Finding Good Finishing Help

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Tactics for attracting finishers, perhaps the industry's most difficult "get." December 26, 2004

Does anyone have suggestions on recruiting a good, all-around furniture/cabinet tech/finisher?

I haven't done well with newspaper ads or online employment forums. The local tech college turns out hobbyists not interested in a career or even a job doing what they just learned.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor C:
Seems nobody wants to do finishing, but somebody needs to.

As for recruiting, proper personal protective gear is a good point. Getting your sprayers respirators that are effective and comfortable despite its cost shows your people you care about them, but of course that only works if they are already working for you. Most newcomers wouldn't know the difference between a halfmask APR, a PAPR, or a SAR.

Finishers can get burned out rather quickly if the shop has unrealistic expectations. Throwing a pay differential on top of things to do finishing work may help or may not. I know my coworkers don't want to do my job. They prefer to build the cabinets "and let me breath in the fumes." Little do they know, when they come into my finishing room to give me a "rush job" piece, they breath in more vapors in a couple of minutes than I do all day long.

Anyway, in your ads, make sure you lay out exactly what is expected and exactly what you offer in return. If you have two ads offering $15 an hour each (that's just a figure and is dependant upon local market), one for cabinetmaker and one for finisher, expect to fill the cabinetmaker slot.

Something else to consider is developing your own good finisher rather than looking only for an experienced pro. Got an employee who works well with minimal direction and seems to prefer working alone? They may be a good candidate for a finisher. Sending them to some courses and seminars would be an investment in their future as well as yours.

By the way, where are you located?

From the original questioner:
I'm in Clearwater, FL. Thanks for the info. I agree about the positions. It's relatively easy to find just a woodworker.

My spray booth was state of the art three years ago. I can go in and spray without a mask and have zero odor or fumes unless I stupidly stand in front of the exhaust plenum :-) It has a downdraft fresh air plenum that pulls down through a stack through the roof and is like a high power fresh air shower.

I do have an incentive pay plan in place, so a top ace can generate over $20 an hour income.

Unfortunately, I can't use just a finisher. We do so many different things and there may be days without finishing only. I did have two finishers in the past two years that were interested, but one only wanted to mix and spray, the other only wanted to supervise and manage. Neither will work, as everyone in my company must produce. I only have three full time techs and one part time shop maintenance/apprentice/helper. Working supervisor would work perfect. But I don't know where to begin to look for such a person.

I have tried to bring employees up and teach, give them a shot. Some don't like it, others it went to their head, others don't listen and so on, so away those go. I still have the same three techs that are the core and have been with me long term. They see others come and go and just shake their heads. Of the three, one is selling his home and moving back north to be with family after five years here. He didn't want the job advancement and was happy where he is. Another is only good at some aspects of the job, doesn't want to do other things or learn other things, nor does he feel comfortable in a lead position. The third only has a couple years experience, has no self-motivation, prefers to be told what to do and instructed/managed rather than set free on a job.

I have work coming out of my ears and can easily get more. But I find I'm spending a lot of time supervising or producing or fixing others' mistakes as they try to learn.

This is the weakest point in my company - technician staff. Being able to produce at a consistent level. This is the only thing keeping me from getting to the next level. I know this and have not done well in fixing the problem. If I don't fix this problem, I'll be in trouble in another couple months.

From contributor C:
Break down the job description as best you can into each of the necessary tasks as well as an estimate of time for the task.

For example:
Team leader, supervise cutting, assembly and finishing of products, 20%
Cut and assemble products, 30%
Sand, stain, and finish products, 30%
Deliver, install, and touch up products, 20%

Obviously, the more detailed the tasks and more realistic the percentage of time expected for each one, the better informed potential employees will be. And if they have a weakness in one of the tasks, it helps them to know that it is only a certain percentage of their overall responsibilities.

You have a small shop, which makes things difficult for the specialization that many in the field seem to prefer. I am a finisher and prefer to let the cabinetmakers do their thing while I do mine. In the rare occurrence that I have nothing to finish, I do go out onto the floor and lend a hand in sanding and getting things ready to come into my finishing room. On the less rare occasions of being swamped with finishing work, the cabinetmakers then have to jump in and stain and sand sealer coats. They don't like it, do a substandard (in my eyes) job and return to their cabinetmaking duties as quickly as they can.

