Training a Cabinet Installation Crew

Advice based on experience about how to teach a pair of promising shop employees how to install cabinets in the field. November 26, 2007

I have a 12-15 man cabinet shop that builds medium to high end custom cabinets. I have two guys that are very good workers and have good mechanical ability. They both want to grow, and are being underutilized in the shop. I am planning to form an installation team out of them. We currently use subcontractors for our installs.

I am hoping that someone can recommend ideas on how they can learn the installation process quickly and easily. Some methods I thought of are: educational videos, DVDs, books, classes, etc. Does anyone know where to obtain such educational material, and is this a good method?

Naturally, I will start them on simple jobs, and work them up to the more complex. I will work very close with them on the first few. My ordinary training methods will not work because these guys will be our first in-house installers. We have no one to train them.

P.S. Why do cabinet installation contractors feel they should earn more than doctors and lawyers? Every one I meet wants to make $1000 per day. Come on, man! Plenty of times I donít make that in a week, and I own the business.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor M:
I don't think you'll go very far with DVDs, videos, or books. Experience and learning from someone on the job is the best way to go. DVDs will just show basics, not what to do when the floor is out of level, walls are bowed, plumbing is roughed in poorly, etc. The good thing is your guys know the products. A very big plus! Common sense is really the most important thing. You might want to hire a good subcontractor and have those two guys work with him so that they can see and learn how to. You can trade teaching for labor. Let him teach your guys while you pay him full price and pay your guys. I train a lot of people that want to install, and that's how I do it. It will take time.

As for money, you are right. I know a lot of installers that tell me they make thousands a day! But don't get fooled by them - they just talk! They claim they make a lot of money but they always show up to the job late driving a crappy minivan with a donut wheel and a busted windshield! They use cheap tools and have bad teeth! I've seen it too many times. A good installer (in the Norfolk, VA area) should average $250-$400 a day.

From contributor E:
I agree that the best thing to do is have them work with a good subcontractor. I've been doing install for about six years now. When I first started I worked with the subcontractor we used. Also, if you have some install experience, it would probably be a good idea to do some of the training yourself. Unless your workers are really inventive, they will most likely only be as good as the person who trains them. Starting them out together alone would probably be a bad idea.

Here in Minneapolis, good install contractors charge about 40 bucks an hour on custom cabinets. They make the so-called 1000 bucks a day on the simple cabinets that are bid by the foot. The shop I work for has myself and one other full time installer. When the subs show up to install our custom cabinets, they earn their 40 bucks. Things like scribing and coping take lots of practice, so be patient.

From contributor S:
Common sense is 70% of the solution. Good work ethics and being a responsible person are another 20%. Technical skills are 10%.

Send them out a few times with different subs to watch and learn. Either tell the subs that they are there to see what it could take to make installing your cabinets easier and better, or tell them that you want to get the guys some onsite training. I wouldn't tell your subs that you are looking at dumping them and doing it yourself just yet. In fact, I would highly recommend spoon-feeding a few subs just to have on hand for the big crunch times that always come along.

If the guys that you have are as good as you think, throwing them into the fire is a good way to train them. With the basics that could be learned from instructional books and such, most straight wall cabinet installs should be a breeze.

I have been lucky in that I work for a GC that is not afraid to try anything. Exposure to all trades only helps me to learn more about construction and the methods that are used. I have learned just as much from doing demolition as I have from construction. My point? Any installer that is worth a dime is going to take the effort to learn as much as he can from any source that is available.

Time and experience... But one of my favorite quotes is, "Experience is not always the best teacher, because it gives you the test before the lesson!" Don't jump into it; kind of ease into it, and things will be less painful. Don't burn any bridges before or after you use them.

From contributor L:
You say the guys are underutilized in the shop. Why? If you want them to grow, is installation the best way for them to grow? If it were me, I would look at their strengths, and see how they would be best positioned in your company. If you feel that installation is their best position, then you have a couple options.

You can ask your subs to let these guys work with them. If they are good subs and agreeable, that will be your quickest, most cost-effective solution. If you feel that you need to do the training yourself, then I would suggest getting the books from Jim Tolpin on cabinetmaking and installing, and have the guys read these books for some good basic tips to get them started.

If you plan to have in-house installers as a normal business plan, then you probably need to have standard procedures for installing in writing that everyone follows, to minimize problems and keep things efficient.

From contributor S:
Ain't no doubt about it, boxes built by guys that understand installation are better boxes. Company standards and SOPs on paper are a plus, too. Documented training procedures are always a plus. You could just headhunt one of your sub's top guys and put him on as the lead installer and teacher of your guys.

From contributor J:
Probably the most important thing that you can teach them before they go turn a screw is to be capable of reading and understanding a blueprint and the layouts. I find that it is critical before you open a book to triple check the layout to the site conditions, then inventory all the material to the layout. If it all checks out, then turn the screws. If not, scream immediately! Problems solved right at the get-go make everything go way faster and smoother.

From contributor A:
I was hired by a company in the VA Beach area to set up and manage an installation division within a large company. My previous experience had been in the area of millwork and cabinet installation running 2ea 5 man crews prior to this. Through this experience I can tell you that the need for strong leadership in the field, with good problem solving techniques, is of the utmost importance.

If you do not have these key ingredients, you will be fielding nonstop questions on the phone. Irritated supers in the field. These men will be representing you and your company. Do not get me wrong, though - the payoff is huge if you pull it all together. If you do not, the use of subs will be a far cheaper way to go.

I found the best guys out of the shop to be the ones that were young and somewhat bored or not challenged. I pulled them in, put them under my wing, and told them what was expected of them. In about 3 months I had a 4 man team capable of putting about 80 boxes a day on the wall, with tops totally trimmed out ready to go (white melamine boxes, euro style). Then comes the real payoff; the installation provides feedback to all divisions in the company. Deliveries are inconsistent, we need whole rooms delivered at one time. Not 5 boxes here, 4 boxes there. Countertop guys are leaving things a mess. Box builders need to align panels better. The list goes on. I guess the meat is, you can train cabinet installers, but you need one guy to step up and be a leader. That is not so easy to do.