Advice about Starting a Cabinet Business
I was raised in construction, but have always wanted to take up my grandfather's craft. I know a little, but nowhere near enough to get started. But my grandfather left me a gift. Not only the memories and knowledge, but also a letter stating that he was going to help me with my dream, and funds to get me started. I so want this!
I do have a little shop that I like to play around in, but not big enough for what I need. So I am going to have one built. I need some guidance, though. What size shop would be a good starting point? What tools are necessary to start with? Any good programs for learning, etc.? I have a set amount of money that I can spend and I want to do this right. I am excited and scared to death at the same time.
From the original questioner:
I have approximately $60,000.00 for my startup. A shop is going to take about 2/3 of that! I was thinking along the lines of a 40'x60' building. What do you all think?
I want to do custom cabinets and maybe later some furniture. (I love to design!) Am I right that custom cabinets are built to fit a room? I have so much to learn! I know absolutely nothing at all about refinishing, staining or painting. I do know wood and can read a tape (LOL)!
I designed several house floorplans for my father when he was in construction and always wanted to design kitchen cabinets. I understand layout and know most of the standard cabinets sizes, etc. But I do not want to do just standard.
It will only be me in the shop to begin with, unless I can con my son into helping me on his days off... Surely helping mom is more important than chasing girls, wouldn't you think?
From contributor D:
You need to get some experience in the trade. Get a job working for another cabinetmaker for a year or so. Actually, several cabinetmakers would be better. Until you do that, I would not recommend buying anything - you could simply be wasting your money.
Business is very complicated and requires lots more than simply experience - such as customers? As a part of your training, I would highly recommend you talking with guys at www.true32.com and beginning to see a completely new way of looking at the cabinetmaking business. They sell a manufacturing methodology of designing/building/marketing, etc. frameless cabinets. Talking with them would give you the home cabinetmaking end of the business with the most up-to-date machinery and methods.
If your grandfather was into making furniture, that is another trade altogether different than making cabinetry for homes. If that is what you are looking to do, I would recommend a craft school where you train under a master furniture maker for a year or more.
Don't be in such a hurry to spend your money or build your shop! That is a recipe for simply wasting it altogether... and what a shame that would be. You have a once in a lifetime opportunity here.
Some might suggest going to the woodworking show in Atlanta - and I think that might be an okay thing to do, except you should absolutely *not* buy anything at all until you spend a year or two finding out what it is you want to do. Those shows are designed to sell equipment, primarily, with some educational classes offered also, which by the way, would be the best thing you could do at the show.
From contributor A:
I agree with contributor D on this one. If it is your dream to have your own shop, take the time and do it right. Get all the knowledge and hands on training you can get. Try working for a shop in your area. That way, your dream won't turn into a nightmare.
From the original questioner:
I appreciate your advice. This is not something that I am just jumping into. I have wanted to do this for years, but haven't had the means. I totally understand where you are coming from. I don't want to throw this chance away, either; that's why I am here. I want to learn.
As for working with someone for learning experience, I would love that. But I have talked to several different contractors in my area and there isn't anyone close by that would be considered a custom cabinetmaker. Custom cabinets are usually subcontracted in from out of town, or you choose from whatever Stine's has to offer. There are a few cabinetmakers here (I live in a rural area), but they don't do what I would call quality work. It is just thrown together and made to look half decent. That is not what I want to learn.
The closest area to find someone would be 110-150 miles (round trip). That is just too far for me to drive everyday. I have also checked our local vo-tech school. It is geared more towards construction than anything else. They do make cabinets, but not the raised panel. What they could teach me about building cabinets, I already have knowledge of.
I am not putting the shop up right this moment, but it will be right after the first of the year. I am just in the planning stage and trying to learn all that I can. As for the business aspect of it, I ran my own repossession company for almost 20 years and have excellent skills for dealing with the public, tons of office experience, keep my own books, etc. I really want to do this and with some help, I know that I can. I really do appreciate your concern.
