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There are no bad times for a good cabinet maker.

Willie's picture

Always took the easy safe road and worked my carreer in fortune 100 companies, because everyone said my love for woodworking will not make good money.

I think we have to listen to those who are successful and ignore the rest of the advice perhaps?

Building a new house, approximately 5,000 sq ft and a cabinet maker is doing all my cabinets, his name is Brian, for what it is worth. Brian is doing all my cabinets face-frame, from Cherry with grade III level granite tops. He undercut the nearest quotations from others by 35%, runs a shop with his brother and three cabinet makers. His shop is set up for cabinets, makes his own boxes and doors, it is out in the country and is as basic as it gets to do things fast. He has less equipment than I have in my hobby woodwork shop.

Brian has been doing this for 20 years, his work is excellent and he has been fully booked for as long as he can remember. He makes good money, very good money and is busy all the time. He handles the customers and designs with some shop time, but his brother runs the floor.

Five guys, who beat prices from any high end mass production shop or supplier, out in the counrty and they have more work than they can handle.

I must have been missing something?

oldusty's picture

  Then why are they cutting (post #163726, reply #1 of 31)

  Then why are they cutting the others prices by 35% ?

            just saying

oldusty's picture

 Willie ,  just curious when (post #163726, reply #2 of 31)

 Willie ,  just curious when you say he makes good money , what do you consider good money for him .

    Perhaps the reason he is busy is his price  .

     From a 30 year shop owner I think he is leaving a lot of money on the table ,is he Amish ?

                 regards     dusty,boxmaker

Willie's picture

LOL No he is not Amish. I (post #163726, reply #3 of 31)

LOL

No he is not Amish.

I believe his prices, combined with the quality of his work is the reason he has a fully booked shop. What works for him is that he works directly with the customer, so he is able to cut out prices from the middle men, or the final re-seller.

I am guessing, but if I look at his standard of living, judged by his lifestyle, he is probably putting around $200k in his pocket every year.

I asked him if he could do a custom front door for me and the reply was that he simply does not have the time to get into that, even although he has the equipment to do it.

Would have loved to do some stuff myself, but my shop is packed up and in storage, until I move into the new house.

acornw's picture

Atypical (post #163726, reply #4 of 31)

I have spent 40 years as a professional woodworker, the last 20 as a shop owner. Beyond that, I have taught woodwork classes and consulted with many woodshops on business issues.  I can say there are no free lunches, and if something appears to be an exception to that, then the whole picture is not seen.

Any small cabinet shop owner putting 200K in his pocket while pricing 35% below the norm is atypical.  Or let's say impossible.  There is another source(s) of income, because this just is not possible or sustainable.  The old joke in this business is that the best way to spend your days working wood is to have a spouse with a real job.

It is not unusual to see good craft at below market value as an inexperienced person crosses that low threshold into 'kitchens' and bangs out a kitchen at 35% below the going rate, but it doesn't last.

For the better part of my 40 years, I have built several architectural items - mostly curved stairs, interior and exterior doors, windows, paneled libraries and wainscotting, columns and stair parts.  Many folks wanted kitchen cabinetry, but I didn't know how to price it and did not have the time or desire to get into it or add it to my resume. Only when people insisted, and the work was interesting enough did I add that kind of work.

It is not unusual to want to stay within one's comfort zone. It is also a wise business practice, as you know.

It is interesting hearing a customer describe his relationship with the cabinetmaker - what the perceptions are. Many of my customers over the years looked at my business and my prices and assumed a much higher net income than the reality.


David Sochar

www.acornwoodworks.com

lignumvitae's picture

Why so skeptical (post #163726, reply #5 of 31)

One clue to Brian's success is his focus; he didn't take the front door job because although he might have enjoyed it, there probably wasn't much of a margin in it and it would have messed with his profitable production schedule.  Also, he probably doesn't have any debt to service (those P&I payments can be the real hardship) and maintains low overhead in a rural setting.  He's busy because he is well respected and delivers great value; good product for a fair price ( if this wasn't consistenly true he would be looking for work).  There is no set price for anything except comodities.  The price is what works for the individual.  I have a great friend with a small business for over 30 years.  He has no debt, prices his work very fairly, is always in demand and never missed a beat during the Great Recession.  He bought a his first NEW pickup a couple years ago!  He is absolutley a perfect craftsman in the landscape contracting business.  He could much charge more but makes a great living and loves being busy.

