Mobile Shop in a Trailer?

Cabinetmakers discuss the practicality of running a woodshop on wheels. June 28, 2007

I have been operating a small mobile cabinet shop. I am at a crossroads on whether to buy a 7 x 14 foot enclosed trailer and continue mobile or move into a 1200 sqft shop. The startup for either situation is the same. I think that the shop would allow me to be more productive. Any advice?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor S:
Well, starting up a shop would be profitable as for organization and for future expansion possibilities, as well as higher production. I don't know how you're set up in your trailer. I'd imagine you have a small portable table saw, cut off saw, etc, but in a shop, you can equip yourself with an edgebander, spray booth, assembly center – hell, even a CNC. The possibilities are endless compared to a trailer, where you are limited to what you can produce and how fast you can produce it. With a shop you can hire employees to produce more, quicker. Of course there is a larger overhead cost, lease/rent/mortgage, hydro, taxes, etc.

I recommend getting the shop, and keeping the trailer you have for deliveries. All this of course depending on what you do exactly. Do you build and install kitchens from A-Z? Do you build furniture? Or do you do it all?

From the original questioner:
My calculated overhead cost is $2000 a month. That includes truck payment, current credit cards, liability insurance, electricity, water, etc.

What type table saw do you recommend? I am really confused - there are so many to chose from. Thanks for the help.

From contributor T:

I think that you may have something going to your advantage with the portable unit! I would suggest that you capitalize on your ability to work on the jobsite with custom applications, do smaller projects and charge very high rates to do them the way the builder/customer wants them. You can grow by adding more trailers and covering a larger geographic territory.

In lieu of the saw, you may want to investigate some good software and a small CNC - it will be much more flexible, professional, and replace other pieces of equipment and reduce personnel.

From contributor L:
It's unclear whether you work in your trailer or out of it. I'll assume you use it to haul gear to a job and site-build. I've done that for a lot of years and can't imagine a CNC unit for anything I've ever had to build this way. Ideally, having the shop space and the trailer is the way to go. In 1200 sq. ft. you'll be hard pressed to have everything you want tool wise, a spraybooth, and employees, unless you are very organized.

As for a saw, any decent cabinet saw will do just fine for the short haul, even for the long haul. Plenty of people on this board have used a Unisaw, PM66, or similar profitably for many years. In a pinch, whatever saw you now use will do. It has so far, right? I think rather than choosing what kind of saw or even what kind of space you should have, it would be better to decide what kind of work you want to do and under what kind of conditions you want to work. If you want to work in a shop, do that. If you enjoy working in the field, do that. From this will come the answers for what kind of stuff you need and where it's best suited to reside.

From contributor Y:
What saw depends on what you are making. For square, accurate panel cuts, a slider does wonders (scoring, long miters, compound miters too). I'd still have a 10" cabinet saw for small parts, dados, etc.

From contributor A:
The few people I know that do the trailer work and the in-shop work (me for one) and I have had this same discussion. Seems to me the higher profit margin is in little overhead, no employees, little overhead, and little overhead. That is the way I'd go if I were to do it again.

In a shop you will need to make around 8-10K a month by yourself to make any money. Out of a trailer you can make a little more than half of that and still do okay. But the two guys I know that do this charge around $50 an hour and do whatever jobs they want to take. Or they take a day and go fishing because they worked 60 hours last week and made 3K.

From the original questioner:
That is what I was thinking - the overhead of a shop is scaring me. What size trailer were those people using? I was looking into a 26 footer to kind of set up like a small shop.

From contributor A:
One guy just works out of his pickup. Sets up in the customer's driveway and starts cutting. Not very professional in my book.

I have a 16 ft, 7ft tall, 7ft wide enclosed trailer. I have a workbench on wheels, table saw, etc. that I use for installs and site work. It works okay, but there are times that I've had to make two trips - one for product, one for tools for the install.
The other guy does more general woodworking stuff. I think his trailer is 22ft? It's 8ft wide and he has it set up real nice. If I remember, he has two 8" workbenches. One is set up with his table saw, and the other is set up with a "blank" space for a tool drop in. Each tool (planer, little band saw, etc.) has a base attached that when the tool drops in, sits where he wants it for that tool. He has 4 ft infeed and outfeed tables for his thickness planer when he uses that.

He has his trailer wired and when he gets to a job site, he has one extension cord that plugs into the trailer and then into an outlet. Then he switches his inside lights on and goes to work. I thought this was a great idea. As I remember, he has an air compressor mounted in a storage box on the front of the trailer were some people put a generator. Everything is on wheels so he can unload the whole trailer in a couple of minutes. He might even have one of those RV awnings on the side so he can work in the shade. It's been a year or so since I've talked to him and seen his setup. He's been doing this for a while and has refined his rig for the type of jobs he takes.

The shop next to mine makes custom trailers. Tru-Tow is the brand. Hell of a trailer.

Anyway, if I were to do it over, I'd get a 20 to 25 ft 5th wheel. Have an 8ft interior height, lights, and pre-wired like the other guy. I might even have a dust collector set up in part of the trailer area over the bed that blows into a plastic bag I'd set in the truck bed. You could add a couple AC units, have the RV awning deal, maybe some exterior outlets and air hose so you could set up a contractor's saw outside, run a sander, etc. As fast as lacquer sets up, you could even come up with a plastic walled spray booth for under your awning. You would be a low volume user, so it might be okay. Check local laws first, but I bet it could be done.

Set up correctly, and with a bit of thought and planning, there is no reason you couldn't do almost anything out of your trailer that we can do in our shop. And you could buy it for less than most of us pay in rent a year. And still get $50-$75 per hour. Now I'm real jealous. If I could only get my CNC into a trailer…

From contributor L:
Contributor A, I'm curious about the power consumed by the trailer shop. Sometimes I have power problems when I plug my emglo compressor into a household circuit on a cold day (without an extension cord). In the case of the trailer, it's likely a long run to the house to get power and even then only 20A 110v will be available at best. It seems like you would need to tie into the service panel at the house to get enough power to overcome the voltage drop from the long run. I'd be curious as to what solution you or your friend have come up.

From contributor A:
I really have no idea how he does it but I would assume a heavy gauge extension cord to the trailer and as long as one person was working at a time, and you watched your electrical usage, it would work. Or maybe if you had two circuits on the trailer and each circuit was powered by two different supply circuits in the house? Anyway, I assume he only has on overhead fluorescent lights and the tool he is using at any given time.

In Florida we don't have many cold days, so that's not an issue.

But you really put a damper on my dream trailer. Out goes the AC. I guess the dust collector has to be rethought.

When I set up on site I use an el-cheapo 100 ft electrical cord on a spinny reel with 3 built in outlets. I plug in my table saw, chop saw, compressor, etc. I've never had a problem (that I know of) with the electrical supply. But I almost always run only one tool at a time unless the compressor kicks on when we are using the table saw (portable DeWalt).

From contributor C:
Rent a house out in the country with a shop or large garage. These guys are everywhere here in Oregon. One shop every few miles. Now some of these shop owners make very, very, good incomes doing it that way. Beats the trailer thing, unless you're a trim carpenter.