Install Solutions for the One-Man Cabinet Shop

Anyone can do it with help... January 26, 2008

As a one man shop operation, I dread certain jobs when it comes time to install because of the difficulty moving large cabinets alone. I just finished a large double oven cabinet at 102" tall. I think there is the equivalent of two and a half sheets of particleboard in it (10' alder veneer only available on PB).

How do you other one man shop owners deal with this situation? I slipped a disk last year moving heavy cabinets up a tight stairwell. I am "going to well" too often by calling on my friend's sons as moving day help. As the day to transport approaches, I draw a blank as to where to get three other bodies to move this mammoth oven cabinet. Transients?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor D:
I do mainly commercial and institutional installations. I make the most of wheeled dollies when installing alone. I have twenty or so 4 wheel dollies at my disposal plus a couple of 2 wheel dollies, 4 wheel side carts and 2 wheel door dollies. Basically I have enough dollies on hand to put a highway trailer full of millwork on wheels. When I put a piece of millwork on a dolly, I like to leave it on the dolly (if practical) until it's installed. Many cabinets can be easily brought upstairs using a 2 wheel dolly. I use a Gil-lift to install uppers.

On rough terrain or where there are steps to navigate, I build ramps to unload if the truck's ramp is inadequate so we don't have to carry anything. If the millwork is coming on pallets, I will rent pallet jacks to unload it. I always talk to the shop's PM or the shipper to find out the details of how the load is coming. The size and weights of the millwork, whether the truck has a power tailgate or ramp, etc.

I too have back problems. I usually have help on installations but there isn't much I can't move by myself if I have to.

From contributor S:
If I know that I am going to be the only one around at the time of install, I design the cabinet with that in mind. I design it to be assembled on site. Bring it in pieces and assemble it in place.

From contributor M:
I'm a one man shop too. When something gets too big for me I hire a local mover - Two Men and a Truck. I think they have franchises across the country. Around here, its $95/hour for two men (a lot younger and stronger than I am) and a truck (a lot bigger than mine).

They charge from when they leave their shop, so it's nice if they're close. I'm only about 15 minutes away. Typically for me it's a 2 hour charge - $190 well spent. Plus if they drop it, you get to build a new one and get paid for it. If you drop it, you just get to build a new one!

From contributor H:
I also use a moving company at 75.00/hr. Average kitchen is 200.00 delivery and they will drop them in place along the wall where they will be placed. I use the Camar legs and two Fastcap cabinet jacks. Placed under the front of the cabinet, they quickly and effortlessly jack the cabinet above 4.5". I reach under and knock in Camar leg and then lower jack to ground.

From contributor J:
As a one man shop I usually have someone I hire for a day to help with installs. I also rent a box truck for that day; it's much cheaper than owning one! Since you only need that extra body for one or two days at most, pay them extremely well and they will probably be happy to come back in the future. I pay my helper very well, and under the table - it's priced into the job. I find having someone who knows what they are doing makes the install go very smoothly. Lastly, I build with 3/4" plywood, much easier on the back.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the great suggestions. I have almost 20 four wheeled dollies myself and once a cabinet leaves the bench, it stays on wheels through the finishing process and out the door.

I do need to get some of these other one-man aids like the Gil-Lift I hear so much about. Contributor D, when you say two wheel dolly, I am not sure if you mean a traditional hand truck, like for refrigerators, or something else?

I really like the idea of having movers come and just put everything onsite for me. On some of my jobs, $200.00 would be a bargain for all the anxiety it would eliminate. I would still worry that they would mar the finish, but I will have to give it a try.

My wife and I got a new refrigerator recently and the appliance store delivery men carried it in on a new device I hadn't seen before. They both had shoulder straps and two wide web straps that went under the refer and up to their shoulders on each side. They bent their knees and took up the slack with buckles and when they straightened their legs, the refer was about two inches of the ground and away they went. Very clever system!

I should switch to plywood, but I would hate all that extra finishing. I know plywood comes pre-finished and all, but my old school building techniques require that a lot of my parts must be sanded after assembly. I also don't know how these pre-finished builders can machine the parts without scratching the lacquer. Most of my carcass parts get dados and rabbets and other assorted machining done with the part face against the tooling.

I like your idea, too, contributor S, but to build onsite would mean pre-finished and I always like the safety factor of sanding after assembly. When I started in this trade, everything was installed in the raw and then finished after installation. Those were the good old days!

From contributor S:
I knew an old guy that could move almost anything with 2" wide nylon straps - fridge, stove, washer, dryer, chest of drawers, anything. His strap was maybe forty or fifty feet long and he had a few knots for different applications, almost all of them some kind of slip knot or very easy to tie and untie. He started the knot around whatever he was going to carry by folding the strap in half and passing it under the object. At a height that would be about where he would carry it on his back he did a horizontal wrap or two to help stabilize the load and eat up some of the extra strap. He would back up to the load, squat down enough to get the knot at the right height, and by pulling on the straps, leaning forward and standing up, he would have the load on his back like a giant backpack.

