Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cabinetmaking Overview

This article is a general overview of the cabinetmaking trade.  Detailed instructions for building the nightstand project are available here.

This week on the show we started our four part mini series on how to build your own cabinets.  Although the project I chose as an example is a set of built-in nightstands, the process and techniques are very similar for most other types of cabinets.

What is Cabinetmaking?

The first cabinetmaker I apprenticed under used to say that "cabinetmaking is the study of all the ways you can stick together a box."  While he was definitely being snarky, his words do rather sum up the essence of the thing.  Everything a cabinetmaker builds is basically a hollow box, be it a tiny jewelry box, a kitchen sink cabinet, or a closet unit that takes up a whole wall of an office.  The sizes and use of the boxes might vary, but the tools and techniques used to construct them are basically the same.  This focus on boxes (which woodworkers call casework) distinguishes cabinetmaking from other fine woodworking specialties such as chair bodging (focused on turned spindles), carving (focused on shaping solid pieces of wood), or coopering (focused on making curved things like barrels).

Careers in Cabinetmaking

Cabinets have always been relatively expensive and have required a fair amount of skilled labor in comparison to their materials cost.  For this reason, cabinetmaking has traditionally been one of the higher status woodworking trades. 

Historically, cabinetmakers learned their trade under a master cabinetmaker. Apprenticeships typically began around the age of 10 and lasted seven years.  Nowadays the typical apprenticeship has shrunk in length to about 2 years, where the system still exists at all.  The shortening of apprenticeship terms probably has more to do with child labor laws than with any decrease in the amount of material an apprentice needs to learn.  Most of the monotonous work that was formerly done by teenage apprentices is now done by semi-skilled factory workers or machines.

Those cabinetmakers who are unable to find an apprenticeship either teach themselves (by reading my blog?) or go through degree programs.  Oddly, although there are plenty of associate degree (AAS) and master's (MFA) programs in cabinetmaking, there are very few bachelor's level programs, at least in the US.

No matter how they make it into the trade, most cabinetmakers spend a few years working and learning under a more experienced cabinetmaker.  At the end of this period, if the shop is large enough, some of them are promoted into supervisory positions and stay.  The vast majority of them, deciding that they have no more to learn and having maxed out the pay scale, leave to set up their own shops.  The self-taught variety of cabinetmaker often skips to the starting his own shop stage, and proceeds to learn the trade by trial and error.  I don't have any statistics but, in my experience, most of them don't make it through the first year.  If you are serious about doing this for a living I seriously suggest that you find someone else to work for for a couple years.  You'll be working long hours for minimum wage, but it will still be a good investment.

My Own History in Cabinetmaking

In 2002 I was doing the handyman thing when I received an offer to apprentice under Howard Higham at Ridgeway Woodworking in Sweet Home, Oregon.  Howard's shop only did a few cabinet jobs a year, but they tended to be complicated high-end jobs for offices and custom homes.  He and I were the only two people in the shop, so I got to do a little bit of everything my first year.

Unfortunately, Ridgeway went out of business before my apprenticeship was officially over.  My "severance pay" was a contractor's table saw, a small jointer, a midi lathe, and a plunge router, all straight from the shop floor (They were Howard's back-ups; he sold his main tools.)

I thought about starting my own shop then and there, but I just wasn't ready.  So, in the dead of winter and flat broke, I went looking for another cabinet shop to finish my apprenticeship.  I took the first offer I had, which was in the main cabinet shop at Country Coach in Junction City.  Country Coach makes extremely expensive, semi-custom and custom motor coaches and tour buses.   I spent two and a half years there, working in the assembly and detail departments, repairing damaged cabinets, and occasionally putting in a day or two at a time in the mill. 

