When Rodney Bishop, an RN, was looking to change to a career that would allow him to be at home and near his family, he decided on cabinetmaking. Although Bishop had no real training in cabinetmaking, he had been a part-time house framer for years and had worked closely with cabinetmakers. In addition, he had a good friend who was a master cabinetmaker who was willing to work with him.

Bishop's shop in Joshua, Texas, is now going strong. However, getting to that point has involved facing and overcoming several challenges.

Philosophical differences

Construction began January 2003 on a 40 x 40-foot shop for Artistic Cabinets, Trim and Millwork on a lot nearby Bishop's home. Bishop completed the building by February and machinery was purchased. By March, Bishop hired several employees. For the bulk of 2003, Bishop kept his full-time job while learning cabinet building during evenings and weekends from a longtime friend who had been making cabinets for years.

The learning process went well, but the two's views of how to run the business were different. Nonetheless, Bishop has nothing but high praise for his friend's ability. "He is a craftsman and there is not a better cabinetmaker as far as quality," Bishop says. "However, there has to be a mix. If you're such good quality that you're not making money, then you're out of business. If you're not making money, you back off on some of the quality issues. If the customer is happy, it's strong, it's good-looking and it lasts, then that's really what matters, as far as a business, in my mind."

Ultimately the two realized they weren't going to see eye-to-eye on how to run the business, so Bishop's friend decided to start up a different shop. The two remain friends, even though technically their shops are in competition. "There are so many houses being built in Dallas-Fort Worth, you could have a hundred of these shops, and they couldn't keep up," Bishop says. He mentions that building starts for summer have been known to run as high as 1,000 in a two-week period.

Installation woes

Another early hurdle for Artistic Cabinets was installations. Despite providing checklists for his installers and reminding them multiple times to check the work on-site, Bishop found that he was being called back as often as three and four times to a building site. "I knew that had to change," Bishop says. "Money-wise those little call-backs just kill you. I look at the time we wasted, and the money. How hard is it to open a drawer, and if you feel it go clunk' then you know you need to change a screw around?"

Bishop decided the answer was to hire a dedicated full-time installer. "I needed someone who, if they found a problem on-site, could use their brain and make a decision." Now, craftsman Martin Romero takes care of all installs for the shop. "I still have an occasional callback," Bishop says, "but the number of them has dropped dramatically."

Better machines

Work continued to flow into Artistic Cabinets in 2003 and 2004 through word-of-mouth and also through friends of Bishop's in the construction business. Additional machinery was purchased, the most significant of which was a Her-Saf panel router and a Ritter face-frame assembly station. "I bought the panel router because we were dadoing by hand," Bishop recalls. "The panel router really helped us, and that, together with the face-frame machine was a huge, huge jump. When I look back, I realize I should have bought those in the beginning. Those two machines really caused our quality to go up, and it sped us up so much it was unreal."

Sales snafu

By 2005, Bishop had expanded the shop to 80 x 40 feet and was ready to accelerate the business. To that end, he hired a salesman in June 2005. In the second week of August, the salesman brought in more than $100,000 in work as much as the shop had made during its first year in business.

Bishop scrambled to respond, hiring additional employees 13 at one point to complete the work. At first, things looked good until it became apparent the jobs had been knowingly underbid. Needless to say, the salesman's tenure at Artistic Cabinets ended. "That whole deal really hurt us," Bishop says.

However, the experience helped Bishop realize that the shop would be more profitable with just a few high-paid, skilled employees and some more sophisticated machinery. It was at that point that Bishop began seriously considering purchasing an entry-level CNC router.

Getting it right

Bishop purchased a WartHog CNC router In December of 2005. He uses the router in tandem with Cabinet Pro software. Bishop says that Cabinet Pro had already proved to be a crucial tool in his shop before purchasing the CNC router. "When we started, we ordered doors that were not correct no matter how hard we tried," Bishop recalls. "That problem went away when we started using Cabinet Pro." Nonetheless, even with Bishop's knowledge of Cabinet Pro, he says it took him about three months for him to get up to speed using it with the CNC router. Artistic Cabinets cuts everything out with a ¼-inch bit.

Not long after getting the CNC router, a builder-friend of Bishop's helped him pick up a job building a curved teller station for a large banking chain. The job has a high potential of leading to more work with the chain. Bishop credits the CNC router, with its ability to quickly cut accurate arcs, as being essential to successfully doing the work.

As to cabinets, the CNC router and skilled personnel have changed Bishop's perspective on jobs. "The biggest jobs we used to have seem like small jobs to us now," Bishop says. "Three years ago, if we could get a $7K to $9K job, that was a big job. Now the 7 to 9s are kind of borderline small. Ten to 15K is usually our range. Ten seems kind of simple, 15 is about right. I really like the 17 to 20 range. Thirty-something, that's even better."

Shop flow

Artistic Cabinets is set up with a fairly straightforward flow from one end of the shop to the other. Sheet inventory is stored on a large metal rack at one end of the shop. From there it goes to the CNC router. The cut pieces are then loaded onto carts and moved over to assembly. Once assembled, pieces are sanded, and those needing edgebanding go to a Brandt edgebander. After drawer fronts and hinges are installed, cabinets are stacked at the front of the shop, in preparation for delivery.

Artistic Cabinets uses hardwoods for its cabinets maple, red oak, ash, knotty alder, hickory and pecan. They use poplar for paint-grade framed cabinets. At present, all cabinets are face-frame style, though Bishop would like to build frameless as well.

Nearly all cabinets coming out of the shop are unfinished, and Bishop hires a painter to finish the cabinets on-site. Occasionally the shop will do some pre-finished laminate, though that is usually for commercial jobs.

Expansion plans

With the amount of work coming into Artistic Cabinets now, Bishop has decided to expand. He is selling his house and current shop, and once that is sold he will put up a new shop on land he owns nearby. The new shop will be 75 feet long and either 60 or 80 feet wide. Bishop plans to place all machines in the middle of the new building, leaving the sides open for assembly.

Things look very promising for the immediate future of Artistic Cabinets. Bishop has a builder-client who is now giving the shop 30 to 50 homes a year for cabinets, and it's possible that number may increase. Bishop says he's also planning to add small frameless furniture to his sales, such as bookcases, desks and any other item they can cut out on the CNC router, sell through the Internet and ship in a box.

Advice for others

After navigating a rough beginning, Bishop feels he's now on track. His advice for others? "Anyone who is planning on being self-employed should look at and listen to all positive and negative feedback," Bishop says.

"Woodworking may be a fun thing and a hobby, but it needs to be treated as a business. In other words, make sure you are taking in a lot more money than you are sending out, and it will be something you can enjoy," Bishop says, adding "you can't eat the wood."

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