I am a general contractor and am considering doing cabinets for my customers only. I have a shop setup that would allow this type of expansion and I enjoy this type of work. If I can make a profit at it, I would really like to do cabinets.
I have two concerns:
1. I know the larger shops will have good prices on their materials. Is there a co-op for smaller shops to purchase their materials and not pay full retail? I am thinking that if I have to pay retail for my materials, I may not make enough to be worth the time.
2. The finishing that I have done has been a hobbyist approach, using Minwax products and such. How can I get more education on custom finishes for a cabinet shop?
From contributor J:
I don't know where you're located, but there are wholesale companies that sell to cabinet shops. The lumber companies in my area are Paxton or Liberty Hardwoods. The hardware companies in my area are Compi Distributors or Wurth-Baer. Compi sells ML Campbell finishes and has two people who are very helpful in showing me techniques and how to use their product. You might look for comparable people in your area.
Big shops do get cheaper prices on materials. The reasons are simple - efficiency for the seller. Full units/bunks, usually multiples and forklift unloaded. We are now buying some melamine through a big box store at cheaper prices than from typical distribution yards. When they buy a truckload, they will put 2 or 3 units on to be dropped at our shop directly. Efficient distribution!
If you use HPL, there are huge variations in pricing. If you are getting many orders that are in full skids from the laminate companies, negotiate a better price. The distributors get a better price for the orders placed for large shops. The pricing for this is controlled by the manufacturers.
Bottom line is you can probably get cabinets from a dedicated cabinetmaker for no more than what it costs you to make them - before you add a profit.
One word of advice - don't try to compete with the big production shops. If someone wants a kitchen that looks like every other in the area, let them call the big box stores. There is simply no way to compete with a $100 pre-finished cabinet. I had to cater to a niche market, namely those with money. I am building my name, and the goal is for everyone to want a "Contributor J" kitchen. No small feat, but I will keep at it!
The lucky thing is that I work for a designer, building custom furniture and cabinets built to order. No fancy CAD drawings, no faceless company. We get in and work with clients with money that want solid dovetail drawers and undermount gliders, etc. I am not trying to sound snobby, just realistic. Competing with your average cabinet shop is no easy task.
Don't let anyone tell you that you need all those fancy big tools to make cabinets. I did my first high end kitchen job with no jointer, no shaper and a crappy old Dewalt miter saw that only beveled one way. And yes, the kitchen turned out beautiful, and yes, I made a profit.
Since then, I have obtained all the tools I needed, but I could do it again without them. People seem to want efficiency and speed in the shop, but making back $50,000 for your investment takes some time. After all the dust settles, if you aren't mass producing cabs, the tools are a waste of money.
Table saw, shaper or router, miter saw, clamps and pocket screws. You're set to start, then if it turns fruitful, invest as you see fit. I just see a lot of cabinet shops on CL selling off all their gear.
And while CAD drawings are great, sometimes a customer really relates to a hand drawn plans. It sells our services. I know, it's old school!
The barrier to entry into this field is fairly low, but I think it's increasingly hard to compete in this market without a CNC and the associated design software to sell jobs and take jobs through the shop, no matter how small your operation is. Like any other industry, we're becoming more specialized and efficient - and therefore harder to break into and be competitive.
One thing I wonder about is breaking down the stock since most of the time it will be only me. Does anyone use a track saw and break it down right off the back of the truck to make it easier to handle? I don't have a panel saw, but think I need a good plan to break down sheet stock efficiently.
Honestly, a cabinet shop can get by with very little. Just plan on the money being the same (very little). Unless you get into a good market. We have to convince people they want our cabinets because they are built start to finish by One Carpenter, me. It takes longer, but my name is behind every dovetail and every hinge. (I know for a large shop this is impossible. I just work faster alone, and can fill orders as needed.)
If you are making face frame cabinets, your panels don't need to be very square, but there are times when being able to cut square sure is nice. As you grow your business, that's an item worth considering. Remember all you've got to sell is your time, and you use it up as you go!
As far as the mouldings go, I only make my own ogee detail, small crown, etc. for the tops of my cabinets. Nothing fancy. It's usually cheaper to buy it. But there is something to be said about making it yourself. My router can handle anything up to 1" or so, but I use it for making fluted table legs, mouldings, etc.
While I would love all the tools I need, I have kids, a wife and a life to pay for first! In another 10 years I will have it all. It gives me something to strive for. After all, how great would it be to have every tool you need the day you start your career? Awesome! But then you would have nothing to look forward to getting later (glass half full!).
But I am determined to make things work. Every time I cry about not having a tool, I remember that the finest furniture ever built was done with a crosscut saw and a hammer!