From contributor W:
I started off with some hand tools and a Workmate in the living room of my one bedroom apartment. I am in my second shop now and planning the next one. The projects that I do have grown along with the shops that I have been in. All along, it has been driven by the volume and range of work that has come my way. As my experience has increased, so has the level of sophistication of equipment. Your equipment needs will be determined in large part by the products you are asked to build. Hopefully you inherited some of your grandfather's equipment. Buy quality stuff and perhaps some day you can make the same dream come true for one of your grandkids.
From contributor J:
First off, sorry for your loss, and second, congrats on the gift. That's a rarity these days. I would second the advice to work in a few other shops to glean their hands-on knowledge. Methodologies from several others will benefit you most, give you a chance to establish some solid contacts, who to cater to, who to avoid, and earn a check while you're at it.
Keep your plans to yourself during this time, and just work and learn. I would consider this a 3-5 year plan at the least. You will gain a lot of insight as to the type/quality/style of work that you want to do and knowledge of the type of equipment that will be needed. As suggested, the true32 education would be most beneficial and prepare you for the approach that you want to take.
I've hired a couple of people from the Vo-tech trade schools and can honestly say that they paid to learn how to put on decking and shingles - nothing useful. Put your money in a high yield CD or annuity - it will be there when you are ready. Maybe purchase your property, then lease a place for a while to get the sense of your work flow and volume, acquire your equipment and tools and build a customer and location base. My first two buildings sucked because I didn't figure those things out till later. In fact, I worked at the local lumberyard for about 6 years to build my contacts. If Stine is the go-to guy in your area, that may be an excellent resource for building your customer base, as they have probably already sorted out the Pros from the Cons and the payers from the deadbeats.
From contributor B:
I'd look around for a place to rent before I built a big building to start a new business. I'd try to make the most of that money and invest in some good used tools. You can save a bunch by buying used. I would put some of that money away for a rainy day and let it earn you more money. It is hard to make a living from a startup custom woodworking business. You will need some of that to live off of while you get things up and running.
From the original questioner:
I have the True32 site saved and hope to contact them this week. As for buying used equipment, that kind of scares me. I wouldn't know if it was in good shape or not. I am going to go ahead and purchase a shaper, a new fence for my tablesaw and some cutters. I'm going to let my kitchen be my first project. Would someone recommend quality shapers, what hp I might need, and also who makes quality bits?
From contributor F:
The best ideas are don't jump - yet - and serve at least a brief apprenticeship somewhere. It may mean your first investment is an apartment for weeknights in a distant city where you can work and learn. It's more than tools and design! It's the business operation including scheduling and inventory management, etc. The level of the finished product will come and it sounds like you have a market opportunity, but you can learn even in a low-end shop and you can move up after you become a machine operator. Get started and come back and visit often. Let the money grow a while.
From contributor O:
You're in doubt of what you want to do and what tools you want to use to do it with. One of my favorite mottos is, "If in doubt, don't." So... don't do anything but learn yet. There's little doubt you want to learn. Get a better understanding of what you can do and what you want to do. As most have said, work for different shops. Doesn't matter much if they're high end or not. Most cabinet boxes have the same number of pieces, it's just that there are so many different ways to put the pieces together. While it's way premature, if you must, rent something small for a bit. Another thing that's all important to understand in making your different decisions is whether you want to earn a living or just enjoy a craft.
You'd need at least 5hp to make a clean panel cut in a single pass, along with sleds and a power feed to save fingers. Making doors is a business in itself. Don't buy a shaper yet - outsource your fronts. You'll be plenty busy figuring out everything else without having to figure out how to properly build doors that won't explode next winter.
From contributor B:
Posted by: Byron Clinkingbeard 8/8 [ #14 -- Re: New... and need some advice please ]
I've got a shaper and a 24" dual drum sander that haven't been turned on in a long time because I outsource all my doors. Rather than tie up money on tools that won't be used regularly, I would encourage you to consider outsourcing. There are lots of places that will build nice quality doors and deliver them to your shop at a price that will surprise you. The nice thing about that is they will remake those doors if there is a problem. If I have a problem with a door I make, I have to remake it.
