Does Outsourcing Cabinet Parts Make Sense for a Small Shop?

Cabinetmakers discuss the pros and cons of having parts cut by another shop. January 26, 2008

After cutting a lot of sheets of plywood and building my boxes, I was thinking about Ecabs and outsourcing for a one man shop (sometimes two). I do enjoy building my own cabs, but got to thinking, why not use Ecabs and outsource my panel stock? I can design, spec the way I like a cab built, right? I assemble it with the fasteners, glues, hardware, etc. in my style.

When I outsource, is it cost prohibitive? Maybe I thinking it's a magic bullet? But designing a whole job, emailing the file and picking up the cut parts, bringing it back, assembling, finishing, and out the door... Why am I breaking my back doing all the cutting? The large cab companies work this way, with Ecabs, so could I? I already outsource my doors and sometimes drawers. Saves me a ton of money.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor D:
We're right in the process of doing just that for a big job (about twice the size of any individual job we've done before). It's commercial, mostly standard melamine euro-cabs... We're outsourcing the cutting of parts, doors and drawer boxes. We downsized this year because our business slowed, so we won't have to hire up our staff again, and with someone else doing the time consuming cutting, our shop just assembles and wraps, and then spends the time on the more detailed items in the build, like curved banquettes and a reception desk.

A lot of our regular business is smaller, unusual (like a combination face frame and frameless on one cabinet) high-end residential stuff that outsourcing parts cutting might not work on, but for standardized and larger jobs, it makes sense. And us buying a CNC machine right now doesn't make sense either.

From contributor M:
I might be biased, as I am a production sharing member who offers cutting services, but it does work and works well. The better you are with e-cabs, the better it will work for you. I also build commercial and residential, so I am also a customer of my own cutting services. If done right, you will never go back to a saw of any type for cutting up sheets. Parts off the router are square and accurate, go together that way, and make the rest of the job much easier.

From the original questioner:

This has been on my mind all day. I am really thinking hard about this production sharing. Why should I hire people, buy a $100K CNC, need a huge building, buy very expensive software... when I can design it my way with free software and not spend countless hours cutting/sawing?

One could say you're truly not a cabinetmaker then. Well, I could spend a ton of my money and hire/buy what is needed and what comes at the end. The same box.

Okay, custom stuff. The little I've used Ecabs, that isn't a problem. I just started, too. Somehow this software can build furniture too. Yes, much more learning curve. I think taking one of the e-cab classes is the first step, then onto a production CNC shop. I guess for costs I could design a past job in e-cabs and compare costs.

From contributor D:
My business partner, who is the shop manager and the one with the cabinetmaking experience, had a hard time when I started proposing outsourcing. He thought it was cheating if you didn't build it all (of course, we weren't building the metal hinges and drawer glides!). The point I made is that we want to take as much of our labor costs as possible out of the basic stuff (like cutting parts for carcasses), so we can keep it in the stuff where it really matters - really spending time with the customer making sure every detail is right, perfect finishes, extremely detailed trim work, exceptional installation... all the stuff that we can make ourselves stand out from just any production shop.

I've looked towards getting the CNC machine, but the cost was prohibitive for us right now (and in the not-too-distant future). My lumber supplier's in-house rep that I do all my orders from brought it up that they could do it. I'd already started outsourcing all my dovetail drawer boxes (I was the one who made them in-house - I loved doing it, but from a business standpoint, it didn't make sense), as well as some doors.

My lumber supplier doesn't have eCabs, but I do the cabinets, run a cutlist and export it to Excel, clean it up, and fax it over. This will allow us to do this really big, institutional job, but still be able to do some of the small jobs that look great in the portfolio.

From the original questioner:
It all makes sense. Is it better to have the production share company source your material or you source it? I guess the production company could add a hefty margin on supplied materials or the other way, offer better price than a small shop because of buying power? How do I find these production companies? I checked Thermwood and there are a few within 4 hours drive time. I'm located in Maryland.

From contributor D:
I didn't find anyone on the Thermwood Production sharing near Chicago, but my lumber supplier can do it with the info on a spreadsheet and sketches for more detailed stuff (like where to put rabbets or shelf pin holes, etc). Since they're my primary supplier, they've got the melamine and plywood right there... They just deliver it all to me, cut and edgebanded.

From contributor X:
I bought a CNC router because I had many problems outsourcing. The problem is that other people are doing your work. If you have damaged parts, missing parts, or parts that just don't fit, you are in a bind. I have had all 3 of these happen, and it just causes problems. This is not to say that I am perfect. I have given wrong measurements before. But problems still remain.

Let me tell you about one of the last jobs I outsourced. I checked with my suppliers to find a reliable source. This guy was recommended. I inspected his place and felt good about the job. He waited until the last minute to start my job because he was working on his stuff first. When the deadline arrived, he was asking me to pay overtime to get the work done. Needless to say, I lost one of my biggest clients ever.

Before that, another company cut parts that would not fit together correctly. Another company stole my client.

I have tried it several times and decided to invest and do it myself. I make component parts for other people, as well as residential and commercial cabinets. You can be sure that I handle others' work with more integrity and care. But I have been burned too many times depending on others.

