How to Charge for Finishing

Determining costs and profit on finishing jobs. November 22, 2004

How do you estimate finishing costs? Do you estimate a certain percent of the entire job, minus installation and maybe a few other factors? Or do you figure on so much for linear footage (or maybe all sq. footage) for, say, a kitchen? Example: Say there's 100 lin. ft. of finished surfaces. Would you say maybe $30 ft. or $35 or…?

Forum Responses
(Business Forum)
From contributor M:
We price our finishing based on what needs to be finished. For instance, per door, per drawer, per base cabinet, per tall cabinet, etc. We found that one lf number isn't accurate enough, or - I should say - doesn't give us enough peace of mind.

From contributor P:
We just started to get back into doing our own finishing because the cost is getting too high out of shop. I asked the finisher how they figured their jobs and they did it on a cost averaging system. All I know is that it came out way too high. We used to do all of our finishing before and outsourced it so that we could free up shop time to complete more jobs, so we know how to bid the cost for finishing. Some jobs I figured out that they were charging $125.00 an hour for their labor. If I am going to pay that, it will be to myself before anyone else. So I guess this year the money will stay in my account. We figure our cost just as we do our woodworking jobs, so this way we are covered and the jobs that I was not getting before we are getting now.

From contributor G:
We range between .20 a sq ft to 18.00 a sq ft for cabinets for a standard finish from 50 to 100 per lineal ft.

You need to track your times, though - it doesn't matter what anyone else charges.

From contributor F:
Some good rules of thumb for determining square feet of finished surface:
1) Kitchen and bathroom cabinets with doors and drawers and finished interiors:
Multiply the square feet (SF) of exterior surface area times 6. Say you have 20 lineal feet (LF) of uppers 30" high and 20 LF of base cabs 36" high, then you would have 20 LF of cabinets x (2.5 + 3) or 110 SF of cabinets to finish. To determine the actual area of the inside and outside, multiply 110 SF x 6, so you would have 660 SF of total exposed surface area to finish.

2) Open shelving (e.g., a bookcase):
Multiply length x height times 4. Say you are constructing bookcases for a library wall in a lawyer's office that measures 15' long x 8' high. Multiply 15' x 8' x 4 = 480 SF of bookcase area to finish.

3) For jobs with lots of drawer banks under 2' in width, count the drawers and multiply the drawer count x 10. Determine actual surface area to be finished. E.g., 10 drawers x 10 SF Each = 100 SF.

Track your labor and material based on these rules of measurement and you should come up with a pretty good idea of how to estimate your cabinet finishing accurately.

From the original questioner:
Contributor F, that is fantastic. Can't wait to hear from you on more...

From contributor F:
Using an Excel spreadsheet, I checked out the ten multiplier for finishing drawer stacks and found it to be quite accurate for drawer stacks on 36" high bases 24" deep. The other two multipliers of 6 for cabinets and 4 for open cabinets have been used for at least 70 years. However, these multipliers don't take into account surfaces that are not flat. Obviously, cabinets with raised panel doors require more labor to stain, sand and finish than slab doors.

Let's assume that you want to account for the additional labor difficulty of finishing raised panel doors over slab doors. Here's the rule: When items having equivalent surface, finishes, application method, and accessibility change direction at sharp angles and continue for a significant distance in the new direction, then measurement of the object increases by the length of the new direction, but usually not less than ½ of a square foot per linear foot.

So, a raised panel door has a beveled face and a rolled edge on the stiles and rails. If we follow the rule, then we need to add at least 1 SF / LF for the combined conditions of bevel on the face and the rolled edge.

If an average door width for an upper or lower door is roughly 27" and the height is 30", then we would need to add about 2.5 SF x two for the stiles and 2 SF x two for the rails for a total of 11 SF of bevel/roll condition. The door face is about 5.62 SF, so adding 11 SF roughly triples the labor for the door face. So, now our multiplier for cabinets with raised panel is 8, not 6. That is, we can assume that finishing these cabinets with raised panel doors, compared to cabinets with slab doors, will take about 1/3 longer.

Another example: You are building custom 8 panel doors for an owner's home. You finished 3 x 7 flush doors before and they took roughly an hour each. If we consider that each panel adds 4 SF of labor difficulty, then 8 panels add 32 LF of labor difficulty. Thus, we need to add 32 SF + 21 SF (face of door) and then divide by the flush door face measurement of 21 SF. So, 53/21 = 2.43. If it takes an hour to finish a slab door, then it will probably take 2 1/2 hours to finish an eight panel door.

