Charging for Finish Samples and Color-Matching

Matching a customer's finish sample introduces complications. Here's how some cabinetmakers manage the process and the costs. August 19, 2008

Lately we have been running into this situation... A client or designer asks for, say, a dark brown finish on alder. We provide them with our alder samples, and they come back and say, no, no - here, match this sample. And they give us a sample from another cabinet company to match.

Now, we don’t necessarily mind matching to a given sample, but this is starting to become very troublesome and costly. Creating a custom finish for a job takes a bit of work in getting the color right and usually involves a lot of trial and error, not to mention you may need to mix colors and/or toners to get the right color match, which adds time, e.g. cost, to your finish process.

I am interested in knowing how other shops handle these issues. First, do you match to samples given to you by a client, or do you make the client pick one of your standard finishes (more like semi-custom work)? Second, if you do match to a given sample, are you making a dead-on 100% match, or are you making a very close match and telling the client this is our match? We seem to get designers that expect you to provide a 100% match and if it’s not exact, they start asking for more samples. “Can it be a little redder?” “I see a little too much gold in this brown”…

Making a sample may take an hour or two, so are you charging to make samples? If so, how much and how do you tell a client that samples will cost them? Finally, do you charge extra for a project that you have to match to a color provided, as opposed to one of your standard finishes?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor S:
1) Each project is entitled to one finish board. Additional boards will be created on a time plus material basis with a $100 minimum charge at an hourly rate of $75. A full front sample showing door and drawer front or panel can be provided for a minimum fee of $250.00 each.

2) If customer can not pick a sample from our company's collection and a custom finish needs to be made, a wood sample shall be provided by customer to match as closely as possible. If a wood sample can not be provided, a minimum fee of $350.00 shall be required to create a custom finish.

From contributor D:
It is our expectation that every project will require a custom finish. The cost of the samples, regardless of how long it takes, is factored into our overhead. If someone happens to like a color from a sample we have lying around, then we consider that a bonus. I consider the cost of creating samples, including the cost of the sample doors from our vendor, to simply be the cost of doing business in our market.

From contributor H:
We do as contributor D does, except we keep the sample. Client comes to the shop or we take the sample to the client's home. They do not get to take it and shop around. Samples are part of the job. Always have the person paying the bill - designer, builder, or client - sign the actual sample and keep it in the shop.

I had a client ask us to pre-finish one of our staircases. We made a sample. They left it on their dash for days. When we did the stair, it was not even close to the now sun-changed sample. Can we say "heated discussion..."

From contributor V:
We fall somewhere between contributors S and D. I do not usually do samples until I have a deposit on the job. Based on that, I don't have to worry about them shopping the sample around. I have the client pick a stain sample from charts, and find out if that is exactly what they want. If they want a variation then we create 3-4 colors at one time. I think in the last year I have only had 2 customers we had to make additional samples for, so not a problem. Our finish guy is good.

Customer signs the sample and we keep it. This is figured into basic job cost. I ask this ahead of time in figuring the bid. And again when asked to provide sample, I am able to inform client stain samples will be provided after a deposit is made on the job. So far I have not lost one because of it.

From contributor J:
I guess I do things a little differently in that I never promise to get a 100% match to a client's color sample. I (or more accurately my finish supplier) can get it pretty darned close. But there are so many variables, I would never guarantee a match. I think it's much safer since I've found that often, if they have a color sample, it's not from another cabinet supplier but from a furniture supplier. In other words, they may end up putting a custom table or chair next to my entertainment unit, and even though it was a perfect match in my shop, now with different lighting...

As far as charging, I think you need to establish a clear cut line where you're going to start charging. Sure, you can include a little extra in your pricing to cover a custom match. But if you're making a dozen samples for a designer/client, you have to get paid for that time. I think contributor S's method sounds like a well thought out approach and would work well.

From contributor V:
We will try to match a color, but I let them know that we can get close, very close, but that we don't promise exact, nor will the cabinets be an exact match to the sample they sign. It is wood and wood is a natural material and opposite ends of the same board can come out slightly different. However, if a client insists on no variable, then that is not a problem as long as they want to pay for it.

