Efficient Trim Installation

Extensive advice on organizing and planning for efficient production on site when installing baseboard, crown moulding, and window and door casing. October 25, 2006

Does anyone have any advice on increasing the speed of simple trim installation? I currently pre-make all the window and door casings using stitched miters (as detailed in Gary Katz's web page), and use a homemade router coping jig similar to a product called The Coper for base. Also, I measure whole rooms at a time, and generally try to do everything in a production manner. As uninspiring as it sounds, the majority of my finishing work is simple: paint grade 356 base/case, kit type doors. I wouldn't say I'm slow, but believe there's scope for improvement. Speed is paramount (assuming a reasonable quality standard), because I'm always working for a linear foot rate. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor Z:
This question deserves a little more information to better bring some constructive advice. In my opinion, it revolves around the time spent from the initial discussion with the client all the way to receiving the last payment. If you care to elaborate, I would be happy to put my thinking cap on.

Do you work solo or with a crew?
Hand nail or gun?
What order of approaching doors, base, windows, crown, etc.?
Are you considering stairs to be separate in your bid?
Do you work all jobs out on paper? I have self-made simple flow charts that increment down to the half hour. My men refer to them constantly.

I think if you picked an average job and worked us through it, we might better advise. Be aware that my way might not apply to you at all. You seem very innovative in your methodology of application - maybe not much to change there.

From contributor N:
Could you elaborate a little on how you approach your project?
Placement of men?
Method of setting goals?

From the original questioner:
Let me explain more fully. It sounds right off the bat that your operations are more elaborate than mine. Until recently, my business was 80% hardwood flooring installation, 20% finishing. I moved to a new town, and at the first three larger jobs I showed up at to install flooring, the first words out of the builders' mouths were "do you do finishing?". The answer was "sure!", and I've been drawn increasingly away from the flooring stapler, which is fine with me. I did some research and overhauled my procedures to increase efficiency. Now I should note that where I am (western Canada), crown molding and open stringer stair construction are pretty much nonexistent (at least on the houses I work in).

* A typical house consists of roughly 1000' of base/case, 8 to 10 swing doors, a couple bi-fold doors, a small banister, hand rails and maybe a mantle of some sort. Now, I've identified what's not making money - the banisters, mantle and any other extras that are time consuming and finicky. This is because my pricing is off. I'm rectifying the situation with the builder I'm currently working with.
* I generally work by myself. I've tinkered with helpers recently but with disastrous results (think callbacks, and a nearly detached finger in the table saw - never assume someone's competence, even if they display all the signs of familiarity around power tools).
* I use an 18 gauge brad nailer.
* A typical order of tasks would be: pre-assemble door jambs, hang doors, measure and cut all casing, measure and run baseboard, deal with banister, caps, etc.
* I run through a job mentally, visualizing how long each task will take. I tack on about 20% to the time/cost because I'm habitually optimistic.
* A typical client is a builder. A lot of my question revolves around a project I just bid on for a 50 unit tract housing complex, in which I get the impression the project manager wants it done fast; two units a week.
* Most of my "wasted time" is due to poor timing with other trades. For example, I've currently got four houses that aren't completely finished because I'm waiting on stone masons, linoleum installers, painters, etc.

From contributor P:
Sounds like you're on the right track. Having a "production approach to quality trim work," as promoted by Gary, can save untold hours on a trim job. The idea is to have a plan, or system, in place before you ever start. Each step should build on the previous, without interfering with or hindering the next. The approach, or system, is the same no matter how big the house is.

Cutting and assembling door and window parts is a good plan. Using 2P-10 adhesive (or similar product) is faster than stitching your miters. Using a Collins Coping Foot is faster and more accurate than The Coper, but generally works better on larger (say 5 1/4" or over) moldings. But just for 356, 444, or other smaller simpler mouldings, a coping saw will probably be faster than either machine.

The order in which you complete work also needs to be considered. I do nothing but interior trim, cabinets, and stairs on new construction. It's just me and my son. When we hit a job, we don't need to decide what to do first, we already know.

As soon as we are unloaded and set up, our order of progression, or system, goes something like this:
1. I start hanging doors. My son starts measuring and cutting window parts. (All windows are measured at the same time)
2. Usually, by the time I finish hanging doors, he has finished cutting parts and has started to assemble and install window trim. I measure all the crown, then start cutting.
3. By the time he has finished the windows, I have most, if not all, of the crown cut and we can both begin to install it.
4. After the crown, he starts measuring and cutting base. I start installing cabinets.
5. After cabinets, I usually start on the stairs while my son begins any additional work, ie: chair rail, wainscoting, columns, mantels, etc.
6. We both end up working on the stairs to complete them, then do any other punch out work such as cabinet and door hardware, shoe mldg, etc.