From contributor K:
Thank you for asking a good question. We too struggle with the same issues regarding finishing. Contributor C threw out a wage of $15.00 an hour depending on location. I'd give a lot to have a semi-experienced finisher for that and we're in the Midwest. It is difficult to find adequate help for any position these days. When you add the requirements of being motivated, conscientious, working alone, wearing protective equipment, and on and on, it becomes even harder to find someone. Unfortunately, I don't think there are any magic solutions to our dilemma.

From the original questioner:
One of my difficulties might be the percentage pay incentive. Techs also seem to like seeing something through to completion. It makes it "their baby."

I'm not a cabinet shop, though we build some cabinetry. We're sort of a one stop for furniture and interiors, woodwork and laminate. I've got 7,500 square feet, which is big by some standards, small by others.

One person gets something and does whatever it takes to get it completed as sold. I've tried the piecework approach, where someone strips, sands, preps, another does building assembly and sanding, another does staining and spraying. But with all we do, we can't separate like that anymore.

We do furniture repair, refinish, restore, rebuild, custom build, reupholster. (I have an upholsterer and he does it all start to finish from cutting and sewing to the final application of the fabric. But he knows nothing of woodwork or finishing.)

Same with cabinet work, and onsite work, commercial like hotels, restaurants, offices, etc. We either fix it, make it look good again, save it, or replace it.

Fire, water, smoke, mold/mildew restorations for insurance companies. Image enhancement for commercial and government agencies. Trade work for other manufacturers that have a problem in our area and call us to service what they sold, broke or damaged in transit, etc.

I thought about trying to find a furniture builder, but I get these artsy types that really need their own studio and a gallery to carry their stuff. Most of it is off the wall and doesn't fit with our clientele. 90% of our customers are middle to upscale, 5% are lower with the last 5% that fall in that artsy category that we do those odd pieces for. We also do antique restoration and even some artwork restorations.

There are certain things I don't expect staff to do, such as the rush seat weaving, statue and art restoration, special antique work, etc. But for the bulk of what we do, a person needs to have a wide range of skills, a brain, some motivation and a willingness to learn and expand themselves.

I am really surprised that so many in the trades are afraid of finishing. I know a cabinet shop where they farm out the finishing to a friend. He doesn't like the finishing part. Finishing whitewood is fairly simple and straightforward science with a little creativity mixed in. Restoration work is about half and half with lots of color match and blending involved. I can understand the fear of trying to learn that, as the field of variables is vast. But with application of science, color theory and a little creativity, it too becomes relatively easy for a person with an eye and some related skills to build on.

I like your idea about breaking down the position with the various duties and estimated percentages. A potential candidate will see that the portion they might be afraid of is only a small portion of the entire position.

I had a guy drive in from the Midwest. I put him up in a hotel. He was going to work for two weeks to see how he liked it. He knew everything in great detail before he got here, including reviewing photos of the shop, an online portfolio of types of work we do, and how many employees I had plus my size of shop (at the time it was 3,000 sq.ft.). He showed up, we spent the weekend going over the next week's work assignments, etc. Monday he shows up for work, gets a couple things going with staff and comes in to my office to say goodbye, he's going back, he doesn't want to work here, he prefers supervising other finishers. He had a dozen finishers under him at his last place and he wants to find a place with more so he can supervise only. Wow! Why did he waste our time? Knowing everything in advance like that, it was bleedingly obvious he was coming to be a working supervisor with full knowledge of every type job and client we work with.

Had another guy, swore he was the finishing god and could do anything. He proceeded to wreck everything he touched. Blamed it all on the equipment and the product. He lasted 3 days and I let him go. Brand new conversion hvlp, he pumped 80lbs psi into it and blew out the insides. MLC CV Krystal, forgot to catalyze it, and another job he thinned with so much retarder it was still wet a week later and I had to strip and redo it.

