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Marketing solid wood doors5/4
I've had a small shop with 1-5 employees over the last 15 years. Income has been marginal throughout. We've been in the high-end custom market and have built cabinets, doors, millwork etc. Recently, I've seen design studios take over much of the cabinet market. These showrooms offer high quality cabinets, a designer, all your fixtures etc. in one location and I think they are squeezing some of the cabinet shops in my area. More and more, I've focused on custom entry doors and interior wood doors. I now have one employee who is great but, even then, I am often just keeping busy to pay his salary. Do you think there's a good niche for custom doors? And, if so, how do I market it? We have a good reputation but word of mouth seems to only bring in sustaining work. Often we are under capacity.
That is a good question. I have been wondering the same thing. Of course, we do not know your market, we do not know how your shop is set up with tooling and space.
As you know, there are a lot of steps to making doors. This takes special equipment and space to do this competitively.
The big problem that I see in my area, Upstate Michigan is not that we do not have growth, but that the upper middle class that 15 years ago were retiring here and building their dream home and would be a market for these doors are no longer building their dream home. This market has lost confidence in investing three quarters of a million dollars into a home and being able to get their money out in ten years or more.
There are a lot of housing units being built in this area, but they are either rental apartments, low end condo's or multi million dollar homes. That upper middle class building the $600 to $700 thousand homes is almost non existent.
I have a well equipped shop, but if I were to get into custom doors, I would need another CNC with C axis and a Hot press. These two pieces of equipment would cost about $150,000 and I am not able to make that investment without financing and banks are not throwing money around either.
This something I would love to do, but for me, I will have to wait.
One way to compete making custom doors is to make what people need, and can't get. Big companies can't adapt to small custom historic jobs, and pass the necessary information through layers of management to make exact reproductions in a cost effective way.
I make replacement reproduction doors for old buildings. Construction details, molding profiles, etc. are made to match existing. That includes custom moldings, through mortise and tenon construction, coped and pegged, wedges, using old hardware, and reproduction code glass.
The equipment is a $4000. tenoner, a $2000. shaper, a 1950's mortiser, a big jointer, AutoCad, corrugated back custom tooling, the ability to match moldings exactly, and a the usual woodshop machinery.
There's a lot of business out there replacing rotten wood. Just use wood that won't rot real fast, like Sapele.
I have concentrated on exterior and interior doors for over 30 years. At most, it only makes up 55% of what we do, since the doors 'open the door' to other work on the project. Couldn't resist.
It is a viable strategy, but: Most of what we get is in the upper 5% of new construction. $1.2M or more. We do some repro of old and historic, but less than 5% per year.
We are a 2 man shop, so we do not get too excited about a 40 door job, and have not done one that large in our current configuration. 10 or 12 doors can easily max us out in size, scope and mental ability. Our average "main" entry is about $9,000, H Mahogany, pre-hung, no finish, no install. That and a side door and some other stuff make for a good $18,000 job - the right size for us, maximizing design and fabrication with materials usage. We go a lot of drawings and make an excellent first contact, then follow thru with pictures of the work in process, proper delivery and carpenter support, as well as photos when done. Everyone loves it when someone thinks enough of their work to photograph it.
While we have had many that did not buy because of expense, we have never had anyone say after the fact that they spent too much. They often say it is one of the nicest details, if not the nicest detail, of the house.
We have the local reputation as the go to shop for anything door related, but wrestle with carpenters over the other specials in a project - staircases, (router-crafted) built ins, stapled bland wainscoting, box beams. We have a good rep with builders.
We recognize we have 3 customers- Owner, builder and carpenter. If all 3 are happy, we are happy, and word spreads.
Your abilities, your game has to be in top shape - a good working knowledge of different doors types and construction details, glass and hardware. You need to know some historical and regional designs. Your shop has to be of excellent craft and flexible and fast at problem solving. We sub out insulated glass and finish. Nothing else. You need to have good shop history on everything you make so you can price and predict accurately. Everything I have made for 40 yrs has been tracked on T&M and goes into the big folder that I can refer to if needed. I can easily predict within a few percent of where we will be in cost vs sales.
'Tain't easy. But it can be done. My market did not know what a mahogany door was 40 yrs ago. Now every house of note around here has at least one.
I have a similar set up but also a CNC and wide belt sander. I can make doors very efficiently. The problem seems to be volume. I seem to consistently make enough doors annually to keep the shop running but with a minimal salary for myself and little or no profit. My accountant tells me I require about 80K in annual revenue (includes cost of materials) to cover shop costs. After that, I start making a salary. That figure seems easily attainable but I make a lot of really big doors and frames. Moving them around is possibly not feasible for one person. The problem comes when I add employees. Having an excellent employee requires me to sell 90-100K (including cost of materials) to cover his salary. That means $170K for the two of us. After that, I start to pay myself a salary. This also seems like it should be easily attainable. Unfortunately, at tax time I am often left with minimal salary and no profit. Sales seem to be the problem as I am often just keeping my employee busy on projects that I could be doing.