From contributor U:
Learn the trade before you invest your money. Find the best cabinetmaker you can and beg to apprentice for him. Take some of the money to pay for an apartment if you need. Then after a year or two, you will know how to invest your grandpa's money. If you think you can do this business without learning the trade first, you will surely learn many lessons the hard way. In my shop, we can always use people who take cabinetmaking seriously. There are many good, profitable cabinetmakers out there who would love to pass the trade on. By the way, "Plumbridge" (our business name), is named after the small village in Ireland where my grandfather came from - and yes, he was a cabinetmaker as well.
From contributor R:
Do not buy machinery now. That means that shaper, also. (We are doing about $600K/year now and I don't have or need one.) Don't build a building - rent (you will need this money for many other things).
You need to learn how to build cabinets. More important is a business plan. A marketing plan would be the first thing on the list. You will need customers. How will you get them? Time your business startup with the release of the new phonebook. Get fliers printed and distribute them to builders. Lots of ways to advertise.
Next, start to line up suppliers. Find a source for everything you will need to buy, like lumber, mouldings, hardware, doors (told you not to buy that shaper), drawer boxes, etc. Outsource as much as possible. (This is very important for a one man shop. You can run way more work through the shop this way.) Get catalogs and samples.
Develop how to estimate, develop a proposal, DBA a descriptive name, open a bank account for the business, line up an accountant and bookkeeper (hopefully you will not have time to do this yourself). All of the above things would be needed before you sell your first job.
Next, the learning cabinets part. When I started, I had never built cabinets or worked for another shop. I did have years of working with my hands, bookcases, desks, other miscellaneous woodworking items.
But I bought some good books, studied, asked questions, looked at how other cabinets are built, taught myself. Bill Buck can help at True32. Take a month vacation and go to work for him. Just don't jump in too fast (and I don't think this will take 1 - 3 years). Plan the work and then work the plan.
From contributor E:
If I had your opportunity, I would in time buy the land and build the building. It is the best investment you can make; itís paid for - if you never sell anything, you still own the building. At worst, youíre a landlord. (Look into prefab steel buildings, or even a temp crop building. But buy the land and own your building.)
Use your head. If you want a dream shop to make widgets, then build one over time. If you want to sell/build cabinets, than realize you do not need a dream shop to do that. Outsource everything and make money.
Find a shop nearby to cut and band your cabinet parts, then find the source for your doors, face frames, drawers and pullouts. Assemble those parts in your big, empty, paid for building/cabinet shop. Spend the time, not money, to see how the cabinet parts are cut and how they are built; do this by using someone elseís cabinet design. As you learn the business, try to build your own parts, but not at first. If cabinets are what you want to build and sell, start your business out profitable, not under the burden of having to hit the floor running already behind.
Think about this one. Your first customer, Mrs. Smith, wants a kitchen; say she has the plans from the box store. She hands you the plans and says, can you build this for me? You say, sure I can, you add up X# feet of lowers and Y# feet of uppers. You rattle off a price based on your outsourced notes. Buy for $75.00 a foot, sell for $150.00. You order the parts, assemble the cabinets (by yourself, no employees), hire out the finish. Done. You may have paid more for the parts to be already made, but you made money on the first job, even if it is just a dollar.
As for equipment adviceÖ First piece of equipment I would buy: a forklift. Second piece: a computer, with the right software.
One last thing about myselfÖ I like making cabinets, but hate installing them. I like my 4200 sf shop, but hate paying rent. Love all the machines I use, but hate the payments.
From contributor L:
A slightly different take based on my understanding that you've neither built nor designed cabinets. You might want to attack the design element first. For example, get a copy of the free eCab software, a competent computer, and learn to use them. Learn to create the shop and presentation drawings and the cut lists.
Get some house plans and generate kitchen designs. Back issues of Fine Homebuilding will have articles on kitchen remodels - they have an annual special issue on them, also. See what others have done and mock up drawings for the floorplans that were shown. What would you do differently and why?
If you see an open house, ask if you could come back later and measure the kitchen. You'll get lots of no responses, but maybe a few yes responses. Design a kitchen for each one you measure. What dimensions did you forget to take?
