Overcatalyzation Callback Confusion

Here's a cautionary tale: A cabinetmaker dismisses a customer's legitimate complaint about finish discoloration because he think the customer is hiding something. Turns out, overcatalyzing the finish did cause it to turn orange after many months. Now the cabinetmaker has to apologize and make the job good. July 24, 2006

I did a solid maple shaker kitchen 1 1/2 years ago with a clear conversion ML Campbell finish. The doors and finishing were done by an outsourced company. Applied end panels were maple veneer plywood. Customer called to complain about severe discoloration of doors only. This apparently happened 9 months or so after installation. Only the outside of the doors changed colour. A strong orange shade. I brought some of the doors to my vendor and he checked with an ML Campbell rep. I also brought one door to another finisher to double check. This finisher sanded the door lightly and showed me the sandpaper at each stage of sanding. First there was the usual white dust from the varnish, but then there was a coral-pink dust which he says is a toner coat. The ML Campbell rep confirmed the opinion. These doors were stripped and a stain was attempted to change the colour and revarnished. The customer obviously did not like it and is now trying to hang it on me. I have never seen a clear conversion varnish change colour before and trust these pros' opinions more than the client. Anyone had this situation before and how did you handle it? This would cost me close to $800.00 to fix if I say nothing.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor W:
I don't see where you have any choice. Your reputation is on the line, isn't it? The customer charged you with the responsibility of satisfying her because there was something wrong.

From contributor G:
By the time I've finished a kitchen, I've gotten to know the customer quite well, having been over to their house a lot during the course of the project. So is this a customer who would lie to you? What is your gut feeling on this one? Was this a high end project or just a slam-bam type of deal?

If you think the customer is really lying, I would probably try to get the customer to come clean without being confrontational. Something like, "is it possible that you sent the cabinet doors out to be cleaned?" I might want to do the same sanding test on one of the end panels that did not discolor, and have the customer watch.

Also, is it possible that the original cabinet doors did have some toner or sealer which discolored? This happened to me once... a reaction with the conversion varnish and the sealer coat, and it made the doors look quite yellow and terrible. I ended up sanding down are redoing.

From the original questioner:

I was not the person who refinished. I did the original kitchen. I suspect that someone else was called in to refinish and his job was done with a tint. When looking at the rail/stile joint, you can see a pink shading. The finisher that I used has been using the same conversion varnish for years and the original doors that he built and clear coated were a great clear finish.

This client was extremely aggressive when I went to see him and also tried to blame me for a granite butt joint opening up and insulted me about the general workmanship. Interestingly, my wife who answers phones before they ring and can see illness in people, says she gets a bad feeling when this person calls. Thanks for your responses and I will confront the client, as you suggest. Sometimes allowing shady people to take advantage of you creates a karma that is repetitive.

From contributor V:
Several things to consider. First, as to the doors, I thought that maybe the orange color was caused by something the client was using on the doors such as excessive orange oil. Still might be, but when you described the sanding and that the dust came off white from the top coats, that would seem to end any involvement by the client. But it was over 9 months after the fact before there was any change. How much sun or light is in this kitchen that might have caused a change? It would also seem if there is a legitimate issue that responsibility, while ultimately yours with the client, would fall back to the contractor that you used to finish the doors.

As to the granite top and workmanship quality, houses shift and settle. If it were the result of workmanship in the cabinets, there should be separation in some of the units near the joint in question. Even then, you can't be responsible for when the house shifts.

From contributor W:
Yes, I understood that the doors were finished by someone else. You said you outsourced the finishing initially. So even if someone else did it, you are still responsible. Now if the owner had someone else do the finishing, then that let's you off the hook. But you said, "I also brought one door to another finisher to double check." Sounds like you have been involved in the finishing. So that's what I meant by having no choice. Now if it was entirely the owner's doing and all you had involvement in was the building and installation, in my mind you are clear of the finishing problem. But I didn't understand that.

From contributor G:
I agree with your wife's intuitions. The guy is a bully and backing down isn't going to get you anything but more demands. Again the art form is getting him to fess up and allowing him to save face, and not have you be the patsy.

The question I have is, why would anyone want to retint/refinish new cabinets? Perhaps you could explore this issue with the man. Ignore his demands for the moment, and ask him when the cabinets were originally installed, did he like the color? Did he send them out for buffing to take out scratches, because it certainly looks like someone worked on the cabinets after you. Did he damage them and then have a repair man try to fix something? Maybe the other repair guy screwed up the repair without telling the customer and then went to the trouble of refinishing to cover his mistakes... never telling the customer? Any of these somewhat plausible explanations will give the customer an out if he sees that you are being fair and firm.

