Switching from Office Work to the Cabinet Trade

A computer programmer asks whether he's crazy to want to work in a cabinet shop instead. A long, spirited debate ensues. April 9, 2008

I am strongly considering making a radical career change from my current office/computer job into cabinetmaking and would just like to hear the opinions and advice from you insiders.

Please take into consideration that:
- My intended career was in product design (I earned a certification in industrial design).
- My current occupation was just a choice of convenience that ended up eating the last 15 years of my life.
- I am most interested in taking up an apprenticeship leading to being certified journeyman (I'm in Canada), but am concerned about making ends meet in the first few years.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor I:
It's not exactly the best time to try to get into this market. There is a ton of competition at the bottom and it takes a long time to claw to the top. With CNC technology the way it is, the pay scale is getting lower at the entry level because there isn't as much skill needed to assemble precut panels into assemblies. If you have software experience you can try getting on as a designer or programmer. I think that type of position has more potential. You could also look into being an installer for a home improvement center for a while as you learn the ropes.

From contributor P:
I did exactly what you're talking about. I was an IT guy (software developer, then manager) for over 25 years. I quit my high-paying job about 3 years ago to open my 1-man shop full-time. I hated being cooped up in that office, and I couldn't take it anymore. Now I'm cooped up in the shop, but I could go outside if I wanted to. Really.

I did a few jobs in my spare time before I quit, but before that, I had never done any cabinetmaking. Just a fair amount of carpentry on 3 different houses I've owned. I acquired most of my tools before I quit my job, and got the shop (mostly) ready. I had a buddy who taught me a lot (thanks, Mike!), I read a ton of books, and stuff on the Web like this site.

Take your time on your first paying jobs and get them right. Referrals were, and still are, the only way I get business. As for how to survive the lean early years, I advise having a wife or girlfriend who's got a good job. And get any stray kids out of the house. And sell the nice car. Etc.

From contributor B:
Contributor P has posted some good advice. I went into it 7 years ago in a mid-life career change. Now I'm looking to get out of it. Work has slowed way down. I don't know where you are, but the market here is the pits. There are 75 cabinet shops in the Baton Rouge metro area. Somebody will always do it cheaper than you will, and most people are driven by price. I've gone from a team of 6 to working by myself and still can't do enough to pay the bills unless I work 80 hours a week and my 50 year old body won't allow that anymore. So I'm working to get into construction management or something like that where somebody else is responsible for payroll and all those headaches that make the cabinet business much less fun than just building cabinets.

From contributor G:
Canada hasn't slowed as the US has and there's work a-plenty. Go for it.

From contributor N:
I've been in the business about 10 years after leaving government at 30. Many days I wonder what I was smoking... No pension, ridiculously low income, fixing mistakes, etc. I have a good market and lots of business, but with average margins, all it takes is one employee's mistake, or my own mistake, and all profit is gone. We do a lot of what I consider beautiful work, but as I get older, the need to make money is taking over. All the other small cabinetmakers I know are in the same boat. If you want to quit your job I advise looking at some other field and keeping the hobby. Sorry to throw cold water on it, but you don't need people telling you it's all sunshine.

From contributor V:
Bad time... worst market... no health insurance... no retirement. We are trapped by our passion for woodworking (art). It's fun for the first year, thinking profits (wages) will increase once people see your work, but they won't in a bad market. If your wife is rich or has a great job, you can do it by working for 20-40k, but then you're dropping the price for guys like us already committed.

From contributor M:
It depends where in Canada you are. It's extremely slow in the most southern part of Ontario. It's to the point where shops have been closing up in the last year or so.

From the original questioner:
Thanks all for your bottom-line input. I'd like to clarify some things before too many more responses are penned...

- I have no intention to open a shop - I intend to become an employee (at least in the short term).
- The job searches I have done for assistant/apprentice joiners in my area are offering wages within 15% of what I currently make.

Thanks again for the input, and yes, I also value the "cold water" posts.

