Bamboo gaining favor for counters

The Baltimore Sun

Tom and Joanne Sullivan's kitchen has bamboo countertops, something the Sherman Oaks, Calif., couple hope will someday become a staple in "green" households across the United States.

As a rapidly renewable resource, bamboo - which is actually a woody-stemmed perennial grass that can grow to heights of 30 feet - long has been used by builders of environmentally sensitive kitchens for everything from flooring and cabinets to cutting boards and window treatments. Only recently, however, have manufacturers like Sullivan come up with a way to make the hardwood usable for countertops.

Sullivan, a woodworker, and his wife co-founded Totally Bamboo, a Los Angeles company that also makes bamboo cutting boards and other bamboo products.

Demand for bamboo countertops on the East Coast has been limited so far to restaurants and other commercial buildings in big cities like Boston and New York, says Ron Siemienski of Harris Woodworking in Manchester, Conn., who installs the countertops.

But Sullivan says it is just a matter of time before the countertops catch on in residential kitchens.

"It's such an incredible material. It takes 4 1/2 years to grow to harvestable height. A maple tree takes 60 years, and bamboo is a harder wood," says Sullivan, who says he has invented a technique for fabricating the bamboo countertops using a nonformaldehyde-based "food grade" glue.

Formaldehyde is a toxic substance that has been linked to cancer in some studies. "We felt there was a need for a product on which you would feel safe preparing the family's meals," Sullivan says.

The manufacturer says he rolled out his countertops in July after getting "high marks" from architects, friends and do-it-yourself homeowners who tested them. Sullivan currently is looking nationwide for dealers who support green building practices to distribute and install the countertops.

A Seattle company, which has seen demand for bamboo products in general quadruple in the past three years, also has started to market bamboo countertops.

The countertops can be finished with a hard, epoxy sealant almost like glass, a polyurethane-type sealant or simply rubbed with mineral oil, says Mickey McAllister, sales manager of Bamboo Hardwoods Inc. in Seattle.

"Some finishes, like mineral oil or natural oil, are more eco-friendly," he says. "It depends on what you want."

Lorey Cavanaugh, owner of Kitchen & Bath Design Consultants in West Hartford, Conn., and Bantam, Conn., says she had not had any requests for either bamboo cabinets or countertops, although she has installed some bamboo flooring.

She says when a new product like bamboo countertops is introduced, it typically takes three to five years before it catches on.

"You need proper distribution, installation, warranties," she says. "I've seen a lot of false starts with the latest and greatest materials. As a business owner I'm always very cautious about trying out brand new materials."

Debbie Cusano of Rogers Sash & Door in Newington, Conn., which sells countertops, predicts that because bamboo is environmentally friendly, "it's the up-and-coming thing."

Valerie Finholm writes for the Hartford Courant.

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