Running a Part-Time Cabinet Shop

Many successful cabinetmakers got their start with a part-time operation. Here is some wise advice on how to make it work. June 23, 2006

I live in central New York. I have a small wood working shop, and would like to open a small part time cabinet shop. I have a full time job also; therefore I am not expecting to get rich from this, just to help out with family expenses. Does this sound like it is manageable?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
I did what you're talking about for over 10 years. Yes it's manageable, but hard to keep under control. If you do good work for a reasonable price (not cheap) your business will grow. You may end up with the phone ringing more than you want it to. There are positives and negatives to that. One negative in particular is if you have to start turning away work. That word spreads quickly - 'he's good if you can get him to do it.'

Even though you plan to do this part time, you need to have well defined goals for your business and a business plan. I did not do that when I started, because I didn't have enough sense to, and also I never dreamed I would do this for my living. If you're married your wife needs to be on board too.

If I had to do it again, here are three things I would do:
1. Spend more time learning to charge for my work and charging for my work. Don't let your customers set the price.
2. Not build things for friends: (If I buy the materials will you build this for me?) That burns up valuable shop time and eventually you'll have to make a "friend" mad.
3. Not build craft type stuff like flag cases and shadow boxes etc. There's no money in it.
4. Not build my shop too small. Figure out how much space you need, then triple that. That should be just about right.

Not long ago I resigned from my regular job to build cabinets full-time. I was able to do that with no debt thanks to the part-time years.

From the original questioner:
My wife is definitely in favor of the idea. My father runs a part time upholstery shop and he had the same results, it took off. The only difference is that he didnít quite his other job because of the benefits; therefore he turns away a lot of work. Being part time, do you think I will be able to produce kitchens (I am in the middle of a kitchen right now for family, to see the prices and times)? I'm just wondering how long I should take to produce a whole kitchen, without the customer feeling that I am taking too long. Another question would be about marketing, maybe newspaper ads or go to builders?

From contributor F:
Charge a fair price, many part time cabinet makers under-value there work, and it hurts the full time cabinetmakers who are trying to make a living out of this. Contributor J has some really good points.

From contributor G:
I agree with Jack on all his points. One problem is your lead time is going to be longer. I would focus on sales to homeowners and not so much builders. Figure out how long it is going to take you to do something then double it. Itís not fun to have a full time job and then be worried about all you need to get done that night in the shop.

From the original questioner:
One question I have is how would you go about advertising for the first time? I know once you get started word of mouth is the best but to get your foot in the door so to speak, would you go with a newspaper ad or is there something else that works better?

From contributor J:
Absolutely you'll be able to do kitchens. That's probably where the money will be for you. But you need to be realistic with yourself and your customers about how long building the average kitchen will take. This is another area I missed (and still miss) the mark on. Gleno is dead on with what he said above. Give yourself some breathing room so you don't stress yourself out. This shouldn't be a heart attack in the making. I'd pace myself for about 10 to 12 kitchens a year. That should keep you busy

If you have some work lined up right now, I wouldn't worry too much about marketing. Your first job will bring your second job etc. Word of mouth is powerful advertising. On the other hand, if your financial need is urgent, you may want to do some marketing. On the advertising I'll defer to the other posters - some have made great points in the past about marketing.

From contributor B:
My wife and I are part-timers. We did a bunch of garage cabinets for friends and then went to work on several projects (entertainment centers, kitchen cabs, etc) with another friend who had a full time cabinet shop. We recently bought a mini-max slider and Kreg automatic pocket-hole machine. We placed an ad in a local paper and now get a couple calls each day. We have two contracts signed and we are preparing bids on others. First project we bid too low. Second project we bid a touch on the low side. We are learning more about pricing to keep us from being overwhelmed, but profitable as part timers. I look forward to retirement in 21 months so I can make cabinets full time.

From contributor Y:
Initially I worked my shop part time too. I got much of my initial work from printing up nice looking flyers with photos of my work and posted it on free bulletin boards at the local shopping centers and occasionally running a small ad in one of the free shoppers that are delivered to every home in the area. Part time, I would only have the flyers posted on the bulletin boards for a week or two, and then I would have to go remove them because I was getting 6-8 month backlog of work. This can be a very effective form of cheap advertising, just remember to make your flyer look professional.

After a few years of that I got tired of working for somebody else, got a different job that allowed me to work 4 days per week and be able to spend 3 day weekends doing my woodwork. My plan was to work this way for 1 year, but as soon as I started posting my fliers again, and a little add in the classifieds, I only made it through 2 months of this plan before I quit my job and have been doing what I love, full time now for several years.

I know my response was a little long winded, but, if you put up classy fliers, put up business cards at the gas station bulletin boards or wherever you can, soon you will likely have a lot of work and it didn't cost you very much.

Nowadays, most of my work comes from the internet. I have signed up with an online gallery that is very inexpensive and I do a little advertising with search engines that help local buyers find me. My web site has prices on it so that people know what to expect before they call me, and this helps to weed out the window shoppers, and usually when the phone does ring, it is somebody that knows what they want and has the money to pay for it. One word of warning - before getting too involved learn as much as you can about business. Read this forum a lot.

From contributor C:
You've gotten some great advice here, and I've only got one thing to add. Try to operate on a cash basis and don't go into debt for anything! It is bad enough to have lean times, but even worse when you've got payments due for shop equipment or that new truck outside and very little coming in. Even with plenty of work, sometimes cash flow can get tight. Operating debt-free takes a serious load off your shoulders. As for advertising, put up a nice looking website for very little money. I get a good bit of work that way, and it is a good reference for people who find out about you some other way. I refer people there every day so they can see examples of my work. If they can go look at pictures they'll see something similar to what they have in mind and I don't spend as much time suggesting design ideas. Design becomes more efficient for me, too.

From contributor A:
I'm in Florida, and Iíve been doing this for about 3 years and I have more work than I can do. I'm always looking for more employees to keep up. I donít advertise. I get about 30% of what I bid on so I figure my prices are about right. Point is, there is more work out there than you can imagine - at least where I'm at.

Charge what other shops in your area charge. For the first few jobs make an exception but very quickly get the rate up. One thing you always need to remember is to never buy work. Always make a good profit.

The most important thing to keep in mind is no debt. Always pay with cash. Make customers pony 50% up front. That will cover all material and also helps with cash flow. The key to making real money is no debt. The first few years might be tough but once the ball is rolling you will be making good money.

From the original questioner:
One other question that I have has to do with location. I do not live in a really big city. I know of maybe three cabinet shops in the area. Does this sound like I might not have too many customers out there? Another question would be should I try and talk to these other shops or don't even try?

From contributor J:
The amount of customers will depend on a lot of factors we know nothing about. How much construction is going on, economy of the area, demographics and etc. If you ever decide to go full-time, you really need to know the answer to that question. It might not hurt to talk with your local bankers and the chamber of commerce. They usually have a pretty good thumb on the pulse of the local economy.

As for visiting the other shops, just do it and see what happens. I've visited most of the shops in our area. Some owners have wished me well, given great advice and encouragement. Others have treated me like I was radioactive. That's all a personality thing. I'd be careful what I said to customers about other cabinet makers too - particularly about bids, building techniques and etc. I try to always be complimentary even if I don't like their work. Bashing your competition is unprofessional and doesn't get you very far. You don't sound like the kind of guy that would be doing that anyway.

From contributor O:
The best free advertising is Craiglist. It's usually only for big cities, but you can mark your post to a specific location/town. Try not to stray too far from your market area, gas and travel time will eat up profits.