Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Free Advice from a Cabinet Pro

Let me start by saying that I like Pinterest. I use Pinterest. My work gets "pinned" on Pinterest. I get students from Pinterest. But it also drives me nuts.  The 3 most frequently used words on Pinterest are "Easy" "Cheap" and "Fast".  Let's play a game:

Easy, Cheap and Fast ..........."Food"
Easy, Cheap and Fast........... "Electrical Wiring"
Easy, Cheap, and Fast.......... "Plumbing"
Easy, Cheap and Fast........... "Foundation Repair"
Easy, Fast, and Cheap.......... "Dental Work"
Easy, Fast and Cheap........... "Brain Surgery"
Easy, Fast, and Cheap.......... "Colonoscopy"

Doesn't sound like such a good idea, does it? As a professional with 20 plus years in cabinet finishing and 15 years in teaching cabinet classes, "Easy", "Fast" and "Cheap" is not only insulting, it rarely produces a quality job.  Here's the thing: if you want to play with your own piece of furniture-great!  It can always be the first step in pursuing cabinet/furniture finishing as a profession. It is rewarding to  complete your own project.

I'm crafty as well and an avid DIY'er in home improvement. But reading a blog, down-loading a video and finishing my own projects doesn't make me a professional. IT makes me a slightly educated DO-IT-Yourselfer. Nothing wrong with that-but I know the difference. And I wouldn't go to someone else's house and install a floor.  Because a potential client should know the difference as well.

So, I'm offering you some free advice if you are considering cabinetry and furniture finishing as a profession.

It's easier to write about cabinets then to actually do a job.  I enjoy writing my blog and sharing projects. It is easy to sit in my office to write about finishing.  It doesn't take much computer skill to filter a picture-I can make any cabinet look good especially in a long shot.  When someone says it is easy to finish cabinets and furniture, I always wonder why they aren't actually out working on cabinets and furniture. You make way more money on real projects then you do writing about doing projects.

Prep is critical to a quality job.  Cabinets and furniture need to be functional. Kitchen cabinets are the work horse of the home. Think of the exposure to chemical and mechanical damage. You are painting over grease, oils, dirt, cracks, wax, and worn topcoat.  Priming serves a purpose-to block stains, fill grain, and improve bonding.  Paint with Primer is not the same thing as using a separate primer.

In addition to cooking/usage stains, wood has Tannins.  Using a water-based system can carry the wood tannins through the finish-especially a lighter one. A quality job blocks this process.

There is a rise in products promoted as No Prep. I cringe.  Often it is the use of a wax as a finish coat that is actually holding the finish down. The wax (which often has some petroleum) penetrates down to the substrate to lock the finish.  If you don't use the wax then you're finish doesn't hold as well. Every month a homeowner comes to Surfaces with a cabinet that has the finish worn off on the edges and around the handles. "Well, I was told I didn't need to prep."  I sell them a pack of sandpaper. Now they will get a chance to prep.

No one likes to sand. It is messy but sanding opens up the topcoat, removes debris on the surface, and levels the surface. During sanding I can accurately evaluate the quality of the existing finish and where I might have boding issues.

The finish is only as good as the foundation.

There are few short-cuts to a cabinet job.  Most of the "hints" I read to make a job go faster include finishing the cabinets while hanging, not removing hardware, and working in the client's garage.  I always remove the cabinet doors and drawers. The hardware is removed. This allows me to really inspect and prep each piece.  The finish is applied more evenly since I'm not working off a ladder or around hardware.  It keeps the client's items like dishes, glasses, and counters cleaner.

I know that space for finishing is always the largest challenge for someone considering this profession.  But moving the client's doors and drawers to your own space (garage, basement, or spare room) does a few things. It keeps their space cleaner. You may regulate the temperature and cleanliness of your own space.  You may take advantage of odd hours to apply layers. Believe me-most clients do not want you working in their homes late at night. And your pieces have time to cure without someone touching them.

Painting is science-it's not magic. Regardless of the line, there are chemical laws that govern product. 

Dry Time and Cure Time are two different things. Dry time means the solvents have evaporated enough that the surface feels dry and not sticky or tacky.  This usually happens within 1-3 hours for latex paints and 6-8 hours for oil paint.

Latex paint dries from the outside in-this means the cure time takes longer.  If you apply a topcoat too quickly on a latex paint, the topcoat bites into the drying finish. The topcoat dries faster and the finish crazes (fine even cracks).

Oil paint dries from the inside and moves out, It cures more quickly and dries hard. But it takes longer to dry between coats or before glazing.

Latex paint takes at least 14 days to cure and oil takes 5-7 days.

Your temperatures need to be above 60 degrees and humidity below 90 for paint to dry and cure well.

Products for cabinets and walls are different.  Most walls are plaster or drywall. Wood may be raw or painted with latex or oil paint. It may be stained with oil or water-based stains. It may be sealed with lacquer, polyurethane, conversion varnish or wax. There are a variety of woods from light grain to heavy grain. With knots. Without knots. Soft wood or hardwood. There is large variability with unique characteristics. Often one size product does not fit all. Sure you can use wall paints for cabinets but prep and top-coating becomes even more critical.  Many products are meant to be sprayed for the best finish. Brushing and rolling is possible but it needs to be done very quickly. Some finish may only be brushed. Brushing takes more time per piece then spraying. And usually involves more sanding between coats.

