Quality and Price for a Basic Bedroom Built-In

Here's a long business and technical discussion on how to build a modestly-priced armoire and entertainment center. July 28, 2007

I have a client that wants an entertainment center and armoire in their bedroom. The one end of the EC will be closet (20" deep) and the other shelves for shoes and the middle for TV. The armoire will be closet and drawers. She does not have a lot of closet space, so this is the solution. They wanted it made out of melamine because they want it white, but I told them no. I was thinking of using MDF with melamine veneer for the interiors and painting the exterior. The doors/drawer fronts will be MDF. I only have $3700 to work with, so I don't really want to finish the interiors. What would you do?

P.S. The black thing in the picture is a fireplace.

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Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor P:
I couldn't do it for $3700 using any material. More like $10,000 here in the Northeast. I'd walk away. But if I was stuck doing it, the approach you suggest would work.

From contributor M:
I wouldn't do the EC for $3700. I think you are giving your work away. This is a custom piece, and I don't think they can get mass produced pieces for that price. The round about answer to your question is nothing. Even if it was built with cardboard, I don't think there is enough money in it.

From contributor A:

The material you propose is appropriate, the price is not. At $3,700, it would be white melamine interiors and exteriors including the doors and drawer fronts, cheap slides, no trim, and they'd have to come load it in their truck and install it. I second this comment: Don't give your work away.

From contributor H:
I would gracefully decline this job myself. In this situation I would have done the rendering first and then given them some material choices and a ballpark figure. If a client "wants melamine because they want it white," that in itself is a big red flag unless they are talking laundry room utility cabinets.

Don't sell yourself short. Your rendering is of a high-end paint or lacquer project - not to mention the fact that the wide drawers and oversize doors will pose problems. At any rate you should be asking closer to three times your figure as a start.

From contributor L:
White melamine with a glueable/paintable backer. White to the inside. 2 sided for other parts. Pre-primed crown, melamine drawers, white pre-finished bead board for home center, 2 1/2 poplar facings, lacquer it. All materials should cost no more than 900.00. Labor at a week installed, 2900.00/800.00 profit. Next.

Same on the doors and drawer fronts as you explained.

From the original questioner:
I think my customers would have a heart attack if I gave them a price of $10,000! I was kind of with contributor L on my way of pricing. I figured $1000 for materials. I don't have a lot of overhead right now as I'm still in my garage. It's good to know what other people are pricing on projects like this. I'm just starting out on my own so I'm just trying to get my work out there and get a little word of mouth advertising. Thanks for the input!

From contributor Y:
All melamine/thermo crown/applied end panels in melamine, so assembly is fast. Still too low at your price, including delivery and install. Get in the door at this price and then stay at that level for all their friends forever. Then when you have a real shop, you can really lose money and help us all fight harder to make a buck.

From contributor V:
900 bucks for material? Does that include the 100.00 + - for the hardware? You won't do it in a weekend, that's for sure. Add 1000.00 and if nothing goes wrong, you might make a little money when you add it all up at the end.

From contributor I:
Just a rough guess, but my price for all that would probably be in the $5000 to $6000 range. I would probably use white melamine with birch veneer on the outside to paint. One thing I've found is to use 1/4" birch bead board in place of veneer wherever I can. It looks better and costs less.

From contributor T:
The 3,700 is a little short, but make it out of melamine, melamine drawers, thermofoil doors, and limit their hardware choices. With your low overhead you can make a little money.

From contributor J:
If you're starting your own business, then you're no longer just anonymously doing some labor and collecting a paycheck; you're defining your position in the local market. Developing an identity as the guy who does cheap, low-end work will position you to compete with Wal-Mart. Do you really want to be there?

From contributor L:
1000.00 week labor X2 weeks = 2000.00
900.00 materials = 900.00
this equals 2900.00
the left over is 800.00

Go for it. You will make money. Make your cut list, cut it all at once, profile all door and drawer fronts, glue size 'em. Build face frames, build cases. Attach face frames, putty. Assemble drawer boxes, sand door, df profiles, prime 'em. Stand up the cases and attach all hardware. Disassemble, prime and finish coat. Assemble, deliver, install.

