Pay Scales for Cabinet Shop Workers

Pay rates vary by skill level, and also by region. Here, cabinetmakers dig into what makes a worker worth his wage. October 18, 2005

I need to hire a lead cabinetmaker and I have posted the job at WOODWEB's Job Opportunities area. I noticed that only one other listing mentioned what pay they were offering. I put down $18 - $20. We are in Chicago. What are the arguments for and against listing what the pay is, and can I hope to get someone really good for $18 - $20? My current top guy is at $18.50, but has to leave due to family issues. I run into lots of people who are eager to learn, but I don't have the staff or time to take on any more trainees. What do you think?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
That is a very high paying position, no matter where you are. Typically, companies will tell the applicant to forward their resume along with salary history and salary requirements. That sets a starting point for negotiations. Advertising $20/hr in the paper is going to get every yahoo out there applying for the job.

From the original questioner:
I guess if I get a couple of keepers along with a net full of tossers, I am doing okay. Otherwise, you are right and I could be setting myself up for a big waste of time.

From contributor W:
The top guy at our 12 man shop makes $17 and he is expected to know everything. He does all the specialty work and does his own projects by himself from start to finish, whereas the others share responsibilities. He has been here for 12 years and is very good. The rest of us make from $8 (trainee hire on) to $12 to $14 (those who have been there for several years).

I have been in this business for 10 years (Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and now Texas) and the average seems to range from $12 to $14 an hour for quality, trustworthy people. If you offer $18 to $20, that individual should know everything from the machines to troubleshooting problem scenarios and catching problems before they occur on the jobsite. The owner should be able to ask that person to not only do a detailed project from start to finish, but should expect that person to also delegate responsibilities to make sure the shop runs efficiently when the boss isn't around.

From the original questioner:
Jeez, what is going on in my neck of the woods, then? My previous top guy left to go do trim carpentry at something like $25/hour. The union guys are up to $30 or more. No offense to trim carpenters, but I would think a good cabinetmaker would need more brains and skills than a good trim carpenter, but the money isn't there. I borrowed a guy for the shop last week from a freelance install crew that I use and this guy is paid $18/hour. In my shop he would have been $12, maybe $14/hour. Guess I am in the wrong line of work.

From contributor B:
I used to be a union guy ($27/hour), but took my withdrawal card. I looked for cabinetmaking positions, but all I could find was $12-$14/hour. Cabinetmaking is what I love to do. I make more than the union wage and the CM positions combined now, and I'm in charge. I guess that's why some of us are in this business. I don't understand how you guys can keep people employed for years like that, when, if they are any good, they would start out on their own.

From contributor W:
Contributor B, to go out on their own? Well, it's a mindset, and some serious choices need to be made. Most people like a steady check each Friday and paying the bills and knowing that they always have the same amount budgeted if they just do their job. Then there is ownership and all the headaches involved and all the scary risks, but the rewards may be larger. I would love to go into business for myself, but I am not good at it. I can build anything, and I can finish it also. I have been trained well since 1994 and I am good at troubleshooting, but when it comes to running a business, I don't have the experience I feel I need and I can't afford the gamble at this time.

From contributor B:
I meant no disrespect to great employees like yourself. If I ever expand, I hope to have some of you on board. I only meant that, as a business owner, I would be afraid of losing guys like you. I have had employees in the past and they were great, but there is a lot of pressure from the top to keep those guys busy and give them that weekly check and security, and when they left, I just decided to scale back and stay solo for the time being. As far as running a business and the experience, I guess I don't look back that often on the road that's gotten me here.

From contributor M:
It really depends on where you are. We are in Chicago, also, and I think that pay scale is right where it should be for a cabinetmaker that knows what he is doing (13-18). The problem with the pay scale for cabinetmakers is that the industry has put us in that position of being a lower pay than most other trades. It is happening also to the carpentry trade, but not as bad, because building permits are needed in most areas of the country if you want to do something, so there is some kind of control over the work. Cabinetry is installed by installers or those carpenters, so we are not looked over by inspections. That is where the cut rate guys move in and the price drops. Designers have jumped on the bandwagon and demanded a high dollar, as they make it sound like they do everything and that takes away from the profits. A good association that can push for some type of control, like the AWI specs, is needed if you want to see the pay scale and profits go up in this industry.

From the original questioner:
That is right that pricing is the other half of the equation. You have to bill enough to support the wages you pay. Problem is that, after you tally the materials, it's all guesswork anyway. I have established a shop rate that is somewhat arbitrary. I mean, when I set it, I tried to add up all of the payroll and overhead and profit and divide that by the given number of man hours in a month to get an hourly number. A lot of guesswork. When I do the bid, I have to estimate how much time I think it will take to do any one thing. Add it all up and I have a job price. I lose my fair share due to being too expensive, not altogether a bad thing, I think. One thing I am good at, though, is making a very complete proposal that lists out exactly what we will build, how we will build it, specs and model numbers on all of the materials and hardware, etc. We are AWI members, so I use that, stating that we will be building to whichever AWI specs. There have been many times when our proposals have been so detailed that the client has sent the other bids back for clarification. The original point, though, was about pay scale, and I guess that it doesn't ultimately matter what someone is paid so long as they can make money for the company. If a guy was paid $50/hour but could do the work of 3 $18/hr guys, I would still be ahead.

