What is the best way to start a cabinet shop? Is it to have the newest and best equipment with ample space and to go into debt in the process? Or is it to get by with a minimal amount of equipment, whatever space is available and start out with some cash in your pocket? For Rick Bradley and Steve Parks the answer was simple.

"Steve and I started with basically nothing," says Bradley. "You don't have to have every piece of equipment. You can start small and keep your overhead as low as possible."

This conservative approach has worked over 15 years for Bradley and Parks, owners of Quality Cabinets & Woodworks in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. The shop builds custom high-quality cabinetry at reasonable prices. The duo is quick to credit the success of their business, first and foremost, to their religious faith.

Although it took the partners two years to move out of the small backyard shed where they started, they didn't hesitate to set up their shop as a business from the start.

"We have an accountant, an attorney and we try to keep good records on everything because no matter how good of a woodworker you are, if you don't apply the business part to it, you're going to fail," says Bradley. "And I don't care how good of a business person you are, if you don't know woodworking you're going to fail."

The shop started in August, 1991 with very little equipment and very little working capital. "I had a little shed in my backyard, a contractor saw, a Jet jointer and a miter saw and we had a cabinet to build for a local insurance man," says Bradley. "After that we had another one to build. We have never, in 15 years, had a day without work."

Business is business

Surprisingly, the two partners did not initially have an agreement in writing, but they did set things up to share responsibility and the basic startup cost. "When we decided to do this, I had a few basic pieces of equipment so we got a composition book, a pencil and a calculator," says Bradley. After evaluating everything together the two came to an agreement about the value of Bradley's equipment and that Parks would need to contribute that amount to be a full partner.

"The first two or three years we never had anything on paper, no partnership agreement or anything," he says. But the two have since incorporated and put everything into writing.

Starting it out right

When Bradley and Parks started out in business, they met another backyard businessman. The man offered his expertise and use of his equipment to the two. Once the shop was established Bradley noticed the man was hauling his cabinets on a pickup truck and offered to deliver them.

"When it started out, he wanted it to be on the buddy system. I knew from past experiences that that's how things can go sour," says Bradley. He told the man that if he needed help after 5 p.m., Bradley would help, but if it was on business hours, then the two businesses would pay each other like any other businesses.

"We did that for 14 years and instead of having competition we couldn't deal with, we worked together," says Bradley. "When we had more work than we could do, we would sub it to him and he'd do the same with us."

Sign on the dotted line

When the shop gets a job, the customer is given a detailed set of elevations, a specification sheet with everything included on it and a proposal.

"We have a proposal that we had an attorney help us design before we ever did the first job," says Bradley. "It's spelled out in there, what the deposit will be, how the payment schedule is set up." Everyone signs it and gets a copy.

Bradley says they stuck to that procedure rigorously only deviating recently. It's caused a huge problem. They're doing a job for a customer they've worked with before. When Bradley gave her the proposal, she didn't give him a deposit. He viewed it as a simple oversight and instead of stopping the process, built the cabinets. So now he has $10,000 worth of labor and material tied up in the job and none of the bill paid.

"Now what has happened is we have a dissatisfied customer, because we have to demand payment, and we're in a dispute all because I let our process go on trust," says Bradley. "As much as trust is a good thing to have, business is business and you need to keep it business. I should have stopped the job immediately."

It's also critical to document everything, adds Bradley. He keeps a folder on each job and puts any notes, information changes, etc. in that folder. He says that many jobs can span a considerable period of time and a lot of things can happen in that time.

"Even though everything you're saying may be true and correct, if you can come back with dates and times, you're more convincing," he says. "And with all these jobs I have over here right now, some of these have been ongoing for two or three months. I can't remember it. One thing that I think is important to the customers is that you hold their project as important to you and that you're very thorough with it."

Taking a big step

In June 1993 Quality Cabinets & Woodworks moved into the building it occupies now. When the owners went to borrow money, they were told they just didn't have enough capital or collateral and they almost dropped the whole idea. After working out an agreement with one bank they went back to the original bank and not only got the loan, but got it without collateral or capital.

"The banker told us that most people starting out businesses want to bite off more than they can chew. He said that we were so conservative that he had to push us every step of the way," says Bradley.

In 2001, a 432-square-foot addition was added on for finishing and another 540-square-foot addition for warehousing in a separate building behind the one built in 1993. Last year the shop added another addition to the main building to make it a 3,200-square-foot shop.

"We can definitely tell that having more space to spread out, take more machines and delegate them to specific tasks and spreading out has made a difference," says Bradley. "We couldn't buy things before because we didn't have the room."

Building cabinets

Quality Cabinets builds all its face-frame cabinets out of 3/4-inch birch plywood, outsources doors and drawer fronts to Quality Doors in Texas and builds drawers on site. Onlays, corbels and other decorative additions are purchased from Hardware Resources.

Parts and dadoes are cut on one of two Delta Unisaws. The shop also has a Delta contractor saw, band saw, shaper, jointer and planer and a DeWalt crosscut saw to cut and process face-frame parts.

In the early days of the shop, the owners were die-hard mortise-and-tenoners. Bradley was very impressed with Kreg jigs and brought one into the shop. "They all laughed at me," says Bradley. "What convinced Steve was one day he was doing mortise and tenon and I was doing pocket screws and I just smoked him." Now the whole shop uses Kreg jigs and clamping table.

Bradley is in the process of learning some computer programs for future use. Now he does one-inch scale drawings on 11 x 17 paper creating elevations for every job. As much information as possible is put into the drawings, which are given to the shop employees. They build the cabinets using the information on the elevations and don't work off of cutlists.

"I try to keep track of how long it takes to do all the jobs," says Bradley. He says that he and Steve look back and check the estimate, and if it took longer, they figure out why.

Parks keeps track of employee hours, builds cabinets and pays bills. Bradley works with customers, does designs and draws, works in the shop and takes care of collecting the money.

The shop uses Blum hinges and Knape & Vogt drawer slides. Quality is important to these owners. "We're dead serious when it comes to making sure the details are right and the work is good quality," says Bradley.

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