Cabinet Startup

A general contractor gets advice on getting started building his own cabinets. Some have done it on a shoestring. January 23, 2012

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?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
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.

From contributor M:
I think you will find material costs will not be your biggest challenge. Wholesale pricing is easy to get, even for a small shop. But it is not that much less than retail price, and most materials cost nearly the same wherever you buy them. Choose your suppliers based on how good of a match they are to your business. You might be able to save $5 a sheet on premium plywood, but it is not worth it if they are not taking care of you.

From contributor W:
It's really about efficiency/speed. Time is one of the biggest factors in the cost of building them yourself. Theoretically you have more control of the final product and even its shipping date, but it brings more responsibility with it too. You have to get them built quickly enough to make it worth your while, because you are then having to deal with inventory. You need to stock all of the hinges, guides, pulls, etc., plus sheet goods. You also have to decide whether you are going to make the doors yourself or sub them out. If you go that route, you are back to giving up control of completion dates. There are also drawers to consider. The materials and construction details have to be determined - dovetails, tongue and dado, etc. There is also finishing to consider. A separate clean and dust-free area is best, which takes more space.

From contributor L:
Material cost is not the biggest issue. As for control, if you are operating two businesses, one will have to take precedent over the other for your time. Buy your doors from Conestoga. Speed in a shop is the result of having a system that doesn't waste time, including dedicated setups or changeover procedures that are very short. If you move something without adding value to it, you are wasting time and money. Do you buy or make your own moldings, drawers, doors, etc.? I see people making moldings with equipment that requires multiple handlings of every stick. I guess they don't have anything better to do.

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.

From contributor O:
I recently did the same thing. I am a finish carpenter, and was asked if I could do cabinets, so I tried it and did.

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!

From contributor Y:
Don't you have enough headaches and sleepless nights already?

From contributor P:
Contributor O, it struck me as odd that you listed a jointer and a shaper as the 2 fancy big tools you didn't need to make your first kitchen. I worked in a shop for 3 years and have now owned it the last 2, and I've never operated either machine. We have both in the shop, but only the shaper gets used occasionally (but never to build kitchen cabinets). I make 90% of my money thanks to my CNC machine.

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.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all for the input. Good stuff to think about before I get in over my head.
Part of my logic is that winters are slow and I enjoy doing this type work. I could do some cabinet work in the shop to fill in the gaps. However, just because I like it, doesn't mean I want to give it away.

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.

From contributor T:
You are getting the cart before the horse. You need to go around to the shops that are successful (still in business) and find out what is working. If and when you find something that is working, ask yourself, how do I exploit that niche? Maybe you can get on as a freelance installer to get an idea how the business works. I think you will find that there are surprisingly few niches that are genuinely workable. If you don't do this you will be wasting your time.

From contributor O:

Yeah, good point. I guess I got ahead of myself and forgot to mention, we don't just build the cabinets - I do all my own doors and drawers out of solid oak, plus my own mouldings. So when I buy s2s material at the yard, I can plane it to my specs. The first few cabinets I used big box poplar... Never again. It was a rookie mistake. But by buying rough lumber and planing it to my specs, it is more accurate, and without a jointer I always had to get a straight side on my table saw - not easy on an 8 foot board. So I still have no shaper, but a 1/2" collet router that can accept reasonable abuse. As many outsource their doors, a router is seldom even needed. But frame and panel with a bead detail is tricky with a chisel...

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.)

From contributor L:
How do you make moldings? If it is by router, you are very limited and much time is probably spent. An industrial shaper and feed would be a nice improvement. A set of lock edge collars and a bench grinder would add the ability to match or design new moldings for short runs. Without a jointer you can SL on a table saw, but how do you face? Not that all boards need to be faced, but some sure do. Even with our equipment we still face some stock.

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!

From contributor O:
That was my point really. Without a jointer I couldn't face, but I got by cutting stock to smaller pieces. My life is easier now.

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!

From contributor N:
I started out by outsourcing doors, unfinished boxes, and finishing (three different suppliers), and slowly brought case building and finishing inside as we perfected it.