From contributor N:
Yes, it sounds like contributor S's approach is the most straightforward. It’s clear and spells out exactly what the client should expect and what sort of cost is involved.

Contributor S, I have a few follow-up questions. When you bid a job, do you figure the price based on one of your standard finishes? If you do a custom finish, does the $350 just cover the time to make the match, or does it cover the match and the finish on the final project? Or do you charge $350 for the match only and then revise the project price based on what is involved in applying the matched finish?

From contributor M:
My opinion is that if you want light colored cabinets, use a light wood, and if you want dark, use dark. I prefer natural woods any day to stained materials. Think about all the work we go through to make oak look like something else only to have the customer say something like "that's not what I thought it would look like." If you have a client who wants a blue cabinet, then you would have to use stains, but why take perfectly good wood and stain it darker?

I priced a job for a client once who wanted rosewood wainscoting and shelves in a library. I lost the job to a competitor who told her he could do the job using oak and he could stain it to look like rosewood. I lost my appetite for trying to please customers in regards to stains because it is often a no-win situation. We could all go on for weeks telling stories about stain jobs gone bad. How often does a natural wood job have a sad ending?

From contributor Y:
From a coatings distributor perspective... If the customer buys our clearcoat, we charge 40 bucks per match. If they use another vendor's clearcoat, we charge 50 bucks per match.

We have a lot of customers that use us only for our color matching ability, but they won't use our products, unless the system we develop for them calls for a shade lacquer.

From contributor S:
"When you bid a job, do you figure the price based on one of your standard finishes?"
Our base finish price is primed and scuffed ready for paint by others. Any finish step or wood type is a separate line item above and beyond that. I have a line item for every item on a project in our proposals including finish steps. So it will spell out separately for each level. Stain, glaze, distress, rub through, color over color, etc.

"If you do a custom finish, does the $350 just cover the time to make the match, or does it cover the match and the finish on the final project?"
Just the sample. If there is a custom color match fee by supplier, I pass that along in addition to baseline finish price.

"Or do you charge $350 for the match only and then revise the project price based on what is involved in the applying the matched finish?"

Yes. Our proposal/contract spells out that we price based on certain information. If the customer changes their finish sample, the price will go up or down accordingly.

The original post is a copy/paste from the "finish sample" section of our contract. Below is a copy/paste from the "Pricing, payments, changes and extra fees" section, which covers all changes on a project after initial deposit, which includes changes in finish.

7) As long as the original overall concept, size, details and finish of proposal remain unchanged, there will be no extra charges for product. However, any and all changes to original proposal shall be re-priced accordingly. Any changes that reduce the price will be taken off of final payment. Any changes that increase the costs before construction begins will be billed at the same percentage rate as laid out. Any changes made after full deposit is received shall be due in full immediately upon acceptance of changes.

8) As long as our standard operating procedures are followed there will be no extra fees for services provided. However there are many factors that will cause customer/s to incur extra fees. They have been laid out in detail in the following sections. Please read and understand all possible areas of cost increase associated with services that we provide.

From contributor I:
First of all, get a color and finish guy that doesn't need "a lot of trial and error." It seems to me that if you are a proficient finisher, you should get the color and sheen on the first try. Dye color, seal, color adjusted with toner or glaze and then appropriate top coat sheen. It really comes down to a guy that has a little color theory background. A little education and talent go a long way. Then also charge $250.00 per sample with that amount deducted if they return the sample and sign the contract.

From contributor G:
I wish everyone in this industry would charge for samples and estimates. We do a lot of internet orders and two years ago started charging for samples to be mailed out, which is then credited to their order. This has really weeded out the tire kickers. Now about 90% of people who order samples do place an order. We do offer one free color sample with finishing; beyond that they pay and sign for extra samples. Strangely enough, this practice also seems to help many clients make up their mind a lot faster about what they want.

From contributor C:
Great posts on a very current and relevant subject. We recently adopted a newly structured billing system for sampling and color matching. It's okay to a point to make a set of base samples, but some jobs get out of hand. We have targeted a higher and higher market over the years and, for example, we have one job with nine exotic veneers and samples with different sheens and species and stains. It's necessary and fair for each job to carry its own sample costs.