I left Country Coach in 2005.  I was tired of the long commute and generally unimpressed by their corporate culture.  My next job was at Golden West Homes in Albany, which was closer and a friendlier place to work.  Golden West makes mobile homes and, unfortunately, their cabinets at the time were made rather cheaply.  I had to rapidly learn how to make cheap materials look like "expensive" cabinets.  At Golden West I started as an assembler and later took over running their counter tops shop.  Actually, at some point or another I probably worked every job in their 20 person cabinet shop.

The nice thing about Golden West was that they not only didn't mind me running my own cabinet jobs on the side, but they let me order materials through the company.  By this point I had my own cabinet shop pretty well set up and I began moonlighting regularly.

When I left Golden West, I did so intending to run my own cabinetmaking business full time.  I quickly found that there were too many other small cabinet shops in town fighting for too few customers, so after a few months I headed down to California, where I ended up doing other kinds of construction.  So far, I have never gotten back into the cabinet trade full time.  As a handyman, however, I occasionally get to build or repair cabinets for my customers. 

 Cabinet Shop Work Flow

Typical Cabinet Shop Workflow

The basic work flow is the same for any cabinet operation.  A single cabinetmaker still needs to go thorough the same steps as a production shop with 100 employees.  The difference is that in the larger shops each of these functions will be conducted by a separate department where the employees have the tools and practice to do one thing very well.  Job assignment in medium size shops tend to be more fluid "Ok, today I'll cut out and detail pieces while you put 'em together."

Any or all of these steps can be, and often is, outsourced to other shops so a shop can focus on the things that they do best. 


When wood arrives at the loading dock it is usually rough sawn to random lengths and widths.  The workers in the mill (who may think of themselves as sawyers, not cabinetmakers) use a planer to bring the boards to the right thickness, a jointer to square and true one edge, and a rip saw to rip it to standard widths which are used in the shop.  In some operations the mill is also responsible for cutting out panel stock, although this job might also be assigned to the detail department.


The detailers are basically machinists who shape the parts of cabinets to look like the plans.  They use a variety of hand and power tools, but especially routers and table saws.  Depending on the complexity of the cabinets detail can range from being so simple that the assembly department takes care of it while they work (as it was when I was at Golden West), to being so complicated that it is a full time career path (as it was when I was at Country Coach).  The detail department is usually also responsible for building face frames.  I have to say that detail was usually my favorite job in the cabinet shop.


Assemblers are responsible for actually putting the pieces together into a cabinet.  In most shops an assembler can put together a complete cabinet every half hour, on average.  Interestingly, cheap cabinets are only slightly easier to build than expensive ones.  The skill of the detailers affects how well parts fit together, and hence how easy the assemblers job is.  Thus, chewing out the detailers for mistakes is a basic part of the assembler's job.

Final Detail

Certain details, such as flush sanding pieces or rounding over corners of cabinets are easier to do after the box is mostly assembled.  Larger shops will assign someone to do these full time.  He usually has a low workbench, good upper body strength, a belt sander, and an assortment of routers.  

Final detail is often handled by the assembly department but may be a department of its own in larger shops.


Sanding is one of the most important parts of cabinetmaking, but also one of the most boring.  Still, someone needs to do it.  The sanders are usually the most junior employees in the shop, and many people regard time on the sanding line as a right of passage.  Each of them will typically be armed with an array of portable power sanders and they might share stationary tools like stroke sanders, drum sanders, or edge sanders.

Doors and Drawers

Most shops try to use a finite number of standard sizes and styles for their doors and drawers.  This allows the D&D department to set up their machines and make batches of dozens or even hundreds of doors and drawers at the same time.  The work, while somewhat repetitive, is extremely important to do well because doors and drawers are always the most visible part of the finished cabinets.


Most shops make at least some of their own counters.  The tools and materials for this work are just different enough from cabinetmaking that it makes sense to separate the counters department in its own area.  Counter top making is a trade in its own right, but all journeymen cabinetmakers know the basics and often spend time in the counters department at some point in their careers.


