One-Man Installation Setup

Small cabinet-shop owners explain how they organize bringing their tools and supplies to the jobsite for installations. March 9, 2008

What do you small shops do for tools and supplies for installs? I'm a one man shop and I install probably 99% of what I build. I do furniture and cabinets - some projects have very little or no install, just basically delivery and setup. So, I'm out maybe a few days a month on average doing true installs.

What feels like it kills me is all of the loading and unloading of tools and supplies from the shop to the truck each time for the installs. It seems like it takes an hour or two and I'll still inevitably not have everything I need. A complete second set of tools and supplies permanently in the truck or trailer would seem to solve the problem, but is a big expense for the limited use. How do you handle this?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor K:
I'm a one man shop. I have a 20' enclosed utility trailer that I use for installs. I keep a Dewalt chop saw with stand, a pancake compressor, a GilLift, ladders, levels, hoses, power cords, etc. on the trailer all the time.

As for supplies, I bought one of those silver wire baker's racks like you see at Sam's or Lowe's and strapped it to the front wall of the trailer with pipe straps. That's where all the blankets, Liquid Nails, belt sander belts, shelf pins and other consumables go. I try to buy that stuff in bulk and store it there.

In the shop, I keep most of my hand tools, power tools included, on one of those big Rubbermaid utility carts. There's also enough room on this thing for a couple of those Stanley compartmented fastener cases to fit. I try to keep those full with stuff I'll need on site and try not to rob them in the shop.

When I get ready to install, I just roll the cart into my trailer, strap it to the wall with an E-track strap, and go to the job site. A blanket pad over the top keeps the tools from bouncing off. 90% of my jobs are in concrete slab, ranch style houses, so I can usually roll the cart right into the garage or house itself - very convenient. We've had to carry the cart up steps a few times, which wasn't too bad, but certainly not something I look forward to. By the way, my wife usually helps on installs. My original plan was to build up a set of tools for the trailer and one for the shop. We did that with the chop saw and compressor. My wife came up with the idea for the cart and it's eliminated the need for the second set of smaller items.

From contributor D:
I'll second contributor K's reply. We have an 18' enclosed trailer. Two sets of tools, one set for the shop and one set for the trailer. It is a hassle getting tools in and out of the work site, though. We try to keep things as lightweight as possible. We use a Senco single tank compressor, weighs maybe 10/15lbs. Most of the hand tools are kept in large bags with shoulder straps so you can get several of them at a time. Plus having the trailer makes it nice if you're stopping to pick up any supplies. It is locked up tight and no one can see what you're hauling. Out of sight - out of mind.

From contributor J:
I am not in your same position, but I was. I didn't really start making money as a cabinetmaker until I subbed out the install to guys that had trailers full of tools. This made it so I could do a lot more work and could stay on schedule. It is not that I am a slow installer, but I didn't have time to spend concentrating on just install.

From contributor B:
Have an enclosed trailer with every tool that you need for installation - this means that you may have to buy more tools. This will save you 2-4 hours on each install. Do the math. If you can save 2-4 hours per install, then you can use that time to create more product. Creating product is a much larger money maker than installing product. If you have someone install for you... Let's face it - you don't make money on installs unless that is all you do, because of time away from shop, gas, tools, etc. In a one man shop, when you are gone, that shop is dark and quiet - no product, no money. We've been subbing out installs for 3-4 years now and it has been great.

From contributor A:
If you are a real shop, your hourly rate is over 50.00 an hour - more like 60.00 to 70.00. If you spend 1-2 hours several times a month, that's easily 10 hours. Multiply that by 12 and it's 120 hours. Times the hourly, say 65.00, and its $7800.00 dollars a year. You have already paid for the duplicate set of tools; you just don't have them. When you do get them, keep them loaded onto a two-wheel handcart so you can move them easily and go anywhere with hundreds of pounds of everything you need.

From contributor R:
I'm a one man show also and do my own installs. My cargo trailer is set up much the same as mentioned already with the major tools inside (compressor, miter saw, saw stand, cab lift, ladder, etc.). For small items like screws, nails, sandpaper, hand tools, etc. I bought a couple of the Festool systainers. One has small boxes for fasteners and the other is deeper for small tools and misc. They can sit on top of my Festool dust extractor, which also holds my sander, jig saw, circular saw and a set of vacuum attachments all made by Festool. This stack is on wheels that the dust extractor has and can be rolled into the trailer as a unit. At the job site, each of the systainers can be separately carried to where they are needed or rolled again as a unit to one location if possible.

