Cabinet Installs: Who Needs a Helper?

Do four hands plus two brains equal more production? Opinions vary. June 26, 2009

I am a successful, one-man install crew. However, my boss is constantly pushing the idea of a helper. He believes that a two-man team working well together is the very best way to install. I see his point, but there are just to many times, especially in complex cabinet installs, where a 2nd man would just be a waste. Besides, as efficient as you might get as a team, you can only work with someone for so long, before you become friends and spend more time shooting the breeze than working. Obviously, my mind is made up, but I was hoping for some feedback that might help quiet my boss.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor A:
I would agree with your boss, depending on the cabinets, of course. A good crew should be faster than a single person, once they have learned to work together. Two people moving cabinets reduces chances of injury to person or cabinet. Once hung, one person can work on door and drawers install, while the other runs crown and fillers.

I also disagree with your idea that once people get to know each other they stop working as efficiently. A good crew gets faster and more efficient over time. If they are hanging out and not working, they aren't a fast crew, and if they're standing around, no one is running the crew. That's a factor of the people working, not the situation.

From contributor B:
If you were super fast already, he wouldn't be bringing up the idea of a helper to speed things up in the first place. Quality doesn't need to suffer to gain some speed. There are plenty of things, as stated already, that can be done when two people aren't needed on some aspect of the project.

From contributor C:
Let's put a little different twist on things. He is just a helper, so let him unload and load, set up tools, hunt and fetch and hold. That can take up a large part of any day.

From contributor D:
Safety is my basic reason for having a helper or a second person on hand. Having an accident or heart attack on a job site is reason enough for that extra person on site. An extra person helps more than hinders in the shop or in the field.

From contributor E:
I have to agree with the others. I install by myself occasionally when I cannot get my part-timer. I can't imagine why any sane person would want to install by himself. It's tough on the back as well as other parts of the body and goes much slower alone. I have no idea how you work but maybe as others have said, you may think you are faster than you really are? I can say without any doubt, I work much faster with a second set of hands, and faster still with an experienced set of hands. For me it makes all the difference.

I wouldn't bother fighting your boss on this one. It's his business and his money paying for it and costs you nothing. Employees occasionally think they know better than their bosses how to run a business.Rarely does this hold up to be true. There is a reason he's the boss and you are the employee. Just be happy you have steady work and pay as there are a lot of shops closing up these days.

From contributor B:
Contributor E is absolutely right. Just be glad your boss wants to give you extra help. He could be wanting to take it away and make you do it alone. That would be worse.

From contributor F:
Having a helper can be great, if you have the right helper. Having 2 guys installing makes it faster, but not twice as fast, in my opinion.

From contributor G:
As a self-employed installer working for piece rates, I struggle with this dilemma everyday. On one hand,yes, a helper can make life a lot more pleasant especially when it comes down to the mundane and physically demanding tasks. But on the flip side, a helper can have lots of negative impacts as well.Usually a helper lacks experience and tools. A helper also doesn't always care about the success of the team. You may not see eye to eye and be on the same intellectual or maturity level.

All of these negatives can be overcome with the right person. If your boss is so insistent about you having a helper, then insist that you have some input into who he pairs you up with. A smart, hardworking ,physically fit person who has a personality will compliment your success, not detract from your daily situation. I recently lost my helper and I miss him. Not only was he a great help, but we also shared a lot of interests such as sports and cars. As a lead guy, a helper should be what you want and need him to be.

From contributor H:
I guess you are outvoted here. I wanted to post so that all of you one man show guys will rethink that method. I am about to retire before my 60th birthday. I don't really want to retire but my body will not let me work a full day anymore. I have been a one man show for the majority of my working career. That decision made me happy, to not deal with being a baby sitter and all the hassles and expenses that go with hiring help. That decision also caused me to have back surgery in 1988. Did I learn? Nope. I kept on like an indestructible machine until just recently when all my parts seemed to be failing at the same time. Knee surgery was next. Now the other knee is in the same boat and my feet also kill me if I am on them for over an hour or so. If that's not enough, my back is cramping like it wants me to lay down all day.