Try to find an installer who would accept you for a week or two as free labor. Is there any new construction in your area? See what problems the installer has; how did the cabinet's design create or mitigate the problem? Can you do the same for installs with solid/attached bases, ladder bases, and adjustable legs? Which do you like and why? Do you see a difference in the final products?
You might be able to do much of this in your off time before you cut the lifeline. Four to six months of such practice and you'd know the program and be able to generate a design. Once you can measure a kitchen and design the cabinets, then remodel your own kitchen as a first project. Get a digital camera and shoot pictures before, during and after. What would you have done differently and why?
From contributor C:
Everyone here has excellent points, but it is obvious that you have the entrepreneur's fever. This, as everyone here must know, is the worst and the greatest thing to curse a personís soul. We can tell you whatever is best, but it wonít relieve that insane desire to be in business for yourself. My advice is to go for it, but be wise to what the people above have said.
I too just got started about a year ago with little money, just a nice commercial contract. Started out of my garage for about six months, then rented a 30x60 shed and have been busy since. I do cabinets and various woodworking projects. I just came across $50k as well, but I wonít be buying a shed or any major tools. The reason for this is, like most businesses, I donít what my future holds until I have an XYZ number of customers that I can rely on. I will buy as I go now and outsource.
My best advice is: 1) Find your market. a) Run a local ad for cabinets, etc. and make sure you have the work lined up. Do not worry if you get work before you have a shop; just tell them you are 4 months back ordered. It looks good. Make sure that you have tools, building (rent; try to get a 6 month lease), permits lined up, ready to go. Leave a 30 day window to get tools and set up shop if you do get enough work. At this point, you have a $400 advertising expense (risk) and nothing more. Once you have work, if you do quality, it will keep coming. If you donít have work lined up, I wouldnít risk the money. I would just buy some tools and work out of the garage until work arrives.
Letís assume you have contracts. Set up a one year plan for existence. Rent a cheap building for one year - $800/month for 12 months with utilities = $9600 total. Take another $10-15k and buy used tools or new to get started (outsource doors for now and especially finishing). Factor another 20k in for your wages during slow times or hard times. Make sure you have this money set aside for emergencies. Itís a must. If you build and it costs 40k, you will not have any cushion or room for mistakes.
Loss: Let's imagine that in one year, business is not so great and you need to go back to a normal job. Your risk and investment after one year is $10k for rent (gone), 15k tools which you will always have, 20k for your minimum salary (which will negate if you are working and making money), 5k for insurance, advertising, general business expense. So your maximum risk is $50k, worst case scenario, assuming you make no money in wages. Buy disability insurance from your local insurance guy. It's cheap and covers you 24/7 for anything.
Bottom line: you have the fever and must go for it! Just donít do what 90% of new businesses do and not go in with a plan and most importantly, a back-up plan. As for knowledge, buy many books and read, read, read. You will be surprised by how much you remember from your grandfather when your a_ _ is on the line to get a job done. Definitely go to Atlanta in two weeks and spend about 5 hours a week on WOODWEB.
From contributor X:
Investing in one's self is a worthwhile venture. Buy products with the intent of reselling them in the future, so you can recoup your money once again. Start a library on the subject. There are many books available. Read. Subscribe to trade magazines Ė they're free. The more you know, the more you can do and your abilities will grow. EBay sells a lot of used books, tools, etc. Use caution when buying. Visit as many cabinet shops as possible. Ask questions and learn. Read WOODWEB daily; it can be your friend and bible. Join some civic groups. Remember to have fun at what you do.
From contributor M:
I've been teaching cabinetmaking for over three years at a school in Ct, and the thing I see over and over is that folks come in wanting to learn how to make raised panel doors and glazed finishes, and when they complete the course, they are overwhelmed at what it really takes to do a quality job. Doors and fronts, for the most part, are more economical if they are outsourced, unless you have only a few simple profiles and have gotten extremely good at making them. Your enthusiasm is great, but I would strongly suggest channeling it into spending the next 6 months researching all the things you need to know and understand before buying anything at all. The True32.com suggestion is great - *if* what is popular in your market is frameless cabinets or you are going to be the one to make them popular.