From contributor B:
Well, that's different. If you can make 85% of what you're making now and move into something you think you'll like, why not? Go for it.

From contributor G:
In most of western Canada, anybody with a hammer and a saw can make good money. If they know how to use them, they get more money.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I'd also like to mention some things about my current position that make me idealize a drastic change. If I can expect more of the same as a cabinetmaker, I'd appreciate the heads-up.

- My skills are obsolete... I can't keep up with the knowledge of the recent graduates.
- I don't end the week feeling I've accomplished anything other than babysitting a bunch of secretaries.

- I can't point to anything and say "I did that and I'm proud of it."
- My skills lose value over time and experience.
- I'm constantly having to justify being paid vs. being outsourced.
- My job does not recognize evenings, weekends, holidays, dinner-times, time in the toilet, etc.

From contributor G:
If you are okay with working for Attaboys, you'll do better working for yourself... and that's not hard to do. All you need is a business idea and you can get some government assistance to start your company. Being appreciated by a company you're working for is another thing entirely.

From contributor R:
You sound intelligent and motivated. Both are necessary to eventually be successful no matter what you do. But I'd give some thought about taking your talents into cabinetmaking. This business is changing real fast. There are many cheap mass produced cabinets coming in from China. In this country, and I suspect Canada too, CNC machining is taking the skill out of this work as well as the sense of accomplishment. And it is certainly not a high paying industry in any case.

If you are looking for a woodworking career that you need skills to do and want to look at the finished product with pride, why not go to work for a successful custom furniture maker? Good luck with your life change. It will be uphill for a while no matter what you do.

From contributor D:
I also would discourage you from cabinetmaking. The imports, garage cheapos, and mass marketers make for a real uphill battle for the small shop. And it is getting worse, not better.

However, if you read this forum enough, you already know that niche work is where it is at for the successful small shop. You have to be very good and very focused on doing something unique - left handed tortilla presses in Bubinga, for example. And to be very good takes either breaking entirely new ground (difficult) or a lot of time to develop the skills to do excellent work. The skills aren't in a book or manual.

Well, there is not much new in woodworking, and besides the excellent hand skills or equal, you will also need to be a businessman, marketer, designer, janitor, banker, problem solver, collection agent, and several others that my currently overburdened mind has forgotten for the moment.

And - not to insult you - but why do all the tech heads that verge on burnout want to be cabinetmakers? You are far from the first, and sure won't be the last - but there must be something that draws them to woodwork. Maybe it is just the "I made that thing" - nothing wrong with that, but a hobby will satisfy that. This is the largest hobby in the US (and Canada?), so there are literally millions that have that dream of telling the digit boss to cram it, buying some flannel shirts, and walking off into the haze of a woodshop to be that guy they always wanted to be. I think it is just a daydream, a fantasy, to be out in the dust and noise and slam and bam of a woodshop as compared to clicking keyboards and electrons racing around flipping digits. Indulge that fantasy and what will be the next?

I know I'm setting the outer perimeter of the discussion, but after 35 years in this thing, one of the most predictable things has become the potential influx of novices from any and every other trade into woodwork. Why do people that know next to nothing about the profession think they can plunk down their cash and throw open the doors and be a professional woodworker? What other profession has such a low entry threshold?

I could bore you with my ideas as to why this is true, but I'll save it for some other rant. Maybe once I finally move into computer development, I'll have time to think those thoughts out fully. The satisfaction of pushing around billions of electrons, seeing images come to life on the truer than life screen, the quiet confidence of herding an adoring group of underlings through the maze of tech-ville... I can't wait.

From the original questioner:
I appreciate the straight talk. As for techies diving into woodwork - I don't know what the general appeal might be, but it was the direction I was going before getting side-tracked. If cabinetmaking is currently not a good direction to go, then of course I'll have to take that into account, and I know it would be with disappointment that I'd abandon the dream.

