Nat Wheatley, owner of Coastline Cabinetry in Plympton, Mass., understands the merits of outsourcing. "I outsource everything aside from the cabinet boxes," he says. "It's a very good way for a small shop to improve its capacity."

Outsourcing gives a shop set costs, large selections and manufacturer warranties. Wheatley uses Conestoga doors and mouldings, usually prefinished. "Every once in awhile I'll have to make the doors for a project, and am quickly reminded, without fail, that it's a step backwardsat least for me." He uses CCF drawers and mostly Atlantic Plywood's prefinished maple plywood for the cabinet boxes.

"Once I saw the benefits of outsourcing, I moved more and more in that direction," Wheatley says. "I know the business has grown in large part because of that."

Before he started his one-man shop seven years ago, Wheatley built cabinets for Coastal Restoration, a local contractor. "It got to the point where I handled enough aspects of each job that it only made sense to try and do it on my own," he says. "Fortunately, they gave me most of their cabinetry work, which made up a large part of my business early on."

Today his business concentrates primarily on high-end residential kitchens, and serves customers from Boston to Cape Cod, Mass. The work comes from word-of-mouth, local builders and Internet advertising.

What customers want

Wheatley's customers range from people who want more than they can get through the big box stores, and are willing to pay for it, to people who are less concerned with a budget and want finer details. "There's enough range in our product to meet all of those needs," he says.

Jobs start with potential customers calling or sending an e-mail describing what they want. Sometimes they include plans or drawings, but Wheatley often visits potential customers and measures the space. The next step is an estimate with a quick drawing. "I realize you're risking the chance of not getting compensated for this design time if you don't get the job, but I also feel the drawings help sell jobs," Wheatley says. "I can do a preliminary drawing quickly enough that it hasn't become a significant issue."

Wheatley says he's pleased with the quality and look of the cabinetry he designs. "When I do a job, I have an image of how the completed project should look, and it's nice to see that come together in the end," he says.

When potential customers accept the estimate, they visit the showroom to see different door style and color choices, as well as the look of several types of cabinetry. Then Wheatley uses Cabinet Vision Solid Manufacturing software to design the project; several revisions usually follow. The best-case time frame, from the final set of drawings and deposit to installation, is four weeks, which is based on the time it takes to get outsourced parts. Eight weeks are a more typical time frame, because often there are other changes that need to be accommodated.

Most cabinets are frameless, and Wheatley finds Bob Buckley's TRUE32 to be an invaluable resource. "It's enabled me to put a repeatable system of building cabinets in place," he says, "and has made a major difference in the time it takes to turn out each job."

Key equipment for the process are a Holz-Her 1265S vertical panel saw and a Brandt KD55 edgebander. TRUE32's Business Partner software has helped his job pricing ability. "I wouldn't be pricing things nearly as accurately without that software."

Using QuickBooks Pro accounting software, his wife Clare does the books, which he says "is a huge help in letting me focus on other things. Her support and enthusiasm for what I do really does go a long way."

In addition to outsourcing, Wheatley attributes his shop's growth to "refining each step of what I do." He joined the Cabinet Maker's Assn., which has helped him from a business standpoint. Visiting the CMA forum and local members' shops and hearing about the volume of work they produce showed him a small shop's potential and what he needs to do to move in that direction.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.