Which Fine Details Do Customers Care About?

A thoughtful discussion about whether labor expended on small details is wasted, or worthwhile. December 27, 2010

As I was making some shelves this afternoon, I was wondering how many of us stress over the little time consuming things that make our cabinets "custom." I wonder if my customers even notice the things that make their cabinets unique.

For example, here are the steps I take to make an adjustable shelf:
1. Cut unfinished birch plywood to correct size.
2. Rip 1/4" x 3/4" hardwood stock out of same species of wood as the cabinets.
3. Cut hardwood edging 1/8" longer than shelves.
4. Glue and tape hardwood edge to shelf.
5. Remove tape and sand edge flush with shelf on both sides.
6. Putty joints on both sides of shelves.
7. Sand entire shelf to 180 grit.
8. Bump ends of edge trim flush on edge sander.
9. Run shelf through a shaper to profile the front edge.
10. Seal, sand and two topcoats.

This process takes a lot of time! I do know that most of my customers will not pay more for my cabinets over the next guy's because of my adjustable shelves. Here are some things that we do. Are they overkill?

1. Adjustable shelves
2. Sand and putty joint where face frame meets box
3. Full extension drawer glides on every job whether they are requested (or paid for) or not
4. 3/4" plywood for all cabinet boxes
5. Cabinets screwed together and face frames pocket screwed to case
6. Fill nail holes on sides of drawer boxes
7. Decorative route on edge of finished ends (chamfer or roundover)

I wouldn't consider my cabinetry to be high end, but I try to do a nice job and give my customers a quality cabinet. It seems to me that a lot of people are only concerned with two things: price and looks. A lot of people are really ignorant when it comes to things that I call "quality." They just want nice looking stuff that won't fall apart.

Every now and then, I get a job because someone noticed the details. Should I relax some of my standards to make more profit (they aren't paying for it anyway), or build two different grades of cabinets?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor L:
Interior adjustable shelf.
Cut plywood blank.
Cut hot melt wood edge tape to length and iron on.
Sand to 150.
Clear coat both sides, two coats.

For anything that is not extra, not paid for, this is what they get. If it is an exposed shelf, it will get a solid wood edge.

For the interior shelving that no one really sees, I have learned people really don't care. I used to do the same as you - full profiled wood edged shelving. As people got more preoccupied with price over quality, I let the niceties go to the way of their closed wallets.

Do they appreciate the little extras that you give them? Yes, I'm sure. Would they be willing to pay more for them? Doubtful. So they are not valuing your time. Why give it away? Most people do not realize that those little details that make a project nice are usually not really that little when the labor comes into play.

Once you put a profile on something, you have just made more work for yourself. First, you applied the detail. Now you have to sand it - much more laborious than a square edge. Now when you apply a finish, you have to be careful that you don't burn through the color or the clear because of the extra details; same with the clears. All the extra sanding costs a lot of time. And if the finish isn't silky smooth, the client won't be happy. So just by adding that simple cove on the corner of your face frame, you have introduced at least another 10-15 minutes of time in care of not screwing it up. Multiply this by all the little details that you have in the entire project.

From contributor J:
I understand where you're coming from. I think the value is different from client to client. However, we can't just do one job well and the next not so much because the customer doesn't see the value in it. I think the key is being more effective with your time. For example, this is how an adjustable shelf works for us.

1. Make all common rips for adjustables.
2. Pull solid edge from bin and glue all rips.
3. Lipping plane and sand all rips.
4. Finish rips.
5. Cross cut to size.
6. What's putty? Seriously, clamp them tight and there's no room for it.

Average size kitchen shelves are done in under two working hours. There's always a faster and better way, and that will go straight to your bottom line.

From contributor L:

When I glue up solid edging on shelving, I use this method that is about twice as quick as normal.

Rip your edging twice as wide as it will be applied and add the kerf to the width. Take two shelves and put the front edges towards each other in the clamps. Put the solid wood in the center and clamp them up. (Yes, you applied the glue already).

This does a couple of things. First, you are gluing up two shelves at once. Second, you only need a minimum of clamps because the width of the plywood will transfer the clamping pressure pretty evenly throughout the solid wood. Then when they are dry, you cut them to final size, plus any sanding or jointing that you wish to do. Sand as usual, etc.

From contributor R:
I can't believe you are doing this for interior adjustable shelving, behind doors. I'm considered the nicer custom builder in our area. And it's strictly pre-finished birch with a pre-finished standard thickness banding (pre-glued run through a $4k bander). You could be doing two more kitchens a year, putting much more money in your pocket. You are totally overkilling interior shelving.