Sawdust and wet finishes don't mix, so the finishing department usually has its own special area away from the power tools.  Probably 99% of commercial finishes are applied with an airless or HVLP sprayer in a spray booth.  Some small shops have one day a week when they sweep out the shop and do all their spraying.  No other work is done that day, so as not to kick up any dust. 


The job isn't done until the cabinet is installed in the client's house (or boat, or RV).  The job also involves trim carpentry and a certain amount of on-the-fly repair work (everyone drops a cabinet eventually).  Full time cabinet installers can more properly be thought of as finish carpenters, but most cabinetmakers do installs on occasion. 

Cabinetmaking Specialties

Cabinetmaking as a trade is pretty similar no matter what sort of work you do.  From a business point of view, however, many cabinet shops specialize in a particular kind of work.  


The single largest market for cabinets is in the kitchens and bathrooms of private homes.  Residential cabinet shops usually further specialize in either custom work, which is what it sounds like, or in production work, in which they mass produce relatively standardized cabinets that end up in tract houses, mobile homes, and apartment buildings.  Production cabinetmaking, like most medium manufacturing, has largely gone overseas.  The exceptions are certain industries like manufactured housing which have traditionally built their own cabinets in house and mostly still do.


Commercial cabinetmaking includes not only cabinets for offices, which are quite similar to their residential counterparts, but also specialized pieces for restaurants, shops, and churches.  Commercial cabinetmakers usually make more than residential cabinetmakers.  However, they usually need to be more sophisticated about things like blueprints and coordination with architects and other trades.

Coach and Boat Cabinetry

The cabinets in RV's, camp trailers, van conversions, and yachts are built in much the same way as those in buildings, but they are at least an order of magnitude more complicated.  Reasons why include:

  1. Much greater use of curved surfaces and non-right angles.  
  2. The cabinets need to fit against the chassis and body (or hull and decks) of the vehicle, which are often curved.  This means that the cabinetmaker doing the layout needs to be able to read the mechanical engineer's or naval architects drawings and pay attention to tolerances in new construction, or get really good at using scribe boards in refit work.  
  3. The cabinets typically need to accommodate equipment like radios, monitors, microwaves, and instrument panels.  This equipment may or may not have arrived at the time you build the cabinets so, again, you need to be able to read plans.
  4. Hoses wires tend to run behind or through the cabinets, so you need to leave enough access panels so that they can be worked on.
  5. Weight is a consideration on the lower horsepower vehicles.  This usually means that you need to find a way to make hollow-core doors and panels look expensive.
  6. Most motor coaches and yachts are obscenely expensive, so the customers are picky.  They have been known to send a $500,000 RV back because of one ugly knot hole on a cabinet door.
Most cabinetmakers who specialize in this sort of work come up at one of the big RV or boat factories.  Those who master the specialty might move into refit and repair work at a boatyard or RV dealership or set up on their own.

The most common configuration for an independent contractor is one guy with a portable shop in his van who hangs around a marina modifying the cabinetry and refinishing woodwork on yachts.  This can be a steady line of work, as long as you know how to keep boat owners happy and play the word-of-mouth marketing game.  Oddly, there seems to be no equivalent for land vehicles.  People don't keep RVs as long as yachts and when they need to modify them, they are more likely to bring them to a big dealership. 

Counter Tops

In the old days counter tops were a relatively simple area.  Most cabinet shops either built their own plastic laminate counters, or left a plywood top on the cabinets that a tile contractor could later cover with tile.   Now that solid surface plastic, stone, and bamboo counter tops have become more popular counter tops has become a specialty all its own and it is not uncommon to find shops that do nothing but build and install counters for other cabinet shops and contractors.

If I was going to start a cabinet business tomorrow I would probably specialize in counters.  The reason is that the capital requirements are much less.  Unlike a general cabinet shop, which needs several large stationary tools to be competitive, a counter top shop can run just fine with nothing but portable power tools.  Even the delivery vehicle can be cheaper.  You usually need at least a full size van to transport a cabinet package with the tools to install it but a set of counters fits in the back of a Ford Ranger (as long as you make a trestle for the truck bed).   