No phone calls, no web browsing, no trips to Home Depot. Take 15 min break morn, take 1/2 hr lunch, take fifteen min break afternoon. 4 days, all max. Slam this stuff out, load your schedule, raise this job to 4200.00. Careful, greed will nail you...

Work all jobs as this in production mode - no wasted motion, no distractions. Put the stuff in the house. No conversations about the lilies in the garden. Don't be rude, just business and get out. If you really want to make money at this one, cut, sand and prime all finished surfaces before assembly, then assemble. We use this trick in face frame cabinet construction - we smoke 'em (the competition). Then sand, final coat, assemble final product and deliver.

The comment on phone calls, web browsing, etc is serious. I personally cut about 30 cases of parts and run the ptp and band them and drive the dowels for construction in three to four hours, also laying and stacking/laying them out for assemblers. Get serious, get systems, get a chart to track your movements, time, materials, analyze and make money. Make sure to look, stand back and see that what you are building looks right and is quality.

The key for me on this job is the pre-finished backs from home center, the paintable/mel - it saves a load of time. There are no finished materials in interiors. The 2 sided mel handles this. Make the drawer boxes form the leftover material of the case goods.

As you know, a tremendous amount of time is saved doing the cut lists and checking the math and plowing forward. You can't take prisoners and look over your shoulder at what everyone else is doing in this business, but you can analyze what you are doing and adjust it.

Look, what everyone is saying is correct about pricing - for them. We have a small 4 man shop and many people doing different things at once. My most capable guy would do this job assembly while I was cutting sheet goods and the assembler would be cutting the face frames and assembling them. Someone else would be cutting the drawer boxes and banding them and the shelves. By lunch this entire project would be ready to get a finish coat.

I read Jim McDermott's column in Cabinetmaker Mag five years ago and set my shop up to do this - people feeding people, a cohesive team that works, and gets crap out the door.

From the original questioner:
I see your point, guys. I will take that into consideration on my next quote. I'm not in this to not make money, nor am I trying to undercut anyone. I'm new to the game and am trying to figure out pricing methods for cabinetry. I've just been adding up my costs and making sure I have some money left over. I guess it's back to the drawing board. Thanks again for your input.

From contributor R:
If they want white melamine, at that price why upgrade the materials and add labor? You had better use 2 sided white melamine for everything including doors and drawer fronts. Sounds like they told what they were going to spend and what they wanted, then you upgraded the project for free. They have probably gotten a price for melamine from some other guy, then telling you that they only have 3700 to spend. Tell them you can build part of it for 3700, then when they screw a few more people out of some money, you can come back and finish it for another 2K. Go down to Wal-mart and tell them you want 10 pounds of ribeye steaks, but only have money for 10 pounds of hamburger meat.

From contributor L:
Am I missing something? The client wants a low dollar item. They are okay with melamine. The questioner needs to get started, not set his prices forever. Ten drawer boxes and guides at 2.37 each max, twenty hinges at 3.00. Where oh where am I missing something? Are they not slab doors and drawer fronts? What is wrong with 50.00 an hour for his labor and overhead? Buys the crown and base primed and shoots them with lacquer... Is he not working?

From contributor S:
First off, $1000 a week is only $25 per hour, and the proposed $700 profits will disappear with overhead (yes, even in a garage). Second, would you be happy on $1000 a week gross labor income (which is about $600 after taxes)?