I have moved many things this way myself, but I don't really know the original knots and just kind of wing it. I have a few books of knots and have seen many other books of knots and kind of like to think that I know more than a few basic knots, but I have never come across the same type of knots that this old timer used. The trick to the knots was that he never had to completely pass an end all of the way through a loop, meaning that the knot could be tied while he still had the two (permanent) loops or handles in his hands and to untie he just pulled on a couple of free ends that were like mooring hitches or some free lockstitch loop incorporated into the two intersections of the vertical and horizontal wraps.

From contributor J:
Just curious about your materials. Not sure if I misread, but I thought you said you were using particleboard? If so, I'm not sure why ply would be more work to finish?

I use the pre-finished for kitchen work - makes life quicker and doesn't scratch too easily. More importantly, it's lighter than particleboard, which is great when install time comes!

For anything that needs finishing, I generally do as much fabrication as I can, dry fit, then break down and spray all the parts flat. Then it's just a matter of reassembling all the parts.

I think I'm going to look into one of those Gil-lifts myself - could make my life much easier.

From the original questioner:
This particular oven cabinet needed to be 102" tall to match existing cabinetry. When I need veneered sheet goods, I prefer veneer core but in this case, none of my suppliers carried the required 10' long stock I need for the finished end. 10" alder was only available on particleboard.

The rest of the carcass is melamine. I use a very high grade of melamine for my melamine interior cabinets. I believe it makes a nice washable and extremely durable cabinet interior when all of the edges are protected, especially at the front, by .75" thick hardwood. I do wish it was lighter, though.

I may have to switch to plywood carcass, though, because I am really wrecking my back and not getting any younger either!

From contributor E:

Assuming you're building face frame, build the cabinet in sections (bottom unit, oven unit, top storage), pocket cut on the outsides. Assemble the three cabinets together on the job. Pocket on face. Apply your 3/4" panel like a finished end. The front edge of the ply will fit behind your face frame, bevel the front edge of panel for tighter and easier fit in the field. I'm a one man shop also and this seems to work well.

From contributor H:
I build frameless and add end panels like contributor E suggested. For tall pantries or wall ovens over 90.5" (I use the Camar legs for a 4.5" base and rarely have uppers above 42"), I build the cabinet in two - an upper and lower - and stack on site. Once the end panel is attached, you can't tell the difference. Easier for finishing as well, as I only send the finisher a flat panel.

From contributor W:
To the original questioner: I have seen your posts on this site for years and you seem to be well versed in cabinetmaking. Why then would you risk injuring yourself by moving or installing the cabinets? Hire some competent help. A moving company will deliver and set up and a good installer will install with minimal supervision. That "nobody can do it as good as me" mentality is going to get you hurt in the long run. Also, most guys I know make more money building cabinets than moving them or installing them. If you were productive even 50% of the time during delivery and install, the cost would be more than offset. What would be the reason for not hiring out the install or the moving?

From the original questioner:
You must be reading my mail with that "nobody can do it as good as I do" comment!

Here's a good story for you. I delivered the cabinets of this post Friday with the help of my good friend who is a finish carpenter with a cool old GMC flat bed truck. As meticulous as he is, he slung a big ole' coiled up extension cord right up against the oven cabinet finished end that had just been lacquered the night before.

Other than that, the delivery went fine and I am pretty sure I will build in the cost to have all of my heavy work moved for me as long as I can supervise to some extent.

So, with the cabinets set along the walls in the residence, I am cutting out for a receptacle in a finished end in one cabinet just as another worker on the job gouges the outside miter of a stile and veneered panel on another cabinet while he is rolling a piece of equipment through the area.

I couldn't help but wonder if anyone would have taken responsibility for the damage if I wasn't there to witness the event? Anybody have success repairing onsite with lacquer rattle cans? (Pre-cat lacquer, satin flat.)

From contributor W:
Okay, so you had some site damage. Sometimes you see them do it, sometimes you don't. My point is, there are people out there that can do it as well as we can. They may charge more than the normal big box type installer or mover, but the little bit of extra money is worth the time and grief that you will spend trying to save a few bucks. We cover the delivery and install on the quote. We wrap all of our cabinets with stretch wrap and hard cardboard corner protectors when they are assembled. Try and be a little proactive when it comes to delivery. As I said in my post above, if you could capture just 50% of the time that you would normally spend delivering and installing and put it toward building your next job, you would be ahead of the game. Not to mention your back and knees might last a bit longer. When you are a 1 man shop it is very difficult to let go of the control of every minute detail. When you learn to let go of these things, you might feel a bit less stressed and stretched out.

From contributor P:
A cabinetmaker friend of mine who has a bad back, no longer makes 84" or higher cabinets in one piece. He makes them as two units, and stacks one on the other. I'll use that approach on a job I just bid today.

From contributor I:
Consider designing large articles in a KD (knock down) fashion so you can carry shop preassembled retro-fit items to these type conditions.

From contributor P:
I too use a lift for wall cabinets when I don't have a helper, though I usually hire an experienced, retired cabinetmaker to help me on installs. The idea of making a tall cabinet in two shorter sections makes great sense, and a cabinetmaker friend of mine has gone this route too, for he too has back problems.