With this system, I am able to keep many of my tools and the supplies in the shop where they can also be used. I can also fill the small bins as needed for installs. I found when my consumables were left either in the truck or trailer they were more prone to not get refilled.

If you are not familiar with Festool, you might want to check them out. They are nice tools, but costly. That is why I don't have two sets of them.

From contributor I:
I'm a two man shop. What we did was once a month, or once every two months, buy a new tool for installs. Doesn't hit the pocketbook all at once, and you'd be surprised how quickly you build up a second set of tools.

We have a 20' enclosed trailer also, but I don't like keeping tools in there, even locked. I know of a company (a civil engineering company) that had three trailers full of equipment stolen in one night.

I do like one of the others above, and keep tools in large plastic toolboxes on wheels - only takes a few minutes to load. To check and make sure nothing's missing, and load all of the tools, takes 15 minutes tops.

From contributor K:
I realize this post was about tools, but contributor J makes a valid point. Have you considered outsourcing all or part of your installs? I do this quite a bit and it's worked out well from a scheduling and financial point of view. It really takes a lot of pressure off, too, when you have a good, reliable installer that can make things happen. Then on the other hand, you could end up with the guy who the customer finds in their living room, drinking their beer and watching the ball game.

From contributor L:
Took a while, but we have enough tools to do both. Just bought a screw gun a month, nailers, etc. until we had three to four of everything. I actually frequented pawn shops for tools, and some deals can be had, but I found it was just easier to buy it new at a box store or order it online. The time savings of separate install tools alone is worth the investment. We do outsource some of the bigger jobs to an installer that is set up, but it took a long time to find him.

From contributor M:
We have a set of install tools that are left in the cube truck. Sure wish I could find a good installer. I find I get way more accomplished in the shop.

From the original questioner:
Thanks, everyone, for the replies. Contributor A, thanks for pointing out the math. Sometimes those big old trees make it so hard to see the forest! For $7800 I'll buy all the tools and a new trailer.

Contributor J, good point on the installs. I actually could be very content staying in the shop. Partly because of the tool issue, the installs always seem more hectic, stressful, etc. But almost all of my business is directly with customers and via referrals, so even though it may not make complete financial sense, the time that I spend at customer's homes doing installs is very valuable in building a relationship that leads to future business and referrals. I think that I'm a decent woodworker and businessman, but better at dealing with customers and building relationships. Doing the installs myself is a necessary part of the overall plan.

So, I'm off to start stocking up on install tools and easy portability. I'm in Wisconsin, so my client's homes are not on slabs, and I'll want to unload the trailer easily, not as much for security as for getting everything in from the cold.

From contributor S:
Seems we have similar types of businesses... One man shops in the north with the majority of our contacts made by word of mouth. I live in Canada, so I understand the concerns of weather, and for this reason my trailer contains no tools in the winter. All but two of my kitchens have been built by me, and installed by me. Once, I took on two jobs at the same time thinking I could outsource the doors and installs. In trying to keep this a thread, and not a book, I'll simply say I still have $3500.00 in maple doors/drawers in my garage! A nightmare from beginning to end. The second was sold to clients in the USA, and I wasn't allowed to do the installation. A reputable installer was hired, and he did a good job... albeit, differently than I would have. Little things, like keeping the grain on the toe kick and u/c valance uniform. Not a big deal, the homeowners were still happy, but I would have done it the way I pictured it in the shop. Where I live, clients who want custom cabinets go to the builder, not the installers. In the end, if the installer doesn't do a good job, the builder still takes the knocks... It's his kitchen.

A second thought... I build each kitchen completely. I load the trailer in about 5-10 minutes, then deliver and install. When the install is finished, I load the trailer in about 5-10 minutes and return to the shop to start the next job. I say all that, to say this: Continue doing your own work! Buy a trailer (with a fold down ramp/door) that you can park close to the shop door, double up on tools/supplies that are needed at each location (drills, clamps, etc.), make a tools/supplies checklist - check it twice, and put these in wheeled totes (it's quick, compact and easy on your back). It works!