From contributor N:
I spend half my time wondering whether I should keep investing in new, more efficient machines, or if I should get out before we're forced out. With the CNC, cheap imports, etc., I wonder if the drive for efficiency is essentially futile. We'll all buy a bunch of expensive machines, then everyone will have one, and we can lower our prices.

From contributor K:
The questioner said he wishes to be an employee, not start a shop. So if he's unhappy in his present career and thinks that he'll be happier learning the trade, well why not? Life's too short to not pursue happiness. I've been in and out of this business my entire life, having a family that built cabinetry and furniture for several generations. I came back to it because I like it. I like making things and having people use them. I couldn't sit in an office all day not seeing the result of what I did. So why should the questioner not have this same desire? If he had come on here and said he was going to run out and spend 200 grand starting up a shop, then I'd have a different response, but from what he said, I say go for it.

From contributor P:
Contributor D, ouch. I feel like I was on the receiving end of your rant, so I'll respond to some of it.

"And - not to insult you - but why do all the tech heads that verge on burnout want to be cabinetmakers?"

Not sure why this bothers you so much. Not all burned out tech heads go into cabinetmaking. Some can't even tie their own shoes. I can only speak for myself. I think there are some common skills between the two professions: creativity, being detail-oriented, the ability to analyze what's needed, break it down into its component parts, build it with precision, etc. The tangible result at the end is a big thing, for sure. As a software developer, you're rarely writing a program from beginning to end these days. You're probably doing a small piece and integrating it with some other wankers' work.

"I think it is just a daydream, a fantasy, to be out in the dust and noise and slam and bam of a woodshop as compared to clicking keyboards and electrons racing around flipping digits. Indulge that fantasy and what will be the next?"

Yep, some people dream of doing something rewarding. And some go to the grave regretting that they never tried. Some will actually try and fail. Some will do it for 5 or 10 or 35 years and get sick of it and move on to something else. So what? Who said you have to pick one thing and do it for your whole life? (Except your parents and high school guidance counselor, that is.)

"I know I'm setting the outer perimeter of the discussion, but after 35 years in this thing, one of the most predictable things has become the potential influx of novices from any and every other trade into woodwork. Why do people that know next to nothing about the profession think they can plunk down their cash and throw open the doors and be a professional woodworker? What other profession has such a low entry threshold?"

Not to insult you, but the truth is... wait for it... Cabinetmaking is not that hard. Maybe you should try your hand at some soulless office job, so you can remind yourself how much fun woodworking is. Or just rent the movie Office Space. It's pretty accurate.

From contributor J:
This thread is actually turning into a comedy. Yes, there is competition from 3rd world countries. Yes, there is also competition from small one man startups. Yes, the new housing market has taken a downward turn. I have news for you, though. These problems are not limited to woodworking. These problems are affecting all areas of our economy. Major companies are laying off thousands of workers every day to relocate the jobs to cheaper labor markets. However, many shops are still doing pretty good because they adapt to their market.

Should the questioner change careers in midstream to pursue a woodworking career? Why not? Only he can say for sure if he will enjoy it. Many of us shop owners know that our number one business problem usually involves the lack of skilled labor. We are so accustomed to having to settle for illegal immigrants, dopers, alcoholics or criminals to staff our shops. Along comes a man who obviously has the work ethic to show up as he has done in the past. He also has the desire to learn a new trade. So where are the shop owners now? Seems to me that we should be focusing on getting this guy interviewed and hired.

From contributor Y:
Contributor J, if I thought about it for an hour, I don't think I could have said it any better myself. Well said.

From the original questioner:
It's funny how the tone of the thread has changed! Now there seems an element of cautious "keep weighing it" rather than out and out dissuasion. As I've said before, I read and value and want all perspectives. I've outgrown the jumping-in-blind stage in my life.

As for a down-turning economy - that's hitting my industry as well. It's not the reason I'm considering the trade, but it's part of the reason I'm considering the trade *now*. Although I haven't been directly threatened, I can see a very strong possibility of being outsourced in 12 months or so, and I don't want to find another job baby-sitting computers. So, I'm planning ahead and trying to gauge whether I can conceivably do what I intended and partially trained for years ago, or if I have to look in a completely unfamiliar direction.