This construction business can cause premature aging of our joints. It doesn't always mean surgery, at least not right away. But when you feel pain at a young age, it is your body telling you that what you are doing is over the top. I'm not talking about a little soreness from working out or riding a bicycle. What I mean is when you're not able to sleep from a back pain that runs down your leg or a shoulder that prevents you from raising your arm above your head.

If I could turn the clock back, I would have a partner or helper around all the time. When you lift 100 lbs into a pickup truck by yourself, as example, you are going against nature. That helper can cut that in half, and maybe even prevent that 100 lbs from falling on your foot. Next time you see an old guy walking like his spine is bent and shuffling his feet without picking them up or a guy walking with two canes with facial expressions like he is on his last breath, think of what he must have done to himself when he was younger. If you are lucky, you will get old. If you are smart and take care of your body, you might actually enjoy old age.

From contributor I:
One approach not discussed is a combination of the two, using a helper on the first day to load the truck, unload at the site, and setup. Then work solo, and if need be, bring the helper back to pack up and leave. The rest of the time, the helper can help the boss (and keep him tuned in to just what kind of attitude he has). This assumes that it's a fairly large job that will span a number of days.

As for destroying our bodies, I'm heading towards 60 myself, showing some definite signs of wear, and have counterattacked this issue by changing my attitude, which includes taking longer to do things, if it means saving my body. The other aspect is that of using a cabinet lift. I've had a Gil-Lift for years, and as you learn how to use this type of lift and dolly, you really can eliminate just about all the brutal lifting and moving of the material. As for speed, I agree with a previous response: 2 people may get the job done quicker, but 2 people seldom get the job done twice as fast. Is your boss looking for faster times from a scheduling perspective, or is he looking for faster install times from a costing perspective? The answer to that question likely has more bearing on your solo stance thnn any other.

From contributor J:
I'm not sure where some of these guys are getting their helpers, but for me, solo is the only way to fly. If you are as good as you say you are, then you have nothing to worry about. Helpers are almost never worth the money or the time. If they are any good at all, by the time you train them, they are off to a new job or after yours. I've been at this for 30+ years and I never use a helper. Keep on trucking solo.

From the original questioner:
I have to say, I am surprised by the reactions! From many of the forums I got the feeling a lot more guys were flying solo. My jobs are always under budget and done early. As someone mentioned, the pressure from my boss is schedule related and not cost related. I do appreciate all the advice though and I should have been more specific. I have all the help I need when I need it. Deliveries are done for me and the product is placed as close to the room as it can go. My installs are very large and lengthy (average kitchen is a week, average house 2-3 weeks 10,000sq ft or more). I have all the manual labor help I need. What my boss (not the owner) is encouraging is the 2-man team install. He hands me every tool as I need it, like a surgical assistant. I just feel that with this level of cabinetry and complexity, there is very little "slinging boxes on the wall" and a lot more figuring and layout.

From contributor A:

Well, that's a different game. If you've already got labor help when you need or want it, I don't see a requirement for having two people doing the same job. I like having a second skilled hand around, but agree it's not twice as fast. That said, if there are scheduling issues, it is definitely faster to have two people installing, as long as both know what they are doing. Few things slow a guy down more than a worthless helper. He can't do his work, has to babysit the other, essentially tripling the cost and doubling the time. Skilled help is the key word though, or just labor to move things.

From contributor F:
Are you saying that your boss wants a second installer (not a helper) to work with you on the same job? How are you getting paid, by the hours or job? If you are getting pay by the job, and have to split the money with someone else, you are not going to like it. What about jobs? Are you busy where you are? Do you have plenty of jobs scheduled? what happens when there's nothing going on for a few days? Is your helper going to hang around? Just something to think about. Finding the right help can be a nightmare,so good luck. I work alone, but sometimes my boss gives me an extra installer (sub) and i hate it. I like to do things my way, and I'm always stuck with someone who wants to do it their way.

