Finishing in-house vs on-site

Is quality compromised when cabinets are finished on the job site? November 22, 2003

I gather from this forum that many cabinetmakers build and install cabinets unfinished and a separate finisher comes in and finishes them. Is this common? I could not give a kitchen away if I didn't finish it. Is it possible to get as good quality by finishing on site? Do they spray or brush? Either way, it seems more time-consuming, expensive and compromised. I am not knocking this practice. It is somewhat appealing to me but not possible in my area.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
The norm around here is to have the finisher/painter apply whatever specialty finishes as required by the owner on the jobsite. I lost a job to a shop a few months ago that touted their cabinets hand-crafted and shop-finished (supposedly superior). The cabinets looked like a trailer house finish, and the customers were very disappointed. I'm a pretty fair cabinet builder, but I'm not worth a dime at performing the wide variety of finishes a specialty painter can do. We have a deal - he doesn't build cabinets and I don't paint. I work with builders that have professional painters. I don't understand why you say it is not possible. Do all the painters in your area refuse to paint if they don't build the cabinets?

From contributor B:
I sometimes finish, but prefer to do it on site. I hate nothing more than transporting a load of finished cabinets. Something always happens. Working with builders, I don't finish. With homeowners it's about 50/50. I really dislike finishing, but that part pays a lot better than building cabinets here. But not being a professional finisher, I only offer stain/lacquer and a few types of glazes. Consider pricing them pre-finished adding enough to outsource that end. I would if it didn't pay so well...

From the original questioner:
In my area painters don't build cabinets, they paint. Cabinetmakers don't paint, they build cabinets. We do, of course, finish our cabinets in our shop but not on the job site. Around here that is just the way it is. If a client wanted unfinished cabinets I would do it. I could find someone to finish on site but it is not at all common practice here.

My customers would not buy unfinished cabinets and have them finished in their house. They don't want to mess with it. Buy them finished and be done with it, is their thinking. Reminds me of a friend in Texas who had cabinets made and installed unfinished. The painters came in, turned their patio into a finish room with plastic and took two weeks to paint the cabinets. Why would a homeowner want to go through that? It can't be any cheaper? It can't be a better job? I don't understand why finishing is done on site. I can understand with a painted finish on trim when nails holes need to be filled, but cabinets?

From contributor C:
I always prefer staying out of the finish. We are designers/woodworkers and the size of our business permits that. When a customer needs pre-finished (more often in remodels) they are sent out to a finishing shop. This beats the cost of a spray booth for the amount we need it. The handling of pre-finished is in fact a headache - try to account for this in price of work. In the past I have finished stuff in the shop. It's dangerous, unhealthy and makes a mess that nearly stops production and fuels downward attitudes. Do what works, be realistic and be safe.

From contributor D:
In our area, hardly any shops pre-finish. Great for me, because I pre-finish almost everything we do, and get a great deal of work because of it. The mentality of most shops is just like what's been posted here, "we don't like to mess with it." Most of the times, that means they don't understand it.

Most painters in our market are not finishers, and would ruin a nice set of cabinets. But most cabinetmakers in our market are building stapled particleboard boxes, with junk hinges and slides.

We have never had issues with handling/shipping pre-finished cabinets. We can get a better job and be more efficient in our controlled environment than on a jobsite.

Pre-finishing also saves the painter and the cabinetmaker from pointing fingers. There's single source responsibility with providing pre-finished cabinets. No back and forth about glue on the cabinets, improper sanding, etc.

Concerning the comments about cabinetmakers not painting, and painters not cabinetmaking. If you build a piece of furniture and can't finish it, you're really not worth much. As a business, it makes total sense to finish your own product. Why put all your work into another company's hands?

From contributor A:
I may not be worth much, but I banked 165K last year being worthless and not finishing. I'll take being worthless for what it is. Back on topic, it is a rarity to see cabinets delivered pre-finished here except in the ultra low end tract market, or an uninformed homeowner buying into the "controlled environment" theory. The builders I work for hire professional full time finishers. For what it's worth, all the work I do is new construction, and that probably makes a difference, when the painter doesn't have to rig up the patio for a booth. Do what works best for your situation.

From contributor E:
In Raleigh, N.C. you couldn't sell a cabinet without finish and although it is a dreadful job, it's what sells my cabinets. I wouldn't accept a job where a painter was allowed to ruin any cabinet I built.

From contributor D:
Sorry - I didn't mean to say "worthless," but more that it adds value (and quality) to a product to be able to finish it in a spray booth (like high grade furniture). I don't see many people buying high grade furniture unfinished.

It is also very common in our market for residential cabinetry to be finished on the jobsite. It is also common to provide stapled particleboard boxes, with cheap hardware. I don't care if there are more profits in doing that level of work, it just doesn't work for me.

The factory finishing concept, for me, comes from doing high-end commercial work (corporate offices, law firms, etc., not schools and hospitals). That kind of work exceeds the quality I see in the majority of homes in our market. When we provide factory finishing, it is a superior finish to anything that can be achieved on a jobsite.

When we finish in an enclosed booth/spray room we can do a much better job. We have a relatively dust-free environment, unlike a jobsite (new or renovation). Not to mention pre-assembly of crown mouldings, etc. that are finished after they are cut, sanded, and attached without exposed fasteners (nails).

It's not a very difficult job, explaining this to an uninformed homeowner. Builders and homeowners grasp the concept very easily. It doesn't take much selling.