From contributor L:
Could and would build this at 3700 and would get plenty of referrals. But that does not mean you have to take them. Take this job and plenty of them, take the profit of twenty of them and even at 10% it adds up to 3700. Am I wrong to say this is not the only job going on in the shop? I built several of these in the past in different versions. The hardest part is to get past the over engineering and detailing of something a client wants but does not want to blow her whole budget on. When she stated melamine, the function became the most important thing. When she and her husband have more money and move, then she will ask for distressing, glaze, 5 piece doors, etc. This is a great foot in the door repeat customer project. What is it with the project and so many saying they would not touch it for less than 4000-5000? What is it that looks so difficult and why should a couple of pieces take so long when the client has dictated nothing special, no pocket doors, the other doors are slab, and she wants melamine?

From contributor X:
I’m no one to talk about the proper pricing of your work because I just designed, built, finished, and installed this unit for a client last month. All for 3k and change. I started out good with $2300 for just melamine boxes and adjustable shelves, RTF doors and stock RTF crown, but the problem was that I kept upgrading the project by adding to it and not charging the client enough for it. Charging only $800 for the upgrades. The client wasn’t pushing for this, I did it to myself. Doubling the number of pullouts to 8, BB full extension slides, birch ply, lacquer finish, custom cut arches and trims, the list goes on and on. We all do it from time to time by saying to ourselves "ooh, you know what would look good is if we did this… and this… and that too." All the while not charging appropriately. The only problem was that I took it too far because I wanted to build it. And $1000 a week is just wages. When I work by the hour I make $1000 a week and all I do is show up and work, then go home. If I have to run the business, do the design, order materials, schedule deliveries, work in my shop and do all the other stuff that goes into running a business, I must make more than that so that I can not only pay myself, but pay my business so that I can stay in business.

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From contributor C:

Being that you have only that amount to work with and the customer has indicated that they are content with melamine, you need to decide if that construction material fits the standard you have set for your business and if the profit you will make satisfies you. If you feel that it will not enhance your reputation or lead to other jobs that will meet your expectations, then you may want to pass on it. If you feel comfortable with their budget and expectations, then take the job and expect to have calls for more work like it.

From contributor U:
I've been there not too long ago. Knowing what I know now, I would cut it out of W/W melamine and find another local shop that would edgeband it for me. Don't try to do it yourself with peel n stick or iron on. This is one of your first jobs and you need to do a quality job for what it is.

Cut out everything, edgeband everything and assemble everything. I might use biscuits and Roo glue. I'd get pre-primed molding from Big Orange and make "hats" for each section. Finish the hats and set them in place at install. Slab doors, not five panel as designed.

Most important, keep track of time. Know what this cost you to produce. Break it down into units. From this one job you should know about what it costs you in time to make a melamine drawer. How much time to design. How much time to break down a 4x8 sheet of melamine.

I'd also look at construction methods. No face frames, construct as 3 large frameless cabinets. Non-adjustable shelves or behind the doors use some sort of recessed standards for the shelves so they are adjustable. Do not do individual shelf pin holes.

On the first few jobs, the most important thing is not to worry about making money or not. You will not. You will lose. The most important thing to do is standardize your process and decide how you can and will process work in the future.

In my shop, I would pocket screw and Roo glue the casework together. Pocket screws are the way I decided to go. My production for casework has gone up significantly. How are you going to make melamine drawers? Again, I'd pocket screw and put an edgebanded front. What process will you have the doors? Blum hinges? Standardize the hole locations, standardize the type of clip you use. Standardize the way you attach doors.
You get the idea. Learn, learn, learn. Your first few jobs set the tone of your shop for years to come.

From the original questioner:
Here's the finished product. Thanks again for all your advice.

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From contributor U:
Okay, so what did you learn, did you make any money, and do you know your times?

From the original questioner:
My total expenses were just under $1000 and the customer loved it so much they gave my an extra $500. So I guess there was $3200 left over for wages and profit. I was in the process of moving to a new shop while these were being built so it took a little longer to get them done. I would say a week of time from start to install. I had a little trouble working with the finish (pigmented lacquer). My rep borrowed me his Kremlin hvlp and that worked a hell of a lot better than my Grayco. I would say the project was worth it, I made money on it, customer was happy, and I think it was a fair price.