Should I Specialize in Door Production?

These days, the cabinet door industry is highly competitive and has low margins. Here's a discussion of the realities of starting a door-making business. March 25, 2007

I currently own a commercial cabinet shop. I am thinking about switching over to do nothing but raised panel doors exclusively, for the following reasons:
1) no measuring or installing
2) paid quickly rather than 30-60 days
3) hard to find good common sense employees
4) doors are easy to build especially if youíre set up right
5) figures to be good profit
6) don't have jobs laying on top of each other like when you have several contractors

Now, the downsides:
1) transferring over and building up clients
2) selling machines and re-buying machines and setting up
3) building doors is boring, but I'll be fishingÖ
4) have to have good website and keep up with it and advertise.

What do you all think? Is there a good market for it? I would be happy to build 100 doors a day with 3 guys from start to shipping.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A :
Door manufacturing is plagued with its own unique problems, which are surprisingly similar to your list. For instance, finding good employees is a difficult task. Tooling is expensive and requires constant maintenance. As a minimum you would need to invest in the following:
RF Press (for panel glue-ups)
Molder/Shaper for raised panels and cope/stick profiles
Door clamps (pneumatic type)
Wide belt sander/Random Orbital Sander
CNC (for slab doors)
Sliders for panel sizing
Edge profilers

The list could go on and on and on. I know of one local shop that is fully equipped and has 25 employees on staff. On a good day, they can squeeze out 200 doors. On average, they run between 85-100 doors per day. This is not due to a lack of sales. Their tooling is state of the art and includes a Komo CNC, a Voorwood raised panel machine, and a CNC Mitre Door Machine. So why the lack of production? Getting people trained takes time and then getting them to show up every day takes a miracle. Other major problems are panels. If you are fortunate enough to have an RF press, you will spend many hours getting your people trained to mix the right amount of catalyst with glue so that the panels will stay glued together. Lest I forget, you will also need to keep adequate stock in supply so that you can quickly make the doors without tying up a fortune in inventory. This particular shop has a goal of 1 door per 1.5 minutes. That is a very obtainable goal. The biggest uncontrollable variable that I have seen is just how many productive minutes are in a work day. You would be very surprised. At any rate, once the door is built, quality controls are a must. Is the finished door the proper size? Is it the right species? Did you use the right profile? Speaking of profiles, plan to lose a significant amount of time to tooling changes. If you are blessed enough to have a machine that will profile panels and profile edges, how many profiles will you offer? How long will it take you to switch from say a raised panel cutter to a 401 or 405 edge cutter? Last thing to mention is the ever evasive schedule? How will you schedule your production? Will you cut out and fill an order on demand or will you stock certain doors - inventory? Oh - one other thing. Your competition can generally produce a quality door at a cost of about 8-9 dollars per door. Where will you weigh in at?

From contributor B:
I, too, would be happy to get out 100 doors a day! I would also be happy to win the lottery! I think with 3 good people ( I said good) half that might be obtainable to start, if the tooling is there. Your pros and cons are right on but your goal is more than a little over the top. Can you get orders for 250 per week? MaybeÖ

From contributor C:
Read what contributor B wrote carefully. He makes some very good observations. The reality is that there are a lot of things that have to happen to make money when producing doors. I am not going to get into the machinery needed. But what ever the machinery would cost you, it will cost another three to four times that amount in tooling. It may seem easy to make one door. But it is a whole different thing to make 100's of doors a day with the same quality. Making 100 doors a day with three guys is dreaming. Maybe you could get somewhere close if you routed out MDF doors on a CNC router, but certainly not for five piece doors out of solid stock. If you plan to do this, then you really need to figure what it will cost you in reality.

