Responsibility for a Too-Dark Finish

A cabinetmaker is being asked to hold the bag for the poor work done by a painter who the customer hired. In this thread, professionals suggest ways to handle the problem. November 11, 2005

Recently my company received a phone call from a custom who we had just finished her new house (1 kitchen, 3 bath, and 1 utility room). She was very upset because the cabinets were stained the wrong color, 5 shades darker to be exact (totally the wrong color). The finisher who said he had 20 plus years experience is trying to weasel out of the deal buy throwing all of the blame on us. He said that it was the poorest quality maple he had ever seen. We used select white a1 rotary maple. We never had any problems in that past with the wood, but the finisher still claims it is solely the woods fault for the cool shade and the blotches, and etc. Has anyone out there ever had a similar experience with a finisher?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor C:
If the wood quality was so bad, then why did the finisher go ahead and stain the whole thing the wrong color? I assume that a reasonable finisher would realize that the right place to start staining would be on the back side of a drawer front, or the underside of a lower shelf. Obviously the finisher was too lazy to find out how to obtain the correct color to suit the customers need, unless the customer wasn't clear enough. How could they do that? Didn't the finisher provide samples to the customer?

From contributor L:
I’m just wondering - who approved the samples?

From the original questioner:
There was a sample provided and approved by the customer which was agreed upon. Also there was a complete walkthrough in the kitchen before finishing began (home owner and finisher.) The customer hired this person, not us.

From contributor R:
People are weird sometimes. In this case the finisher had a color to match and he didn't. Blaming the cabinet maker for the failure to match the color sample is silly since you can stain just about anything to any color irrespective of the quality of the wood.

Failing to match a color sample isn't a hanging offense either. It happens sometimes. The light when he was mixing and spraying may be different than it is now. The manufacturing of the finish may have added some sort of chemical that changes the color when drying, etc. There are lots of things that can go wrong and often do.

The homeowner is over-the-top screaming mad because the cabinets don't exactly match the color sample which is probably only 5" square, made from scrap from another project so the wood doesn't exactly match in grain, quality, or surface appearance and which can be tilted/carried into the best light.

What I see here is a lot of finger pointing and not much going on about fixing the problem. Reputations are made and broken over such things. If the job didn't pay enough to cover possible problems like this an adjustment is in order so that in the future you can afford to redo something when Murphy shows up. I would suggest looking into the adjustment either in prices or control expenses, but you have to add in the cost of screw ups to each job and keep those funds available. It's like insurance. I'd sit down with the homeowner and ask what I could do to make things right.

From contributor G:
Something's not right here. It's hard to believe a finisher with 20 years experience could make such a basic mistake. As Rob said, "you can stain just about anything to any color irrespective of the quality of the wood." That's if you know what you're doing. Are you sure the finisher wasn't a wall painter operating outside his skill-set? The mention of blotching made me wonder. In that case it's on him.

Another thing to think about is - who did the finish sanding? It should have been the finisher as normal part of his job. If it wasn't done properly, it would certainly make a difference in the final look of the kitchen. I suggest that finishing before installing will give a much better result, allowing sealing, toning, spray staining and whatever else is required to make the cabinets match the sample.

From contributor T:
To the original questioner: Custom cabinetry has enough potential for problems when one person does the job start to finish, and the potential seems to be compounded whenever more than one person works on a project. I like to find analogies for scenarios such as this, and transpose them to other fields of work so that the absurdity truly stands out.

If an automotive painter failed to match the color of the rest of the car and blamed it on the auto body mechanic, or faulty sheet metal, would anybody believe it? Would the auto body mechanic pay to have the car repainted, or attempt to repaint it himself to make the customer happy?

Knowing and admitting that one has made a mistake is the first step towards making amends. But this sounds like a problem between the customer and the finisher. I agree with Glen. You really should finish prior to installing. In addition to having better control over the finish process, it would allow the customer the opportunity to see the finished product at a point where changing the color is a matter of shop work rather than field work.

From contributor A:
The exact same thing happened at a place I was working at. The finisher claimed the blotchiness was because we failed to use a furniture grade maple, even though it was the same as we always use. Eventually he came to his senses and paid for the messed up pieces to be rebuilt and finished correctly.

From the original questioner:
Here’s some more information about my situation. As far as skill level goes, the painter did paint the rest of the house in and out and it looked good. He also charged $7 per door for extra sanding. It sounds like a load to me. We sand our doors with 80, 120, and 180 in wide belt then we vibrate with 120 and 180, so where is the extra sanding really needed?

From contributor H:
Comparing the skill level shown by painting a house and the one needed to stain and finish maple cabinets is a bit of an apple and orange thing. I'm not saying one is harder than the other, they're just different skill sets. People usually specialize somewhat, and to be a top-notch expert in both would more likely be the exception rather than the rule.