Don't be so naive to believe that it is as easy as Thermwood makes it sound. If it were, masses of people would be quitting their day jobs to build cabinets. And Thermwood's blind dados are not the best solution. It just fits what they want to sell.

If I were starting over again, I would strongly look at a good, entry-level router. I am not talking about a flimsy, light-duty machine. There is some software that is relatively inexpensive. Put that on your list. It will cost more than a slider and construction-boring machine, but it will be a much wiser investment in your money and time. You don't have to keep these things going 24/7 to pay for them. As you gain more experience in cabinetmaking, you will see that you spend a considerable amount of time machining parts. The labor you save with a router is incredible. And I truly believe that cabinetmakers will not be able to remain competitive without automation.

I've heard it before... "I can't afford one of those things." If you are just going to make a killing for a couple of years and get out, then you will need to keep your overhead low. If you are going to be in this for the long haul, you need to invest wisely. You need to run your shop like a business, not a hobby, and you need to make good use of your money and time. Depending on others for your livelihood is a risky proposition at best.

If you are really interested in making money with a low investment, you might consider being a distributor of a couple of lines of cabinets. The financial investment is low, and you can build some custom parts when needed. This is in no way intended to be a slight. Operating a small shop has many challenges, and the odds are stacked against the owner/operator. This would allow you to still work with your hands, interact with people, preserve your capital, and still be creative.

From contributor K:
I agree. I have experienced many problems with outsourcing parts, and on a lot of my projects I could have cut and machined the parts in less time than what I spent trying to get somebody else to understand how I want the parts cut and machined. I also did not have the space or the money for a CNC router, but I was able to purchase a small used edgebander in good condition and a boring machine with two vertical heads and one horizontal head - 21 spindles per head. Now I can cut and machine parts myself rather than spending time and money trying to get somebody else to make parts for me. When I have more space and more money, I will invest in a CNC router, but for now the equipment that I have purchased has given me a lot more control over my production.

From contributor R:
I have been outsourcing with e-cabs for about 3 years now. I have about a 1.5 hour drive to his shop. It has worked out very well for us. I am surprised at some of the horror stories. The shop that does my cutting only does cutting. I don't see how customers would ever get stolen by the cutting company. You can really raise your volume by outsourcing. For this all to work right you and the cutting company need a little practice. Tolerances are very important. The shop needs to know what they are doing and you need to have everything correct. I would highly recommend outsourcing.

From contributor T:
As a one man shop, you have to wear a lot of hats to keep the business going. You need to meet with the clients, do the measuring, designing, finishing, installation... and on it goes. You also have to always be thinking of ways to market your business, improve your bottom line, etc.

The point is that standing behind the saw takes time away from all of these activities. You have to look not just at the hours standing behind the saw (and edge banding) but you also need to look at the lost opportunity to work on other parts of the business while you are slicing up sheets. Yes - it makes a lot of sense for a small shop to outsource cutting.

From contributor G:
One thing you need to look at is how you transfer the files to the shop that is cutting the parts. By the time you end up building the cabinets the way you want in ecabinets so that the customer can see the drawers, doors, etc, the file size for even an average job can easily reach 8-10 megs and many servers and email programs do not allow files that size to be sent, so then you need to break up the job, which reduces your yield on sheet goods unless the receiving shop combines them for you again into one batch.

Then there is the issue of miscut, misdrawn or damaged pieces that need to be recut by the other shop and shipped to you, which delays the assembly by a few days and adds extra charges. This can add up overtime.

There are also other things to consider. If your current supplier does not deliver to the outsourcing shop, then you need to find one that does and they may not carry the same goods that you get from your current supplier so you are then going to have a more difficult time with organizing shipping, delivery (which also adds up) and bill paying.
All in all, it is a good way to go to get the benefits if CNC without the investment. And you can without a doubt increase your workload without either hiring or investing in the equipment yourself, but it does have more logistical considerations to work out.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I knew it wasn't going to be as easy as Thermwood states. I guess it's like anything new, you have to work out the bugs and source good companies to work alongside you. Kind of reminds me when I was searching for good hardware companies online. Also my lumber mill. I have a guy in town that sells everything, but is high in price, not that great in service. I drive 45 minutes to a local mill run by Mennonites who give great service, price and orders by a handshake! I'll continue to work on my skills with ecabs and probably buy a pre-design library from Kelly. Use it on a small job I got coming up that allows some freedom with the schedule, etc. Now need to look for the good CNC guy and that doesn't appear to be easy.

From contributor E:
Outsourcing work is standard practice. I do the CNC design and programming for a fairly large company (23 shop employees) and we sub out a lot of work... We even order cabs from other companies.

If you want to do production sharing, there are a couple of ways to get good results.

1. Use butt joints. This eliminates some of the issues with varying material thickness and dadoes.

2. Provide shop drawings or parts list so the vendor can compare CNC output to your required results.

3. If using e-cabs, provide the ESJ and allow the vendor to account for material thickness prior to creating the TWD.

4. Use a CAD software to make DXF parts and have the vendor cut that.

I used all three of these methods when I was a production sharing user (method 4 we use with architectural/design firms). Now I am on the other end, and would prefer our clients receive what they want/expect.