Cabinet Door Shop Set-Up Necessities

Specializing in cabinet doors isn't a business you can easily jump into. Here's a lively discussion about "barriers to entry" the minimum scale required for success, and the equipment you'll need to compete. December 14, 2009

I'd like to sell only cabinet doors as an outsource supplier. How do I go about getting business? Should I call local cabinet shops and make my pitch over the phone, set up a meeting, etc.? Or should I go directly to the shops, and make initial contact in person, with samples and pricelist in hand? Also, do these shops pay anything down toward materials cost, as do custom cabinet clients?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor N:
We require 100% at time of order. That may sound steep, but we turn our doors around in 7 - 10 days most times. I suppose I could carry a good client, but I would definitely want to know why. We feel that our price is already ridiculously low and our quality is exceedingly high, and coupled with the quick turnaround, it makes 30 - 180 days for payment a little much to ask.

From contributor W:
I know making cabinet doors looks like a good business, but you are about to set yourself up for a world of hurt, sir. I will be blunt, because sometimes the only way to get through to someone is to show them the picture of the accident with blood spilled all over the highway...

I have been making doors for 15 years, and have a great business now, but if I was to do it over again - no $^#&% way. Why?

The main reason is that the equipment required to make doors profitably and safely is stupidly expensive. A "high barrier to entry" is the way business people say it.

To make doors profitably, you need much heavier equipment than a well equipped one-man shop has. Unless you have the right equipment, you simply cannot make enough doors to make a good living, and I am assuming you want to work for more than $6 per hour. (I could be wrong - you might have the right equipment, no overhead, etc. A joiner is not the right equipment, and neither is a single head wide-belt.)

Customers want their doors in 7 working days and if you get a large order (are you going to only do small orders?) and have to make the cutlist and order the material, you will never get that many doors out on time, and if you do, the quality will be several tiers below what someone like me can sell them for, at less money. There are about 25 steps or so to making a door properly. (That would be 2500 steps for a 100 door order.)

You will not be able to sell, run the business, and make enough doors by yourself. That is just a fact. The door business is one that needs economies of scale to work properly. If you get more than 1 customer, which I would recommend, what if they both give you a large order the same week? Now you have ticked one customer off, lost them for good maybe, and instead of making doors, you have to go back out and find a new customer to replace them.

You are only going to stock two woods? We ordered by the truck. You will probably have to pay a middleman (local lumber supplier), eating up more profits, and buying lumber one or two tiers in quality below what I buy. (Customers don't like sap in their cherry or white oak doors!)

You are competing against many established businesses that are under-utilizing their capacity right now - their quality and service is excellent, like us they offer a dozen + woods, several inside profiles, 12 + outside profiles, several panel profiles, multiple arch patterns, miter doors in 20 + patterns. You will frequently get asked to do new patterns, and tooling costs will kill you whether you buy gobs of router bits or invest in insert tooling.

Calculating your cutlist can be done on Excel, but with difficulty. Can you do macros? Full-up software is expensive.

I'm just getting started, but for the sake of argument, you might have a shot if: You are in the sticks, where no full-service door supplier sells to; you own your building or have very cheap rent; you have a glue-line rip-saw, a set of Weaver shapers, a three-head wide-belt, a large air compressor and dust collector, $25k in proper tooling. Then you have a good chance.

Then if my salesman comes along to your neighborhood before you get really established, you might be out of business in 6 months. Yes, we are that good. I am not saying you would fail, or should not try. You should just have an idea what you are up against.

What I would have given to have WOODWEB 15 years ago! And if you are still dead-set on doing this, I would be glad to assist, believe it or not.

From contributor J:
I build doors, for myself and other shops. Started out as a necessity, as the nearest door shop was 1 1/2 hours away with no delivery and I was running 2-3 pretty decent orders a week = 9 hours and around 3k a week gone from my production time and bank account.

This has since grown to a fair amount of my work. I have really good turnaround time, 4-5 days, and get any mainstream lumber you want, delivered 5 days a week. The key is a really good, reliable lumber supplier, coupled with some solid equipment, not necessarily the latest equipment, but tight industrial equipment. Don't think you can lift this thing off the ground with a Unisaw, Dewalt chop saw, a couple of shapers, and a portable belt sander. That said...

I do my deal with around 70k in equipment. This includes 6 heavy shapers with feeders, an RF gluer, door clamp, insert tooling for 4 frame profiles, 3 panel raises, and maybe half a dozen edges, an SCMI 2 head widebelt, edgesander, and profile sander for panels and edges. Plenty ample for most orders, day in - day out.

There sure seem to be a lot of big companies spending a lot of big money to be able to not make a profit year after year.

If you can make money on your orders, do it. If you can't, pass and do something else. The biggest edge you will have will be your turnaround time and making yourself accessible to your customer - I shoot for 4-5 day lead and my customers have my office and cell phone 24/7/7 - that's a huge edge over a mega company.