I use Ecabinets software to design my cabinets, and have most of the cutting outsourced. I have a very small shop in comparison to many on this forum, but like you, I tend to lean toward the design and I found two good CNC milling operations that will take my designs, mill them, and ship them back to me ready to assemble and install. It's still my design; I just rent time on their machines. It's a whole other way to look at things.
From contributor H:
Take the money and put it in the bank. Get someone to help you that you trust if you don't know anything about investing. Don't just assume the bank is looking out for you when they make suggestions.
Now you need to learn the business. If you could, I suggest you go to one of the schools that advertise in the good woodworking magazines. Find a cabinet shop that will train you. Plan on spending lots of time sweeping and cleaning. Eventually you will work your way up to sanding. To do it right, you will need a few years learning the trade.
While you are learning how to work wood, you need to take some classes on running a business. This is the most important thing. There are lots of very good craftsmen out there that struggle because they never learned the business part. There are lots of marginal cabinetmakers that make lots of money because they are good businessmen. For customers to buy your product, you have to produce what they want, not what you want to sell them or what you think they should buy. When you build a building, I think the size you are looking at is a good size to start. I like metal buildings because they can be added to fairly easily as you grow.
From contributor I:
Kind of reminds me of the joke told of local farmers. "What would a farmer do if he won the lotto? He would keep on farming till all the money is gone!" I worked part-time in my basement for over 15 years before I went into business. That first year almost killed the business before I got a good start. I went from $35,000 a year at the day job to $12,000 at the shop. Those were 1987 dollars. If I had not been married (read that as spouse being full time with health insurance), I would not have survived. That was with 15 years of experience and a steady client base. You can't imagine how little time you will have for woodworking some days in business. Bids, phone calls, material pickups, trade salesmen stopping by, your friends stopping by, etc. Plan on working half days as well (there are 24 hours in a day). So at least 72 hour weeks, underbid work, finish that won't dry fast enough, etc.
You really must get some experience before starting. Most business advisors will tell you to have something like 1/2 year salary set aside in the bank to keep the business solvent the first year. That leaves you with a little more than 1/2 the inheritance left. Not much to start a business. If you have to travel that far to find a custom cabinet shop or furniture shop, maybe it is not financially feasible to operate a shop in your area. I live in an area that has about 350,000 people in all the combined metropolitan area. It's tough to sell hand work around here, in a blue collar industrial/farming area. Maybe something like .1% will look at custom work on a regular basis. How many customers would that give you in your area? I wouldn't have given up the experiences of my business for the world, but at 54 years old, I'm now back in the corporate world. My health isn't the best these days, and I have more joint pain that you can shake a stick at. You really use yourself up both physically and mentally in a business. The best of luck to you in whatever you decide.
From contributor N:
One of the main things I have learned by being in this trade for three decades is how little I knew when I started. I very much agree with the others who have advised you to work for several other woodworkers before you start your own shop. When I was young I would work for a maker until I had learned everything about that operation I could and then get a job at another shop and learn what they did. You wouldn't believe how much that has helped me now that I have my own shop.
Let the seed money grow in the bank while you learn. You see, I don't know much about the plumbing trade, but if I wanted to become one, I would try to get a job working with and learning from the best one in my area. Becoming skilled at a trade teaches you that lesson. The tricks of any trade are an accumulation of knowledge that has been passed on from generation to generation over the ages. If you attempt to go it alone, it is like setting yourself back to pioneer status in your field.
A 40x60 building is an abundant amount of startup space. That is the size of my shop and it is almost overkill for a one man operation like mine. I have room to spare.
From contributor V:
Seems to me you know quite a bit already, having worked with your grandfather. You could start out with a minimum of equipment, and a smaller shop for now, maybe even rent a place. A showroom would do wonders for you as a startup company (versus one that has word of mouth business). Visit as many other shops as you can, and pick their brains. There are some excellent cabinetmakers from my area that post on the web often. Many of those bugged the heck out of many cabinet shops to gain some insight, so don't be shy.