From contributor F:
No way, no how can you get a site finish that will compare with a shop finish. Would be like trying to get a good paint job for your car in the driveway instead of the booth. I got tired of my hard work being screwed up by the best of painters. I know it does not work for all but to be able to finish cabinets before adding hardware and in a controlled environment is a big plus. One is able to use products such as conversion varnish that would not be job site friendly. I did a home for the owner of one of the Northwest leading painting contractors who happened to be the contractor on Bill Gate's home. Funny thing, they chose me to finish their cabinets at my location instead of their crew on site.

The set of beaded cherry cabinets that I have in progress is for another Seattle painting contractor that keeps a crew busy doing job site paint jobs for the rich and famous. He also knows that he cannot produce the finish that I can in my shop. The painter on site just won’t go the extra mile to get that little bit of glue off the cherry or to sand that little scratch that you missed.

From contributor G:
For those of you that build and finish your cabinets (this is what I do), how much time are you spending finishing them? For me it probably is about 2/3 building them and 1/3 finishing them. I may be a little slow at it but I can't see how a house painter could give them the finish look that I can. But sometimes I wonder if that many people know the difference anymore.

From contributor H:
We finish almost everything that goes out the door. No, we don't consider ourselves the best finishers out there, but in general, I believe our finishes are much better than what we've seen done by painters on the job site. Not many painters I know normally paint or stain/clear coat new cabinetry, so they are not developed to do that well. After speaking with some of my cabinetmaking friends on the West Coast, it occurred to me that the ones I know all send unfinished cabinets to the job site. Everyone I know here in the Mid-Atlantic area generally finishes in-house. I figured it had to do with more strict environmental regulations on the left coast, that are perhaps easier to deal with or (I'm guessing here, not stating a fact) bypass on the job site. Maybe not. As to how long a finish takes, that depends entirely on the finish - how many steps. These fancy glazed and sand through, multi-color layered and fly specked finishes can take a whole lot of time - the customer's pocketbook sets the limit. A general stain and lacquer will tie us up for two to three or so days on an average job.

From contributor I:
That's right about the 'left coast' situation. Maybe our new guv will change the regulatory situation to allow for in-house finishing.

I am amused by the talk about painters and on-site finishing. I don't hire painters to finish on site. I hire finishers who lay a beautiful pre-cat on a big kitchen in 4 days. They seal off the kitchen, bring in fans, and tidy up at the end of the day. Yes, the stink does get through a bit.

From contributor H:
My bad! How many times have I wanted to correct someone who calls me a carpenter because they know I work with wood? Calling a finisher a painter is probably about the same thing. We're talking about two different trades who happen to work with some of the same mediums. I'm sure there are some painters who are also finishers, just as there are some cabinetmakers who are also carpenters. Thanks for pointing this distinction out. Are there any finishers in the Mid Atlantic States?

From contributor J:
I have a finisher who does cabinets for me, and other shops. While he's finishing my cabinets, I'm building more cabinets, not finishing. I prefer to deliver them unfinished. If the builder's finisher did a good job, I'll claim the job. If they screwed up, I won't claim it. Some on-site finishers do a good job; some are low ball bidders and do two coats and forget to finish tops of doors, let the finish run… and this poor workmanship in $700,000 homes. Usually working with good builders, the job gets done right; working for a cheap shake builder, it's usually a sad finish.

From contributor K:
Everyone knows a sprayed finish looks better than a brushed one, unless you want that million dollar brushed look one of my designers is always gushing about. I just don't think the house painters can get a decent finish with those snot shooters they spray houses with. I'll stick with my HVLP.

From contributor L:
I have to pre-finish most jobs usually because they're remodels and it's "cleaner" for the homeowner. But you guys that think in-place finishing can't be as good or better have got your head stuck in the sand. A qualified cabinet finisher is required, but that's a "duh" requirement. Raw moldings and other things can be fitted and sanded correctly and tones and the like will be uniform, especially with wipe-through glazed stuff since everything's in place. In the shop a door or cabinet finished at 8AM might not get exactly the same treatment as other cabinets or moldings finished at 4PM. If they get installed side by side these differences become more obvious.

From contributor M:
I do it both ways. For new construction, most go out unfinished, and I'm at the mercy of the "finishers" who are usually "painters." Far too many times I'm called back because the drawers hang up or something else, only to find out that the hardware is full of poly or lacquer. On remodels, everything is finished before it leaves the shop. The quality of the finisher can make or break my reputation. Unfortunately, I've not had good experiences around here with those who have been hired to finish my work. That makes me look bad and leaves the customer with a bad taste. If I finish the stuff, I know the customer will be happy with the final result. But that is the name of the game - if I have control over the process, I can make sure it is done right. Right now I'm waiting on a granite installer to install countertops on a kitchen remodel. The finished cabinets have been in for 3 weeks, and he says it will be another 10 days before he can get them in. He's had the material in stock for 6 weeks. Meanwhile, the customer is left without a kitchen, and I can't complete my punch list. The customer picked the granite installer, so I'm off the hook in that regard. But far too often the customer picks the finisher who makes a mess! If you're a professional finisher, consider moving to Baton Rouge - there is plenty of work for guys who do it right!

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

Comment from contributor S:
Any work done onsite with the same guns used in a booth, the same products used in a booth, and proper ventilation can achieve the same results as in a booth. Sure, more time and more money, but if bidded properly, what's the problem? As a painting contractor, 50% of my time is spent finishing cabinets, trim and doors. Whatever your trade, if you work for people who chase the low bid, you get what you pay for.