Back to Brian.  Common sense says he should build the door for a good customer - however, Brian is smarter than the average guy!

Westchester's picture

Expenses (post #163726, reply #6 of 31)

Willie

200 K  just profit - after all expenses and salaries paid ?

SA

acornw's picture

Simple Addition (post #163726, reply #7 of 31)

My skeptical remarks are based on the variables: The guy does 'good work'.  He is pocketing 200k. He is 35% below everybody else.

A closer look at any one of those variables raises questions - what is good work (a huge subject with its own variables), and how does it really compare to everybody else?  Other cabinetmakers?  Big box prices?  Kitchen designers? 

My experience tells me that homeowner/customers are often the least able to compare apples to apples - far more prone to comparing apples to mangoes.  We go to great lengths to educate potential customers, but more often than not get a blank stare in return. Our explanation just does not fit the preconceived framework already carried by the customer.

$200K a year is the wild card.  How this is arrived at I have no idea.  Appearance of the house and grounds may be due to spouse's contribution, family, lottery, etc.

Anyone in business for more than a week does not leave 35% on the table intentionally.  While there is no set price for commodities; 1. How is custom woodwork a commodity?  Especially when what constitutes good work is not defined for the industry much less this situatiion.  2. Pricing still falls within a distribution curve (bell curve) of predictable proportions.  I would bet lunch that I could easily find someone to do the 'kitchen' for 35% less that Brian - just move out a little further on that curve.

'Delivers good value' is one of the most overused,  mis-used and loaded phrases in common business usage.  Relative to what? 

I think two things happened here: the romantic image of the successful rural woodworker clouded things, and initial information is variable and skewed.  Nobody loves to see successful woodworkers more than I, but the truth is that most of us struggle. The image as advanced by FWW and other venues is more myth than fact for reasons too obvious to list.

Remember, even Norm Abram can not appear in public without a flannel shirt and jeans.

I have seen customer misinterpretations happen so many times in business it is predictable.  As I said, I find it interesting to hear the opinion of a customer.  Despite all the effort we put into our business, people still think what they want to think.

I don't mean to be argumentative, but imprecise language leading to inaccurate perceptions is just not worth much.

I'm just sayin'...

oldusty's picture

Dave and All ,            (post #163726, reply #8 of 31)

Dave and All ,

           If Brian knocks down 200k the other 4 guys must make at least another 200k combined as a  guide so Brian would need to gross a tad more to still gain the 400k clear but he would prolly need to do in the area of 1.2-1.5 million a year as a guess.

     I know a 5 man shop that can do this but the reality and problem here is the op said Brian had less equipment then his own hobby shop did , my pals 5 man shop has a CNC and most modern big machinery and they bust their butt to do it .

            Things are not always as they appear , Brian may make 50k and the others less each ?

                    regards         dusty

sid works's picture

acornw and dusty-good replies,but (post #163726, reply #9 of 31)

oldusty's picture

Ron , you can lead them to (post #163726, reply #10 of 31)

Ron , you can lead them to water but ,,,,

 

         " it's too bad ignorance is not painfull "

                 dusty

sapwood's picture

blah blah blah (post #163726, reply #11 of 31)

This whole discussion would be more meaningful if Willie got Brian to post a reply. Otherwise its "my big brother can beat up your big brother... so nah nah nah on you!"

Jammersix's picture

For every guy you can show me (post #163726, reply #12 of 31)

For every guy you can show me that made it as a cabinet makers, I can show you five guys that didn't, who are all BETTER cabinet makers.

The idea that being a good cabinet maker is enough to make money is false.


"A few of us went down to Gettysburg. Some of us didn't come back.

If you weren't there, you'll never understand."-- Unknown Infantryman

oldusty's picture

Hi Jammer .           More (post #163726, reply #13 of 31)

Hi Jammer .