At any rate, I would not let any unknown finishers do a job that my sweat has been invested in (and my reputation is riding on) without checking some prior jobs with the same parameters - whether I'm hiring them or my client is.

And like many have said above, the important thing now is for you to make it right with the customer - whatever the cost. To not do that would be very damaging in the long run and would hurt you way more than any profit eating that it might take to make your client happy. I am a firm believer that excellent customer service is both rare (unfortunately) and worth it's weight in gold (along with high quality work, of course).

From contributor H:
I can't believe some people actually think this is your fault. I don't think it could be any clearer that it is the finishers fault. If you had hired and paid the finisher then maybe it would be your fault, but that is not the case. Why should he have to sign off on someone else’s job? I firmly believe in excellent customer service, but to expect you to pay for this is ridiculous.

From contributor T:
You're end of the job was complete after you installed the cabinets. If the customer or the finisher had a problem with the quality of your work it should have been brought to everyone’s attention before the finishing started. Blotchy stain on maple is typical if the finisher doesn't seal the wood first.

He/she does not know how to finish wood. I have worked with finishers that could make poplar look like walnut and even cherry. Don't let the finisher or client tell you it's your fault. I hope that you have your own finisher and that the client chose someone else because of cost. It would teach the client a lesson. I also hope that they paid you. Sometimes you have to stand your ground and this is one of those times.

From contributor C:

Why is it your responsibility for another sub's inabilities? Is your business not capable of finishing and therefore forced the owner into hiring this sub? Where I'm from, the shops do own their finishes. I wouldn't want another sub to finish my cabinets, even if he's more than capable. Finishes are a selling point for me, plus that's profit out of my pocket. Let the painter fix it at his cost. It seems your responsibility ended after they accepted the installation. If the owner can’t understand the painter is at fault, then that’s the owner’s problem.

From contributor G:
The final sanding should be done by the finisher because there could have been scratches, scrapes, or pressure marks left by the installation. With that being said, there was nothing wrong with your sanding schedule that could have contributed to the stain calamity.

From contributor J:
I like cabinet guy's approach, your work was complete after installation. Everyone knows there are plenty of techniques to deal with wood that won't accept the stain evenly - except your finisher. He made the worst mistake, keep staining even when you know its going way to dark, and then seal it in for good measure. One question - why would you sand the cabinets like crazy if you’re going to clear seal and tone to the right shade?

From contributor E:
To the original questioner: Do you finish your work? I ask that because I know a lot of guys who don't. And sometimes I wish that I was one of them, too. When I present to clients, I tell then that there is a difference between a finisher and a painter. I explain the difference, and let them know that there is a significant price difference. I then let them decide. If they choose less expensive price and poorer quality, then that is a consequence of their actions, hence their responsibility. I would suggest making your own samples if you can. If you don't, get a finisher to make a sample for you. We all know that it was the painter's fault, but you probably need to help the homeowner understand that.

From contributor K:
It seems to me that if they were such good friends of your wife that they would have never went after you over this problem to begin with. If the job was done and installed you were done. Then someone else came in to do their job. They screwed it up so they are not done. How is the consistency of their job? If it's pretty consistent point it out and say if it were the wood why and how can it all look consistently wrong?

The bottom line is that the finisher needs to take this one. My suggestion is to have the finisher return payment and hire a qualified finisher to do it right. You should consider finishing yourself or sub out your finishes. The customer always picks the wrong subs. This guy should also be licensed right? Threaten him with a complaint to the license board or have the client do it. You may also consider notice of completion statements from now on.

From contributor P:
This is what happens when you let the control out of your hands. The only finish that we will let be done our cabinets that we install will be a painted finish if there painter wants to finish it in place. I have turned down work because they want their painter to stain it in place. We sub most of our finishing out because I think the finishers can do a better job than most shops. They do it everyday and they are good at it. It’s hard to find good subs, but they are out there. Show that customer that it can be done right and see if you can help to get this fixed.

From contributor T:
I found this at "Responsibility. It is the painter/finisher’s responsibility to understand the characteristics of the wood he or she is about to finish and properly prepare the wood prior to finishing. Be warned: if proper preparation procedures are not followed, the final look and performance of the finished woodwork will not be of a premium level and might be rejected." I suggest that you read the PDF’s on tips.

From contributor J:
Contributor T nailed it - call AWI which surely will have the same info and standards as Scott's source, if not more.

From contributor M:
If the maple had gotten wet in spots, those spots would accept stain differently than places that did not get wet, thus the splotching. Also, if they were not sanded properly afterwards the end result would look awful

From The Staff at WOODWEB:
There is an excellent resource available at WOODWEB to assist in locating woodworking professionals. Check out WOODWEB's Woodworker's Directory - our searchable database of woodworking professionals, at the link shown below. You can search for a finisher in whatever area you need.