Another fellow told me he was an air brush artist and a furniture builder and he could also spray finish anything. He lasted a week and I let him go, too. Every single thing he did came out wrong and he didn't know how to properly use any of the equipment in woodworking or finishing. Found out later he was a laid off upholsterer and lied to get a job and really didn't know any of what we did, but thought he could figure it out on the job.

I was talking with a few other owners and one thing they all cite is our school system. Most of the school shops around the country have been discontinued in favor of computer classes and such. It's a big mistake we've done as a society. There are a ton of high-tech people without work and very few artisans and craftsmen learning the trades. Part of that is because so much manufacturing has gone offshore as well as been sectionalized. You don't need much skill to push a button or learn one repetitive task.

From contributor P:
Contributor C makes a wonderful point. I work for a great company because they hired me on trainability rather than pure ability. Iím a finisher, and I explained it in great detail during my interview. However, they needed a miller, and they justified it rather surprisingly.

They told me they didnít need a finisher at the moment. What they really needed was someone that was detail oriented, organized, safety conscious and ethical. From their experience, it was much easier to teach someone to become a woodworker than it was to teach those traits.

From my experience, the key is not to look for a good tech. Instead, look for a good employee.

From contributor D:
What kind of finishing do you do? Is it stain and spray, glazing, painting, or something else? What type of finishing equipment do you have?

From the original questioner:
We use NC/pre and post cat as well as CV. Some WB and some shellac.

We spray, rag, brush, pad as needed for the job. Glaze, speckle, cowtail, or whatever dependant on the finish schedule or the item we're trying to match.

90% of our work is to match something else.

Have turbine/HVLP as well as conversion HVLP for airline, both gravity fed and pressurized cup guns. We don't do mass finishing of any particular finish except when we get an occasional job run now and then. I'm going after more of this type work, but it is not the core. Just an area to grow in for us.

Insurance work, commercial work, onsite restorations/image enhancement, antique restoration, fire, water, smoke, mold/mildew restoration, refinishing, some custom built items, some cabinetry reface/replace/refinish. We are working with so many client types and work types it is difficult to say we do any one thing. Basically we're a restoration and repair specialist. There is nothing that cannot be repaired, rebuilt or restored and the only question a client will have is whether it is cost-effective opposed to replacement or total renovation. Most of our clients are happy with what they have, they just want it looking better or fixed to what it once was. Some are color or even style changes. At any given point we'll have a half a dozen or so different jobs going on in the shop. Makes for a lot of fun, with not much chance for burnout from repetition. We'll get a job now and then to make a dozen of these or a hundred of those. That is an area we have ample room to grow in. Our insurance work is likewise strong, with lots of upside potential still. Our commercial onsite work I have hardly begun to market yet. In fact, I haven't done any marketing for that in about two years. What we get is just word of mouth referral mostly, and repeats.

I use Mohawk, MLC, and Chemcraft along with a smattering of some general and Target products, plus some Koenig.

From contributor D:
And how much would you pay someone to work for you who was independent and had experience in finishing and on-site wood restoration?

From contributor J:
I'm a finisher with over 20 years experience with about half in restoration and half in custom contract furniture and architectural millwork. I spent a year traveling the country interviewing and working in various shops. I feel shops need to look at what they're offering a finisher for what they're expecting. I found a home in a shop 2nd shift. I work alone on projects from sample to topcoat of product. Right now I'm putting in 55 hours average a week. Here's my point of view:

1. Create a week long working interview at 1/2 pay.
2. Pay range for a seasoned finisher should be 52k-62k. If you can't afford it, you're not charging enough for finishing time. Let's face it, the right person is well worth it.
3. Don't burn him out. Paid time off. A week in 6 months, another in a year.
3. Company paid health insurance.

4. Make sure you spend as much time complimenting as criticizing.
5. Shops will spend $50,000.00 on a table saw but cry over $300.00 for a drying rack for the finishing room. I feel this is the fastest way to loose your finisher.
6. Since finishing starts in design, include your finisher from the beginning. For instance, in a large cabinet job, can the panels be pre-finished to sealer stage before assembly?
7. The builders and finishers must have a direct line of communication on jobs from the beginning and work as a team without the coach thinking he has to call all the plays to justify his job.

