Methods for Pricing Cabinet Work

After years of estimating cabinet costs box by box in detail, you may have enough data to start taking short-cuts. October 2, 2007

I am curious how you price cabinet work. Obviously you need to take into account all of your expenses, but in the end, I'm sure experienced cabinetmakers aren't calculating a quote based on a cut list. So, do you base it on... Price per linear foot? Price per square foot? Price per door, per drawer, etc? Obviously there is a different price for a painted poplar kitchen than a clear cherry kitchen, but that's not what I'm looking for. Just the method of calculation.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor N:
Are you an "experienced cabinetmaker?" Probably not, or you wouldn't be asking the question. Therefore, you have to price it based upon your labor, overhead, materials, and profit. The method of calculation is the same regardless of how you price it - per foot, etc. Those unit prices are "historical" prices and can only be accurately used after years of tracking expenses and profits for jobs.

From the original questioner:
I'm an experienced furniture maker, but have only built cabinets for my home and my parent's home (0 profit - Dad thinks I owe him). In the past I have turned down a couple of cabinet jobs because I didn't have time to serve the customer properly. One customer recently asked me to do a kitchen and I now I think I will have time. I'm trying to come up with a formula to base a quote on and while I know I can accurately quote the job, I am trying to learn how you cabinet pros quote them. I'd rather not try to build each cabinet on paper before quoting, like I do with furniture, but if that's how it's done...

From contributor J:
Unfortunately that's how it's done. Everyone who starts out seems to think there is some secret formula the experienced guys must know about. But the only formula is the one they have gotten to after years of pricing jobs, and that formula will not work for you.

I started my business out a bit over five years ago, and am just starting to get to the point where I can do a bid without figuring almost every cabinet out on paper. To get there it has taken figuring out all my expenses and then how much I need to charge per day/week. It has also taken ordering too much, and too little, material for jobs. Learning how much waste I have on a typical job as well as how many mistakes I may have to redo (did I say that?). How long the install will take me, and how much time I'll spend traveling back and forth to job sites. How much time I'll spend bidding jobs that I won't get (yup, you've got to get paid for that time, too!), as well as other things I'm not even thinking of right now.

So if you don't want to lose your shirt, figure out every bit of material you'll use down to the last biscuit, then add about 20% to the cost. Then figure out how long you think it will take you, and add at least 50% more time. Add your overhead, and what you need to make for yourself, along with some profit. Once you do all this, you'll probably still not make any money on it at first, but you'll learn a heck of a lot.

From the original questioner:
Do you quote a job based on...
A) Price per linear foot?
B) Price per square foot?
C) Price per door/drawer, etc.?
D) Drawing out each cabinet, calculating specific materials costs, estimated time, overhead, driving and install time, profit, etc... and quote that?

Currently I use option D. I'm hoping to someday streamline this estimating process, but I'm not trying to do that tomorrow. I simply want to get a consensus on what the experienced guys are doing, so someday I can cut my 6-7 hours of pencil and paper time doing a quote down to an hour or two.

From contributor L:
It is very prudent to draw out your cabinetry and list every piece of material that you will need. That means hardwood, sheetgoods, hinges, slides, screws, nails, glue, etc. Also list out all of the features, such as divided drawers, lazy susans, pullouts/rollouts, etc. Finally, get a stain board. Figure your costs. Count on around 45-60% waste on your wood. (Anyone who tells you less, doesn't make money). Once you get your costs, add the overhead, profit, etc. Then put all of this into a contract along with the drawings and the sample stain board. Meet with your customer and give them the facts. Have them sign off on the features, style, drawings and color. This is very important. Figure that if you are working alone or with one helper, that it is going to take a few weeks to build an average size kitchen. Make sure that they understand that you can't be on the job site or holding their hands while you are building their kitchen.