From contributor R:
Several companies are now importing Chinese cabinet doors. The quality is much better than 5 years ago, and the majority of woods and styles are now in stock at several US locations. They can never compete with a custom door, but for anyone that has a volume application, they will be a major problem. So if you are looking to make doors, you will have to focus on the custom, not the volume. Contributor W is speaking from experience and is correct.

From contributor W:
Contributor J, I respect your right to disagree, but you just somewhat reinforced what I wrote: you are in an area not currently serviced by a full-service door shop, and you have the machinery that most one-man operations don't naturally have.

You get several jobs out a week, all by yourself, no employees, which is what the questioner was asking about (maybe you didn't realize that was the issue I was addressing)? My hat is off to you, truly. I didn't say it couldn't be done. And many areas of the country don't have access to premium lumber at reasonable prices across all species. I am in a major metro area within delivery range of some of the largest cities - tried all of the suppliers, and can't get what I need from them in several species. Just the way it is...

Everyone is turning doors around in 4 days right now, I do believe.

From contributor J:
Though it doesn't always happen, I plan to make a decent living doing... cabinets, doors, washing cars, you get the idea.

I'm not selling doors for 15.00 a pop - that's not the market I'm after. I'm after the guy in the small shop that doesn't have or want to spend the required outlay to produce his own doors. That was me for 15+ years, so I know where he's coming from and what his needs are - fast turnaround, quality, and a reasonable price (that doesn't translate to cheapest price) because the first two cost money.

I'd say run the numbers on primary machinery and supplies, materials and overhead, and labor and see where you need to be. I know I've got to be competitive with the next guy, but fast, dependable service is worth something extra - if, not try somewhere else.

From contributor W:
Contributor J, you have a good business, and pursue the same type of customers in the same way we do (quality and service). If the questioner invests in the equipment you have, he has a lot more than a one-man door operation. My guess is you could run a shop with 10 or 12 people with the equipment you have. Why would you buy all that equipment and not plan to utilize it? That would be like buying a cargo van to haul around a notebook.

From contributor J:
I don't think there is a one size fits all answer here as some - usually from the supplier camp - suggest.

My equipment was purchased used, I have very little invested, and again it goes to my position to produce a good sized door order in a short time frame. The clients I serve are small cabinet shops where turnaround is important and a couple of fixture shops doing retail counters and bank projects - some of those orders may have 300+ panels. It can't be done on a half dozen pipe clamps.

If the questioner is unable or unwilling to spend the money on production machinery or can't find a suitable supplier that can meet tight schedules, I'd say he's lost before he gets going. However, just because I have production equipment doesn't mean it has to run full tilt, for an 8-10 hr shift 6 days a week to make a profit. I think more important to profit and production is organization, workflow, methods of work, and scheduling. I've worked my process down, and invested a few hours to minimize setup time. Setup and changeover are the production killers.

I can move or more appropriately transfer from one station to the next, in one direction, and produce a large amount of work at the end of the day.

I'm not exactly in the sticks, but in a rural area between 2 large metropolitan areas and serviced by a supplier that has full operations in both areas and runs trucks both ways daily. I do own my building, paid for with cash from my cabinet and cabinet door making losses. I do not have a glue-line rip-saw, but my supplier has two. I do not have a set of Weaver shapers, but I do use and recommend looking at their catalog and purchasing items from them. I run a couple of Weavers, a Northfield, a Beach, and a couple of lowly Deltas. I have an SCMI 2 head wide-belt, and a large air compressor and dust collector, and around 7k in tooling.

I would add the need for a decent sized RF gluer to produce panel blanks with any real capacity - this will likely prove to be the Achilles heel of any door operation. I recognize I've been very fortunate to be positioned where I am, with the help I have, and the suppliers I'm associated with.

From the original questioner:
I'm impressed that you all take time from your day to give advice to a greenhorn like me. If some of the advice is tough love, it's all the more valuable; sometimes honesty like that can go further than a truckload of encouragement.

Having said that, if I've got to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, Weavers or no Weavers, limited line of product, understaffed and underfunded, outgunned and outpriced, I'll take my paid-for equipment, my dinky dual drum sander, my hybrid saw, my Chinese shapers, my 1500 sq. ft. home shop, and my inconsistent supplier just down the road, and if it kills me, I'm going to establish a beachhead, take my meager profits, reinvest them, and one day get those Weavers, those p.a. sanders, glue line rip saw, and anything else I'll need to succeed in this tough business. If it falls through, then I tried my best. Woodworking is not new to me, but this business is, and it's tough, very competitive and demanding. I don't give up easily - I learn as much as I can from seeing, hearing and doing, and from discussions with seasoned veterans like you.

From contributor S:
Do you want to do this because you want to do this, or is there a market for it? Your last comment makes me think you have a "damn the torpedoes" attitude. Demand must outweigh supply to make it worthwhile to fight over pennies on a commodity item. There are established companies who have their investments paid off, who will squeeze any startup right out of the market right now. When you take a client away from another company, do you think they won't do everything in their power to find out who you are and do everything to make sure you don't get anymore?

