In opera, it ain't over until the fat lady sings. In cabinetmaking, it ain't over until the installation is complete. Botch this final step and you'll be facing an unhappy customer.

If a drawer sticks, a door won't close, or a run of cabinets doesn't fit snugly in the corner of the room, that customer has every right to be upset. And it won't matter that your shop features the finest equipment, that your people have decades of experience, and that you only use quality materials. All that is irrelevant if the final job does not look good or fails to hold up over time.

Sleepless nights aplenty

It's no wonder that many cabinetmakers lie awake nights, worrying about installations scheduled for the next morning. We offer seven shops' suggestions on how these concerns can be met and the cabinetmakers can get back to sleep.

This is not, however, an instruction manual. That would take a book, at least. And, even then, it would probably not cover all the myriad variations out there different cabinet styles and methods of construction, as well as the almost infinite number of challenges posed by the age and condition of the home, office or store into which the cabinets must be placed.

What this article does cover is installation management including such questions as whether to keep installation as a staff function or to outsource it to installation specialists, how to assess the competence of installers, how to schedule installation so customers remain satisfied and work doesn't back up in the shop, and, perhaps most important, how to make certain that installers not only do the job right but do the company proud meaning they represent you in a professional, courteous manner.

A word of thanks is appropriate for DiAnna Gregory, of Cabinet Makers Association, for facilitating the initial contact with several of the sources quoted here.

1. Outsourcing installation

Cedar Forest Cabinetry & Millwork LLC

Greg Chezem, owner of Cedar Forest Cabinetry & Millwork LLC, a one-man operation located in Nokesville, Va., confesses, "On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst, I score at least a 9, and more like a 9½, in my level of concern about installation."

Chezem explains, "Perception is everything. No matter how much time I spend building a rock-solid cabinet with a fantastic finish, if the boxes don't fit together properly, or if the trim isn't installed just right, the whole project is in jeopardy. All a client cares about is how it looks and functions. Score an A-plus on these two points, and it won't matter how cheaply you bought those parts and materials or how fast you were able to construct the cabinets."

Chezem admits to spending more time than he would like attending to the installation function. And, surprisingly, this is from a man who seldom does his own installation anymore. Recently, he says, he turned to a local finish carpenter to place the cabinets for the two or three jobs he completes each month.

"I pay him a daily wage," says the cabinetmaker, "and I have confidence in his ability to make a project look good. Still, I have to show him how to fasten certain types of cabinetry together (after all, his specialty up until now has been installing trim, not cabinets)."

2. Keeping installs profitable

Noble Woodworks Inc.

At Noble Woodworks Inc., a three-person operation on New York City's Staten Island, owner Wayne Adelkopf outsources 100 percent of the shop's "installs." He says, "We have chosen this path because it is more profitable. In the past, I had to take my full-time employees into the field and nothing got done in the shop. We fell way behind on projects. Now, we have two companies that I outsource to, so I can scale my workload accordingly."

Adelkopf, whose specialty is work for high-end residential clients, sees the following as the major benefit of outsourcing installation: "I can focus on my operations in the shop and not have my employees frustrated when I drag them from place to place. Shop employees tend to find comfort in coming into the same building each day, thus making them more productive."

Drawbacks

On the other hand, there also are drawbacks to farming out installation. For example, says Adelkopf, it sometimes is difficult and time-consuming to find the right installers. Further, he says, "You must set the ground rules and be clear about your expectations from the onset of the relationship. Also, make certain that any installers you choose are properly tooled with everything they might conceivably need on the jobsite. You don't want them shutting down for a half-day while they go home to get the right tools."

How does Adelkopf pay the independents who handle his installations? "Typically," he says, "I will show a project to my installers when bidding and they will give me a price. Then I can charge my customer accordingly, including profit." Nevertheless, he adds, this arrangement can be a "double-edged sword" for both the cabinetmaker and the installer. Both are taking a guess albeit an educated guess on how long the job will take. As an alternative, Adelkopf sometimes will pay his installers a daily rate for smaller projects.

Scheduling also may pose problems. "I try to schedule installations as far in advance as possible, but sometimes on the day before, I might get a call, indicating we have to reschedule."

One more point: Adelkopf doesn't just send out installers and wash his hands of responsibility. "My business comes through referrals and I cannot have a dissatisfied customer, designer or architect," he explains. "So, I always come out to the jobsite on the first day to meet with the customers and introduce them to my installers. I tend to devote half a day to this task and half a day to come back on the last day to inspect. I also spend time on calls from the jobsite to answer questions and troubleshoot. In the course of a month I spend an average of eight hours per week involved with installs."

3. Different skills required

Delphi Productions

Philo Bemis, another veteran California woodworking professional, agrees with Tim Elias (#5). He notes, "Cabinet construction and cabinet installation are not the same job, and they require different skills and attitudes." In a shop environment, cabinetmakers get used to having almost everything they want or need under their control. On a jobsite, he observes, almost nothing is under their control. "The same person may be able to do both jobs, but he or she will have to approach each one in a very different manner. Installation is no place for a rigid personality."