I know this may come across as my being a jerk, but it is not meant to be. My experience has taught me that no matter how much you plan your cuts, you will have significant waste. Some of the material you buy will be unusable. Some of the material will fall apart during a milling operation. You will make mistakes. Customers will have change orders, which means modifying things you may have already built.

And most importantly, if you contract to build the kitchen, then concentrate on that. Don't get swept up into their little world, where they will want you to do the trim too, or finish out a closet or add a built-in or two. If you do and you don't contract for each item, then you will lose your shirt. So how does this information apply to your question? It is virtually impossible to use a formula to figure a bid unless you have historical data that is updated periodically and you are building similar projects all of the time (spec).

From the original questioner:
Contributor L, thank you very much for the thoughtful response. The contract part is very important. I've said to myself, "Hey, I should think about putting together some kind of contract!" But I haven't gotten there yet. Your thoughts about waste percentage are higher than everyone else says, but I tend to lean more to your numbers than theirs. The part about the customers saying, "While you're here...." is no joke either. That happens on almost every job.

From contributor J:
I'm still using D... just abbreviated a bit from experience. As you probably should for at least the first ten kitchens. Then if you're still in business and making money, you have the information needed to do some simple math and use either a, b, or c. I'm not trying to make your life overly complicated, but sometimes one has to learn this information firsthand. And I don't think there is any simple way to do option a, b, or c, since with custom cabinetry, two kitchens the exact same size and shape can be many thousands apart due to the details.

By the way, after your first kitchen, it shouldn't take more than two or maybe three (if you're not great with math) hours to do your bids using method D.

From contributor F:
I draw up my cabinet jobs in Cabnetware. I generate a contract with footage and items. I figure base cabinets per foot, then uppers, then I add on for everything. Backs on islands, lazy susans, tip-outs , pantries, crown mouldings, finishing costs, door costs. Then I generate a bill of materials, and figure my gross profit. I used this method to generate a $9,600 kitchen and one bath cab last month. I made almost $6000 on it. Based on the time and overhead, it was a good bid. They complained I was kind of high, which means more than likely I was right in there with my competitors that do very good work. There are plenty that would do the job for less. All of the bidding also comes down to your market. Some are great, some are bad. Try talking to another shop or two that do what you're planning on doing. Most local shops won't tell you anything, but call a couple of shops that are out of your area, like 100 miles away. Some are just as interested in what others charge. I find the locals here where I'm at are not too friendly or basically arrogant. Oregon is a weird place and prices are all over the place. Make sure you're covering your butt.

From contributor H:
Use method D. It's the surest way. Once you have done it that way several times, you will develop a historical average of what basic base 24" will cost. To use any other method in the beginning is guessing. Guessing is unfair to the client and, most of all, to you.

From contributor B:
This question came up today in the shop with my partner. We know how much plywood it takes to build a particular job, and we decided we would start charging so much per sheet. It would cover OH, profit, and salaries. Any opinions?

From contributor W:
That sounds like a really good way to shoot yourself in the foot.

I price cabinets by the box. I have a spreadsheet that I wrote that has all of the different types of cabinets on it. For example, a 1 door 1 drawer base, a 2 door 1 drawer base, a 2 door 2 drawer base and so on and so on. In my spreadsheet I have a line for labor and box parts and doors and drawers and all of the things that go into building a cabinet.

From contributor E:
$300 per lin ft per level. No extras. Add lots for extra. If you lose your rear, adjust from there in the future. Short answer because I didn't want to read all the other details. It's a gamble and a learning thing.

From contributor U:
You must know your cost to produce your product. The most accurate way to do this is to draw the project and develop a cutlist, hardware list, etc. However, I find this very time consuming and price by the linear ft. and then add (rarely subtract) for things like columns, specialty finish, kitchen with all drawers, etc. I don't share the linear ft. price with the customer, and double check my numbers by estimating my time and materials. After a while, you get a feel for what each project will cost you. Also, look at installation factors that won't show up on a linear ft. or drawing take off.