Also, I'd drop putting the holes on drawer boxes and where your frame meets the box, unless of course it's on an exposed end. I think the plywood boxes and full extension slides (mind you not Tandems, they have to pay extra for those; my non-Tandem choice is a $5 full extension ball bearing) sell your job for you. At least they do in my area. About half my customers wouldn't consider me if I didn't use ply boxes (pre-finished). The other half go ahead with the pre-finished; the others go with a white melamine and a few more bucks in their wallet.

From contributor C:
I would highly recommend reading True 32. Set your shop standards and don't worry about others. I can't tell you if the customer really understands or cares what goes into each build. Other regular posters here have really driven this home - Lean practices to execute the job from concept to check, and I have taken notice. You need to worry about getting paid for a quality kitchen. And eliminate any steps or wasted moves that detract from every penny going into your pocket.

In 20 years this is what I have learned about clients:
1. They look at the big picture.
2. They love communication.
3. They hate liars.
4. Please spare us the talk of 2 1/2" stiles and rails on the doors; we want the picture.
5. They hate jobs that drag on.
6. They don't want it to fall apart.
7. They want you to keep your promises.
8. They really have no idea what quality is.

We built a mahogany library recently. She questioned me about face frame joints being sanded smoothly. I questioned her about grain filled mahogany. We installed the entire job with no exposed fasteners. Not one. The builder called, asked if we wanted to look at three mil+ homes for everything, including the trim packages. People do notice, just what they want, and you've got to figure that out.

From contributor M:
Contributor C, you hit the nail on the head.

From contributor S:
The really, really big time waster for cabinet guys that customers don't give a crap about: the face frame. It took me 30 years to figure this out and to let go of my stupid, traditional ways.

From contributor K:
1. Watch the CNC cut the parts.

2. Feed the parts through the automatic edgebander.
3. Assemble and collect money.

All parts are pre-finished and no other time needs to be spent on it. Solid wood inside a cabinet with a door is nuts. The customer is not going to notice.

From contributor D:
Chicken and the egg, which came first? Do you sell what you make, or do you make what you sell? Business-wise, sell what you make is thought to be better.

Therefore, if you are doing things that are unnoticed, you need to communicate to your customer (and prospective customers) what you are doing and why (Features and Benefits). This helps set your products apart from others, and will increase the perceived value of your product.

The average buyer today knows almost nothing about quality, and I know that many woodworkers know about the same. Dovetail drawers are perceived as a mark of quality, so some manufacturers print dovetails on an overlay and apply it to stapled drawers. Quality is about as hard to define as happiness, so everyone will do it differently. Define what you do and why, do it concisely (so as to not bore or overwhelm), and present it attractively.

I do not have a replacement, but the word "custom" is just about meaningless - means something different to your customers than it does to you. I love the British "bespoke," but most Americans would steer clear of words they are unsure of.

From contributor O:
Make sure what you're doing isn't ego driven, but rather a blend of profit driven and customer want driven.

From contributor B:
Amen, contributor J! If you lose money building the greatest cabinet on the planet, well then... It aint the greatest cabinet on the planet.

From contributor Y:
Solid edging used to be the norm for commercial jobs, particularly schools in our area. It has been replaced by 3mm PVC. We still put solid edges on where required, but we use our edgebander (larger Holz-her).

We sell any level of cabinet, never screwed together (they look like they were made in a garage). I offer my clients any material and explain the advantages from one to another. Every design is different and the details need to match the design.

Shelf steps:
1. Watch CNC cut and notch shelves to sit over pins.
2. Edgeband solids or tape including round over.
3. Lightly sand faces and edge.
4. 1 coat sealer, 2 coats conversion varnish (or water base recently).
5. Work on custom reception desk, custom hood, etc. - where the real money is.

From contributor I:
The process the questioner describes has nothing to do with cabinets being custom. Being a custom cabinetmaker implies that you will alter your designs to meet the needs of the client, or that you design each job specifically for each client.

As others pointed out, your process is slow and cumbersome. There should not be any putty involved. I don't really consider using putty as high end. You should be able to shape the molding before you glue it on. Use a pinner to hold it on while glue dries. All the sanding should be done at one time on the edgesander.

From contributor A:
Custom is much more than shelving. It is about doing what the customer wants and the service that goes along with it.

As far as the shelves go, rip 8' lengths of pre-finished material, apply edge, and then cut to length. Don't do each piece individually - takes way too much time.

Putty for something they are not going to see (shelf edge and where face frame meets the box)? Following that thought process, are you also applying putty to the joints on the back and top or where the toe-kick meets the face frame? My guess is no. I don't understand why you would even consider doing that. If you can't see it, and it does not affect the integrity of the structure, it doesn't matter, custom or not. We sell custom, and we sure don't fill the pocket-holes they don't see with plugs, because they don't see it, and it doesn't affect the structural integrity. I applaud the fact that you are detail orientated, but focus on the real details that matter.

