Subcontracting for Other Cabinet Shops

A woodworker considering a new business making specialty items for other shops gets positive feedback on the idea. August 5, 2006

Having been in the custom trim and woodworking profession for 10+ years, I realize that a home based garage biz is not impossible, but quite hard to establish. Without having a lot of cash flow, business success can be hard to achieve.

My idea is to set up a very modest shop of about 2400 SF. Being involved in the business for as long as I have been, I realize two things. 1) Competing with kitchen cabinet companies is hard to do with their state of the art equipment that allows them to be efficient and accurate. 2) A shop of my size would not lend itself well to multiple projects or kitchens. I am looking at a niche such as providing a service to other shops, not competing with them. A kind of extension of them when they are in need of an extra pair of hands, so that you do not have to turn down work when you are too busy to take on more.

The cabinetry business is competitive enough. We don't need another shop. What I'm looking to do is help out shops with overrun or components that they don't have the time or room for, such as drawer boxes, pull outs, raised panels, hoods, corbels, etc. Things that are otherwise a time consuming operation that shops would prefer or need to sub out.

I have knowledge in aspects from the development of a cut sheet to final punch lists for kitchens and baths. I am also experienced in the building and installation of built-ins, libraries, mantles, estate trim work, multiple crowns, pediments, surrounds and the like.

Would any of you find a person like me a compliment to your shop or an obstacle? I would be able to build your overflow work as well as install projects for you.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor M:
You don't need to reinvent the wheel to have a successful business! I have a very small shop, so I use subs regularly. In my experience, the most cost-effective subs are ones that specialize in a certain area. I have subs for finishing, raised panels, dovetailed boxes, corbels and other carving, etc. I've tried to sub out bigger things, but have always had problems with quality and would hesitate to do it again.

Here in Toronto, everyone I know who is good is booked months in advance. You might hear that and think we need some overflow guys. But that tells me there is more space for new shops... And all the best cabinetmakers will be retiring in ten years anyway. Start up your own shop with your own clients (look for sub work when you are slow), or specialize in one aspect of the sub business.

From contributor L:

Take a look at the Conestoga wood products web site. They make the things you are talking about. 10 day lead times, nicely made. That said, I finally found my niche making parts for others when I had a small shop. I make short run moldings from hand ground knives on a shaper with a feed, both straight and curved. I duplicated old style house doors for restoration projects. For a one man and wife band, those were areas not covered well by most shops, so reasonably profitable. The catch came as I tried to expand and hire employees to do that type of work.

From contributor M:
If you lived in my area, you would be busy 5 days a week. I pass up enough work to keep another shop in business. The best thing for you is to get out there and visit with the other shop owners and tell them what service you will be providing, have some cards made up with the important information such as telephone number. Not too fancy, so they do not view you as a future threat. Your service is overflow and short handedness. You are the man to call when the others have too much. If you are a hard worker, you will be just fine, because from my experience these people are hard to find.

From contributor J:
If you do good work, do things when you say you will, return your phone calls promptly and treat people honestly and fairly, you should be successful. Don't neglect the factory cabinet suppliers - they could use someone to repair cabinets, modify cabinets, make odd pieces and installs. Also, general contractors often get prices for cabinets uninstalled but don't have people available when the cabinets show up. You could be a lifesaver at those times. In my experience, a helper on larger installs is a huge help. There is plenty for them to do even if they just have basic skills. Just unloading the truck/van/trailer gets me started that much quicker. Also, I can keep working while they pick up tools, etc. They can do a lot of the small things like hardware, toe kick skins, adjust doors while you're figuring out the hard stuff. Also saves your back at the end of the day. I'd say go for it and don't forget how to say no.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the responses. I should have been more clear in my original post. I'm aware of places like Conestoga and Keystone. The shop I worked for used to source some doors, drawers and panels from them. It was fine for low level custom, but much of our work required attention to detail that production shops couldn't do. I am looking to fill that void. Such as bookmatching centering cathedrals, grain continuation, etc. I guess I would be like a true custom overflow guy. I think convincing guys without a portfolio would be difficult to do. I have seen lots of people come and go that have claimed to be professionals. Ouch. I guess all I can do is let my work speak for itself and offer people to pay upon approval of work completed.

From contributor L:
There's always work for someone doing truly fine quality work. I've seen a lot of startups come and go over the years, almost all claiming to do "high end" work. Hopefully you could move from overflow work to a clientele base that you develop directly. The catch with overflow work is when things slow down, there is no overflow. The same thing happens to installers when things get slow - the shops will do their own installs. Around here, a top notch installer can make better money than anyone in the shop.