          More like 25 to 1 in my experiences .

                  regards dusty

acornw's picture

'Zackly (post #163726, reply #14 of 31)

Success in business does not  mean competent skills in the shop, or vice versa.

As we know, those with great skills with our favorite material do not often have equal or even competent skills at business. Again, vice versa.

The fact is that 99.5% of  kitchen work is just not difficult or challenging for a professional woodworker. The skills with kitchens are all in customer mangement.

And that is where Brian's abilities lie, as I see it. 

Willie's picture

Interesting comments and (post #163726, reply #15 of 31)

Interesting comments and appreciate the input all.

I can ask Brian a few questions, but I guess getting down to the exact value of his business, his income etc., will not be possible.

Some of my own background is that I know how to build kitchen cabinets, but prefer high end individual furniture pieces 18 century stuff. This is only a hobby, as my professional career leaves only a little precious time to do the things I enjoy, so I have never built for someone else, other than a few gifts. My dad was a Master cabinet maker, he taught me when I was a kid. So, as a customer, I know how to judge output and profit margin on cabinets. I have 7 years of Engineering college and a 30 year career behind me and although I don't use this stuff any longer in my job, I am still fluent in Solidworks 3D design as well as Autocad.

These are my observations about Brian:

My own shop (in the storage at the moment) is set up to look nice and enjoy making individual pieces. Where I have one shaper, Brian has three, tooled to do only kitchen cabinets. The way he makes a door is using a simple steel jig table, with pneumatic air cylinders, accurate gluing up and assembly and he knocks out a door in a fraction of time I would, as I don't have these jigs. The jigs are simplistic, but easy to design and build.

I don't believe he has any overhead, his equipment is in good condition, but old stuff, probably paid for, a long time ago. He does all his own finishing. His shop has no fancy goodies, he uses an outdated version of sketchup.

In short, he used some smart "Industrial" engineering principles to streamline his shop (sign busy falling off the front wall) to knock out high volume rather than high margin. If you see Brian's shop, it would be a total confidence breaker in his ability. The way he presents what you will get leaves little to desire, but once you go look at his work, it changes the whole picture.

Brian has a 4 year college degree, his brother is blue collar and believe the other 3 are probably a little bit above minimum wage.

In any business, sales is the most difficult part, Brian has this under the belt, as he has been at this for 20 years and his customers are mostly custom home builders. Because he uses limited drawings, there were a few pieces of granite cut wrong, one bathroom cabinet became stock, as he had to completely rebuild it and the bar shelves and face-frame had to be re-done. He did this with a smile and ate an extra granite slab.

My cabinet work is around $40k, the closest I could get with 3 others were $65k, the job includes a custom bar. One big vendor, who designs and gets modular cabinets from China with some customization, started pricing, when he heard Brian is bidding, he threw in the towel. Material is Cherry with finished maple ply shelves, he said the Cherry came in at around $4.30 a bd ft, so give you an idea of costs in North Carolina to a business who buys a lot of lumber.

My experience in life has always been to take advice from those who have really been successful at what they do, don't listen to the rest.

Jammersix's picture

I see. (post #163726, reply #16 of 31)

To paraphrase, you have no idea what Brian makes, how he makes it, what his profit is or really anything about his business except that you like the project he did for you.


"A few of us went down to Gettysburg. Some of us didn't come back.

If you weren't there, you'll never understand."-- Unknown Infantryman

Willie's picture

I have spent quite a bit of (post #163726, reply #21 of 31)

I have spent quite a bit of time in Brian's shop, he did my job in 2 weeks, probably about 1 week for installation, he was working two other medium sized home kitchen and cabinets jobs parrallel with mine. That is enough to do some calculations with reasonable accuracy.

I have gone Turkey hunting with him and we have become pretty good friends.

Anyways, to figure out a business by looking around and asking a few questions is not difficult, especially if one understands the details.

The builder who is building my house, targets 4 to 5 houses a year, times are tough, February yielding one of the lowest new residential construction permits ever. He did 4 last year with mine included, so far he has 3 in the bag this year. We have a lot of empty spec houses in the area, standing empty for 2 years now. My builder is not the cheapest, why is he busy? Quality of work and personality has made him very reputable over here and he protects his reputation like no other.

