Kitchen Advice for a Young Beginner

A youngster gets some advice and encouragement about getting into the kitchen cabinet business. April 20, 2008

I'm 19, and just starting a business (Justin's Custom Woodworks). I mostly do furniture and built-ins. I want to start doing kitchens. It seems there is a ton involved in it. I want to learn how to go in and measure the space, then go to the shop and draw it up, then build it, then install it. I don't know where to start when it comes to kitchens. I don't know all the standards for kitchens. I got ecabinets for software, but it has a huge learning curve. It's going to take a while to work it to make me money. Help on any resources on kitchen building and standards? And for the big timers, how did you learn how to do a kitchen when you first started?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor J:
Jim Tolpin's book (as well as others) is a good start and will answer many of the questions that you have and a lot you haven't thought to ask yourself yet :-). It will help you understand about appliance openings, sink bases, general dimensions and on and on. There's a lot in there about layout, measuring, and installation too.

Start slow with small galley kitchens and gradually take on more complex jobs as opportunity and your comfort level allow. That's the way I did it. I'll bet most others did too.

Learn to be a good finisher. That's as important as your cabinetmaking skills, maybe more important.

Someone mentioned outsourcing your doors and drawer boxes earlier. I'd recommend that too. Waltzcraft and others have great products, but are pricy. Look local first and then go to those places if you can't get what you need in your area.

You need to meet some of the experienced cabinetmakers in your area. Stop by their shops and introduce yourself. Some will treat you like you're radioactive. Others will be polite but distant. One or two will take you under their wing and help you more than you can know. One thing you'll see quickly is that no two shops do this the same way. Find your own niche and you'll do fine.

From contributor W:
If you can't swallow ecabs, you might try Cabinet Solutions for a cabinet design program. It will pay for itself over and over. You can rent it for $100 per month and you get free upgrades.

The thing that most guys can't figure out in this business is the business end. It is easy enough to build boxes. When I first started out I was given a book called "The Kitchen Cabinetmaker's Building and Business Manual" by Danny Proulx. It is an invaluable reference for the beginner. After you have absorbed that, you need to read one called "The E-myth" by Michael Gerber. If you follow his advice in this book it will save you a lot of grief.

From contributor R:
It can be intimidating, but a kitchen is just a big entertainment center. Just need more organization. You will have many more parts. Read some books on standards and practice with E-Cabinets. Develop a system and stick to it. You may want to look at outsourcing the cabinet boxes to an E-Cabinets cutter. That shop can teach you a lot and will not be threatened by you. And definitely outsource the doors and drawer boxes.

From contributor N:
You should think seriously about working in a small top notch custom cabinet shop. At least for a short time, like a year. Keep your shop going and do one-offs, small kitchens, furniture, built-ins in your spare time. You will learn far more working in a decent established cabinet shop than by winging it on your own. I worked for other shops for four years. The last year I had a shop in an industrial park and did custom furniture for a large furniture store and other word of mouth jobs. Then it all clicked and I was on my way.

From contributor S:
My best advice would be to try and hook up with a company where you can install cabinets first. You will quickly get a feel for the different sizes and styles that are out there. Also you will quickly learn what does and doesn't work. When you broaden your knowledge base, you will be better at creating. Assuming you don't have a ton of overhead (wife, kids, mortgage), building basic cabinets will be the easy part, as you can afford the labor it costs to learn. Since you will start out small, you won't necessarily have the privilege (did I say that?) of working with an architect or designer that will have a set of plans for you to work from. You may be relying more on your experience and creativity. This is where all those cabinet installs should come in handy. This is the approach I take to any aspect of construction I do. Also, you should take as many pictures as you possibly can and review them frequently to keep the ideas flowing.

From contributor K:
Right, kitchens are not a big deal unless you have fifteen of them lined up to build, and you're trying to build them in a 600 square foot garage, with half of the tools you need and no help. Now that we have the shop, the crew, the equipment and somewhat of a game plan, there's no work.