Point being, the time to jump in the water is when there is nothing else there (demand > supply), not when it is full of sharks (oversupplied), which the market is right now.

I admire your tenacity to do whatever it takes to succeed, but you won't get through a brick wall by repeatedly ramming into it head first; you will just get headaches. You will get past it by figuring out how large it is and where the openings are so you can just walk through. Passion first, business plan second, full speed ahead third. Any other order or skipping a step is a recipe for disaster.

From the original questioner:
Thank you. Near my area, there are scores of small cabinet shops waiting 3 or more weeks for their doors. I can't supply all of their needs, but if I can, as some local small door ops do, I might be able to find at least one cab shop that could use free delivery, 7-10 day turnaround, high quality cab doors for a competitive price. Once established, my low overhead might help me keep enough of my income so that I could upgrade over time to make the business progressively more profitable. I will also try internet marketing, which I've heard from experienced pros is profitable.

From contributor E:
From the equipment listed you sound like you are about the same sized shop as I am. I make my own doors as a matter of pride and turnaround. I do kitchens and baths for a limited number of contractors, all custom one-at-a-time houses. I make my own doors because I keep 4 machines set up all the time once a project starts. I can have a door cut and glued in 20 minutes and deliver a vanity on next day service if needed. When work is plentiful, there is a lot of shouting here about subbing out doors. I would hate to have to wait 7 days for doors, and have taken a lot of work away from competitors who do wait 7 days. The problem comes when the order is large. I can only make so many doors a day, and the big guys will get the job done in 7 no matter how large. You'll get buried too. You will be spending large amounts of time on the phone with problems, including trying to get paid. I have been in the subcontractor business, and very few of us pay the way we want to be paid.

You have another thread going about pricing. If you have an already established cabinet business, why toss that for a door business that will operate on a much smaller profit margin? Your sales will be even more dependent on the state of the economy as a lot of guys will bring door making in house when the business activity contracts. As a subcontractor, you really just get the leftovers, not the prime meat. If you look at pricelists from other door suppliers, you will find that you will be working for a very few bucks per door, and to make $50 gross per hour on an 8 hour day you will have to be turning out 50 finished doors a day, 6 per hour, and that's a lot for any one man shop to try and maintain that pace day after day. And can you say "boring"!? I don't think you will find the grass is any greener down this path.

From contributor X:
Making doors can be costly, especially when everyone else is making the same thing. To be different and have more of the pie, so to speak, I'd specialize in some type of doors that are different, whereas the costs would not be that expensive in tooling, but heavier on labor, maybe. Different products for different folks, and different ways to make a door.

From contributor M:
Something else to think about is mitered doors. They take less machinery, they are faster to make, and you can sell them for 40% more money. Also, by doing miter doors you can sell them not only to cabinet shops who don't make doors, but to shops that do make traditional doors. This will give you a lot more customers for your product. There are 2 types of joints that are popular. The mortise and tenon, and the finger joint with a dowel (which is much stronger).

From the original questioner:
Can mitered doors be biscuit joined?

From contributor M:
Yes, they can be biscuit jointed if you want callbacks on every door job. Biscuits are good for nothing in my opinion.

From contributor O:
This is not meant to be mean spirited, but with the list of machines you outlined in one of your earlier posts, you are going to a gun fight with a pocket knife in your hand. Contributors W and J have outlined what it takes equipment wise to make doors and you just don't have it. A dual head drum sander just isn't going to cut it no matter how many hours you are willing to put in. You really have received from pretty good advice here. Think twice.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the solid advice that WOODWEB pros have given me. It really put things in perspective, and it has given me a good idea where I am, and where I need to be.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
Yes you can make cabinet doors. Start out by doing the easy ones only - that would be shaker style. You can do everything on one shaper with a power feeder but both need to be heavy duty and in excellent condition. Obtain a top quality shaker cabinet door cutter set from a mfg. that can service (sharpen) them subsequently as needed. If at all possible, work with a cutter bore size (shaper spindle size) of 1-1/4 inches. You need a quality cope clamping device, preferably one that provides for a separate back up (blow out) piece and adjustment for square. Properly used, this equipment should give you a cope and stick fit that is flush and requires little if any sanding. Your first goal is to produce a near perfect cope cut and as suggested, check this with a machinist square if possible. Check the squareness on a piece that is five or six inches wide, not the 2-1/2 inches or so that you will normally be using. This will give you a much more accurate assessment of how square your cope cut is.

Spend some time here as it will be well worth the effort (essential). You will be rewarded for selecting a higher quality cope clamping device. Also check how flush the pieces (cope and stick) come together with a six inch coped piece. If it is not consistent over the entire six inches your clamping may be distorting the insufficient base of your clamping apparatus (sled, miter bar apparatus etc.) You cannot skimp here without much frustration. Before proceeding, be capable of producing a square, flush and nice fitting cope cut without any blowout. Properly cut, your pieces will clamp up to produce a square door. You can do this but make a quality cope cut your first goal. Once you can do this, you are well on your way. Best regards and much encouragement.