You can't really talk about cabinetmaking without mentioning furniture.  I should say right away though, that it is almost impossible for a cabinetmaker to break even on furniture.  To make a living selling art furniture you usually need an MFA, an agent, and either grant support or a trust fund.  To make a living selling mass produced furniture you usually need a factory in a poor Asian country and someone who is knowledgeable about tariffs and freight forwarding.  

Most of the people I know who "make furniture" for a living actually support themselves either by selling custom residential cabinets, teaching woodworking classes, or both.  They build the furniture because they are artists and they need to do something creative to stay sane. 

Why are the economics of custom furniture so bad?  Hypothetically, lets say that I still had my cabinet shop.  Lets say a customer came up to me with a picture of a mission style sideboard from the Crate and Barrel catalog and asked me to build them a "better" version.  No problem.  I would sit down for a few hours to sketch, then get them to approve a design (hopefully on the first pass).  Then I would sit down for a few more hours to draw and dimension everything.  You can't fool around on dimensions when you are using expensive wood.  Then I would spend about a week ordering materials, and building and finishing the piece.  Say about 50 hours total, counting design time.

The problem is, the original piece the customer saw in the Crate and Barrel catalog sells for $600, and, cognitively, they already anchored on this price.  I might be able to talk them up to $700, if I'm lucky.  Never mind that every part of the piece is higher quality than the C&B piece.  The wood probably cost me at least $150, and I also had to cover overhead and shop supplies (fasteners, glue, disposable finishing supplies, etc.) which probably cost at least another $30.  This means that my gross profit (before self employment tax and federal and state income tax) is $520, or $10.40 per hour.  This is less than half what I usually make on regular handyman work.

The above example was for a mission style piece.  The numbers get worse fast for, say, federalist or Georgian piece, with veneer work, hand carving and possibly lathe work.  It's easy to spend weeks building a federalist high-boy, only to find that you just averaged less than a dollar an hour on it.

This is why when most small cabinet makers build furniture they tend to keep it for themselves, or save it for a show; they don't make enough from selling it to bother.   

If I was going to try to make money from furniture I would focus on the design part, drawing a whole room or collection at a time.  Then I would find a factory, probably in Thailand or the Philippines, to build me a container's worth at a time.  But then I would still have to find a retail channel to sell it for me.  There are simpler ways to make money.

The Two Major Cabinet Systems

There are really only two ways to make cabinets.  Either they have a frame on the front, or they don't.  This seemingly minor difference has inspired over four decades of heated debate between cabinetmakers of which system is "better".  I personally prefer face frame cabinets, but I have built plenty of both and have to acknowledge that they each have their good points.

Face Frame (American)

Since the Renaissance this has been the dominant type of construction for furniture casework.  In the mid 20th century, when build in cabinets became widely popular, craftsmen in the new world mostly built them using this system.  The majority of existing 20th century cabinets in North America are face frame style.

Face frame construction consists of a carcass made of panel stock (usually plywood) to which a 3/4" frame is nailed or biscuited in the front.   The frame is always laid out and built first and dictates the geometry of the carcass.  The frame also adds a fair amount of structural strength; face frame cabinets are almost always more rugged than a frameless cabinet of the same size.

Door and drawer fronts for face frame are usually partially inset by cutting a 3/8" rabbet along the back edge, which results in a very nice light-tight joint but may also be fully inset (in the same plane as the face frame) or full overlay (completely outside the face frame.  It's nice to have options.

Creating high quality face frames requires accurate milling and cutting operations.  Wood straight from the lumber yard is almost never square or straight enough.  Some sort of joinery technology is required to hold the frame together.  Pocket screws  are currently the most popular, but dowels were widely used in the past.  Finally, careful sanding or hand planing is required to flush up the front of the frame where the sticking comes together.  All of the above requires time and money.  For this reason even cabinet shops that swear by face frame cabinets for kitchens and bathrooms often build frameless utility cabinets for closets or garages, where they won't be seen by company.