Bemis admits to always having wanted to set up a business plan like the one Tim Elias has. Although it never worked out, he does have a proud career to look back on, including success as a cabinet shop employee and owner. He currently is a vice president at Delphi Productions, an Alameda-based company that specializes in building exhibits for trade shows, events and museums.

As a featured speaker at a cabinet manufacturing conference held almost 20 years ago, Bemis offered the following insights:

Strive to have the perfect installer's toolbox, equipped for every contingency; but recognize that you will constantly have to update it.

Before you start any installation, find out the shortest route to the nearest hospital that performs microsurgery (failure to know this once cost him part of a finger).

Make sure you have access to the jobsite. Measure all doorways precisely to make certain the boxes you are bringing will fit through them. If you need to use a stairway, make certain you can maneuver the pieces around corners. If an elevator will be employed, make a cardboard model of the elevator cab in actual size and be sure that each piece manufactured for the job fits into that elevator. Bemis noted that "one of the worst days of his life" was spent sawing a reception desk in half on a rainy San Francisco street, just to be able to get it into an undersized elevator.

4. Doing it yourself

Creative Works Inc.

While the sources cited so far are advocates of using installation specialists, there are many others who opt for staff-only installations. "We do our own installs, and that way we know they will be done right," says Tom Meadows, co-owner with his wife Sandy, of Creative Works Inc., Joplin, Mo.

The husband and wife team, whose custom shop boasts just three employees, including owner Tom, does about 95 percent of its volume in residential, face-frame cabinets for all areas of a home kitchens, baths, home offices and entertainment areas. "Occasionally," says Meadows, "we have a contractor who will install something small like a bath vanity or island. But we typically do not warranty anything we do not install."

He says, "We do not have a separate install crew. Our employees are involved with a job all the way through from cutting parts, to construction, to finishing, to assembly, and finally the installation." And, he adds, he is right there with them from beginning to end. "Our customers like seeing the owner at all phases of their projectthe initial meeting, the measuring, during the production and at the installation."

5. Doing the install for others

Acapella Construction Inc.  

Strictly speaking, Tim Elias is not a cabinetmakerat least not any more and the same is true for many of the 20 people he employs at Acapella Construction Inc., founded in 2003 and headquartered in Petaluma, Calif. Instead, he explains, Acapella is a firm that specializes in cabinetry and millwork installation, with a 50-50 split on casework and custom millwork. Clients include both cabinetmakers and general contractors.

Elias says, "I believe passionately in our approach. We view the shops we work with as true partners in our long-term business approach. We attempt to have the same crews install a given shop's product, so they gain familiarity with detailing, scheduling and customer-service issues. This becomes a real asset to both the shop and the client. Our installers are set up with a myriad of accessory products and tools specific to our cabinetmaker-clients, so they don't need to go hunting for additional shelf pins, hinge parts, and so on. Our vision is to be the full-service arm for our cabinet shop partners, so they can focus upon design, detailing, and manufacturing processes as their core business."

According to Elias, a key element in making this work is that "our guys love what they do," and even though some used to be shop owners, joining Acapella felt like "a breath of fresh air." In his view, "There are people more ideally suited to working on a jobsite, interfacing with contractors and clients, and other people who prefer the shop environment. They are rarely the same person."

6. Separate crews, same company

Schiller Enterprise Inc.

According to Schiller, whose company produces "kitchens, entertainment centers, fireplaces/built-ins, offices/libraries, bars and other fine pieces," individual homeowners like it "when they know there is someone from the company there during the installation." This is especially true when he, as the owner of the shop, is the person overseeing the cabinet placement. "We seem to get more repeat work when I show up," he says.

On the other hand, Schiller Enterprise also works on interior trim for large national builders, and in those instances it turns installation over to subs. "This amounts to about 25 percent of our volume, says Schiller, "but these are not cabinets that we have built."

Schiller estimates that he spends about 12 hours a week working out delivery details, installation and service, and his supers spend an additional eight hours apiece walking the jobs, developing punch lists and making some small adjustments. Doing some wishful thinking, the shop owner remarks, "If I could just sell the cabinets and not install them, that would be the ultimate. On production houses we constantly have the problem of the house being built a little differently each time, and some type of modification has to be done."

7. Setting up basic guidelines

Maya Custom Woodwork

Because most of the work comes through interior designers, there are frequent change orders and add-ons to the original plan, he says. Given the delicacy and complexity of this working arrangement, Duarte tries whenever possible to have the same people who built the cabinets also install them. That actually works out about 40 percent of the time. On the other occasions, the installers are encouraged to call the shop if they run into any problems.

Although Duarte, like the other sources featured in this article, does not have a formal installation manual, he has established some rules for his employees to follow. Among these are: No radios; no cursing in any language ("you never know," he says); clean-cut appearance, meaning shaved and neat; polite responses to anybody on the jobsite, even other subs; no yelling; and make sure the jobsite is cleaned up at the end of each day.

"I don't allow my workers to make a mess even if nobody is there to see it. If we do generate some dust routing, let's say then we vacuum the place as we are working. And we vacuum again after the day's work is done, and take the trash with us. We never leave trash at the jobsite, even if there is a container. You might think this is no big deal, but I always hear the general contractor, interior designer, and sometimes the homeowner, telling me, "You didn't have to take your trash, but that says a lot about you."

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