Hiring a First-Class Finisher

and how to assess those abilities. July 2, 2008

We are about to start searching for a highly skilled finisher. We already have a finishing department up and running, with good colleagues, nice equipment, plenty of space, air conditioning - we are a nice place to work.

For the Northeast, what can I expect to pay for a skilled finisher? I like to pay top scale to keep my good people once they are hired.

Are the best finishers interested in a high end production type environment, or do they tend to want to work in their own shops?

What kind of interview would you recommend to weed out the duds?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor C:
From what I can see you do very nice work. You definitely need a journeyman technician, someone very skilled in both application and coating technology. Sounds like you're looking for someone who is also a high production finisher, maybe a colorist and a quality control person. Depending on what all of his duties would be, you can usually get someone for between 45,000 to 52,000 if you really want someone first class. Less if their job outline is less, like just being a line finisher. Master finishers will be more and few and far between. Many of the masters do want to work in their own shops, and on just those items they know they can make look like a million dollars - super high end. Although that does not mean they can not do that work in a custom production style - a master can fill all needs in all finish environments. But I see nothing you're doing that warrants someone like that.

What I feel works best is a WI - Working Interview. Everyone nowadays has a pretty decent resume when applying for positions like this, with listed skill levels and accomplishments. You may get taken in by some who do not really have as much experience as they have put on paper. A working interview gives you the chance to see for yourself where their skill level is. It's the only kind I do anymore. I line up a half dozen finish board samples and ask them to reproduce those finishes and note how long it takes and how well they accomplish this. Then I give them pieces to spray and watch how they handle the gun and their results. I continue with pieces that are clear coats, paint and glaze, bleached, toned, fauxed, and anything else I want a finisher to be able to do for me, and then spend the last day in a sit down meeting and go over other areas of concern. I watch his interaction with others and also get feedback from my workers on his personality and skill level and if he is a good fit for the company.

Usually plan on giving a good candidate a week at least to perform these tasks with minimum pay and of course expenses. You will also be responsible for airfare and accommodations if choosing someone outside your area and any other hospitalities you deem fitting - car, meals, etc. In this way you will find the best overall candidate for your company and spend less time doing so than by doing dozens of interviews and having future disappointments in performance after hiring someone that seemed to know what he was talking about.

From contributor G:

You don't mention if this finisher is to be part of the crew or head of the department or an independent contractor. Is he/she going to learn your way or are your finishers going to learn his/hers?

From the original questioner:
Contributor C, thank you for a very thorough reply. Regarding the pay amount, that is what I expected and would not have difficulty paying this much or more for the right person. Regarding our needs, the work on our website is simpler than what we will be doing in the future. We are now doing a lot of very high end architectural work in New York, which requires a wide ranging skill set. I already have a lead finisher, just need more people that are already at a high level, as he is swamped.

Contributor G, you and I posted at almost the same time. The finisher would be part of our crew, on our payroll, and eligible for all of our benefits, including health insurance, vacation days, and pension plan. If he or she knows something we don't, we're glad to learn, and vice versa. The right person may end up leading the department. Thanks for your questions.

From contributor J:
If you can find someone with the skills listed, would you see if he/she has a friend for me? I know - ha ha. Seriously though, Bay Area California, 80,000 +.

From contributor D:
Blindfold the applicant, turn the lights out, and give him/her a dirty gun and some cleaning utensils/supplies. I'd say 5 minutes ought to do it.

From contributor W:
The best finishers work for companies that treat them exceptionally well with money, benefits, and working conditions, including the latest technology. I have found that some employers pay well and treat you bad, or underpay you because of cheap imported labor. If you find a good finisher, treat her/him well, because they aren't easy to find!

From contributor O:
I am self-employed and have been offered several jobs finishing for my customers in their shops. They said they would rather have an in-house finisher than have to worry about subbing it out. I simply explain to them that if they want to hire me, that would be fine. Then I remind them of the difference of owning your own business as opposed to working for someone else and they say forget it - they would rather keep bringing it to me at my shop.

From contributor M:
To the original questioner: I like your work. Is there any possibility of someone in house that could cross train into finishes?

Has anyone hired or used a finisher from automotive, and do you think they would work? They would have the skill, just maybe not the wood product and process.

From contributor G:
I agree with contributor M. If you can train somebody, even give your lead finisher a full-time helper to mix lacquer, clean guns, spray primer coats and observe and learn, I think you'll be ahead.

I also think contributor C's 45-52,000 is low for the list of qualifications he posted.

