personal and will fit exactly in the space it's designed for.
One of my favourite custom finishes has to be wood. Most contractors would probably agree with me (we can get excited over what most people might think is just an old piece of wood. But wood finishes done right -- whether it's crown moulding, trim, cabinets or a display unit -- add quality and value to any home.
The other day, one of my guys on the crew brought in a heavy piece of Douglas fir. It was from a 140-year-old barn on his family's property. When I saw the piece, I couldn't believe it. It was a solid piece of lumber from a massive tree. It was worth a fortune. But the average homeowner probably wouldn't have known it.
Wood isn't cheap, folks. It's more expensive than most people think. Especially if the lumber comes from a mature tree. The bigger the tree, the stronger the wood. Remember when you were taught to count the rings in a tree to see how old it was? Well, those rings also tell you how strong it is. The more rings a tree has, the more compact and solid it is. It's hard to find lumber from older trees now, and when you do, it's very expensive.
Not everyone can afford solid lumber for an entire project. Some people will try to save money by using solid wood for the surface finish and an inferior wood on sections people won't see. For example, kitchen cabinet doors might be made of solid wood but the carcass (or back section of cabinet that forms a box) will be made from engineered wood. That's why engineered woods have become so popular -- solid wood costs three times more.
The more common types of engineered wood include particleboard, plywood, oriented strand board (OSB) and medium-density fibreboard (MDF). These wood products are manufactured from smaller pieces of wood glued together into one piece, using intense pressure and heat.
Engineered woods are good because they make use of scrap lumber that can't be used. They also help save older trees since smaller trees can be harvested to manufacture engineered wood. Sustainable, fast-growing trees such as poplar are also good. This all makes engineered wood sound like the natural better choice. But engineered wood has its issues -- and the big one is off-gassing.
Usually, the adhesives used to bond engineered wood together contain formaldehyde, which is an irritant that can off-gas for years. If you're exposed to high concentrations of formaldehyde, it can cause your eyes, nose or throat, or all of them, to burn. It can also trigger coughs. Long-term exposure can cause respiratory problems, especially in small kids. It's even known to cause cancer in people regularly exposed to high doses, such as some industrial workers.
Although the amount of off-gassing from engineered wood might be minimal, you must take the proper precautions. Especially if you're going with MDF -- it can have two to four times as much formaldehyde as other types of engineered woods such as particleboard.
If you're going to use MDF, you must seal it to prevent off-gassing. If it's properly sealed, off-gassing should be minimal, if not zero. I've used MDF on a few recent custom projects and I'm very happy with the final results. Not only does it look good but there's been virtually no off-gassing. Given most people's budgets, MDF is going to stay a popular choice. But it's not the best choice for environments that are exposed to water.
The best way to cut costs with custom wood finishes is to hire professionals to do the job. If you hire someone such as a general contractor to build a custom wood finish -- such as a shelving unit, kitchen cabinets or crown moulding -- they might do a great job, but it's going to cost more. They don't have the same advantages of buying materials in bulk as professionals such as kitchen designers or cabinetmakers do. Plus, these pros do this day in and day out. They can complete the job in less time with the right tools for their trade.
Energy costs are increasing every single day. If you want your home to be energy-efficient, proper insulation installed the right way is the way to go. It pays for itself. Not many things in the home do.
Catch Mike Holmes in his new series Holmes Makes It Right Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV. For more information, visit hgtv.ca. For more information on home renovations, visit makeitright.ca