Square-Foot Pricing for Volume Work

When a potential customer suggests a low-ball price for a volume job, finishers chime in with information about the realistic costs of such a project. May 27, 2014

I could use some advice on quoting a large finishing job. I run a small shop doing mostly small wood components. We don't do a lot of finishing, although we do have a spray booth, Devilbiss cup gun, and a 1 gallon pressure pot, which I haven't needed to use yet. My business is either so busy I can't keep up, or nothing for sometimes a month.

I had a potential customer come in the other day that wants me to quote on finishing panels for a real nice fold out desk that he has designed. Each desk would have a top 24"x 40" and one modesty panel 12"x 40". The panels will be made of soft maple and shipped to my shop. The panels are supposed to be ready for finish. One design calls for a cherry stain and clear finish the other design is just clear. Later on he is talking about doing some designs with bright colors. He wants a finish that will be durable and hold up to having a glass set on it without leaving a ring. He wants me to quote a price per desk which will be one top and one modesty panel finished on both sides. He is predicting a volume of 45 desks a day and possibly 60. That would be at least 90 panels a day. He says he wants to be at $15.00 per desk and I supply the finish.

The steady work would be a blessing for my shop if it's possible to do that kind of volume at that price. I priced Sherwin Williams lacquer at $37.00 a gallon and the coverage is 300-600 sq. ft. depending on thickness of coats and with no material loss.

Does this even sound possible? It sounds pretty tight to me. I'm sure there is some room for negotiation on price.

I searched and found curtain coaters on the web for roughly $21,000. It looks like that may be the way to go for production finishing of panels. Anyone have experience with one? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I would really like to get the work but don't need to get myself into a huge headache. Thanks.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
That's not even enough to cover your materials, especially if he wants something durable. If you are slow and want to work for free, then you would be better off spending that time going out and passing out business cards, talking to contractors, cleaning your shop, etc.

From contributor D:

Forget it. sounds like a really bad deal.

From contributor N:
Looks to me that it's approximately $300.00 for materials for 45 desks with half being stained, and 2 coats of finish (at this price, that's all he gets). So $375 left over for labor, shop expenses, and profit. If you go with your manual spray gun setup and you can average 1 minute per side per touch, that equals:
90 x 3 (seal, sand, finish), 270 min
90 x 4 (stain, seal, sand, finish), 360 min, or
10.5 hours for 45 desks... And that would be humping and no fun! Plus it does not include setup, cleanup, bringing the stuff into and out of the shop, or... quality. I'd run or renegotiate or find out how much the guy with the flat line charges.

From contributor F:
Hmm... Stain, seal, sand, then topcoat. Plus materials. $15.00 is a joke and an insult, if he could guarantee 40 desks per day. I think somewhere in the $40-50 range for each would be appropriate.

From contributor T:
I'm with contributor F on this one. It would definitely be in the $40-$50 range. The lower end if he guarantees that quantity, the higher side if he doesn't reach a minimum.

From contributor W:
It would be interesting to know just how much he's planning on selling the desks for.

From contributor I:
By the way, lacquer will not be a "glass ring proof" finish. Run from that job. I've been asked to bid like that many times. Good chance he will have you do several desks as samples, for free, and then never show up again. Soft maple is not easy to stain, as wood colors vary all over the place. Not a good deal, not a good place to learn finishing!

From contributor E:
That's less than $1 per sq. ft. You'd really need to be set up for full production runs to even get close to that and be profitable. And no way you should think about investing $21K in machinery for this project. What happens if it goes south? Or his expectations are all wet? I also agree it should be more like $40-50 per desk with your present setup.

From contributor Q:
I'm curious as to where the potential customer came up with the figure of $15.00 per unit. He may have been to other finishers who quoted him a higher price for this work and it was more than he wanted to pay, so he's just tossing out a $15.00 figure.

From contributor U:
I have a local finisher that will charge $4 per sq ft for a stain and clear. Spray on stain and a dirt cheap post-cat lacquer. They use a flatline finisher along with a denibber sander. That would put the top at $26.66 and the panel at $13.33, or $40.32 per unit. I personally wouldn't attempt this at any less than $40 per desk. Tell them if they find someone cheaper, you will still be here when the other place goes out of business.

From contributor L:
He's pulling your leg, right? $15/desk. Probably will barely cover materials let alone labor and shop costs and profit. $15 is about 12 minutes worth of time. Then add materials to that, and all shop costs. Just pass.

From contributor B:
I own a wood finishing facility in southern New Jersey and I would not even think about spraying this job out of lacquer. Conversion varnish would be the way to go. At a price around $35.00 per gallon and the duration of 3 days to complete, the price would be higher. This job would not be worth it. I wish I had a dime for every person that ever told me "I have a steady stream of work."

Do yourself a favor and establish a rate of production per hour based on past experience from the equipment you are currently using. Establish the total square footage of the job of which should be done when bidding the job. Then you will know exactly how long it will take to complete. The equipment you're spraying with will determine material flow rates. This will tell you how much material you will need to finish the job. Figure out what your shop rate is based on your bills and break it down to a per day basis for a 40 hour work week. Once you have this figured out, you can determine how much money the job is going to cost you to complete, but most importantly, how much money you're going to make. I wouldn't walk away from this job, I would run!

From contributor T:
Just curious what conversion varnish product is $35/gallon (plus catalyst)?

From the original questioner:
I can't thank you guys enough for taking the time to help me out. Being able to get on this website and have true professionals share their hard earned knowledge is priceless. I am going to contact this potential customer and tell him I am not interested in doing his work at that price. If we end up negotiating a fair price I will let you all know. Thank you all very much!

From contributor Z:
I'm not sure that the information on here is priceless. I'm sure someone here could figure out how much to charge for helping you;)

From contributor Y:
Agreed with all above. Decline the work politely and professionally. You do not need to give him justification for your decision. Just the facts, leave the door open for any future endeavors. Advise him next time to bring you the proposal and requirements ahead of time. The question is not where he needs to be with the finish price, it is where you need to be to keep your doors open and profitable. His sell price, his profit margin, is just that - his problem. You don't get every job you bid, unless you're a fool. Best of luck.

One final thought - soft maple, cherry stain, don't do a lot of finishing? The wrong job to cut your teeth on.