Estimating High-End Cab Installs

An installer seeks tips on estimating his time and pricing his services. February 25, 2005

I have been a cabinet installer in the Midwest for about 10 years. We install mostly high-end, very complicated cabinets in new construction, all of which are factory built, pre-finished (painted, stained, custom colors). Most of our installs include multiple step crowns, columns, light rails, furniture bases, corbels, hoods, canopies, mirrors, wainscoting, multiple styles of hardware in any one room, and lots of angles and varying heights. We adjust all doors and drawers, pin drawers to keep them in place once adjusted, and do any touchup that is needed (which we work to keep at a minimum, back nailing, micro pinning, and silicone). The list goes on...

I'm a bit of a perfectionist and very good at what I do (that's why they hire me). My problem is I started years ago by trying to estimate these installations. After losing my butt enough times, I refused to bid any more, so the cabinet company started trying to bid. Well, now they're tired of losing their butts, and the ball is back in my court. So I've been trying to bid again. Recently I did well on two and lost on the 3rd, which was basically the same size as the other two, and I can't figure out why.

Anybody out there have advice on bidding this stuff?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
We've built about one such kitchen (among other things) per month for the last couple years. We used to do the installs ourselves and then one of our ex-employees started up a contract install business. I'm estimator and production manager for the cabinet shop. We pay him based on his hours for a number of reasons... the main one being that we need a perfect install and don't want him under pressure if the job starts going sideways.

So it's up to me to bid the install. It is by far the most difficult part of the job to predict. I have a system that so far is working out for us.

First off... as you know, size isn't necessarily a good indicator on its own. One thing that we realized a while back is that creating an exact opening for an appliance costs money. It's usually more time-consuming than installing a cabinet. A kitchen that we did has 7 appliances. I now estimate an hour and a half per opening plus panels.

Another factor that isn't size-related is how many times a run of cabinets changes direction. I count the number of cabinet corners and add 1 1/2 to 2 hours per (depending on my mood I guess). Think about how much more exacting the cab install is with, say, a full-height pantry in a corner. Overcoming out of square and out of plumb walls becomes more difficult and important and takes more time than a straight run.

Crown and trim is estimated per foot plus a factor per corner, depending on the profile itself. Tight to ceiling costs more per foot.

Everything else I estimate per piece... how many panels, fillers, cabs, handles, etc. Probably nothing new to you. It boils down to trying to apply a factor for how complicated a layout is.

Our installer uses a percent of cabinet cost when he needs to estimate for other builders and adds points for difficulty. Personally, I don't see how that works for him... I can see too many ways that can go wrong. Dovetail drawers will add a couple grand to a large kitchen, but really have no effect on install cost.

And finally, you can't win them all. You just need to win more than you lose... and keep your customers happy.

"And finally, you can't win them all. You just need to win more than you lose..."

My experience is that estimating is part science and part art. Science relies on tracking your jobs and establishing historical data; art relies on intuition. If you rely on art only, you're going to lose more than you win. If you rely on science only, you'll win more than you lose, but you'll still lose some that you should have known better.

Bottom line: if you don't keep track of the winners and losers, you're going to be leaving money on the table.

I second (or third) the view that you have to accept the occasional estimate being too low. There are, after all, many factors at work in most jobs that will not show up on the cabinet drawings - lost time due to poor jobsite preparation or working around the other subcontractors' needs. In renovation work, the amount of time you put into reassuring the customer varies tremendously (and it's part of the job). Designers have been known to make errors now and again, and what about those days when you overlook some detail on the drawing and have to backtrack to get the job right? Sometimes you may be able to charge extra for these factors, but I find it pretty hard in most cases. Pricing all jobs high enough to carry the losing ones seems the only answer to me.

This problem will never go away. You're probably an exceptional installer working for a company that either doesn't appreciate it or can't afford it. All you can do is keep track of your hours and regardless of which way they pay you, try and end up at the end of the month with what you figure you're worth. If you're not making enough and they won't give you more, find another shop. I went through this myself. If I was still installing, I'd make sure I wasn't stuck installing for just one company. That way, I'd be calling the shots.

From the original questioner:
Thank you so much for your replies. It's good to know I'm not the only one that struggles with this.

I've pretty much always been a carpenter. For 3 1/2 years I designed and sold high-end kitchens, but figured out I could make more money doing carpentry again. So I've been on both sides of the fence. That experience was invaluable for both myself and the people I install for. I understand totally what they go through, but of course that's a one way street (I even critique their designs sometimes - that goes over well). I could write a book on the variables I'm confronted with on most of these jobs that are totally out of my control. And it's hard to have to ask for more money for some of this stuff for a number of reasons. I would rather just be able to bid things so high that I'm covered no matter what happens. Not that I'm complaining. We have a good relationship and I enjoy and am thankful for the work. It's just this bidding thing - I don't like to lose.

Are most of the people on here building their own cabinets or selling pre-finished, factory-built cabinets?

The top of the line installers that I know charge $65 an hour.

I install very high-end cabinetry here in Florida. Most of our homes are 6 million dollars plus. Usually, I make a percentage that is already figured in the price of the cabinetry. I can usually look at the drawings and figure out how long it will take me to install. Most of the time I'm pretty close. Usually it works out that you take the good with the bad. Some jobs you will make out very well, but for the most part I do better than an hourly wage.

I've installed high-end kitchens by the hour for years, and even though I don't earn a profit, the lack of stress actually doing the job and time not spent on estimating from drawings and looking at jobs more than makes up for it. I think the challenge is finding the right company, architect, or customer that is willing to pay the cost per hour for the kind of craftsmanship we all know they're going to expect after laying down a serious chunk of change on their cabinets. I feel between $40-100 per hour isn't an unreasonable amount to ask for all the time it took to pay my dues and cut book-matched mitres on the carved Enkebol moldings around some designer's plan that was hopefully thought out before ordering. I've found that it would be very difficult to do an accurate estimate for some designers due to their ill-conceived ideas and mistakes. This would leave me in the poor house, fixing their errors unless a prior agreement was made to work around those kind of circumstances. I feel it's an act of balancing the customer's taste and eye and keeping the hours down to a palatable number for the builder/kitchen company/designer or customer so that everyone is content with the finished product. If I were to go back to estimating, I'd consider the designer first, the shop drawings second, and the job conditions third. I'd browse through my years of invoices and categorize jobs on difficulty and the amount of time it took and guesstimate the job after confirming dimensions.