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Is high end work dying?8/25
I have been in the high end of the millworker niche for the last 15 years. My small company makes money but I am not getting rich by any means. Increasingly, I see that the high end contractors I've always worked with are skipping the cabinetmaker and using their trim carpenters to make on site cabinetry using MDF. The on site painter then finishes it up. My cost of finishing (which I sub out) is admittedly ridiculous. Some of the designers I work with are now targeting the higher volume, low end market because the profit margin for their portion of the work is much higher. All the condos I see going up are cheap to say the least. So is the quality, high end market disappearing?
I won't pretend I know, but I don't think so. I'm working on a $3m home right now through a developer. My cabinetry is closer to high end and not inexpensive, but I'm only doing an office and a vanity. Basically providing a little WOW factor with some stained rift white oak cabinetry to contrast a lot of painted millwork.
I was honestly surprised at how much mdf site-built cabinetry there was in this home! I didn't think that stuff would fly in this price range? I guess once it's painted it will look good enough in the short term. But I don't think if it was the owner of a home it would fly.
Condos and townhouses around this area don't usually get much high end cabinetry at all when built. It's the owners that fix them up later who will spend a little money. I'd say roughly half of my work is in condo's in the city. Figuring starting prices are close to the $1m range, plus staggering condo fees, and parking spots $60k and up……there are still plenty of people with expendable income! The trick is finding the ones who appreciate quality and craftsmanship.
I think folks like you and I have been asking that question for about 2,000 years or more. We look around, see a change, and extend it out, and predict a dire future. While there is plenty to agree with - that it is dying - there are exceptions.
First, 'high-end' is a subjective, relative term. What is 'high' to me may not be to the next guy. Just as climbing a mountain peak gives the reward of standing on the top of that peak, it also offers a view of all the other, higher peaks that you have not scaled. I think that almost any shop along a spectrum - from low end to true high end can ask the same question you ask, as they see their price (relative price) stand as too 'high' in the context of the competition. We all can say that the customer is deteriorating.
As the niche you work within becomes (apparently) smaller, you do become more valuable. At times it seems like you are merely endangered, but look at it in context. For the person that wants hardwood frame and panel case work or general better quality, but can only find MDF disposa-wod, you become a rare commodity. I hear it all the time: "I didn't think anyone knew how to do this anymore..."
Now, everyone appreciates craft, knows to look for dovetails, etc. But the pressure to find 'value' (whatever that is?) makes people think they can't afford the things they want. It also makes for vinyl drawer sides with printed dovetails. Add in the fact that many of my younger customers have never seen nice architectural work or lived with good design, and it is an uphill battle all the way. They will buy a new table every 2-3 years, instead of having one nice table made that will cost less in the long run, and give them the pleasure of uniquely good design, and great materials, as well as good service and retained value.
A positive is that it doesn't take too much work to keep your small shop busy - relatively speaking, yet again. When I first hit 50k a year, I thought I had saturated the market. Where could I find more work? At 1.1m, I think I did hit the market saturation, and was moving beyond my own area to grow further. Again, all relative.
Your job - and mine - is to find the people that want good work, authentic woodwork, competent joinery and design, and connect to them. As the Wal-Marting of America continues to drive prices down and bring ever worse materials up, we need to step aside and consciously not take part in that fruitless (for us) pursuit. How we find 'our kind of people' is the problem, and one I confess to not having an easy solution to.....
We do high end furniture both wood and frame up upholstered. We were dead all summer and now we are buried up to our eyeballs. There are plenty of wealthy clients for our interior designers and I am finding fewer that want to beat me up for lower pricing. I would have agreed with you last week but we got $250000 in furniture orders since Monday. :-) Hang in there.
Worked for a client that built a million dollar plus house. Made 3 vanities for them. When we got there to install that's what we saw. MDF built ins. 5 piece doors made from all MDF, who would want to subject their cutters to that?
FJ molding, cheap pine, and MDF. Cover it with some primer and paint and I guess that's what goes into a million dollar home.
The kitchen cabinets were lackluster and on of the stained set of cabinets was just horrible.
My cabinets were the best cabinetry in the house. FYI, I'm doing more work for them. I'm sure they noticed the quality difference between what they got and what I could give them.
High end work is spotty and comes and goes. Right now my work load is up. Lets hope it continues.
Side by side comparison will make better work stand out. But by then, it is a bit too late. Leo's customer with the FJ moldings and the MDF is learning, and will benefit from the association with Leo. But I will bet he had no idea his house had the same materials as the vinyl village down the road. Most of my customers that only get a few doors from us honestly think all their other doors are wood when they are hardboard or MDF. No one ever told them differently, and when they ask their builder about it, they are told that the 'near' doors they have are all they can afford. In a 2.4m house.
I see it as a problem of specifications.
Lack of, or there is such a common downgrading that even the $3m Personal Monuments have crappy woodwork. This allows more square footage, which is the cash cow for the General and most trades.
Perhaps you have worked a commercial job where 'specs' are covered in a small book (tho it is often lawyer-speak boilerplate), with those specs meant to give an adequate description of what is needed so bids are all apples to apples.
You will never see specs for a residential job, much less anyone that checks after the delivery, so I think you should write your own specs, and make it known that XYZ is how you propose to do the work, and then let them know that if they would like a bid with different specs, you would be more than able to do so, once those specs were supplied. You could even add a bit of why you build to such and such specs - tighter joints, less finish problems, more solid boxes, etc. Show some samples if you have the choice.
With the entire world moving towards everything made from some sort of printed cardboard, it is very easy to write specs and make a sample or two that stand out from all the crap.
It's funny, I've read countless other threads where mdf moldings are touted as superior to solid wood for their stability, paintability, and sustainability. Also as substrates for veneers in frameless cabinetry for the same reasons.
The site built aspect is interesting; in some regions it was common traditionally for cabinets to be built on site by experienced carpenters/joiners. I've actually worked on a trim/cabinet. crew that did just that and the owner took great pride in his work and woodworking expertise.
We will never run out of people with more money than brains.
"...more money than brains" I hope you are right. There might also be some that do have brains, and also money. Then there is luck (lottery) or inheritance. Lots of reasons why someone has a lot of money to spend.
I used to agonize over some of my proposal that were in the tens of thousands of dollars - more than the first house I bought. I'd sleep on it, reduce it a few percent, rework numbers, tighten waste factors, etc.
Then one day, I was talking to a young couple about a 40k project. I was sweating, trying to justify the expense for what would be a knock out room. He was hesitant, and I was thinking about backing down a bit on the price. Finally she spoke up and said "You know, that is really just a good morning on the Market". She explained that he made that much more than once in the last couple of weeks. He agreed once he saw it in that context, and went with it. They were delighted and never mentioned the price again except that it was easily worth it.
That $40k was like $150 to me - significant, but not monumental.
Remember, almost no one needs what we make, they buy because they want it. Everyone "needs" a car, but some pay $10k and some pay $100k, and some even pay 5 or 10 times more. They will all do the job of transport, so why the additional expense? Because they want it.
We are commercial only and have been seeing more higher dollar work. We are in the middle of a dental clinic with lots of curved maple moldings and casework. Just finished a bank that was mostly curves. I think curves add a lot of style and of course price. It eliminates some shops from the bidding also, that's always good, for us.