From contributor E:
I think so many of you do not see the questioner's true skills in this market. Everyone is talking about the down side, but the big up side is that he knows something about computers and that is where this market is going. With CNCs and other high tech machinery, one needs a man that can do both sides... especially in a smaller setup. I think a person operating a computer and knowing the ins and outs of building a cabinet is very important. It is not just about trying to get as many pieces of plywood out of one sheet of wood.

From contributor I:
I agree. Like I said in the first response, it sounds to me like he would be a very good fit in an already established shop as a designer/programmer/CNC operator. This is a growing field in the industry and my guess is he could get into a position fairly easily. Much easier than buying a table saw, router and nailer and trying to feed yourself.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I'd have no objection applying myself to someone's CNC machine, drafting designs into CAD or just keeping a shop's web site up to scratch as long as I'm given fair shakes and guidance on the lathe and bandsaw. ;-)

From contributor C:
I agree with contributor B. If you're going nowhere in your current job and see yourself being outsourced in the future, you may be better off stepping out on your terms rather than your organization's.

I hear your pain with your job and the associated frustrations. After I retired from the Air Force, I taught accounting (for the Air Force) as a civilian. This job paid very well but it was work that was not worth doing... kind of like peeling grapes! I'd been in the cabinet business on a part-time basis for years and decided to go full time. It's been a struggle at times but I've been much happier. I think I would have been even happier if I'd found myself a good job in a cabinet shop and let that owner deal with the headaches.

If you can make the numbers work, I say go for it. I'd love to have a guy with your spirit and motivation working with me.

From contributor J:
Not to get off track here, but I have a client whom I'm finishing up a project for now. He is middle-aged having worked for the same corporation for 35 years. He is a senior analyst for Kodak-Eastman. He started as a janitor for the company way back when and worked his way up through the ranks. Even put two kids through college. He was called into a meeting yesterday, where his boss explained that their entire division was outsourced to Mexico beginning on Monday. That's the day after tomorrow. He was told that by firing the 80 people in his division, the company will be able to hire 200 people at lower wages and no benefits in Mexico.

I guess my point is that as our global economy shifts to other countries, we will have to adapt. So that we can import cheaper cabinets from China or some other place. The bottom line in custom cabinetmaking is that few walls are square and even fewer (if any) importers can anticipate change orders. So, there will always be a need for us cabinetmakers and the way I see it, if there is a need, then there is value.

Specifically I say to the questioner, if you keep an open mind and have a good work ethic, here in the US (depending on where you work), you could command a wage of $15-$40/hour. With a little experience under your belt, you could get more. Like any other industry, pick your employer wisely and you will benefit.

From the original questioner:
Well, I'm not stepping out of my office tomorrow or the next day, but if I find a shop that is willing to train a guy (who's not just out of high school) in exchange for the skills and experience I can offer, then maybe the next day. I'll keep my eyes open and my feet grounded. Again thanks all for giving me an idea of what's going on in the trade these days.

From contributor Z:
I can put in my 2 cents for a positive take on a career in woodworking. I have been in it for 25 years and I think I have one of the best jobs there is. I have one part time employee who is happy to not work if I want to slow down. I have focused on high end clients and now have more work than we can handle. I am not sure about the rest of the country but in San Francisco, I make a pretty good living and was able to buy a house. (But I don't have kids.)

Competition doesn't seem to be a problem and it is seldom that a client says I am too expensive.

It is a business, a craft, and an art and it fills a deep fantasy when in the morning I go out and unlock the door to my clubhouse (workshop).

I recommend working for someone. I started in a huge kitchen shop and you learn the basics quickly. But in midlife they may not be able to hire you, as you would be competing with 20 year olds. But like someone suggested, you may be able to use your computer savvy in a trade for getting some time learning to build.

