Making Time in a Small Shop

A 2-man shop needs to pick up speed. Should they buy tools or revamp their process? March 17, 2005

I recently started up a two man cabinet shop. My tools consist of two table saws, a panel saw, an upcut saw, a 37" widebelt sander, vertical line borer, bandsaw, and a drill press. Our problem is we just can't get our kitchens finished fast enough. We have approximately $15000-$20000 to put toward more tools. What tools would be the best investment to speed us up? If someone out there has a comparable setup to us, how long does it take to build an average kitchen from start to finish? We outsource our doors, so they aren't a concern.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
That money would be better served as a buffer for your cash flow. The tools that you have are more than adequate for a two man shop. The tools in your shop will serve you well if you put them to proper use. Your process is your bread and butter. If you have a good, well thought out process to build your widgets, then you will be that much ahead of the game. If not, you could be in for a hard time.

There are countless threads on this forum about how to do this or that better. That is a good thing, but you have to be careful of the traps that most of us fall into. Mainly, tools. You might say "if I only had that new saw, or new boring machine, or new router..." The tool is only part of the equation. If you can build 80ft of cabinets per week and can only spray the finish on 60ft, then what good is a new $10000 slider that lets you cut the job out twice as fast? You must concentrate on finding the slow spot or bottleneck, then improve in that area. It is a constant process.

I have a 3 man shop now. We just took a long hard look at our process and made some very minor changes and managed to increase our production by 50% during the last 4 months. It was very hard to let go of doing things a certain way just because we were used to it. One thing that was a huge help for my shop was that we visited a large cabinet manufacturer. We got to see their 200 man plant in operation and saw some real great ideas that we applied to our process. That trip really helped us see what we were doing right and wrong. Building a complete process is not an overnight thing. It takes time.

Sounds like frameless… Get the book "True 32." I build FF and have about 20K in tools. I work alone and on a small kitchen I can build my FF, boxes and doors, stain and seal in 5 good days and 1-2 days on the install, depending if I'm doing plumbing and electrical.
I don’t think tools are the holdup here. You need to break it down to an assembly line. Try to separate your tasks so you both stay busy all the time. When I bring in help, rarely does production double. If you are not building fast enough, where did the 20K for more tools come from?

You didn't mention if you have a CAD system. In today’s environment, it's a must! The time savings is great and the ability to do optimizing, design changes, pricing, cultists, etc. off of a CAD system is worth every dollar you will spend. I'm a one man shop and couldn't live without it. When I bought it about 10 years ago, it virtually saved my business!

Go to and talk with Bob or Mark about a complete manufacturing method for small cab shops like ours. It's been the best thing we did in our business and it saved our necks.

Scissor lift assembly bench. Castle pocket drill. Duct tape. Channel locks. WD-40.
Jim Womack's book: Lean Thinking

It could be that you’re in an extremely competitive market and you’re either not getting enough for your cabinets or you’re doing too good of a job. To speed things up, I outsourced my gables and taping.

I have asked some trusted friends about their methods, and compared them to mine. I am coming to the conclusion that I am doing too good of a job. A couple of guys have mentioned process or method. I am giving great weight to this. I have spent a good deal of money on nice, new production equipment, but have found that many of these guys are getting product out the door much faster because of the way they build their cabinets.

It also makes a difference in what you offer. Those that offer a semi-custom cabinet seem to be doing better than most. They offer a certain amount of options as far as styles go, and they vary the widths to fit. Others that are building furniture-grade cabinets and are successful represent a very small percentage of us. They are privileged to have a clientele that can support them. They can provide the extras and get paid for it.

Another group is those that build custom cabinets trying to compete with semi-custom or mass-produced manufacturers. If you are in this section, move up in price or let go of details. Survey other cabinets in your area. Find out what others are doing and getting paid for. Find out what your customers want. Do they care that you have rabbeted backs in your uppers and lowers? Well, they will if you sell them on the virtues of this process. But will they be willing to pay for it, or will the guy who is faster, costs less, plants backs on the uppers and nothing on the lowers get the job? My guess it that the latter will be putting more money in his pocket, not because he has more equipment, but because he meets the customers' needs/expectations.

You can always find a way to spend your money on the latest and greatest equipment. And the pitches made by the salesmen are very convincing. But unless the process is there, the money will be spent in vain.

Want to get things out the door faster? Drink more Red Bull or Jolt Cola and consider your methods.

When I first started out I wanted to make the best cabinet I could, almost like building a nice piece of furniture that would last for generations. After tearing out hundreds of old contractor-grade cabinet jobs, I said "I can build a much better cabinet than this junk." But better means more time and better materials, which means higher costs. There are people who want that "better" cabinet and are willing to pay for it. But the majority of my clients are only concerned with how good it looks on the surface and how much it costs. I found that if you start explaining the details of rabbets and dadoes, dovetail and mortise and tenon joints, they get lost and don't have a clue what you're talking about. It's very hard to compete against the box stores in price, so you have to sell them on customer service.

I had a customer who wanted an easy reach on the base and the uppers. She went to Home Depot to get a quote, and all they would offer in an ER was a 36"x36", which meant you have a 12"x12" opening for access to the cabinet. She didn't like it and wanted something with a bigger opening. I built her a 38"x38" ER, which gave her a 14"x14" opening and she loved it. That's where we can separate ourselves from the big chain store cabinets.

Experience tells me how long it takes to build my cabinets with the processes I have in place, so when I bid my price, I know I'm getting paid for my time. I don't have to rush like a mad-man to finish the job and sacrifice quality in the process.

I'm sure there are better ways of increasing my production, like having dedicated shapers for each task or an additional table saw to do dedicated tasks, but that means more money spent, which means I have to raise my price to recoup these costs.

I have a 40-man operation in a very competitive market. The majority of my work is frameless. We are building an average of 36 kitchens a day. I was building a high quality cabinet, but the clients and contractors wanted a cheaper route. I found I couldn't produce one. So I found a local component shop to do my cutting and machining for me. It gave me more floor space and took the expense of the machinery out. I stock flat parts and just assemble. Production has more than tripled and the cost has gone way down. I buy my wood cabinets from North Carolina. I'm getting the finished cabinets cheaper than I can get the materials, so there's no sense in trying to do them myself. Plus, they have a two-week lead time. We build our own countertops because I just can't trust another company for that. If a customer is willing to pay the price for a high quality custom kitchen or wall unit, I will do it myself. It's a constant battle with production and this seems to be my best solution.

I found that as I grew and had to hire more people and deal with more, I just didn't have the time to baby sit production and quality. As you grow and hire employees, it's harder to control your quality (it's like they say - the only craftsmen left are at Sears). At least that's what I found, so I took it out of their hands. It's a lot easier to turn down a pallet of parts than to eat the cost because my guys screwed up. My market allows me to produce this way and be one of the largest cabinet companies in town. There's not an easy answer to your question. It depends on what your market and customers want from you. Good luck trying to find the right one for you.

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

Comment from contributor G:
For the frameless cabinet - I didn't see an egdebander on the list. We machine all parts - edgeband, sand, finish, build. Cabinets with finish ends either get machined with biscuit joiner or pocket cutter, depending on the application.