Outsourcing Cabinet Installation

There are good reasons to install your own cabinets, and good reasons to have someone else do it. Here, installers and cabinetmakers discuss the fine points of communication and cooperation among specialists. August 3, 2005

I am wondering how custom cabinet makers feel about letting someone else install their work. My experience is that the custom guys always do their own installation, whether it's about quality control, complicated assembly, or proprietary trickery (and maybe money). Do you allow the hands of a stranger to be the last to compliment your good work?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor B:
I really don’t like installing because it's not a real back friendly task, but I do prefer to do my own. I very rarely let the employees go without me - only on the small get-in get-out stuff.

From contributor M:
I would suggest that you install yourself. Three is no way a finish carpenter is going to care about fitting the cabinets as much as you. Plus you built the cabinets, and you know the tricks to making adjustments at installation. Take all the responsibility and get paid well for it. Splitting responsibility can only lead to grief, believe me.

From contributor V:
I don't particularly like installing for small custom shops. Every job I do for small local guys tend to result in huge phone bills and numerous trips back and forth to the shop for forgotten parts or having something re-worked. The large shops tend to be better organized and build a more consistent product than all but the best custom shops.

The myth that the large shops are in-flexible is just that, a myth. I deal with one company from Texas that I can phone in field dimensions two days before a load is scheduled to be shipped and they will have the piece built, sprayed and on the truck no problem.

I am on a first name basis with every employee in the small shops I deal with because I spend so much time in their shop trying to get what I need to get the job done. The big shops I usually deal with have a project manager who I may see once or twice on a six month job, and all contact I have is by phone call, fax or email. Sometimes I don't hear from the shop for weeks. The shop drawings from small shops fall into two categories - bad and none.

Then there are deliveries. The big guys ship an entire project in two or three 54' trailers. The truck shows up at the job site at 7 a.m. and is unloaded and on it's way by 9 a.m. I recently did a job with a local custom shop that would send a pickup truck with three or four cabinets in it once or twice a day and often the late delivery was at six or seven p.m. It was a twenty minute round trip from the site to the loading dock.

With all this being said, even though my main business is installations I have a shop and will on occasion take on a small job. I work out my shop drawings on a note pad and the back of a sheet of plywood, and I use my pickup truck for deliveries and will fix my mistakes and omissions on site on the fly, but then I install my own work so it doesn't really matter.

There are times when I really need the small shops business. I think that small shops should do their own installations, however, there are times when despite the frustrations, I really appreciate the work they send my way.

From contributor K:
I prefer to install myself. As was said, you learn as you go how to use the right clearances to make installs go easier and make cabinets easier to install. Cabinetmakers and installers can all work together fine if they take pride in their work. If you have worked with a general contractor before and their walls and floors are way out, you better account for your extra time on the install. A general contractor who takes pride in their work makes it that much easier for the subs to do a nice job.

From contributor C:
I used to be an installer for a mid sized custom cabinet company. Now I own my own shop and do my own installations with no employees currently. There is no way I would trust anybody to install my cabinets, unless they worked for me. I wouldn't trust another person or business owner to do my installs because they would charge too much and have too many demands.

If I start to grow my business larger, I would hire a personal installer that worked directly for me, and did things the way I wanted them too, unless they were so good they didn't need much direction.

Like I said, I was an installer for a cabinet company before, and it worked well. I would show up at the shop and load the trailer up with cabinets. Or I would drive directly to the job each morning if the cabinets were already delivered. Then the other guy and I would install them. We were employees of the cabinet shop and we had to do it like the boss said, or we would get replaced.

From contributor M:
Besides finding someone capable of actually doing the work, the most important part about outsourcing installs is information. You need to have a full set of prints with every single cros-section you can think of. The problem with making the jump to outsourcing is you are so used to having the guys who built the job do the install. They know exactly what was expected. There are a lot of things that don’t need to be explained since you have worked together for a while and everyone is on the same page.

When you outsource assume nothing. You have to figure that the person doing the install has the skills to do it but has no idea what it is actually supposed to be done. You need to have full detailed prints and all your parts labeled. The smaller and more obscure the part, the more important it is to make sure that the installer knows exactly what it is for. You also want to meet them at delivery and go over the project as it is being delivered.

If you stick with the same install crew, it doesn’t take long for them to see how you do everything. At first it will be slow and non profitable, but in the long term outsourcing will give you the ability to keep your guys in the shop producing if you can find the right crew. I am still looking for the right match.

The thing that makes commercial jobs run smoother is the amount of detail that is provided. First you have a full set of architect’s prints than you usually have to supply them with a full set of shop drawings for approval. With all that considered, union installers can do the job right. They have the skills and they have the information.

From contributor B:
What I believe about installation is having the prints that will guide you to how the manufacturer made the cabinets. You need to know what the dimensions are, which wall cabinets and base cabinets within their respective measures, and the different sizes for certain locations. When the cabinets arrive at the site there is no telling which cabinets are without the prints.

I had installed cabinets and storefronts with prints that were provided for me to do the job properly. There was no confusion or mistakes, and I installed them precisely according to the prints, and it worked like a charm. But outsourcing work to a good company is hard to find. If you find a good company, then you may want to stay with them for every job you take.

From contributor A:
To the original questioner: You are building and installing your own cabinets, that tells me that you don't have that much business at all. I understand that trusting others to install your products is hard to do, but it doesn't make sense in the real business world were it is so competitive. You have to find and trust others while you take care of your side of the business.

From the original questioner:
To contributor A: I do mostly commercial work for local millwork manufacturers, and they have been very happy with the work done. It's clear that custom builders are just as passionate about the final steps in the process as they are about their construction. It is very hard to sacrifice control of your work to others, and surely very hard to find someone you can trust with your reputation.

I would guess though, that the best use of your equipment and people is under the roof of your shop. If there isn't enough work for a full time install team, then it means pulling shop people off that money work to venture out into the great uncontrolled worksite adventure, while machinery sits idle.

All I can think to suggest to one in this fix is be good to your subcontract installer if you are lucky enough to have one worth his salt. It seems that makers who know they could install the work really resent paying a good installer for a good job. Think about your priorities, and enjoy the shared success.

From contributor D:
To the original questioner: The biggest point involved in who can install what best is the degree of customization on the job. Despite there being certain standards, each manufacturer has their own nuances in how they build and no installer automatically knows all of them. In order to have an outside team properly installing someone else’s cabinets or furniture, both parties have to be aware enough of the other to communicate the right information and ask the right questions.

With that being said, I have found that the biggest problem with small custom shops using outside installers is the learning curve in communication of the information required to do the job. By definition, the small shop is fairly inefficient and tends to produce using superior knowledge and abilities in one or a few people, whereas the large semi-custom shop has a group of people usually with narrower skills operating more efficiently.

The using of an outside installation team for the small shop takes on the same type of growth challenges as adding a couple of employees in the shop. Until owner/management knows their skills and limitations, there are going to be screw-ups. The question is, are you both financially and emotionally able to handle the stress levels brought on by making that growth step?

From contributor N:
We relied on outside installers with mixed success. Now we employ our own dedicated installers, and we still have mixed success. The benefit of having our own installers is that we can train them, and their priorities are the same as ours. Some of the outside installers are excellent, and some of the others are less predictable. The real advantage is that utilizing outside installers allows us to expand and shrink with the work at hand.