After learning the basics, I would find someone like me, or a size of shop you would like to have. I hire people every once in awhile and love someone who is really passionate about learning, but someone like me can't afford to pay much and the person I hire has to be able to lift. At this business you will have to spend a while trading low pay for training.

From contributor W:
I would say that being a cabinetmaker is pretty easy. What is much, much harder is being a businessman. If you are a 1 man shop then you are the salesman, bookkeeper, collections agent, purchasing agent, etc., all rolled into one. Then you still have to have time to get things built. This is where most shops fail. Not on their ability to build cabinets, but their ability to sell jobs, price them correctly, account for costs correctly or manage employees effectively. I would suggest that you read a book called "The E-Myth Revisited". For that matter, this should be required reading for anyone that is in business for themselves.

From contributor S:
If I were to hire someone who is older and has no experience, I would be hesitant. If you are serious, then expect to be turned away many times before you find the shop where you fit. I know because I was young and trying to get into shops. Usually, they would hire me to get over a hump, then dump me. Cabinet positions are physically demanding as well. The first couple of weeks throwing sheet goods around will allow you to feel the burn.

More than a few home builders/cabinet shop owners are shady characters. In one interview the owner told me how he had just screwed his partner over for $75k. Some home builders simply don't pay you.

So I think that those telling you to start as a hobbyist are on the right track. Make something as you are able now and work to develop that. If you have what it takes and find you love it, work it until you can quit. Literally all it takes is a table saw, jointer, router, lots of hand tools and energy to make basic cabinets. Buy machinery as you take in money and customers. In a year's time you could accomplish a great deal.

From contributor X:
Follow your heart's desire, so if you got an itch, scratch it. Life is short and it will be rewarding in the end if you take the chance. Gaining experience, regardless of what it is, is worth it. I'm 70 and have had numerous types of employment. I draw on those experiences every day for my latest ventures. So if it's working for others or working at self employment, your end results are what counts. Follow your dreams.

I'm starting up another business that combines 3 different fields of work to produce a product for the public. Two of the fields I know nothing about but I'm learning and that's not counting on the basics I already know. All the experiences one can accumulate means money invested in oneself, so when you reach 70 you'll look back and be satisfied with what you have accomplished.

From the original questioner:
Thanks, contributor V. You bring up something that was also a concern to me, my age. I'm certainly not old or over the hill (under 40), but I know I'd be competing for a place with much younger people. But like I said, I'm closing a door behind me before I see one open ahead. If I have to go to interviews for the next 12 months, so be it. I'm not starving right now. That brings up another odd question - what would be appropriate interview wear? Suit and tie seems a bit much to work in a wood shop?

From contributor C:
When I interview guys I like clean-cut more than dressed up. Khakis and a polo shirt in my opinion would be fine. First impressions count for a lot.

From contributor V:
One thing that you have not addressed is your location. Some areas of the country are drying up fast due to bankers' "creative" loans. With a recession nearing, many shops will close or downsize, which means more experienced people trying to get the same job you want as well. I would love to go work for a nice shop and not deal with the xyz's of running a business. The problem I've found in my area is they want a superstar for $12-$15/hour. If you can live off of 600 - taxes = 480 - gas = 400/week, then great, go for it. It's a great profession, just be careful not to jump in based on the love for it... love doesn't pay the bills.

From contributor J:
If you were to come to my shop for an interview, jeans and a collared shirt would be appropriate. After a few minutes of chit-chat, I would hand you a piece of paper with a rule printed on it and you would have to identify different measurements. For example, 2 1/2", 3 5/8", etc. I might also hand you some sample wooden blocks and ask you to identify the wood species. Nothing worse than needing an order of red oak doors and having them made out of ash. (Grin.) Neither one of these "tests" will eliminate you. It just gives me an idea of what you know and what you don't know. You would be very surprised at how many people can't read a measuring tape. If you were applying for a CAD position, the testing differs a little.