Using a Builder's Finisher

Cabinetmakers describe why they don't like it when a builder customer has his painter finish their cabinets on site. January 26, 2008

I just bid out a kitchen and the general contractor asked me to price it with and without finishing included. After seeing my finishing price, he decided to go with a sub that has done all his finishing in the past. I've never seen this person's work, but I know the contractor does top notch work. Here's my question. Since my name is ultimately on the cabinet job whether the finishing is excellent or horrible, how do I cover my good name with the customer in the end if it does turn out to be a problem? How should I shield myself at the beginning to make sure that doesn't happen?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor J:
Don't tell anyone those are your cabinets, at least until you see how they turned out. I did a large custom home that was in the "Tour of Homes." So something like 10,000 people saw the home. The builder (a local Bad Builder) insisted that his painter stain our maple cabinets. The finisher wasn't very happy about it, but he did anyway. As it turns out, it was the classic really, really, bad stain and lacquer job on maple. I did a great job on the cabinets only to have a builder and his hack finisher ruin the project. Then another builder used his painting contractor. That one turned out fine, but they lost hardware and broke an expensive cabinet door, that I ended up paying for out of my own pocket. Then there was the job where the painter couldn't figure out how to remove tip out hinges, so he broke 1/2 dozen to finish the back of the false fronts. I had to fix them on my dime. I have never seen an onsite painter do a good job yet. The builders get greedy and pay these guys next to nothing (they claim it's included in the bid, in order to slam the painters) or pay them $10 a lineal foot. Once in awhile the builder in fact has a good finisher and likes his work... Sometimes it works out, but most of the time it's a mess.

From contributor A:
The only thing you can do personally to make it a better final product is the prep. My contractor and I have a good system. I spray the cabinets with a heavy coat of primer/undercoater (MLC Polystar) then sand them to perfection with 220 grit. I get paid well to do this in the shop. The project saves a little money for not shop spraying. We have two guys who will be allowed to brush my cabinets. At the end of the day the field guys will not spend the elbow grease to prep the cabinets correctly. The built-ins sanded to 220 and brushed with BM Impervo will look almost sprayed.

From contributor L:
One thing that has always worked for me is to let the owners (not the GC) see the unfinished cabinets. They see them before a hack gets a hold of them and they form their own opinion. One of the biggest farces in East Texas is that most if not all cabinet shops install unfinished cabinets. I can count two, and I'm one, that actually finish their cabinets in the shop. The painters wipe the stain on what they can see and then shoot a single coat of lacquer and move on. Had one GC tell me that he prefers to use his finisher because the guy can stain and spray an installed kitchen in less than two hours (grin). Funny thing, though, is that since the big box stores are carrying more and more cabinets, customers are beginning to wonder why their cabinets don't look like the ones in the showrooms.

From contributor K:

I don't care to do it, but I do if they let me finish my part. They have to inspect and accept and pay in full before the finisher touches them. Then if I am called to redo anything, they have to pay for it. The trouble with those jobs is who pays for trouble when something goes wrong. Once the finger pointing starts, it's a mess.

From contributor Y:
On site painters are not finishers! On site conditions do not lend themselves to fine finishes. If the GC is trying to get by on the cheap, that's the finish he will get. Figure out how to cover your butt.

From contributor U:
Never done it, but I'd worry about it. I build it and install it. Someone signs for it. The person who signs for it is responsible for checking if everything is done correctly, works, and is quality. If an issue comes up, I'll go back and fix it and charge the customer (GC). If they didn't want it that way, I'd pass on the job. If you allow them to screw you, they will if they need to. Every bad job was with a GC. I don't work for them much anymore. And I get a check before I install. Bill and install separately. They may think I'm a hard nosed owner, but I will no longer let the GC call all the shots and just take it. I'm a professional too. Treat me like one and we will have a beautiful relationship.

From contributor J:
"I'm a professional too. Treat me like one and we will have a beautiful relationship." That's a great quote. I'm going to hang on to that one for awhile. If more cabinetmakers had that attitude, the builders would have to change their habits and everyone would do so much better.

From contributor S:
In our area (southeast Alabama) GC's always use their painter to finish the cabinets. We do occasionally get clients who've seen our work and request that we do the finish work. It all comes down to money usually.

We recently picked up a new contractor and during our initial talks, finishing was brought up. Our price for finishing the cabinets for the job in question was $3500.00. The allowance that their painter had for cabinets was only $800. Guess who's doing the finish work?

From contributor L:
Contributor S brings up an interesting point. Can the owner afford a quality finish job? Over here in Texas, it's typically done the same way. But here is an interesting side note. I recently installed a finished kitchen in an established neighborhood. I left the homeowner one business card. Inside of three days, I have had 40 referrals from that one card. All live in the same neighborhood. All of these homes are spec. All are basically the same layout. All are ash. All were finished by the same crew (there are tell-tale signs) and on every one, lacquer was used and the lacquer is falling off. If a guy wanted to do nothing but refinish cabinets, this neighborhood would keep him busy for a couple of years.

From contributor D:
There are times when finishing on site is an appropriate choice, and it doesn't have anything to do with saving money. However, even the best, most competent painting contractors do not know anything about cabinet hardware. They will damage or lose many pieces during the course of the job, and will not be able to properly reinstall or adjust the faces. Aside from that, the finishes can be every bit as good as what can be accomplished in the shop.

We cover ourselves with a simple paragraph in our contract that states we are not responsible for damaged or lost hardware, we are not responsible for re-hanging or adjustment of the cabinet faces, and we will not be responsible for any perceived deficiencies in our workmanship. In other words, if a painter decides he wants to sand the cabinets to 400 grit and decides to bill the contractor for the extra expense, that's not my problem.

Additionally, we are happy to supply new hardware, fix the damaged doors they dropped, mount and readjust all the faces... through additional change orders.