From contributor R:
What specific product was originally used to finish the doors? Was a sealer used, and if so, which one? Are you certain that the doors were stripped and re-stained? There should be some telltale clues. Be very sure of the fact before making an accusation. One other thing to consider is that over-catalyzed conversion varnish will sometimes exhibit a pinkish cast.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your responses. The original finish was ML Campbell conversion varnish, which does not require a sealer. If there was a pinkish hue, it would have been there at the time I installed. When I removed the hinges today, I found another interesting little twist to this story. I use Blum clip-on hinges with dowels that are inserted with the ram on my hinge insertion machine. The plastic dowel has a flat square head at the top which stays proud of the door and this head was missing from all the doors. This is definite proof that someone tampered with this kitchen after I finished my installation. Since the hinge is only on one side of the door, whoever played with these doors knocked the dowel head off with a chisel so that it would not rock when being sanded. The customer is coming to the shop tomorrow to see the altered dowels, but still denies that anything was done to the doors. I will negotiate a fee to strip these doors and refinish, payable in advance with no further warrantees on my part. I certainly wouldn't install dowelled hinges, remove them, knock off head and reinstall again.

From contributor R:
Actually, over-catalyzation reactions can take months to develop, depending on the degree of over-catalyzation, and even the species of wood.

I'm glad you found something to back up your hunch that the finish was tinkered with. Look for even more clues. Once you get 'em back peddling, start rolling out the marbles.

From contributor M:
Good for you. I wouldn't do anything for the guy, and that is coming from the owner of a shop that does all kinds of tricks to make our clients happy. The guy is obviously lying to you. I consider it no less than trying to steal from you.

I had a similar deal one time, although with Corian. An out of town school called me in on some busted Corian in a concession stand, said they just came in and it was busted, didn't have a clue what had happened. It was obvious something happened. I am talking 12k worth. To make a long story short, after some investigation, I called the school super, told him to gather any school board members interested, the maintenance supervisor, and we would have one last meeting to settle the matter. Imagine the surprised look in everyone's faces when I showed up with a police report filed by the school stating the concession stand had been broken into and thoroughly vandalized, along with a copy of an invoice showing they had recently had the two rollup service doors that set on this Corian top replaced. Of course all cleaned up and repaired before they called me in to look at the busted countertops. Their excuse for not telling me the truth was that they felt the tops should have held up to the abuse - this straight out of a school super's mouth! If you know you're right, stand your ground - send him down the road!

From contributor V:
Definitely document the issues with photos and it sure would not hurt to record the conversation when he comes to the shop. If he sees the recorder, it will change his whole attitude (that said from experience).

From contributor H:
The cry for vengeance is loud here! Everyone has a good point - it would be easier to just pack up his stuff (and no doubt satisfying) and hand it back to him. However, a loudmouth like that is going to do nothing but make it his mission in life to wreck your reputation, and you won't be able to be there for those conversations. Your approach is the correct one from a marketing standpoint. First of all, get the customer to agree that there was some external force at work here, and that you have proof. Then offer to correct it, for a fee, and document every step. That way, in the end, he can say that there was a problem, the other guy wrecked the doors, and you came to the rescue... I'll bet he leaves the extortion part right out of it... or he just walks off in a huff or tells everyone he forced you into fixing them. But at least you have the moral high ground and can back it up.

From contributor E:
From your original post, you stated you did the cabinets 1 1/2 years ago and the customer stated they turned at 9 months. If that's the case, why did he wait 9 months to notify you? I'm sure the time frame is approximate, but it seems like a long time before he called you about a problem. You're in a bad situation, maybe a no-win situation. No matter what you do, fix the doors or not, the customer may still badmouth you to his friends and neighbors.

From contributor S:
When I read the doors turned orange… Boy, I've seen this on more than one occasion when Krystal is over-catalyzed and yes, this can take months to notice. Also, it is associated with an unpleasant odor. Stick your nose close to the surface and take a whiff. If it smells sort of like cat piss, it's over-catalyzed... meow, meow.

From the original questioner:
Well, here's the news! Contributors R and S were right! Over-catalyzation was the problem. The doors do smell like cat piss. After much discussion with paint reps and the original finisher, they have admitted that this is the problem. I checked with Blum hinge company and the 170 degree hinges with knock-in dowels did not have any square tee on the top at that time, almost 2 years ago. In the face of all the evidence that was provided before, I confronted the client and he was very upset that I thought he was lying. I have always demanded the truth from myself and others and have given him a heartfelt apology for accusing him of any wrongdoings. He has accepted my apology and holds no hard feelings considering the advice I was given by several vendors and pros. The paint people are supplying new varnish and my door guy is sanding and refinishing the doors. I am supplying the labor to replace and readjust the doors. I am also registered for a wood finishing course so that I will have a better understanding of this important area. Live and learn!

From contributor A:
You are a good man for researching before just telling the customer to screw off. That explains in part why you are still in business. Take care of them - most of them will take care of you. I'm glad the original finishing company is taking care of you (and I'm glad as heck I'm not the one refinishing CV-finished doors).

As a note, the dye that is used in toners (likely Microton if it's an ML Campbell product, which I use and like) is a dye that is usually pretty lightfast these days. But they all can fade a bit over time with light exposure. This can mimic doors turning orange because if they used a blue dye to try to hide an overly orange door, and the blue dye fades, the door turns orange. This obviously isn't what happened in this case, but it's food for thought.