I guess it is all the doom in gloom portrayed that kept me in my career, 7 years to go to retirement, and I will have time plane more sticks. :-)

Jammersix's picture

I am retired, so when you get (post #163726, reply #22 of 31)

I am retired, so when you get there, let me know.

No one has any idea how a business runs from the outside looking in.


"A few of us went down to Gettysburg. Some of us didn't come back.

If you weren't there, you'll never understand."-- Unknown Infantryman

oldusty's picture

Hi Willie ,             (post #163726, reply #17 of 31)

Hi Willie ,

            Could you at least share what part of the world you are in ?

          thanks  dusty

Willie's picture

Pinehurst, NC. (post #163726, reply #20 of 31)

Pinehurst, NC.

AutumnWoods's picture

Chill Out (post #163726, reply #18 of 31)

I think you guys ought to tone it down a bit.  After all, this is just a guy trying to express appreciation for the workmanship and business skills of another craftsman.  I know times are tight and work is hard to come by, but some people with good business models are still doing well.  I have a young custom furniture business that has been struggling in the recession and had to take work at a local cabinet shop.  It's been an amazing learning experience for me as I have made friends with the owner and seen the importance of the business side of the craft.  The job site is by no means modern, with a large collection of old shapers and ancient table saws next to a newer sliding table saw and edge bander.  Even our sand master is 2o-30 years old and doesn't sand level any more.  The front shop is a rusty sheet metal structure with various additions of improving quality.  I won't say he undercuts everyone by 35% becuase he's one of the premium cabinet builders in the area and knows how to get top dollar, but I can see how such a method could work if one was oriented towards bulk sales.  When times got tough he survived due to a lack of debt and a stellar reputation.  He's got everything paid off from the shop and equipment to his personal home and vehicles.  He gave a lot of people jobs when everyone else was letting them go, including me.  Seeing that custom cabinetry wasn't selling consistently he bought out a failing cultured marble business and became a one stop kitchen and bath center, selling bathtubs and showers, granite and formica countertops, factory box cabinets, and anything else that would make money.  He also contracted out some custom furniture jobs to me when some clients wanted tables and vanities he wasn't set up to produce. 

This year we already have over 400k worth of custom cabinetry in the pipeline with more on the way.  No, that's not my estimation, I was there during the bidding process as a finishing consultant.  A lot of that is for a single large home being built near the ocean.  But we'll do at least that much again before the year is through, not even counting the marble operation.  Point is, a person with good business sense, good setup, well trained people, and little or no debt can weather the storm.  Some of you are probably thinking I must be near Aspen colorado, or sunny california or something.  No, I'm in rural northwest Florida, an hour from Pensacola.  You know, the same florida with the high unemployment, destroyed real estate market, and last years oil spill?  So before you pile on Willie for his admiration of Brian, take a look at your own business models and life style and ask yourself if it's your own frustration talking.  We all knew (or should have known) what we were getting into when we decided to do custom woodworking for a living.  It's a lifestyle we chose, with an implicit acceptance of the hardship involved. 

Will I ever make $200k a year as a custom furniture maker?  Unlikely.  But I wouldn't be surprised if Sam Maloof did, with the kind of prices he commanded for his rocking chairs.  Let's just take the lesson to heart and see about improving the quality of our craft along with the refinement of our business models.  As my mentor told me when I was learning woodworking: "There will always be work for the best."

MarkAReed's picture

Reply to Reply to comment (post #163726, reply #23 of 31)

"There will always be work for the best."  Well said. Appreciate your comments.

 

A little off track, so please don't bite my head off. I'm new here.

Even if it's just an illusion, I think it's kinda flattering that people glamorize our woodworking abilities as if we are true artists.

Starving artists is more like it. The image is romanced in Norm's plaid shirt as previously mentioned, and Roy Underhill's mustache and bowler hat. 

I play the part and love wearing vintage clothes like collarless blue jean shirts and Fine woodworking ball caps. I use a few antique hand tools around the clients and they love it.

They never hear about bad times from me because there are no bad times......as far as they know. Who wants to recommend a sour puss?

It's all just an illusion. Why not give them what they love. It's fun, and I don't have to advertise.