From the original questioner:
Using the 50k figure, that would mean a tech would need to produce 250k annual solo to fit in with 20% labor rate or 200k for a 25% labor rate. It works out to producing 800 to a grand daily.

I see some finishers that run from shop to shop changing jobs, trying to get more but do less. "How much will you pay me, I need time off, I need all the benefits there are, I don't do overtime," etc... ad nauseum. That's what I see not only in my experience but from other owners. Even on this site when I have posted "position open," I don't get "this is what I bring to the table", I get "this is what I want you to give me off your table."

If a tech can produce quality and at an efficient pace, then by all means I would gladly pay. I set up the pay scale so the top producer can earn top dollar.

To blatantly say if you can't afford to pay 60 grand a year means the shop doesn't charge enough is ludicrous. Both ends must look at real things in the real world. They also must take into consideration local economies. Just because it costs 2k a month to rent in a decent suburb of Frisco, but they can rent the same thing in Cleveland or Orlando for 800 doesn't mean they can move, earn the same pay, and then pay less to live keeping the difference. It doesn't work that way. Other things are less expensive too, including what a business can charge for services.

I charge $85 just to show up at a place. If I do anything there, the minimum is $135. For a small, simple house call that is. I also get a couple grand for a dining table and chair set refinish with a couple leaves and the base. Other areas of the country get $45 to show up and a grand for the same work.

I see by the last post what was needed to go to work somewhere, but nothing about what is being done for that company.

I had one fellow come in to apply with 20 years experience. He wanted 52k plus 100% medical from day one for his pre-existing conditions and expensive medicines, paid time off 3 months into the future (from his start date for "personal family vacation dates"), no overtime, no spray booth work, etc., and every shop he worked at the past 6 years has gone out of business. Gee, maybe because he was taking all the money and not making the owner of the company any profit.

Nope, it's a work ethic thing - a partnership of sorts. But let's face it, no business owner is going to pay an employee more than he is worth or more than the owner makes. I also see business owners join the workforce and ask for top dollar, but when they can't make it in their own shop, they figure they'll try and get it from someone else.

I have someone that is slow in his business. He comes down here for a week or two, works and goes home. He would be earning 50k a year with me full time. He produces and does good work. But he wants to build his business up to be like mine. He doesn't get the prices I charge in his area, but he can get more than he has been charging. I've worked with him on some admin issues for his business. He told me what he could do, he told me what he would need to make it work for him. We did it and it works out okay. But it is a temporary scenario.

The last post mentioned a 55 hour work week. Strong work ethic there and also, if a good tech, easy to make that 50k mark in my place.

Week paid vacation in second year is my norm and has been for 27 years. Why would someone just starting in a company expect full benefits without any vested interest yet? Medical benefits are normally 90 days before kicking in and they are hmo/ppo 80/20 type major medical.

If a person wants to put in 70 hours weekly like I do, wait for a check like I do from a client sometimes, work nights, weekends and holidays like I do to meet targets and schedules, then they can have everything from day 1 and be around 70k annual if they're good. An average Joe isn't going to make it here or anywhere else and if they do, they will either get canned for non-performance or the company will belly up like others I have seen where pay is 30-40% operating budget.

From contributor J:
It is most important what a finisher brings to the table and when I speak of a finisher, I'm talking about a person who is willing to do what it takes to complete each job to or above all expectations. I'm talking about a career finisher.

I too have worked with persons who call themselves finishers, but when crunch time comes, they flounder. Since the only thing I claim to be in life (except for being a damn good fisherman) is a finisher, allow me to offer what I see the role of a finisher.

In a busy shop he will be working 50-65 hours a week and geography has nothing to do with that. With the subject of pay versus geography, the only thing that may be cheaper is housing. With that in mind, they pay around $26ph in the east (NJ,PA,NY), but you need a husband and wife making that much to live there.

Millionaires live in Phoenix, Atlanta, San Francisco and Hoboken. When they buy a 7-10 million dollar home, they don't consider the local economy for how much they're going to pay for woodwork. They do look for a reputable shop with a good track record to perform the work, and that does have something to do with your finisher. My point is you can have some of the work in an area with so-so employees, or you can have all the work with top-notch employees.