Recently I've talked with a few new startup shops in my own town. It doesn't take much to get started. A decent table saw with a 5 hp motor, with a large outfeed table, a chop saw with long fence in both directions with stops, an edge sander, a pocket hole machine (table top models are okay and less money). A face frame table (used or new), hand tools and hand power tools. All of this assuming you're going to build face frame cabinets. I recommend you outsource your doors, which gives you more choices on styles. Also, outsource your finishing if you can. Outsourcing will save you a lot of time and you won't have to spend as much money on machinery. In turn you will have the time to devote to sales, design, cabinet construction, delivery, installs, etc.
Also, a good design program (like KCDw, which can be rented) will help you with sales (pretty pictures), but it will help you with design and learning process. When I started in the early 80's I gave up on custom cabinets (I don't like builders) and made furniture that I sold to furniture stores for 17 years, then when I got back into custom cabinets, I first bought a cabinet design program (cabnetware), which helped me relearn how to design kitchens, and solve construction related issues. Many new startups do good work, but where I see the problems are in the lack of experience in the design process.
I see new shops set up like this all the time. You can grow and add machinery as you become more successful and grow in the direction you're heading towards. Let us know how you're doing with this new adventure. I'm sure as you get started, everyone here will jump in and help you along with advice.
From the original questioner:
I am married and I am not presently working, so my income would not be a problem. I want to make money, but normal household expenses would not be dependent on me. The learning part is my main concern right now. We own four acres, so there is no need to purchase land. There is plenty of room to put a shop. I have ordered ecabs program, so I will try it before spending money on some other program. Even If I was totally awful at making cabinets (which I don't foresee) or couldn't get enough business, I feel that I wouldn't have lost anything. The shop could always be used to store my husband's old cars in (don't tell him I said that!), add value to our property, etc. Any tools that are purchased would be there for me to continue to learn, to practice and to just plain enjoy. I have really thought this through. I have all this time on my hands and the opportunity to do what I have always wanted.
I am not looking at this as having the shop built, buy all the tools and now I am a business. I want the tools, I want to play, learn, be able to try something and not afraid that I might make a mistake. Hey, I'm sure that I am going make lots of them! But that is what learning is about.
And one day I will be a business, but in no way do I expect that to happen overnight just because I have tools. I ran my own business for 20 years. I know the ins and outs of maintaining a business. I know that there may be 12 hour days of working... people wanting something now... the list goes on. Please tell me some books to read. What is the easiest or hardest wood to work with? Any more websites to learn from? I'm gonna do this!
From contributor T:
The text I had in trade school was Cabinetmaking and Millwork by John L. Feirer. I still use it as a reference 30 years later. My brother in law and I started our business with a 12 inch Craftsman table saw and a couple of 1 HP routers. You would be amazed how much you can accomplish with a few tools and a good working knowledge of wood. Like anything else in life, practice is key. There's no pressure, so take your time and watch your fingers.
From contributor Y:
Even with your explanation about the investment up front not being a problem, I'd go slow and learn as much as possible first. Go to IWF2006. I still say it's the cheapest education you can get in 4 days. Keep money in reserve. You will need it. Is there any way you can work in a good shop even if it is just 2 days a week pushing a broom? You can learn a lot by watching, taking notes, asking a few questions. A relative in a town 80 miles away that would let you stay for a couple of nights a week? Even if this pays net zero, it's worth it for the learning.
From contributor S:
It sounds like you want to get into woodworking, period. Working with wood can be very rewarding. There is a big difference between doing this to satisfy an inner longing and doing this to make a living. And I think that is what many of these guys are saying. Many people make great things and are very competent. However, being a craftsman (craftsperson) does not make you a good businessperson. Home Depot has made a killing convincing the average Joe that they can do what professionals do, and at a fraction of the cost. What you don't see is a bunch of people quitting their day jobs to become tradespersons. There is very definitely a knack to running a shop as a business, especially if your livelihood depends on it.
With that said, I think it would be best for you to decide which route you would like to choose. I believe they are mutually exclusive, to an extent. Unless you have a clientele that is willing to wait as long as you want to take, you will have to be quite efficient and productive to make it financially. In this day, being productive means that you may not be doing as much of the work yourself, but instead outsourcing parts because it is financially better to do so. And some guys outsource all their parts and just assemble. They don't have to invest in expensive equipment and yet benefit from its speed and accuracy. As you see, the choice starts to become either/or. Either you enjoy the craft or you become so productive that it becomes mechanical.