That's the general plan. Of course, we have to adjust from time to time, but for the most part, that is our system. Most of our houses range from 3,000 sq ft to a little over 6,000 sq ft. Trim package usually includes about 300 to 500 lin ft of 5 1/4" crown (2 or 3 pc crown in public areas LR, DR, foyer, and 1 pc everywhere else except minor BR's), 20 to 30 door units, 25 or 30 windows, 25 to 30 cabinet boxes, 700 to 1,200 ft of 7 1/4" and/or 5 1/4" speed base, and usually one, but sometimes 2, staircases. It usually takes us about 3 or 4 weeks to complete one of these houses. Our pay is also per lin ft and per opening.

From contributor N:
It does sound like you are on the right track. Your attack is as good as it gets. Although if you have signed this large contract, I would recommend at least one full time kid at the lowest rate you can legally pay. He may not touch a saw or do anything, but he locates all the equip, sweeps and sorts trim product, and puts his hands on the other end of a board. Approach things so that out of the van or truck, you put your hands straight on the nail gun. Don't worry about paying low wage it's a good thing. Makes a man earn his keep, and if you impress that there is opportunity, then it's ethical. With that quantity of work, you need a helper.

I require all clients to project their site flow (of other trades) for two days in advance they email or fax this to me. More than two days is a joke, as it always changes. This is very useful, because it means my men only go where they can produce. My contract looks like it protects the client and it does in a lot of ways, but it also eliminates them from being able to hinder my profit margin. Normally we care a whole lot about wood. They care mostly about dollars and bills. Takes some papers to create balance.

From contributor P:
You said that banisters and mantels are not making you any money? You should remedy this post haste, since those are usually two of the biggest profit margin items on a trim job. Nobody makes any real money running base and trimming windows. It just comes with the job. I generally average about 30% to 40% profit from stair balustrades and 100% and up on mantels.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all for excellent advice. In particular, I think I'll check out some of this 2p10 adhesive. The idea of hiring someone with less skills for less money makes perfect sense. Generally, the tasks I need help with are repetitive in nature, and I suspect someone inexperienced and moldable could be of much more help in the long run. It stands to reason that a system, on paper, to keep track of time spent versus pricing and to project the same is necessary to really tweak production. I've crunched the numbers for banisters, mantles and the like, and my prices essentially need to double. I don't know what I was thinking. No more Mr. Cheap Guy!

From contributor J:
To the original questioner: I've been trimming homes and business for many years, and what you are describing is what we here in the south call "tract homes" or "blow and go" homes. You need to get in an out as fast as you can. Although the objective is to get out as quickly as possible, the trim still has to be cut and fitted. Below is a list of things that we do to help speed up the process.

1) When you enter a room, the first piece to measure is the first to your right of the doorway. This will also serve as the starting point.
2) Measure in a counterclockwise direction.
3) When measuring long spans without help, use a 100" stick or use the same mark on the tape such as 90", so you become used to the math involved.
4) Develop a code to write with, such as 96 3/8" L may indicate a 96 3/8" 45 to the left whereas 96 3/8" l would indicate 96 3/8 long; 96 3/8 R22 would indicate a 22.5 degree cut to the right.
5) Make all your cuts back cuts; 45's are 45 1/2, 22.5's become 23. With the exception of door/window casings, which you want to make 45's become 44.5's to ease the fitting of the joint.
6) Cut every piece to every room, label them as they are cut with your pencil, Room # and Pc #, cope every piece only after you are through cutting, then distribute them to each individual room. Only then come back and install the trim.

From Gary Katz, forum technical advisor:
I'll add this one bit of advice: Organization. Organize your tools and your truck. Keep both clean and neat and running smoothly. Invest time at the end of every day in checking your tools and equipment - that way, frayed cords, dull bits, and missing parts can be resolved before the next day of work.

Finish carpenters use more tools (and have to) than any other trade. Try to organize your tools into tool boxes. Don't use the boxes the tools came in. Get your finish nailers and a supply of nails, glue, 2P-10, and, coper/jigsaw with coping foot, whatever, and clamps into a tool box with a center handle. Grab that box as soon as you head for the job whenever you're doing trim.

Put your cordless impact driver, screw gun, drill bits, screws, etc. in another box with a center handle. Shoulder straps are good, too. Pick up both boxes and head for the job. Keep a notebook in your back pocket. Write notes during the day on any tools/materials/repairs you need from the lumberyard/hardware store (like replace drill bits, knife blades, tape, screws, nails, etc.) so you won't waste valuable brain cells trying to store that data.

In the middle of the notebook, keep track of your hours: how long does it take you to install a house of base (break it down to ft. later). How long to build and install a mantel? How long to install a door? That's how you'll get your piece prices.

But most of all: try to have fun, for crying out loud.

From contributor U:
My advice is directly related to Gary's, and it should be because the ideas came from his books, DVD's, and the forum he moderates. Organization at the saw in the form of a cut list and in using continuous extension wings with repetitive stops whenever possible has cut down my install time dramatically.

I also work alone and recently purchased a laser distance meter. It has cut the time I spend measuring by about 2/3 and is absolutely indispensable for running crown solo.