Now I know that finding them can be hard and keeping them harder, but if you get the right guy or gal, isn't it worth paying them to keep them? I'm lucky in that my employer sees that and I work with a bunch of aces. If they ask me to work on Saturday, after already putting in 60 hours, which I have for the last 4 months, I do it. Our pay scale is set up this way: time and a half to 55 hours. 55-60 time and three quarters and double time for hours after 60. If you work 3 weeks in a row over 60, you receive a paid day off. It sounds like a lot, but the difference for me at 65 hours is under $100. I do appreciate it. I pay $75 a week for my wife's and my health insurance, I get 2 weeks paid after the first year and 3 in 3 years.

With all this said, if I wasn't worth it, the company would can me in a New York second. I have seen it done there. A cabinetmaker (so called) didn't make it to first break his first day and was loading his tools in his truck.

My whole point is if you want 4 aces, you have to go through a deck of 52. When you find them, don't fold, raise.

From the original questioner:
The person you describe is a perfect example of a top notch person and what I am looking for. Someone who really can cover all the bases, knows it's not just a 40 and a check, willing to commit his all and expect a share of the reward for such efforts.

We were at crunch a week ago. I told everyone if the job was done by the end of the day, they all got a $50 bonus on top of earnings. They worked into breaks and lunch, came back early, worked later, and we made the deadline.

It's rare I have the need to go over 40-50 hours. This time of year, the work is available to do so and sometimes we do. It's likewise rare that I make it mandatory. So far, only once this year was working extra mandatory. Usually I ask for volunteers for the overtime.

There are the few contract jobs we get where pay is double time the entire job, provided we meet target. Otherwise, double time for overtime only. So far, we have not missed a deadline.

I offered medical this year or an increase in base. Staff opted for more money. But those that want it can afford their own with the increase.

A top notch, all around person that can do all we do is worth 45k base to start, plus bonuses and over rides.

I have one person in another city that works with me part time on special projects. He travels to the job and works his own pace, all hours until it's done of his own accord. He covers all his own expenses and even basic supplies like on a touch up job for a hotel. $50 an hour on one job he earned with his overrides and the job was done ahead of schedule, with him putting in about 23 hours those two days. I have another fellow who drives 2.5 hours from another city to work part time with me too. He's getting about $20-$40 hour dependant on the job and work produced. It's not about the money at all. It's about the output level both in Quality (#1) and Quantity (#2).

For a top notch person willing to put in the effort, I pay top notch and share the reward with everyone on a job for meeting goals and targets. There's been about three other times this year when everyone got an extra $50 or $100 for doing nothing more than their job. I did well on some contracts and made some extra, so gave some of it to staff. I just spent about 3 grand on miscellaneous personal tools for all staff as a spiff. They no longer have to share some things. The tools are at their work stations for their personal use. If they leave the company, the tools are mine; if they break or lose one, they buy another to replace it and the damaged one becomes theirs. Some of them couldn't afford to go and buy hand tools. I did well on the last job and got them all what they asked for. I let them choose what they really wanted at their stations. They can produce more, earn more, and are a little happier.

As a company, of course I want it to make as much profit as possible. I realize it can't be done without people. So profit doesn't come at the expense of people. But without profit, there is no company. I have only a couple people on staff that realize this and put in that little extra effort. A couple that look out for the company and not just themselves. Those couple are in the early stages of their careers with only a couple years experience in one and the other a recent hire trainee. The others don't have that concept - they see a job and a nice place to work with some decent pay and a decent boss, so they stick around. But they are not excelling or earning as much as they could.

My company is only limited by it's people. I have grown every single year but one. This year will be 50% over last, next year can be double with the right people. The comments in this thread have helped solidify my thoughts and given additional ideas. The one about the drying rack is what caused me to offer staff a choice of tools to work with.

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

Comment from contributor S:
Have you considered subbing out your finish work? If you can't afford a full time finisher, I am sure there is a selfemployed guy or a semi-retired type who could use more work, and could do well in an "on call" situation.