If you want to pursue this trade, first learn the difference between traditional face frame construction and frameless. I can tell you to do frameless efficiently, you will need to spend a bunch of money. (If I were to retool for frameless again, I would look strongly at a CNC router.) And in many markets, it is almost necessary to have a router to compete.
Next, I would learn how to build the cabinets you choose (face frame or frameless). Learn how people who make traditional cabinets make them differently. What do they do with the backs? Are they captured in a groove, in a rabbet, or planted on the back edges? What kinds of joinery do they use - nails, screws, staples, dowels, dados, etc? How do they make the drawers? How do they handle the toe kicks? Do they make one big unit, or break it into smaller pieces and assemble them on site?
There are a lot of books out there, and many different opinions on how to build. Learn the craft. Be able to know what construction method the author is using, and what the strengths and weaknesses are of that approach. That is what many are saying when they urge you to work for a shop. You have the benefit of seeing how one person does it.
From contributor Z:
I think the #1 thing no one has addressed is the support of your spouse. If it's not 110%, you better think twice. I think that is such an overlooked aspect in all of our success stories. It's hard enough to do this with all the little things falling your way; if the biggest thing in your life is going to bail when it's tough, you will be dragging a 220lb anchor uphill with cement shoes.
Think through the advice about software, computers, outsourcing some at least, and for God's sake, lease that building. I just built a new shop and it costs more than you think to just get proper power requirements met in the typical rural setting. There is no significant increase in your residential property value with a commercial type facility on it.
If you have no real recent computer experience (especially CAD), and you aren't a math/science genius, you will really struggle for some time until you become proficient. I never made money until I realized perception is everything. I have built very high quality for a long time, and was consequently a real wood snob. I didn't make real money until I figured out this isn't Germany where people still pay for the high quality stuff no matter what the level of household income is. Give 'em what they want for a competitive price and treat them very well. When you get the jobs where you can be an artist, cherish them, and remember it all pays the same if you're doing it right.
Ecabs isn't perfect yet, but it is supported by the best run business I have ever experienced. Don't be intimidated by the complexity on the surface and you will love it in a few weeks.
From contributor Q:
1. Target high end work.
2. Don't do kitchens (too much competition).
4. Learn and understand why early woodworkers didn't use mechanical fasteners (they didn't have them) and why you should.
5. Don't be afraid to hire someone that knows more than you.
From contributor I:
Read anything by Jim Tolpin, mostly printed by Taunton Press. Get as many trade magazine subscriptions as you can. When you tell them you are a business, they are free; Woodshop News, Custom Woodworking Business, Wood and Wood Products, Cabinetmaker, etc.
From contributor P:
I think you should continue on with your plans. If I am following you, you are not doing this so much to be successful in business, as to just do it yourself. I can't think of any better reason to have your own shop.
There are a couple of things I disagree with above. One is about how much you need to spend to have a functioning shop. I have been in business for a little over five years now, and still have less than 30k invested in my shop. If you read the responses about the guys who started out years ago with a tablesaw and a biscuit jointer, those are the guys who know what's going on. You learn a lot about how to fabricate when you don't have a dream shop with every specialized machine available. Start with what you *need* and not what you *want*. There is a big difference between the two, and you don't want to end up with expensive machines that just gather dust. Once you have decided what you need, buy the best you can afford. There is nothing worse than inexpensive machinery that won't stay accurate.
Another thing, don't worry about outsourcing parts at first. If you need to, you can always pick up the phone. But it is better (in my opinion) to learn how to build everything yourself first. Again, your goal is not to make a profit, but to learn. Business people try to make the product as inexpensively as possible to maximize profit; craftspeople just try to make the best product they can.
And finally, don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it. I think you already have the right attitude, and you have shrugged off a lot of the naysayers. Their advice is good for someone trying to start a business, but I think your situation is unique and doesn't fit into that category.
Here are some thoughts on what you may need as basics for a cabinetmaking shop.