It is easy to figure that amount of wood cost in any given door. What gets hard to figure is the labor and overhead. Your prices will be somewhat capped by your competition. How much lumber are you going to be stocking? What grade of material are you going to be buying? How good of lumber is it? Your doors are only as good as the material it is made out of. So, getting good material that is dried right, has good grain and color with the right pricing, should be a main concern. Paying more for your lumber is going to directly affect your profits. How is it going to be processed? How about the waste from saw dust generated to cut-off pieces? What about delivery to your customers? Who is going to be taking the orders and generating the cut lists? How long will the change over between tooling take you? Because you know that every customer will not order the same thing. You might have all customers in any given week order all different profiles and woods. What happens to the labor costs then? What happens when you have a rush order? What happens when the doors you produced aren't up to what the customer thinks it should be? Do you blow him off or take the doors back? And if you take them back, then what do you do with the doors? Everyone has a different perspective on what they consider quality.

My point is that not only do you need to make a lot of doors. But they need to be produced the same way every time. That includes setting the profiles at the same depth every time, sanded the same way and matching the grain to the same standard every time. You want the customer to be able to order the same door a year later and get a door that will match. Just some food for thought.

From contributor D:
I tried selling doors for a while. You are going to have to make quite a variety - some of them I doubt you will even be able to make - I sure can't. Try dovetail drawers. Thatís the latest thing I'm going to regret.

From contributor E:
We have all pondered this at one time or another I guess. The place where I get my doors started up about fifteen years ago. Three cabinet shop owners got together bought a small piece of land built a small shop on it and bought some Weaver door machines. They just wanted a place to get doors for their own shop. They offer one stick profile, two arches, one edge profile, and they do shaker doors. Five or six guys work there and it takes me about two weeks to get an average 45 doors with paneled ends. They stay busy and they are adding on to the shop. Now I have to say the five or six guys are top notch employees from what I have seen. They do not ship. They provide doors for local shops. They are the cheapest place that I have found and they have gone up a lot. One thing to mention is that they use replaceable inserts on all their shapers. I rarely have anyone to specify a different kind of door that I have to get some where else.

From contributor F:
Can't get the vertical saw chip free? Try making doors? Can you supply me like Conestoga did this past year? 230K worth of stuff my computer says - 134 orders that were quoted in 24 hrs (quotes so that we check accuracy).
7 species were used + mdf & rtf
43 styles- Simple, mitered, apl mldg. complex, 5/4 etc.
21 finishes-stained, glazed, painted - 90% are prefinished.
Front frames, mouldings, components, etc.

Can you do all this and more? Send me your 24 page color catalog and 200 page+ product spec. manual. When I receive these I will send you an order - expecting same huge discount I get from them.

From contributor G:
Door prices have bottomed out There many shops that are down to 22.00-25.00 per door, the 6 shaper weaver set up @ 30K working alone you will clear $12.00 an hour for every hour you work. I donít care what Weaver says, theyíre in business to sell machines, not doors. Have you ever seen a Weaver brand door? My door guy keeps 8-12 people full time, pays them 7-10 bucks an hour. With the right machinery itís just an assembly line, like working in a factory, so get factory kind of employees. It is very boring and his employee turnover rate is very high and he gets to keep 2 dollars per hour per employee. He's been in business 30 years; took over dadís business, raised in the cabinet shop. He has state of the art shop, 7500 sq ft building and probably 50K in dust collection alone. He's the nicest man you will ever meet, but with probably $500,000 in building and tools, to drive 10 year old Chevy S-10 truck and live in 1300 sq ft vinyl sided house tells me itís not worth it. He is always 2 weeks out and told me he turns out 500-750 per week, every week. You canít compete with him, or Arkansas Wood Doors which sometimes has a link on here. They ship nationwide. They all started out with a photo copy of your dream. We would all love to work in back yard, deal with customers on our website, and let our lead guy build the doors while we fish. Wake up honey - you were dreaming,

From contributor A:
Contributor G hit the nail on the head again! Today's successful door shop is nothing more than a manufacturing operation with low paid, unskilled laborers who make $7/hour, hope for a $.25/hr raise after a year or two and don't care about woodworking. Most can't even identify the species of wood they are to use. If the straightline guy doesn't rip the right species at the git-go, the doors get made anyway. This particular door shop that I speak of has a goal of 450 doors per day. If they don't hit their goal soon, they will either reduce their workforce or close their doors.

Specialization can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can concentrate on the one thing you do and probably do well. On the other, specialization breeds commodities. Before long, the only thing you have to compete on is price - i.e., faster and cheaper.