As an aside... I also think anybody who gets a job working for the questioner is lucky indeed. From his posts in the Business and Management Forum, he sounds a top level employer. His finishers are among the few employees I know of who post in this forum.

From contributor L:
I am not far from there (upper Bucks County) and would probably be a decent candidate. But the spoils of self employment just rule it out. It seems the people with the drive to learn and understand this moving target of chemistry and hard work will be the type to want to call their own shots. You have to think you will need to get a person that is already working in the field. Who are your local competitors? Any way to infiltrate? How did you get the one top shelf finisher you have?

From contributor C:
In Ohio there are not a lot of wood finishers, so many applicants come from the car or aircraft metal finishing industry, etc. They seem to have a good ability in the spray area but lack in understanding of wood finishing. They may be able to mix opaque colors but do not know dye/stain coloration and how the wood color affects the unapplied dyes. Mainly they lack all the wood finishing knowledge you are looking for in a candidate. So there is a lot more training involved and time spent on them, but that said, most I've hired worked out well. If you're just looking for sprayers of clears and colors, even better. Most have a good understanding of mil thickness and use of wet mil gauge, especially the aircraft guys - this is always a plus. But if you want to hire someone fully knowledgeable in all aspects of wood finishing, I would not go that route.

From contributor S:

My experience with hiring finishers applies to most areas of construction... You must pick from two kinds of workers. You can have the guy that shows up on time without fail and does adequate work, but rarely excels to be among the most adept in the field, or you can hire the guy that's a bit flaky but produces near flawless or better work. I'm exaggerating a bit, but I've never found anyone that has both traits that wasn't on their own.

From contributor B:
I came into the finishing industry in 1982 with a background in fine art, book illustration, printmaking, pottery and house painting. I mention these because they have affinities in tools and methods with various aspects of wood finishing. I started out at an architectural woodworking shop learning to use a spray gun and being a general gofer at $6/hr, and ended up 10 years later as head of the finishing department at $31,000 before I formed my own hand finishing and decorative painting business. Today, after inflation, my guess is that my salary would translate into about $60 thousand. Having been on both sides of management/labor, I am a firm believer in good worker morale.

From contributor C:
Some areas are willing to pay more and others less. NY is costly to live in. Other places like FL pay less because there are so many hard working Spanish that are willing to be employed for much, much less, though many are capable finishers. Ohio where I am is hard pressed to pay more than 45,000 a year, Memphis about 36 - 42 K per year. Others in California are willing to pay 80K plus for someone of high caliber. This is what makes it so difficult in this business. Especially if you want to remain in the area you're in.

The true art of finishing is not as necessary as it once was. Even in Grand Rapids the head carver for Baker, upon retiring in the late 80's, was only making 12.00 per hour and he was the finest carver I ever knew. Yet that was where his home and family were and the benefits were good, so he spent most of his adult life working there. With finishing in the state it is now, those who have been in the business for a long time just might become a real commodity in the near future and maybe receive our just desserts, for the time and efforts we have applied in learning every area of our craft.

From contributor Q:
There is a distinctive difference between a sprayer and a finisher. You stated that this potential employee may be a department head! If so, don't try to cross train from another department or hire an auto body painter. These are fine for sprayers, but not a finisher.

Is this person going to make color design decisions? Is this finish a wiping stain or a dye stain, or both? Is this sample a spray glaze or a wiping glaze? Is this person going to be making your stains? The backs are in these cabinets. Will the spray stain only work, or would a wiping stain work better for getting into the corners? Does this person know what finishes to use in certain situations? Should I coat these stair treads with pre-cat lacquer or should I use a polyurethane? The cherry kitchen is blotchy! What can I do to eliminate this before I start the job? These are decisions that have to be made and can be the difference between being profitable and being profitable before getting sued for inferior work. If your cross trained person or auto paint guy can't answer these questions, then you need to hire a master finisher or wait for your cross trained employee to get about 12 to 20 years of experience to even begin to understand what it's all about.

My experience in owning a wood finishing company is to hire good sprayers. I make all the color design decisions on my own, based on structure design and wood species. I then make the coatings decision on wear and tear. The dye stain or dye stain wipe stain combinations are made on sample boards with finishing schedules. Finishing schedules are needle position, air flow rate, fan position, and the number of passes pertaining to dye stain application. I make the original formula into yields based off of the size of the job. I chose after 20 years of finishing for companies to open my own shop. It's been very rewarding and I enjoy it a lot more now, even when there are problems.