From contributor P:
"If a guy was paid $50/hr but could do the work of 3 $18/hr guys, I would still be ahead."

Boy, you are so correct with this. Here in Philadelphia, I am currently paying my top guys $24/hour, which I am happy to do because those guys make me money. I have a much harder time with the entry level and journeymen people, because they aren't so reliably productive, yet still need a living wage. Top dogs aren't born, they are made through years of experience combined with talent and training. Smart shop owners treat them like gold. 18 to 20/hour might not be enough to lure one out of their present situation.

From contributor E:
I think it's all too easy to forget about how much money an employee can make for you when you are assessing wage rates. I see the same thing when commission rates are being discussed. What things cost is only half the equation, the other half is how much money are they going to make for you?

From contributor J:
What kind of product do you, who can afford to give $20+ an hour, make and what volume of annual sales does it take to support those wages? I don't even make that much a year - I just can't imagine giving that away to someone who has no worries except for the 40 hours they are there. I work 80 hours a week and have tons of worries.

From contributor H:
I had a 3 man shop building custom cabinets and installing them. I did the design work and the business end and rarely worked in the shop. We grossed 400K - 500K a year. My lead cabinetmaker was probably responsible for over 1/2 of those sales. 40K a year plus bonuses and 3 weeks paid vacation gives me 250K in sales? That's pretty good, in my books! He was worth more than 20.00/hour. There must be enough work all the time to keep such a crew busy and top notch machinery is a big help, as well.

From contributor D:
One has to realize there is a wide range of participants in this thread. From top managers/owners with top shops making a top product on through to garage shops with a subcontractor or two on the side, competing with Home Depot or the other garage shop. For some folks, this should be a wakeup call to get their business together and realize there is more to life than a day to day struggle to just get by. Owning your own business should mean more than having a job without a direct boss.

Employees are often the greatest asset for a small shop. I know they are in my shop - and I do my very best to treat them as such. They make me money as well as support their families. Their mortgages, kids in school, cars and vacations are all a part of the extended satisfaction I get from my work. I would hope we all can achieve some measure of the same and extend it to our employees.

From contributor L:
I'm both a cabinetmaker and trim carpenter. The questioner stated that a good cabinetmaker should have more brains and skills than a trim carpenter. I find I'm more challenged doing most trim jobs, dealing with other people's mistakes and shoddy work. When making a cabinet, everything is nice and square, with no surprises.

From contributor V:
I don't know what a lead cabinetmaker should be paid, but does anyone know what his replacement costs are? If someone has mastered all of the shop duties, that is a valuable tool. When I left my former employer, he hired two more guys. Two paychecks, twice the benefits, and twice as many sick days or vacation days. I've tried hiring guys in and I am better off to buy more machinery and do fewer jobs myself. To do any job that requires these kind of skills has a long learning curve.

From contributor K:
My opinion is that if someone is experienced in everything from milling to assembly to finishing, they are worth between 20-30 an hour. They are idiots if they are not saving to start their own business, even if they have to start off installing crown and base moulding, chair rail, etc. to get going. These are the guys you give a helper and their own jobs. Give them a kitchen and a due date and they will have it done and maybe then some. I would love to have someone in my shop who can do it all. I would hate to have someone in my shop that can do a little here and a little there, because I would be losing a lot here and a lot there. You have to be able to give the guy a job and go about your business without losing time dealing with him. Right now, I have one helper and do everything else myself, from sales to finishing. It's a pain to have to stop and show him how to do something.

From contributor A:
Pay scale is directly linked to productivity. I posted a query a few months back when I was trying to make a decision about my retaining or replacing an employee. All the input was great and helped clear my head a bit. I've since replaced a very mediocre employee who'd been paid 17/hr with a guy just out of college at 12/hr. Turns out the new guy is far better than my old employee (he'll be getting a raise soon!), even before factoring in the different wage rates. All it takes is one experience like this to sell you on the importance of finding and retaining good people. The positive benefit to my bottom line has been huge and the turn around came about very quickly.

From the original questioner:
Contributor P, you are right, and no offense to trim carpenters. In fact, I think installing the finished cabinets, shoe-horning them in to someone else's mistakes, is probably the most difficult.

From contributor O:
We have a small shop with 12 guys. The top 4 are all over $20. I'd pay $18 for someone that had great abilities but was untested in my shop. Get real references! Have a trail period and “employed at will” provision in your hiring agreement.

From contributor F:
I am presently living in the SF bay area and I am a production manager for a high end shop and have 20+ years experience in the trade. Since I can build anything and also install and take jobs start to finish, I get treated very well by my employers and they hate to see me leave. Now I am in a shop that pays me $23/hour plus full benefits and I have only been there for a year.

From contributor Q:
My top two guys made $70 and $65K last year. The problem lies in finding more top guys. When my ad runs, I get all sorts of "I can do it all" guys, and then when we walk through the shop, they can't even identify the tools. I've got a need for more middle skill level people, but they seem to all be employed if they are worth a damn.