Competing with Site-Built Builtins

Can a shop get simple built-ins done for the cost field crews can build them at on site? April 24, 2006

How can a shop build built-ins and compete with a cabinetmaker/carpenter building the built-ins on site, when there are so many variations of built-ins? There are several trim carpenter crews here that build on site and average 125 per ft. materials provided by contractor and cab doors extra. They average 8ft in an 8 hour day complete. By the time I meet the contactor and take the measurements, process them through the shop and build the cab, then deliver and install, it seems that though I can give him better joinery on things like the face frame, he is killing me on the bottom line.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor B:
The contractors that hire us to do built-ins do so because the built-ins they are contemplating are more complex than the on-site guys can do efficiently. For example, a corner media unit, arched top mantles, that sort of thing. Also, it seems that the cabinetmaker can offer some things that the on-site guy can't, like better fit and finish, prefinished interiors, a breadth of knowledge about materials and types of hardware, accurate and correct engineering of cabinetry for appliances and media devices, stuff like that. Also, we can provide accurate drawings of what they are going to get.

From contributor A:
The built-ins they can build on site are of two kinds. Basic, quick, cheap, and dirty (bad finish). If they are good finish carpenters, the customer gets slightly more complicated, slow, overpriced, and dirty (bad finish). It is in your best interest not to waste your time dealing with contractors who are seriously comparing your work to theirs. Find a builder who appreciates the services you offer and doesn't beat you up on price by referring to his site built junk.

The other service you could offer is pre-primed uninstalled cabinets. The builder will have his carpenters install and his painter finish them. A lot of builders think this is intelligent when the reality is if you are spraying primer, you might as well spray a couple of topcoats as well. At the end of the day, he won't job cost the difference and you don't want to waste your time installing or painting anyways. Everyone is happy and the customer pays a fair price for good work with a dirty (bad finish).

P.S. Find a builder you work with... not for.

From contributor S:

I agree with both previous responses, and contributor B touched on the main issue... don't get stuck thinking "competition" is only about price. It's probably true that their carpenters can build cabinets on site cheaper than you can in your shop, and you'd go broke trying to compete with that price point. But it's also true that they can't compete with your quality, and the contractor would go broke trying to get his carpenters to build anywhere near shop standards.

There's also a lot of add-on value you bring to the table they can't provide... accurate drawings and specifications, flexibility of component layouts, options of interior/exterior finish, etc. All these things are in your corner, and that's how you compete in a price war. It doesn't take builders very long to realize that their cheap carpenter-build cabinets are no bargain when the customer is screaming at them about the crap they installed in their new kitchen.

From contributor C:
You are cabinetmakers, not finish carpenters! You are one big step up the food chain, and if your customer doesn't see this fact, then you haven't educated them about it. Believe in yourself and your abilities, and it will come through loud and clear to your client. They have to pay more to utilize your skills in their projects. If they wish to pay you the same as a finish carpenter, they are trying to get something for nothing.

From the original questioner:
I currently am a trim carpenter opening a shop. Bringing my builders to the table at current pricing is my situation, with no real answer. On the built-in side, I was used to these prices at these speeds. The shop will have a lot of other avenues up for discussion later, but the average builder around here building 500,000 and up that we do work for has at least one sort of built-in and mantel in the house. Not being set up for kitchens and finishing, I'm trying to get off the ground with what I have the most call for now. The problem is that we have done several of these built-ins in the shop to date, but in comparison, it has been a wash to the field, profitability wise, mostly due to the delivery and install. When walls are out of plumb and floors out of level and the unit is in between 2 walls, building it in the field seems more feasible because of the ability to make adjustments on the fly. These cabs consist of mostly birch ply and poplar face frames with raised panel doors and 80% are going to be painted. If not, it's maple or some common hardwood. I agree with all the quality issues like pocket screwing face frames, but these aspects do not let me raise my price enough to cover the overhead and lose what my crews do now in the field that is profitable. Can these simple or complicated units be done in the shop and compete, with all the factors that can be aggravating?

From contributor B:
Are you using a CAD program to generate your drawings and cutlists? When we do a paint grade mantle for a contractor, I take site measurements. Then I can open up a previous mantle file in CAD, make a few adjustments (based on design, trim details, location of windows, etc.) and boom - a cutlist ready for the shop floor in say 30 minutes. With an accurate cutlist and drawing, we can bang out a mantle in as little as a few hours (depending, of course, on the mantle).

The contractor we do these for has tried having on-site guys build them, but it takes them longer, the result is less predictable, and it costs the contractor more money.

So based on your post, and your background, and our experience with this kind of work, I'm wondering if you have the infrastructure, a system, to produce this work in the shop efficiently. How far are you delivering? When you install, is your shop still operating? If not, your shop is not producing income. You may want to look at options that allow you to keep product moving out the door while your product is being installed so you are making the most of your shop's revenue-generating potential. For us, it's very difficult to make money on installations - good carpenters make a healthy hourly wage.

From the original questioner:
Thank you for your input. The network that we have here is going to be great and very efficient. I just wanted to know if I was fighting a losing battle. We are a small staff now with a very large facility with much equipment, including a flat table CNC. We have not decided on software yet. If this approach is profitable, what software is going to do the job?

From contributor A:
Check out Cabinet Solutions for your design software. It will link up with other production software on the CNC. Contact Don - he owns the company (far as I know) and can set you straight on getting the packages you need to make your shop go. At the very least, you can rent the program from him for $100 a month. That is what I am doing while I am building my business. It's a great visual tool for clients, cut lists, door ordering/manufacturing, etc. It will also cost out your jobs, set cabinet standards that you choose (face frame vs. euro) - it's a good program for not a lot of money.