From contributor H:
I would recommend staying flexible with your products (meaning keep your shop set up and add the door business to it). Just doors would be a crapshoot at best and all of your eggs in one basket. See if you can pick up some door work from some other shops and get a system down. Advertise special sized doors for like pantries or fridge doors to catch attention and then sell the standard sized doors for the rest of the job to match. The thing that is eluding you is that you want more work but less work to do, and there is no such animal.

100 doors a week using traditional equipment would be tight for me to put out, and any delay in material would kill that. It looks like a lot of folks are trying to burst your bubble, but I think that nobody wants to see another take a dive. Some will say stay away altogether, some say go for broke and jump in head first - I say test the water and ease into it.

From contributor I:
Amidst all these nay-sayers remember that all the existing door shops had to start somewhere. I happen to have 6 Weaver shapers and trust me- you can make a lot more than $12/hr if you know what you are doing. I'm sure other guys bragging about how many doors they order in a year and how perfect life is with their current supplier isn't the advice you are seeking. It does, however send a message to you how adamant some shops are against making their own doors. This alone tells you there is a market out there, a big market. Also remember that the cheapest price is not always the cheapest in the long run. Obviously you won't be building 100's of doors a day or every single type of door starting out. Your customers will let you know the most popular ones for now and new styles can be added. I like contributor Gís advice on staying flexible for now. I'm not saying it will be easy. But to discount the idea because of negative advice from people who don't even build their own doors just doesn't make sense. If door making turns into a full time gig, more power to you!

From contributor G:
I guess the facts are that in order to compete in the door industry you need dependable trained employees, decent equipment, a business plan and an endless supply of material. A stone face helps too. 6 Weavers (I assume you have their doormaking system) will set you back $30k. But 6 Weavers is not an end-all solution. Lest we forget that most bottlenecks in a door shop don't occur with the cutting of rails or styles or even the raising of panels. Most bottlenecks occur where the panels come together. If you don't have a RF glue press ($50-$100k) then there is no way you can glue up enough panels in a day to supply 100 doors. Even after you have made all 5 door parts, you still have to put them together and make them ready for the finisher. At a minimum, you would need an efficient way of clamping the doors, putting an edge profile on the doors, sanding the doors (wide belt and random orbitals will easily set you back another $50k) and drilling the doors for hinges.

Then we enter the quality assurance area. Are the doors of sufficient quality to entice your customers to repeatedly buy from you? Can you offer a quick turnaround? What about design issues? Cope and Stick? Mitres? Shipping? Return policies? The list could go on and on and on. This is not meant to discourage anyone from entering the door market. Instead, I hope to encourage someone to really examine what they are up against in the real world. It stands to reason that a cabinet shop will most likely be the customer of a door mfg. That said, how many jobs per week do you think a cabinet shop could provide? I personally know of several cabinet shops that work 3 months out and typically install 3-4 jobs per day. Some of those jobs are pretty significant. One recent job entailed 225 doors. This was one of 40 jobs this particular cabinet shop sent in one week. On average this one cabinet shop is good for over 1000 doors per week. It takes a lot more than 6 Weavers to keep up with that demand. And this is just one customer.

My point is that you are fooling yourself if you think that you can grab your Bessys and glue up a few panels and compete with more established door companies. Instead, if you truly want to make doors, then you have to go for the gusto. Otherwise, you are nothing more than a cabinet shop that makes mediocre doors. I hate to sound so biased, but I have seen with my own eyes just how cutthroat the door business is and I know the processes involved. Just today, a favored customer came in and told this shop that they had erred on a door order and needed 82 doors replaced as soon as possible. The builder was on this shop hard for causing a delay. Since this shop typically spends $300k a year on doors, an exception was made to their standard 6 day turnaround. They started a replacement order at 10:00 am and had it filled before lunch. This gentlemen, is your competition!

From contributor H:
I couldn't even cut 82 slab doors in less than 2 hours! Just goes to show that you have got to find what works for you. Somewhere between a PC monitor in front of every employees face and one guy with a tablesaw, there is a niche to be filled and a dollar to be made