From contributor G:
Before I built even one cabinet, I did a couple of things. I read all I could, researched, attended trade shows and joined the CMA (Cabinet Makers Association). There is a wealth of knowledge to be found by actively participating in this great organization. It will take years off of your learning curve. By all means, go to IWF in Atlanta and hook up with the CMA. You will never regret it.
From contributor OO:
About twenty-five years ago, I was making a major life change. I had saved a grand total of $8000.00, left where I was, had no immediate prospects for work. I just knew I couldn't stay where I had been. A friend offered me one acre of land for the same price he had paid for it. I decided I would build a house and see where it would go from there. The most building I had ever done before was put paneling on a wall. I met another friend who said, "And you plan to build a house?" He looked me over and slowly said, "You can do it if you remember three things:
1. You are not afraid to ask for advice.
2. You are not afraid to make mistakes.
3. You stick with it.
You already have those qualities. Your asking advice on this forum answers the first. Your knowing you have to start at the beginning, and that mistakes are inevitable, answers the second. Obviously, you intend to go for it.
I built my house with no more tools than a Sears radial arm saw, skil saw, belt sander, drill, and 1/4" router, plus a few bits and my dad's framing square, plane, and crosscut saw.
When I needed advice for the next phase, there was always someone there I could ask, or there was an article in a magazine that answered the question. I moved in three years later. One neighbor asked me to build a bed, another a storage cabinet for 78's, another a chimney. My first kitchen was for a brother. It grew steadily from there. I went out of my way to drop in on cabinet shops in the area. Almost to a man they were helpful in answering questions, showing me the tools they had, encouraging me. Whenever I went to one of the big box stores, I'd spend hours studying the cabinets, how they went together, what finishes they had, hardware for drawers and doors. I got on the mailing list for cabinet magazines. I went to trade shows in Anaheim and Seattle and Las Vegas and Atlanta. I went to parades of homes and studied the cabinets.
I bought tools only when I could afford them, cash, and only when I could see that tool was the next logical step... A table saw finally supplemented the radial arm saw, after a couple of years. Later, a sliding table saw, then a drilling machine and an edgebander. (I evolved to building only frameless cabinets after a friend of mine whom I admired made that transition.)
The making mistakes never ends, but each is a learning experience. I keep records of everythingÖ time for each operation, summary of each job, a "what I learned on this job," sheet. About ten years ago, I bought a computer, and then some simple design software, 3d Home Architect. Later, Design Cad. They have revolutionized the way I design cabinets and make a great presentation tool.
I read WOODWEB every day. There is a world of information there, and encouragement.
From contributor JJ:
Some good resources that I have learned from:
Ernest Joyce, Encyclopedia of Furnituremaking
Alan Peters, Professional Cabinetmaking
Bruce Hoadley, Understanding Wood
Tage Frid, Tage Frid teaches Woodworking (3 volumes)
James Krenov, The Impractical Cabinetmaker, A Cabinetmaker's Notebook
Israel Sack, Fine Points of Furniture
There's no end to resources on design and construction, but these are a good starting point. Time spent in a commercial workshop, even if unpaid, is invaluable. I have found that most people in the trade are willing to share their knowledge with an interested person like yourself. Give yourself some time to get exposed to various aspects of the business before you invest a lot of money. If you want to provide a service designing and making custom furniture one piece at a time, that calls for a much differently equipped and sized shop than a production cabinet or millwork operation. In any case, plan on at least 1000 square feet for a one person shop. If you are serious about making a commercial success of it, focus on your strengths, target your market, perfect your business plan and expect to work long hours getting it off the ground.
From contributor DD:
1) The overwhelming advice in every book about starting a business, the absolute #1 indicator for success, is previous experience in exactly the business you want to start. The local guy you think is a hack probably knows more about the business than you could hope to learn in several years working by yourself.
2) *Lots* of people succeeded without prior experience, including lots of people in this forum. But almost everyone of them had a very hard time and paid quite a price for their inexperience. Why make it hard to succeed? I spent 10+ years running my own auto repair shop at 34. I spent 10+ years selling auto shop software at 45. I did both with zero prior experience in either business. I had to pay quite a price - a price I hope you can avoid.
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