The expectation between doing your own job and having someone pay you to do their cabinets is very different.  I enjoy seeing people complete their own projects. It is an accomplishment to change something.  But in many pictures, you can see brush strokes and drips.  The drawers and doors are often lighter or darker then the frames.  The edges are heavy and the faces are streaky.  If this is in your own home and you like it-then you've done your job. 

For clients, especially high-end clients, this is not a professional job.  The expectation is the frames and the pieces will match.  There are no drips or runs in any layer.  The surface will look hand crafted but have a factory finish that feels good and is scrubbable.  The finish will hold up to normal wear and tear of opening/closing pieces, cleaning, and cooking.

A professional has training and experience.  I like to share some of my finishes and inspire others to try decorative finishing themselves. But I'm also careful with the samples I put out there for DIY.  My considerations include how much experience and knowledge you need to be successful. I think about the people who have paid and traveled to a class to learn directly with me. It is not fair to give away something for free or on the cheap that someone else has paid to learn.  Plus I use a particular product line-there is some effort to learn and order it. 

 I admit it-I hate when someone says "secrets the pro's don't want you to know."  Guess what?  It's not because we are members of a secret club where we don't want to share our golden nuggets that will make your job easier.  It's because we've invested a lot of time and money in hands on classes. We've paid our dues by working on real projects with demanding clients.  I've made mistakes and learned the hard way.  Just because you have a computer and may download a picture means no one is obligated to give you free advice on how to do a finish.  I would never go to my hairdresser and show her a picture then ask her to just show me how to DO IT My Self for FREE.

Videos are a great way to distance learn if you have a foundation of knowledge. It's a quick way to build your portfolio or learn an addition to a product line.  We are adding videos to our web-site.  But videos will never replace hands-on training with a qualified instructor.  It is a supplement to training and on-the job experience. I encourage homeowners to always ask where an individual did their training as part of the interview.

Hard work and practice are not a gimmick.  We live in a world where "likes" and marketing may seem more important then quality.  The best finishers I know in terms of quality, artistry, and customer satisfaction are the worst at marketing.  They forget to take pictures or up-date their web-site. Many times it's because they are so busy working on actual projects that time on Instagram and Facebook is limited. And I say this as an avid poster on both!  

This is what you need to know:

Return phone calls.  Arrive on-time. Be neat and clean.  Deliver the project you promised based on your sample.  Don't show a sample and then cut steps or sub product to save time/money. Finish in a timely manner. Always do a sample. Order your product ahead of time. Tell your client what you are doing that day before you start and let them know what you did at the end of the day. Have insurance.  Prepare a written bid.  Respect other workers. Don't take someone else's work and claim it as your own.

Sales is part of the job.  You will have to find clients. Word of mouth is your best marketing tool but you need to get your name out there. You need business cards and a web-site.  People like pictures of samples and projects with less words. People that are cheap have cheap friends.  Think about the client that you want to work for and focus on finding them.  You may want to focus on particular neighborhoods. Home shows are a good way to meet clients face to face and sell yourself.  Show homes are hit or miss depending on the market.

Pricing is math. It just takes time to price your product. Most providers have coverage estimates.  You touch a piece a minimum of 3 times if you clean/sand and paint 2 coats.  That is at least 10 minutes per step or 30 minutes per door. For a kitchen that is 40 pieces that is 20 hours. Plus you have the frame-let's add 2 hours per step by hand. that's 6 more hours. Your product is at least $3 per piece. That is $120 for a job.  So you have 46 hours and $120 in materials.  If you charge $25 per piece your bid is $1,000 plus $200 for the frame. $1,200 - $120 = $1,8080 your labor. That is $23.48 per hour for your labor, travel, and expenses.  That is why we charge more. Most likely for a quality finish you will touch that piece at least 8 times (take apart the kitchen, clean/sand, prime, paint 2 coats, topcoat 2 coats and re-hang.

You make less on buying and re-selling furniture. You have to find the furniture, Clean, paint and topcoat the furniture. Have a place to sell the furniture. Get the furniture there and operate your store/booth. Then you have sales taxes and over-head. You will make more money on finishing pieces a client already owns or has purchased for a particular project.

And that's it!  Cabinetry and furniture is rewarding and fun. It is also a lot of hard work. It is risky-you are finishing the most important room in a home for resale. It takes the most abuse.  But it may be a great way to create a business for yourself. Just remember that there is a lot to being a professional finisher.

If you do great work and charge the market price, you bring up our entire profession. We all win. And that is worth all the free advice in the world!


  1. Very accurate portrayal of our profession and the work involved to make a good finished product!

  2. I know it is frustrating if you are trying to bid a professional quality job. We are competing against the perception that finishing cabinets is easy-just paint!

    1. Excellent article, Rebecca! I should let my potential clients read this!