Of course, I can say that because my remodeling company and my medical supervisor wife support the illusion of a full time cabinet shop which represents maybe 30% of total income. but, at least I'm building cabinets which I love to do.

I wish I made 100K, just once in 36 years. Come real close.  We live within our means (2400sq ft.house with1000sq ft. shop) and I'm debt free. Life is good.

Mark - Grayslake IL.

bduffin104's picture

Ignorance can be bliss. I was (post #163726, reply #19 of 31)

Ignorance can be bliss. I was in my early 20s when I opened my first cabinet shop behind my house, building custom cabinets for builders. I had no busines plan other than to stay out of debt. I did all the sales, designs, ordering, layout, cutout, hiring, firing....a typical small business owner. I hired some good help, three of four guys in the shop to help with the production work. This was a successful operation for twenty years or so. My final year before I called it quits (I burned out and moved into homebuilding) gross sales was around $800k and I think I took home about $100k. I worked long hours and worked hard. That was twenty years ago or more. I managed to keep the cabinet shop out of debt and was able to just walk away from it although I did continue to provide customer support for a year or so after closing the doors which was a cost that I offset by auctioning off most of my tools and inventory.

After another twenty years or so as a homebuilder, I now have a cabinet shop again. Things are not the same as they were before. I'm having difficulty earning a fraction of what I earned back then. I'm in a small town now, there isn't much work here. I'm trying to develope a custom furniture business instead of cabinets for homes. I'm subsidizing my shop by doing cabinet installations, remodeling and working as a carpenter by the hour. I've built a few sets of kitchen cabinets and I've sold a small amount of furniture. Fortunately my stint as a homebuilder has enabled me to become the "starving artist" that I am now.

It's odd, I don't quite know why I can't duplicate the success I once had. Maybe because it's I'm older although I still try to provide a high level of customer service. I can honestly say that I'm a better craftsman than I was back then. I continue to develope my skills. When I bid jobs these days I always seem to be too high but when I work by the hour I name my wage and they are happy to pay it, which is more than what I would have made had I gotten the bid.  Go figure. I think people are thrilled that they have hired  somebody that actually knows what he is doing.

 Anywhoo, I'm not giving up. I'm having too much fun designing and building furniture. The business will eventually take off. Fortunately I can afford to have a slow start. If I was just starting out and really needed the income I'd be a hurting unit. My hat is off to those out there who are making a go of a woodworking business in this economic enviroment. I know it's not easy.

That's my story. Hopefully someone can benefit from it.

Bret

 

 

 

 

Schwendy's picture

Contact info (post #163726, reply #24 of 31)

Can you send me Brian's info? I am in desperate need for some cabinets and if it's the same guy I'm thinking of, I met him years ago. 

 

Paul

Willie's picture

http://maps.google.com/maps/p (post #163726, reply #25 of 31)

Google Brown's Woodworking in Albermarle NC and you will get his details.

Barrie2777's picture

no bad times for a good cabinetmaker (post #163726, reply #26 of 31)

I can't agree more !!  but that doesn't apply only to cabinetmaking, it applies to all jobs.  If you are good at what you do, you will always be in demand and busy.  I am also a cabinetmaker for the last 30 years and priced at the top of the scale for our area.  The last five years have been my busiest ever where others are complaining of no work in the area.  That fellow Brian is probably not only a good cabinetmaker but has the sales skills, shop management skills cabinetmaking skills and employee relationship skills to make a success of his business.  Like Brian, I am also in the countryside and have no debt but these are not the deciding factors for me getting a job...it is my reputation for excellent work and timely delivery.  I am always straight up with clients....no false delivery dates to get the job and I expect the same from them.  I don't quote jobs any more.  Clients are more than happy to pay my shop rate and wait until I can start.  Should I charge more....no way!!  I know that I want to eat next month and do not want to price myself right out of the work.

bones's picture

too funny (post #163726, reply #27 of 31)

Is he Amish?   Too funny.   I live about 25 min from Lancaster PA and I've seen first hand the "Amish" goods up close, and cheap is not what comes to mind.  They know how to play on the name and style and its rarely cheap.   It's like when my wife show's me a new "Discount outlet Mall", it's rarely a discount.     :)

...For that old machine lovers:  http://vintagemachinery.org/home.aspx

jimangela8888's picture

JIM's Custom made furniture (post #163726, reply #29 of 31)

JIM ’ s Custom Made Furniture World in Shanghai China

 

WEB: http://www.easterncurio.com

The business that JIM now runs in Shanghai was originally established by his father in Hong Kong. The legacy of this workmanship lies with JIM's father. At age 20, he was apprenticed to a traditional Chinese carpenter in Shanghai and learnt the long-established customs of furniture manufacture and furniture upholstery. 