From contributor N:
All of my interior/invisible shelving is cut on the CNC from pre-finished American maple plywood with all the other cabinet parts (pre-finished 3/4" American maple plywood). The shelves then go to the automatic edgebander to receive pre-finished maple edgebanding. Shelves done. Hands on time, about 2-3 minutes per shelf.

Visible shelves (behind glass doors) are made from the same 3/4" plywood material (what I call project plywood) that goes into exposed sides of cabinets. They are edgebanded with matching material with the automatic edgebander. They are finished the same way as the rest of the project plywood. Hands on time (before finishing) the same as the maple plywood shelves.

Customers have never complained about the shelves. When I show them the material they are made from (3/4" plywood - not particleboard), they are very impressed and glad they asked me to make their cabinets. I don't think they would have a clue about a 1/4" hardwood edge or glued on edgebanding. They like that it looks finished and very professional.

I agree with the idea of custom - you are not locking the customer into a predefined product line they have to choose from. You can work with them from the ground up to design and build the cabinetry they want and can afford. You still have to use efficient production methods to keep the cost down for them and maximize your return.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the responses! This feedback is exactly what I was looking for. I really believe that most customers do not care about the extra things I do. I am trying to think of better ways to do things that will mean more profit.

Here is another thing to go on the list of details. How many of you fill and sand flush your face frame on a finished end (versus a V-groove)? I think flush looks the best, but V-groove is definitely quicker! How do you "pre-finish before assembly" guys achieve a nice looking joint on the finished end?

From contributor L:
I always do a flush end. If it is a lacquer paint job, it will get filled if there looks like there is a gap or not. It will show up in the paint if you don't fill it no matter how good the joint is.

From contributor E:
Don't forget that everything you build is an advertisement. It doesn't matter if it is in a showroom or a customer's house. It is a representation of the work you do. Maybe the customer you build it for doesn't know the difference between one cabinet and the next. His doctor friend who stops by for a relaxing evening might be very aware of what quality is. You just gave his guest a sales pitch without even being there. I do know cabinetmakers who are now wondering why they have been doing dovetailed drawers all those years. The answer is, because you can.

From contributor T:
Think about having someone detail your vehicle. Something you might not notice, for instance, is if the inside of the AC vents were cleaned with a q-tip or not. You might not notice the small things, but when the whole job is finished, there is a sense of quality. A customer might not be able to put their finger on it at first, but they know that the quality you are providing is there.

If your customer does not know what the finer points of your construction are, you need to let them know. It is part of selling the job. It's kind of like if you were to tell a customer that there was a blemish on the inside bottom of a shelf, but that it would not show, then every time they opened the door they would think about that blemish. Tell them what makes your work quality. Even the small unnoticeable items will be remembered if you tell them. Bottom line is sell what you make, but be sure there is profit in what you are making.

From contributor U:
I have found in 11 years that people don't care how they are built as long as they don't fall apart. I personally try to make as nice a show piece as I can, as long as they pay for it.

From contributor A:
Your work is also advertisement. You may think that they don't notice the details, but they do, and if you point out the details to them, they tend to point those out to their friends/family, as there is pride of ownership and they like to talk about their cabinet guy. I know this because when we go back two-three weeks later to farm their warm market, they tell us what people have said on seeing the product. Anything you can do to make your product unique is what you can market against the next guy who is not as worried about the details.

From contributor W:
For clear finish I use sharp blades for veneers, choose the sharpest edge for cabinet pieces that meet the face frame on outside corners, and scrape squeeze-out at face frame pocket screw joints with sharp wide chisel. When clamping, if I see a hairline, I use another clamp. I let glue dry 5-10 minutes, lay chisel flat on cab side and shave squeeze-out off like butter. Sand flush and you should have no hairlines - nothing.

Paint grade is the same as above, but paint shows all. Visible defects get filled before priming and when I apply the first coat of primer, I hit these spots heavier. Most everything will come out with fill first if you just prime well in problem spots. I find with 2 coats of primer that almost anything will be sanded out if you do a 220 first coat, then a 320 second coat.

Take the advice from everybody on shelves, and stop doing some of the other little things that nobody notices and do dovetailed drawers instead of rabbets. All of the things that you do over and above what you need to labor wise is probably way over what it would take for dovetailed drawers, especially if you outsourced them.

From contributor H:
It's true that some of your extra effort will go unnoticed by many unless you point out the differences from the next cabinetmaker. On the other hand, if you're building for contractors or anyone that has a general knowledge of construction, most know the difference between a 3/4" plywood box construction and one made of particleboard.

I do the same as you - 1/4 solid wood glued to 3/4 plywood, mainly because I have the thin strips as leftover material, so for a little more of my time and effort I don't have to buy edgebanding. As my time becomes more valuable, this may change.