From contributor K:
The Gil-lift is my helper, and he's in the van waiting on me every morning, no matter the time, and he stays until I leave. He's the employee of the month every month. All my jobs are delivered by the seller, and set in a somewhat convenient place. A helper for me would just be standing around a lot,too much to justify the expenses and complications that come with one. Sure there are times when it could be a benefit to me,but in comparison those times are few. I rarely strain myself, and I work smarter, not harder. Definitely get the lift though.

From contributor L:
The lift can do much more than boxes too. I set big counter tops on edge and lift them high enough to pivot over the far end and then just lift the other end over and lay it down. I like getting to the job without the hassle of meeting someone. If I have to pay a bill, or want a coffee, no one is waiting for a hand hold. If I'm on a roll, I can blast right through till I'm satisfied with a stopping point and no one will be crying about it (except the wife).

The story contributor H told did scare me, and it could happen in a second with one blown disc, but I have to take everything in life one day at a time. At 49, I still feel blessed with decent health. Installation is a tough game, and I guess it takes independent-minded guys to make a go at it. A perfect helper would be great at certain times, but it ain't likely to happen, and it does have a down side. As I read here some time back "keep it small, keep it all".

From contributor H:
When I was 49 I built a house, shop and large barn single handedly, including installing sheet rock. Stupid is as stupid does. But that is why I wanted to give a little advice before it's too late for others.

I do use a cabinet lift and dollies as much as possible.You do have it good with all the help you need for the heavy stuff and you are left alone to do the technical part without another bothersome "helper". Keep that set up. It's the best of both worlds.

From contributor M:
I've been installing alone for 35 years and wouldn't think of doing it any other way. If you do a completely custom business, every job is different, and there's a lot of thought involved in many steps of the installation. When I have used a helper, he spent a lot of time standing around watching me think, as well as not knowing what to do when I started in on a process. Keeping them up to speed was a process of constantly having to stop what I was doing to fill them in, and wasn't worth it. I was best off to just pay them and send them home after they had helped me get the cabinets into the house or office.

Of course, it could be entirely different if a company does almost the same installs day after day. Then the installs become very routine and I think a helper could really multiply the efficiency of the install a lot. But for very custom and varying installs, I guarantee you that one of a team of two invariably is the "brain" while the other doesn't consistently stay up to speed. Maybe a case can be made in that circumstance for a minimum-wage helper, though.

From contributor N:
I smile every time I use my Gil-lift. It allows me to gang up cabinets off the wall, everything nice and flush and square, and then easily bring the entire assembly to its position, check that all is ok, no grunting, no uh-oh moments, fudge a little bit to my level line or z-strip, set my screws and voila I've hung a run of wall cabinets. Not bad for a 5'3" 54 year old cabinet maker/installer with really bad forearms from hefting 3/4" ply by myself for nearly 30 years. No two men could do it easier or safer. And, the lift becomes a moving, height adjustable, work platform when I'm hanging off a ladder with my hands otherwise full. And, I use it as an adjustable platform for my laser level crank the little guy right up to whatever point or three I want to establish. I have not had any problem raising my level in increments to hit my target mark exactly. As for working alone or not, I get help to deliver the cabinets and supplies to the site, then I am left alone to plan and execute. It works very well for me.

From contributor O:
No one seems to like having help. I suppose that if you are happy with your current income and don't have any desire to expand it, then more power to you. Being an effective teacher is a skill in itself. Now I have 10 guys that I can count on and am able to do jobs of size that are impossible with one man and a Gil-lift. Just wait till you see how much 10 guys with 10 or 20 lifts can do in one day. Yes, it can be a headache at times but when the installs aren't a challenge anymore I think I will move on to something else.