After moving to Hong Kong, he was fortunate to study and work with a master craftsman from France, who specialized in furnitures. This experience allowed him to integrate his knowledge of both Eastern and Western practices, catering to both local and international clients. 

When JIM and his family moved to Shanghai seven years ago, the family business came full circle, opening Little Dragon in the city where JIM's father had first learnt the craft of furniture making. JIM has a special affinity for furniture making, having studied classic and modern techniques under father's direction from the age of 16 years. He is genuinely passionate about furniture making (especially furnitures).

 Over the last 8 years, our business has grown significantly, due mainly to the glowing referrals we receive from our loyal customers, who enjoy our personalized service and attention to detail. "You can't get a better marketing strategy than word-of-mouth," says owner JIM Wong, who believes the success of our family business is based on the quality of the craftsmanship and service our staff provide. We also believe that detailed hand-finished work provides its own quality assurance and our confidence in this craftsmanship is reflected in our lifetime service guarantee. 

All tastes and styles are catered to, as the store offers more than 5,000 quality samples and fabric swatches. An enormous array of options await - smooth leather, luxurious velvet, magnificent satin tapestry designs and comfortable modern fabrics such as cotton-linen blends and ultra-suede. 

As upholstery support and padding is dictated by individual taste, customers can choose from a diverse range of filling materials, which are assembled by hand. Specialized workshop processes ensure the quality and quantity of these materials, as they are individually weighed then encased in a special lining fabric. 

Customers that choose a made-to-order furniture know just what they want, and that's usually a furniture that will retain its original size, shape and support over the years. Changes in style and taste are easily accommodated with interchangeable and replaceable furniture covers. 

Our custom-made furnitures and chairs, of unique design and style, are vivid reflections of the personality and taste of their owners. Like tailor-made clothing, the quality of the design and materials are specifically suited to the end user. Over the last seven years, we've collected an interesting range of anecdotes from our customers, some of whom will go to great lengths to get a Little Dragon furniture into their home. 

One client, whose custom-made furniture was too large to fit through his front door, hoisted it through a third floor window via a pulley. Another, having relocated his Little Dragon furniture from Shanghai, to the United States, to Singapore, visited China especially to pick up some soft furnishings from our store. Amongst our high profile customers over the years are some of Hong Kong's premier five-star hotel presidents, business titans, film stars and Shanghai's consul-generals. Perhaps one of our most faithful customers is the legendary Hong Kong actor, Andy Lau, who asked his interior decorator to work directly with us to complete the design of his entire mansion in Hong Kong. 

The repair and restoration of antique furniture is a unique skill that we offer our customers. Our European clients, in particular, have strong recollections of furniture handed down through the ages and appreciate the opportunity to put some life back into family heirlooms which hold such fond memories of those now departed. One French customer, referred by a friend, entrusted us with a armoire  that had been in the family for three generations. 

Our company's objective is the same as its clients - to retain the integrity of the original craftsmanship and refresh the unique traits of an individual furniture piece. For this reason, JIM's customers can be considered a rather special community as they are willing to come from far and wide to benefit from his unique skill set. The company's integrity and heritage are much like that of the pieces they work on – handed down from father to son and continued throughout the generations. It is no wonder that the business has an international reputation which draws clients from all corners of the globe to Shanghai. 

JIM’s Cell Phone  in Shanghai: 15801708557

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kurtenget's picture

Curious (post #163726, reply #30 of 31)

Hi Willie,

I know this post was made years ago, but could you send me the name or contact info for the cabinet maker you were discussing?

Thanks,
Kurt