Finished Versus Unfinished Cabinet Installations

In some areas, cabinets are often delivered unfinished and sprayed on site, but in other markets that's practically unheard-of. Here, cabinetmakers discuss the pros and cons of both approaches. May 23, 2007

How many of you deliver your cabinets to the buyer unfinished? Do you install the cabinets unfinished and have a finisher come in after they are installed to finish up? I know there are two schools of thought out there. Just curious which camp is larger and why.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor B:
I think a lot of it depends on your market. I'm in Baton Rouge, and there are about 65 shops in town. Don't know of more than 3 or 4 of us that even offer finishing. Go 100 miles in any direction, and most shops finish everything. I've had my work really messed up by "painters" (that's anybody that finishes cabinets on site) way too many times. On spec or lower end custom homes, the painters always do it. On higher end stuff, I almost always finish the stuff before it leaves the shop. On remodels, offering finished cabinets really gives me an advantage because the work is finished and people don't have the smell and mess in their home, and they have much less time involved in a remodel. I don't paint or do painted finishes, but will do any stain, glaze, clear that people want. I find I can make good money on finishing. However, sometimes it is a treat to build and deliver a job without having to finish it.

From contributor J:
Kind of the same here in east Texas. Did a lot of work in the New Orleans area last year and everyone wanted their cabinets installed already finished. Back here at home, almost all cabinets are delivered and installed unfinished. In fact, I can't even locate an installer who will take responsibility for installing finished cabinets. Would love to hear other's experiences too.

From contributor M:
In Southern California don't even think about installing unfinished cabinets in the remodel market. If you sell unfinished stuff, you'll never get a job. As far as new construction, it varies.

From contributor E:
In the Northeast everything is finished then installed. There's always a little touchup on site, but I don't think I would have much luck convincing a client to have them finished after installation. Even on smaller paint grade items, people generally want them painted before installation.

This makes for an interesting post, as I wasn't even aware there were areas where unfinished cabinetry was the norm. Learn something new every day.

From contributor R:
In Arkansas, trim carpenters started building cabinets on site, buying their doors, and painters did the finishing. Builder started saving 50% and it became standard. It screwed up the cabinet shop like myself. That's why I loaded up and drove 400 miles east. Shop finished is the standard in TN, and probably the industry standard nationwide, but I assume that there are little places like Conway Ark all over. When it started happening around us, it was no big deal, but the outsourced doors and adjustable euro hinges made cabinet building so easy anyone could do it, and that's what we are left with today - unfinished junk that doesn't meet any standards used 25 years ago, so we just call them custom.

From contributor I:
Here in NE Oklahoma, all cabinets in the builder market are unfinished and in the remodel, about 90% are unfinished. I have been trying to sell my cabinetry finished, but the painters finish them cheaper (but also use cheap material).

From contributor T:
My furniture company used to manufacture almost exclusively unfinished furniture. But year after year, more and more of the stores are going out of business. Why? Quite honestly, there is too much nice looking finished furniture out there that is often significantly cheaper than unfinished. We were having to give away our unfinished furniture as a way of apologizing to the customer for having to spend the time, mess, and money to finish it.

We now offer our product with a few nice looking factory finishes. Two tones of stain and clear coat, and two painted furniture. The colors that are hot now are of course the antiqued white and black. Who knows what it will be next year. We still do offer unfinished for that rare and particular customer who must have a custom finished piece of furniture. But they are getting fewer and farther between.

From contributor J:
This is turning into an interesting thread. Guess what piqued my interest was an incident that happened the other day. We were going to start using a new installer to install some of our cabinets. He showed up at the appointed time, but refused to take the cabinets because they were finished. Said that he didn't want the liability of transporting and installing finished cabinets. Said that he thought I was probably the only one in east Texas still delivering finished boxes. At any rate, I called around and learned that many of the shops were transitioning to delivering unfinished boxes and outsourcing their doors and end panels and then having a painter come in and shoot them.

From contributor S:
Here in SW Florida, it's all shop finished, melamine, or lam and 50/50 face frame vs. Euro. I did not even know that some areas were putting out unfinished cabinets. I can understand not wanting to damage any finished cabinets, but come on, its not that hard to be careful when you install so as not to damage anything. I have delivered large (12x10) library shelving units to the job unfinished so that nothing would be scratched in transit, but I set up a booth in the garage and shot it right there on site with antique white gloss lacquer (see picture). I think it makes much more sense to do as much as possible in the shop so that you can have more control over the conditions under which you work. More control = better and faster and more profitable work.

Click here for full size image

From contributor D:
I am in East Texas also. There are three other shops in town, and as far as I know I am the only one that offers finished cabinets. (Stained but no paint.) We do our own installations.

From contributor O:
Is it not better to be spraying in a controlled environment? If the guy spraying does a bad job, who has his name on the job? I have always delivered a finished product, and installed as well. I want to see the complete job so I know when I hand over the invoice that the job is ready for the customer. I have never used installers, have always dealt direct with the customer, even when a builder is involved.

From contributor K:
We do both. Finished and unfinished. I take our cabinets down to a finisher in town that specializes in finishing cabinets for custom cabinet shops. Many builders want their painter to spray out the cabinets in order to save some money. Most of the time the onsite work is substandard, and it makes our hard detailed work look bad. Same thing with installers - builders want their people to do the installs, and often that too is substandard. We used to do all of our own finishing, but even with a spray room with exhaust fan and good masks, it's too unhealthy. We finished our stuff for 20 years, but no more. My hat's off to the shops that have total control of their product, finishing and installation - that's the only way you can build a good reputation and higher paying clients.

From contributor C:
South Mississippi, every shop that I know of finishes prior to installing. Most do their own laminate tops and sub out the SS or stone tops. I've had a couple of customers recently that had their houses torn up by Katrina who finished and installed cabinets that I built for them. That can be a headache!

On a side note, about six months ago I was visiting my nephew in Atlanta who works for a big builder. He showed me a house with $90K in unfinished alder cabinets (builder's cost without tops). He said the twelve man paint crew would finish that job plus paint the house in two days. I'd truly love to see the finished product.

From contributor J:
I'm wondering if scheduling is more the culprit for motivating the builder. What I mean is that if the builder can get the cabinets into the house quicker if they are unfinished, then the plumber and electrician can do their connects/cutouts quicker and the counter guys can drop their counters faster and well, you get my drift. And I've seen painting crews come and knock out a large project in just a matter of hours. Go figure.