A Finisher's Pay Scale

More thoughts and information on what a skilled, experienced finishing craftsman is worth in the marketplace. November 11, 2005

I'm a finisher of some 18 years with about half in custom furniture/cabinets and millwork and half in refinishing and restoration. I have owned two shops, one shop for about two years in the beginning of my career and closed another last year after being open 4 years. I closed it to accept a 52K a year hourly, only to be laid off after the company got caught up on their work load.

I care and do quality work above standards. I find I'm faster than others even the finishers I consider better than me. I feel $20-$25 going in the door (depending on benefits) is what any finisher of my talent and dedication is worth. The last two shops I worked at were small and couldn't build faster than I could prep/finish and I was bringing my own spray equipment to work with me. So one shop now hired a person for less money. In my search for "Gainful Employment" I spoke to a shop owner who told me he never starts anyone in finishing for more than 10.50 an hour. How can anyone live on that? I made more than that as a waiter when I was still in high school 30 years ago. Now to the question - where can a dedicated well seasoned finisher make a living?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor D:
I guess it may depend on where you are located. Here in the NYC area, $20-25/hr for an experienced finisher is not a lot, although it really depends on the shop. I've heard of quality finishers working for $15-18/hr, but $10.50 is a joke.

I'm paying my wood strippers $15/hr - and they do some finish prep. My lead finisher is getting about $22/hr, and that's for staining and spraying and some color matching. No fancy work, no specialty finishes.

If you can handle production as you describe, you certainly should be worth over $20/hr, plus benefits. But does the area where you work have a strong economic base, or is it depressed? I know a refinisher in upstate NY that can't get half the prices that I do, and accordingly cannot pay the wages that I do. So it depends on your marketplace, and if you owned a couple of shops, and have had employees, you'd know that a good finisher is invaluable, (as in "worth his weight in gold") and can only make money for you, even at a high wage.

From the original questioner:
In restoration work, you’re a slave to the local economy. That’s not so true with custom furniture, kitchens and so on. The only thing that I have seen across the country that is a consistent is the difference in housing costs. Everything else is about the same - food, electric, phone, gas, taxes, etc.

So if the cost of housing is the biggest difference the fluctuation in income for talented craftsmen should be like $19-$27 per hour across the nation. It’s higher too in the eastern US for the cost of a starter/fixer upper home is $250K. I think what’s hurting our profession more than anything is the greed factor combined with shops hiring "helpers" and calling them finishers that they walk through finish to finish and call it "high end". High end is just a label - a label that demands a higher cost.

High end no longer means "high quality”. In a lot of cases it just means "higher profit" for the owner. There are shops in N.C. and Arizona that go through stair builders, cabinet makers and finishers faster than I change socks. There is a reason for shops like these to have such a high turn-over. What I'm looking for is an owner who is just as impressed with the abilities and output of a 52K a year finisher as they are with a 500K CNC machine. That owner, in my book, would actually "get it".

From contributor G:
We have had good results with our finishing. My finisher is a sub and works in my paint room when I need him. He uses his own spray equipment. I pay him by the square foot of exposed cabinet to be finished. He also works for other cabinet shops in the area. I expect a certain level of quality and if he can move along quickly, he makes more money. He can push through a $1,000 job in about 4 days if he hustles.

From contributor B:
I can honestly say that it's a lot easier making money on the side finishing than it is working a lot of overtime for my full time job finishing. In the state of New Jersey a finishing manager may make up 60 to 75 grand a year with no overtime. This includes any finish from painted kitchens with glaze, to polyester conference tables, and this individual may be running 2 shifts in 2 different locations.