These include things like:
- Uppers that go to the ceiling. (Coping crown and dealing with drastic drywall conditions.)
- Wall to wall cabinets. (Finished ends take more time to build, but wall to wall cabinets are more time consuming to install unless you want to build them smaller and use scribe.)

Finally, don't forget to sell your cabinets at what the market will bear. Over the last year I've raised my prices well beyond my increase in overhead and materials (all the while getting faster at production).

From contributor A:
We price by the square foot of cabinetry. The price depends on the door style, finish, etc. Then we add the extras, number and type of drawers, square footage age of finished gables, lineal feet of crown, etc. We add all this up and add an administration fee and a shipping fee. Then we add an installation fee. When the job is all paid up and we've paid for all the materials, we see how many hours were worked and we can see how we did on the job.

From contributor R:
Installed, including crown, valence, furniture grade end panels, subtop, pulls ($4 allowance per), 3/4" pre-finished birch frameless box with matching PVC banding, 1/2" Baltic birch dovetail drawer box with Tandem slides, and shaker or raised panel doors with pre-cat finish (add 5% for cherry, take off 5% or so for a less expensive shaker door with ply panel).

$475 base
$375 upper
$1000 tall

That covers everything except lazy suzans, any extra hardware and gizmos, or anything like legs, feet, sculpted bases, arches, corbels, etc. That covers cabinets say up to 40" or so... but most jobs I'd say they average 30" wide, some bigger, some smaller. No dividers for drawers. If it is a base, it has one drawer up top or there is a $100 upcharge for a divider (but I will usually charge for two cabinets in these situations). When I'm busy, staining is $250 a job and glazing is $30 a cabinet. When I'm not so busy, those are usually forgotten about. I think that about covers it... except that maybe our location would help (Pacific Northwest, but not the coast, so we don't get quite as much as there... maybe 90% of their cost).

We are under-priced for the product we put out, however, I intentionally plan it this way. Instead of getting 30% of our bids, we get around 85%, and for a small shop, it is very important to be building and not running around giving everybody and his brother a bid and trying to squeeze an extra $1,000 bucks or even $2,000 out of a job. I can make that $1,000 in the shop while you are out giving bids and because we are at the price point we are at, we can pass on the problem customers because there is always plenty of work. Hope that helps... I wish somebody would have helped me when I was getting started.

From contributor Z:
A lot of good methods being discussed here. I think the most common one, and the one you will probably evolve to, is also the one I use. I price by the lineal foot for an open/empty cabinet. I have a different per foot price for lowers, uppers, tall uppers and pantry cabinets. The only adjustment to this price is wood species. All of my expenses are calculated into the per foot price. I figure doors and finished end panels separately by the square foot. Drawers are a set price up to a certain size. This includes the box, front and slides. Lazy susans, plate racks, wine racks, etc. are also an add-on. If I'm doing countertop, it is also figured by the square foot. I would also offer upgrades to your base prices... such as cathedral doors, dovetailed drawer boxes and ball bearing slides. They can add up quickly and set you apart from your competition.

From contributor M:
I'm a big advocate of understanding your costs and either using a good estimating software to add a reasonable profit or move to list prices per cabinet and review your cost to profit ratio periodically to make sure you're making money either way. In the cost plus approach, make sure you add in everything, including engineering and overhead and burden, before you mark it up. Also, if you're doing some of the work, consider your costs as if someone else was. Otherwise, you become an hourly employee.

From contributor P:

At least 75% of the time when dealing directly with homeowners, they do not have designs to bid from, so I try to start with lineal ft, lower + upper at 375.00 per ft ball bark. This will quickly see who is serious and who is shopping. This price does not include finish or install.

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

Comment from contributor T:
I have been keeping time sheets and details of materials used on a job by job basis for many years. Now I can guess estimate the price for a job based on my past history and also I constantly keep tabs on the market to ensure my price/quality is well positioned. So the only way to start you workshop is to make detailed estimates and keep records to compare.