These rules of significant changes in direction can also be used to figure moldings. For example, a crown molding has at least 3 edges and several curves. So roughly speaking, a crown molding will take three to five times longer to stain and finish than 1 SF of flat surface. In addition, you'll have a lot more handling time that you need to account for when finishing running trim.

From contributor G:
The whole point of multipliers is to give ourselves a new tool to work with. Obviously, sometimes the tool works, sometimes not. Multipliers are a good initial tool and sometimes going back to them (i.e. reviewing fundamentals) is good reinforcement of learning.

The best way to develop unknown finishing costs is to use measure accurately and track actual expenses for each group of work:
A. Standard kitchen cabinets and vanities
B. Unusual cabinetry: display cabinets with French doors, a bar with a special finish on a wood countertop, etc.
C. Standing and running trim
D. Ballustrades and railings (old multiplier used for many years was a minimum of 8 x height x length.)

Special considerations:
1. Setting up and cleaning equipment is a minimum of 1 hour per operation.
2. Old rule of thumb is it takes as long to prep premium work, either initially or sand between coats, as it does to apply 1 coat of finish. Ditto for putty and polishing work.
So, staining, sealing, sanding, lacquering (a four-coat process) ought to be defined as at least an 8 step process: prep, stain, seal, sand and tack rag, color putty, finish, finish, polish.

Also, if you do finish doors, the standard is figure 3 x 7 by two sides. Some may be 2'8", some 1'8", some 3'6". However, finishing a 6'8" door on both sides ought to be considered as requiring the same amount of time. Ditto for bifolds or bi-pass, i.e., consider as 1 door.

Material costs are not that significant. However, 8' high doors ought to be tracked at a separate labor production rate. That extra 1' in height is actually pretty significant. Increases labor, as I recall, about 25% over a 3 x 7.

Here's a good one: shutters triple or quadruple the perimeter. For example, a 3 x 7 door has 2 stiles and 3 rails equal 22 x 3 or 22 x 4, measured at 66 SF or 88 SF of flat surface. Then count the blades - let's say there's 33 of them. Multiply each blade times two sides x the length of each blade, 33 LF x 2 sides x 2' = 132 LF. Roughly speaking, that 1 louvered door is as hard to finish as 188 SF - 210 SF of flat surface. Now, spraying may not take that long, but you can bet that sanding will! If it takes me 5 - 6 minutes to sand slab or flush door with a pole sander, it will probably take 45 minutes to an hour to properly hand sand that louvered door.

The important thing to remember is to always measure the same way and determine a production rate for that group of similar items. E.g., that louvered door takes 4 hours to finish. Your production rate for stile and rail louvered doors, shutters and cafe doors might start out at a theoretical 200 SF / 4 hours or 50 SF per hour.

This concept of putting louvered doors, shutters, and cafe doors together is called grouping. The method of measurement is called developed surface area. Track your actual time. Say that louvered door took 3 hours and 30 minutes. That's 200 SF / 3.5 = 57 SF/Hr. Now, six months later, you have to finish two cafe doors. Measure the stile and rail the same way, count the blades the same way, add the sum, divide by the true production rate for this group of 57 SF/HR. The number is accurate because you used a uniform method of measurement, tracked your actual labor productivity rate, and established a basic production rate.

Note: a blade under 1' long should still be measured as 1 LF, likewise for a blade 1'6" or 2'5", round up the measurement to the next lineal foot, 2' or 3'.

Like markups, my production rates are my production rates. Ditto for overhead recovery and profit. Determine yours.

From the original questioner:
Contributor F, thanks. When I started to do subcontract work in kitchen cabinets as a finisher, I needed a standard on which I could base an estimate. I had heard that some do a linear ft. estimate, some do a sq.ft. estimate, and some do time and materials. Others do a percentage of cost of entire kitchen job minus installation, such as 30%. So if job was 21k, then finishing was around 7k initially. This doesn't seem to be fair and consistent all the time.

So I came up with more or less a standard of measurement and had an x factor for the variable type finishes. For example, say that your standard height on base cabs is 36". Using this as standard height, measure all for lf. So if I have 30lf of finishing, then I multiply this 30 x X for pricing. This X is the variable for type of finish. A simple clear coat is the easiest and fastest, and would be $30 lf. Then I would use this measurement standard and pricing throughout for each finishing surface. If the finish was more involved, I would up the X factor. But my standard sizing was determined on the base cabinet of 36" in height. So if a refrigerator cabinet was 96", then that would be 3 36" heights times 3 $30 or $90 times the lf for total price for that particular cabinet.

As I said, I made this up myself, and while it's not the best, I check it against percentage as well or other experience factors. I don't like time and materials because what may take someone else 1 hour, I could do in 1/2 or visa-versa(due to equipment setup or lack of proper equipment, etc).