From contributor E:
I have to agree with the other posters on working for someone else for awhile. Although the guys here have been very kind, what you're trying to do would be called a very bad business plan. You're trying to learn how to measure, design, build, and install a kitchen (the most involved and complicated room in a house) on the fly. Oh, and while you're at it, you'll also be learning how to start up and run a successful business, a serious undertaking on its own.

I'm not trying to knock you down here, but life isn't kind, and if you go out as unprepared as you seemingly are, you're going to get hit pretty hard. Most of us learned by working for others and building up our knowledge. There's a whole lot you can learn from books and online forums, but there's also a lot you can't.

Another hurdle you'll likely encounter is people's reluctance to hire someone so young and inexperienced to do their kitchens. Unless you're working for well below market rate, (which is likely at first anyway), why should they hire you? And if you are working for such low prices, how will you make enough to support yourself and invest money into your business?

I hate to be the one discouraging someone from stepping out on their own and starting a business, because I usually think it's a great idea. But from the info you've provided us in your post I have to say it sounds like you're in for a real tough time. Take a step back and think about what you're doing. Do you have a business plan in place, or is that something you think will take care of itself? Do you have someone nearby who can help you out when you get into a bind? Do you have insurance in case something goes wrong on an install? In short, are you really ready to start up your new business? As has been said already, there's much more to being a cabinetmaker than just being able to make a box.

From contributor K:
I'm actually trying to get away from custom building kitchens. Problem is, I have a couple builders and contractors that keep pushing them. I have a nice high end cabinet line I can buy, sell and install that I keep trying to push now, for less money than my custom.

Outsource everything - doors/drawer fronts, drawer boxes, even the cabinet boxes if you can find someone close with a CNC, try to get everything pre-finished. Get specs on all accessories (garbage can pull-out units, etc.) before deciding on cabinet sizes. After a couple kitchens, you'll know what'll work and what won't. I much prefer the entertainment centers and bookshelves. I've done so many, they're slam dunkers anymore, and a higher profit margin.

From contributor B:
I started when I was about that old. Never did work in another cabinet shop, just learned on my own. Wasn't easy. There were shops here but they wouldn't talk to me. I remember trying to figure out how big the toe kick was. It was whatever size the cabinetmaker made it. There are standards, but these seem to be a place to start, as every customer thinks they want something different. The trick is to make them think they are getting it when you are really building to the same standard for everyone. How do you build a rocket to fly to the moon when you have never been there before?... Might not seem right to some, but better to start than not. There are plenty of customers to go around, and not all are willing to pay me what I charge anyway.

From contributor F:
The face frame and frameless books by Danny Proulx are very good for a start. They give simple construction techniques, layout info, standard dimensions, and are a pretty quick read.

From contributor X:
The best of several books I have on the subject is Bob Lang's Complete Kitchen Cabinetmaker. The drawings alone are worth the price.

From contributor O:

The Kitchen and Bath association has standards that you could check out for free. There are rules you should follow to avoid some mistakes I made early on. Clearances are very important! Keep appliances away from the corners. Blum also has info on the standards you should follow for work triangles. I agree you should install some first. There is a learning curve.

From contributor L:
Just a word to the wise... If you are going to do as some stated - work for a place, then go out on your own - you are going to piss some people off. It really sucks to go through the learning curve with an employee, and just when he learns your methods and you start to make money on him, he goes out to use what you taught him against you. We do work with and respect other shops, but hate when people deceive us or use us to better themselves.

From contributor T:
I was 23 when I started my shop. I had never built a cabinet before, never had a shop class, just thought I could do it and I went for it. Be ready for some work, though! I didn't take a day off the first two years of business, not a Saturday nor a Sunday. Year three I was able to take about one day off a month and still run at about 14 hour days. I'm in my fifth year now, and I was finally able to take a 3 day vacation. It is a lot of work. You should also get involved with your local builders association. It will give you some good contacts. It may take a while for you to get in with the contractors, but when/if you do, they are very loyal. I'm in my 5th year of business and going strong, even it this "slow" time for the building industry.