Job estimating: How-to

A primer for woodworkers on doing accurate job estimates. June 7, 2000

I've been doing woodworking for customers for a few years but still have trouble figuring estimates. Would like help/information for making this an easier task.

I guess my first question would be, how meticulous are you about keeping track of the time you spend on the jobs you do? Because before you can improve your estimating accuracy, you need to know how long it takes you to do things.

If you're confident (a) about the hourly rate you charge (which should be a total of the hourly rate you want to make, plus an overhead factor); (b) about the material cost you're passing along (with about a 15 to 20 percent wastage factor tacked on to your cost); and are (c) then marking up the total of these two with a reasonable profit margin, and still having trouble making money, then closer analysis of time spent not only on jobs as a whole but on individual tasks within jobs may be your problem.

For example, how long does it take you to fabricate a drawer box, from start to finish? Or to cut up the basic parts of a kitchen? Let's say there's 12 sheets on the job; knowing how long the cutting-up process takes lets you derive a per-sheet average that you can apply to the next job you price. Of course, you must also track that one, (and the one after that, and after that, and on and on) to further hone and refine the numbers you use in your estimating. Do this with every task on every job, and you'll soon have a pool of information you can draw on, applying the appropriate task info to upcoming estimates.

This should also extend to hours in the office, doing drawings, telephone work, going to appointments, etc. Learn how much time you spend on the jobs you do from first contact with a client to stowing your tools after delivery/installation, and you'll see the accuracy of your estimates -- and your bottom line -- improve dramatically.
Anthony G. Noel, forum moderator

As soon as I started keeping accurate records ("time and materials" jobs helped that!) it was much easier to see how long it REALLY took for specific steps.

It is hard at first to take the time to keep track, but if it you do it consistently it becomes a habit. Make up a form with the categories you want to keep track of; it's easier to fill a form than to just put down what you think is needed at the time, plus it's organized and easier to compare with other jobs.

Don't just use the "productive hours," put down ALL the time it takes. If you were paying someone to do the job, how many hours would you pay them for?

Anthony said a mouthful. Ditto his post!

The following is my "Time Codes." We use a daily scheduler-type calendar and enter the code for the time worked. (I keep the code sheet in with the time cards). At the end of the week, I enter the times into a spreadsheet to keep a running tally of the job.

Using such a detailed set of records, we can look at the number of parts, number of drawers, type of cabinet, etc., and get a good idea of how other projects will compare to past performance.

A Planning & Estimating
A1 Project Meetings
A2 Field Measurements
A3 Shop Drawings
A4 Cut lists and optimizations
B Material Procurement
B1 Quotes to and from suppliers
B2 Calls tracking down project supplies
B3 Material runs for special items
C Cabinet Construction
C1 Cabinet Cutting
(Includes cutting sheet stock, dadoes for cabinet backs, trimming cabinet backs, nailers, partitions and shelves.)
C2 Cabinet Banding
(Includes milling, sawing and sanding stock, as well as glueing, clamping, trimming and lip planing all edgebanded parts.)
C3 Cabinet Boring
(Includes line boring for shelves, boring for drawer glides and hinges, boring for assembly.)
C4 Cabinet Face Frames
(Includes grooving case stock, milling and cutting face frames. Assembly and attaching face frames.)
C5 Cabinet Assembly
(Includes actual box assembly and clamping. De-clamping, stacking and shuffling are also included.)
C6 Cabinet Sanding
(Includes all pre-sanding and sanding after assembly.)
C7 Toe Kicks
(Includes construction of rough and finished toe kicks.)
C8 Final Assembly
(Includes final assembly of finished parts; installing cabinet backs and nailers, hinge plates, cabinet hanging systems, doors, drawer installation into cabinet; any final assembly before shipping goes here.)
D Doors
D1 Door Construction
(Includes all layout, rough mill and milling of frames and panels; machine sand, and assembly of doors.)
D2 Door Installation
(Includes all hinge boring and fitting of doors.)

D3 Door Sanding
(All finish sanding and routing for doors.)
E Drawers
E1 Drawer Cut
(Includes Cutting plywood for ply boxes, or cutting solid wood for dovetail boxes. Also includes milling wood parts, and plowing the dado for the drawer bottom.)
E2 Drawer Banding
(Includes only the banding for drawer boxes when made of plywood.)
E3 Dovetails
(Includes all time for set-up and cutting for dovetail drawers.)
E4 Drawer Assembly
(Includes box construction and final assembly of finished drawers.)
E5 Drawer Sanding
(All sanding and routing on drawers and drawer bottoms.)
E6 Drawer Installation
(Includes hardware and drawer installations.)
F Finish
F1 Case Goods
(Cabinet boxes, cabinet backs, shelves and partitions. If run is small, and doors & drawers are run with cases, use this designation only.)
F2 Drawers
(Finish for drawer run, if not combined with "F1")
F3 Door Finish
(Finish for doors if not combined with "F1")
F4 Moulding/Specialty part finish.
F5 Other (describe)
G General Shop
(Only applies to cleaning shop, set up of equipment for job, dust bin maintenance, and normal machine maintenance required for project.)
H Specialty Parts
(Must provide a description of the part type. Applies to unique objects produced for a job.)
I Installation

I1 Packing and Shipping
I2 Deliveries
I3 Installation of Cabinetry
I4 Installation of Countertops
I5 Installation Other:
Description Required.
J Counter Tops
(Description required. Only should be used if we are fabricating the tops in the shop.)