Defining "Quality" in Custom Cabinet Work

Pleasing customers is about matching their expectations, not your own. Cabinet shop pros discuss how to succeed with custom work in a competitive market. August 29, 2005

I am wondering, what percentage of work of kitchen cabinetry do shops in other areas do? I feel like I can't deal much with contractors in middle TN. They want a good looking product but want to pay no more than you can get it at a local prefab dealer. Custom cabinets is my specialty and what I enjoy the most mainly because I can do what most say is impossible to do. I just like to please the customer but don't get enough pay for doing it. But that is mostly my fault because I bid too low to get the job. Does any one have any suggestions?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor B:
I started out with a lot of contractors, because I didn't know where else to look for work (it is hard to go door to door to find custom work). Most contractors were more than willing to let me bid, and I got about eight contractors. Now, I wish I only had one or two. Word of mouth spread and now we do a lot more custom new homes and remodels. It takes time to make the transition, but we are making a lot more money on custom than the contractors. It is hard to justify a price increase of 15 to 20% to a contractor that is building the same kitchen plan over and over. Hang in there and if you are good, your customers will sell the jobs for you.

From contributor G:
If they don't want to pay for it don't give it to them. Cut out most of the frills and fancy stuff you like about your cabinets and price them good, fairly simple cabinets. Chances are thatís all they want anyway. You can still offer custom sizes, colors, and options that factories can't. Those options don't cost you any more money to produce, but still give you a custom edge.

From the original questioner:
I started out with two contractors and went from there, but the two contractors that I had did not want to pay more over the years, even though materials go up each year and cost of living goes up, plus everything else that comes with owning a business.

From the original questioner:

To contributor G: I guess I am too picky when it comes to building, finishing, and installing my cabinets. I love making raw milled lumber into something that I can be proud of and put my name and reputation behind. I visited a local prefab dealer and I don't see how they sell the stuff that they display, let alone what they put in the houses for homeowners to cherish for years to come. There is so much imperfect stuff out there that I want to just throw my sander away and just run the doors and face frames through a panel sander and not touch it where it cross grain scratches the wood. People do not notice that and I donít understand that.

From contributor K:
The thing is, most people don't stay in one place as long as they used to. They also want things done a lot faster. This means poorer quality. My suggestion is to target upper class homes and designers. Skip the contractors. I work with several designers now, starting with just one.

Also, individual homeowners are easy to get in upper class areas because rich people seem to know more rich people. Designers also like a shop that can do furniture pieces as well as kitchens. If you want to build everything from scratch in a way that makes you happy, you may want to design furniture pieces too.

From contributor R:
All that stuff about taking raw materials, and turning it in to something that I am proud of, left me long ago. I like to think my standard is higher than most, but I am not in this to make cabinets. I'm in this to make money, most customers donít know about the cross grain scratch from a drum sander. They donít know, so they canít care. There is an art to pleasing the customer, and it doesnít got a thing to do with woodworking.

From contributor M:
Concentrate on built-in bookcases, bars, entertainment centers, libraries, fireplace surrounds, home theaters, wainscot walls, and coffered ceilings. These are places where the majority of semi-custom cabinetry cannot be modified enough to work. Deal directly with homeowners and quality designers; meaning ones who actually do the design work and you just build. Bad designers are worse than bad contractors. I am down to working with one contractor and it is on my terms, meaning I deal directly with homeowner. He makes his money on project management billing customer directly.

From contributor B:
There are probably few shop owners that can do all three - meaning pleasing customers, turn raw materials into beautiful cabinets that they are proud of, and making money. My competitors have taken one away. If I make cabinets the way I want to - they cost too much. If I concentrate on making a profit - I have to cut something to stay competitive.

My experience has taught me that high-end work, although profitable is not worth the headaches. I make a great cabinet at a competitive price and work on extreme customer service. If you want to set yourself apart from the competition, one of the best ways is great customer service. When a customer has a problem and leaves a message, call them back immediately. The problem will not go away by ignoring it, and it has given me an edge over my competition. I have several builders that say even if I was higher priced, it is worth it to them because I will take care of them quickly. These are the people who sell my cabinets for me. There is nothing like a good reference from a person who has confidence in you.

I had a builder recently who was very upset because I had switched to 1/2" box material from 3/4" and then raised my price $1,000. I immediately went and visited him and after he had vented a while, saw why I had switched, and started talking about the cabinets in the next house he was building. My shop started out as an expensive hobby and I am turning it into a profitable business.

From contributor B:
I used to build all of my boxes (gang built) with 3/4" veneer core plywood with a vinyl interior but the material cost over twice what a PB or MDF box costs. This high quality/high-end work spoke of (which I have seen in million dollar houses around the area) are made from the cheapest material, but passed off as premier cabinets. Quality is what the customer perceives and I have seen some of my competitors get away with cutting corners on sanding and such but their customers speak highly of them.

From contributor P:
I would suggest that you find out what your customers think is important and make sure that you are performing in those areas - things like clear and specific communications, meeting deadlines, and functional design add much more value than eliminating cross grain scratches. And if to remain profitable you spend your time on other issues rather than sanding these out, well so what? If the client is happy, then you win. If you are happy and the client is mystified as to why, then you are heading in the wrong direction. So many of the things that we do are about impressing other woodworkers, but it's not them who are paying the bills.

From contributor T:
I think all the points made here are valid. I like to do high-end work (or like to think I do), but sometimes a customer will not pay for that level of craftsmanship, or having it done is a higher priority than having it perfect. So occasionally there is a compromise.

If something has to go out the door, it sometimes is not as nice as I would like it to be. But my customers are not as picky as I am about my work, and so these projects are not a problem the job is done, the customer is happy with the project, I get paid and move on to the next project, and we all live happily ever after. Through my years in this profession (I have spent two-thirds of my life as a cabinetmaker), I think too many times we build projects as though other cabinetmakers are going to buy them and scrutinize them, and not our customers. While I would not advocate sloppy work, I think an inordinate amount of time is spent on aspects and details of the work that only another cabinetmaker would notice. Periodically, I have to stop myself and ask who am I building this for? Otherwise, projects would take longer than they already do.

From contributor J:
Every piece of work that goes out of some ones shop has their name on it. Your name is on anything you do as a business whether your name is really branded on them or not itís still theirs. It takes only one dissatisfied customer to run your work down and then the word will take off like wild fire.

If youíre concerned about time maybe some of you should invest in a CNC router. That way your not wasting time cutting out parts when you can be focusing your time on something that counts like finishing and yes that is final sanding. Also it shouldnít take six months to build and install cabinets even if you do worry about cross grain sanding marks. On an average kitchen we can have it built and installed at the most a month if we arenít working around other contractors like Contributor K mentioned. Thatís with everything custom built in house.

From contributor D:
The biggest problem is that the clients usually have unrealistic expectations and are not educated properly by their architect, designer, contractor, and cabinetmaker. I find that many people expect things that are not included in my scope of work, and I do not budge on that, no matter how high-end the clientele. The cabinetmaker/installer is one of the last trades on the job, and I am always being rushed due to delays earlier in the job. Usually I can't start when scheduled because the whole job is behind, but I will always be pressured to finish by a deadline. A good business is one that turns a profit, and I don't have much sympathy for a lot of these cheap, demanding homeowners with their low budget compromises masquerading as high-end projects.