No pricing shortcuts
September 10, 2014 | 7:00 pm CDT

It’s a perennial question. Why do the estimates for custom work from woodworking shops vary so much? We try to answer that question every year with the CabinetMakerFDM Pricing Survey, and this year’s results are actually fairly close with high bids being only about triple of the low bids in each of the projects. Only triple.

What does that say? Are there really that many variations in material and labor costs or regional market pressures around the country? Or are custom woodworkers just that bad at math when it comes to figuring prices?

Some of the estimating flaws are pretty obvious in the survey. Materials estimates are all over the map, but we all know that virtually all of the materials in custom cabinetry are commodity items with competitive pricing across the country. Materials numbers should be close if people are pricing the same materials.

Labor presents a similar problem. There seems to be no consistent correlation between construction hours in the shop and the use of automated processes or outsourced goods as reported in the survey. Shops that use CNC are at the high and low ends of the scale. Again, this doesn’t make a lot of sense if shops are really doing the math.

There is a long history in this industry of using calculators such as linear foot measurements to quickly estimate jobs. Unless those calculators are based on history, updated regularly, and adjusted for all custom variations, they are bound to be inaccurate. The rise of estimating software programs has helped, but even there, shops must take the time to update and specify to make sure the programs are doing what they should.

In the end it all comes down to paying attention to details. You pay attention to making sure your joinery is strong and tight. You should apply the same precision to your pricing.

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editor of FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.