Typical Face Frame Cabinets

Frameless (European)

Frameless cabinet technology emerged from the ashes of World War II.  Europe was rebuilding their bombed out cities but faced a shortage of both machine tools and hardwood lumber.  They developed a cabinet system which requires no stationary power tools except a table saw and a drill press, and can be built completely of particle board or other man made lumber.  In true European fashion they standardized the dimensions for cabinets so that most critical measurements are multiples 32mm.  For this reason frameless cabinets are also referred to as "32 mm cabinets".  All of these were noble goals, and the basic design was sound.  Unfortunately, because the system does lend itself to cheap materials and low tech production, most of the truly crappy cabinetry in the world is now frameless.

This doesn't mean that frameless cabinets can't be made with high quality plywood and careful joinery.  In fact, many reputable custom cabinetmakers use frameless technology exclusively.

Frameless cabinets first made it to the US in the 1970's, but didn't make serious inroads here until the coming of IKEA in the 1980's.  At present face frame and frameless cabinets are more or less tied in popularity here.    

Frameless cabinets nearly always use full overlay doors and drawer fronts that cover the edges of the carcass when they are closed.  Since the edges of the panels are not covered by a face frame they need to be banded by gluing on strips of melamine or veneer. 

Frameless Cabinets

Types of Cabinets

The majority of cabinets fall into a couple of standard shape profiles with more or less standard dimensions. 


An upper is any cabinet that hangs off the wall and doesn't touch the floor.  The primary place uppers are encountered is in the kitchen.  A "standard" upper for a room with flat 8' ceilings is 48" tall and dies into the ceiling, which makes its bottom edge about 51"  above the finish floor.  In rooms with higher or sloping ceilings you will need to decide whether to build extra tall uppers or to leave a space between the tops of the cabinets and the ceilings.  The shelves in uppers are usually 11 1/8" deep, which leads to an overall depth from face frame to wall of about 12" (after adding the back panel and face frame). 

The upper over the kitchen range normally has a ventilation hood built in.  Always try to get a tear sheet with dimensions and mounting instructions for the hood before you lay out the cabinet.  In a pinch, though, a 30" wide opening works for most.  The cabinet directly over the range hood is usually only 21" tall overall, whereas the one over a standard refrigerator is usually 24" tall.

Uppers are often referred to as wall cabinets.


Lowers sit on the floor and are designed to hold a counter at a convenient working height.  Lowers come in different heights for kitchens and bathrooms.  Normally the top of kitchen cabinets is  is 34 1/2" from the floor and the overall depth of the cabinets is 24".  Bathroom lowers are only 28 1/2" high because children need to be able to brush their teeth over the sink.  They are often not as deep as kitchen cabinets because bathrooms are smaller than kitchens and floor space is at a premium.

Lowers are sometimes referred to as base cabinets.

Full Height

Full height cabinets sit on the floor and are the same height as the tops of the uppers.  Their depth is chosen to put the faces flush with either the uppers or the lowers.  Full height cabinets are sometimes called floor-to-ceiling cabinets.


Inserts are cabinets which are meant to slide into a hole framed into the wall.  Because framers work to much looser tolerances than cabinetmakers, the cabinets don't always fit.   Also, a finish carpenter can usually hang shelves in the hole and trim it out in less time and materials than a cabinetmaker can build a cabinet.  As you might be able to tell, I don't really like inserts.  The only time the sort of make sense is in some sort of assembly line situation where the cabinet shop can have the insert built as the house comes by, and the installer only needs to slide it in.  However, the last time I was in this situation, at Golden West, I had to rebuild about half my inserts because people tried to pound them into holes that were too small.  I don't think I've built one since I left.

Specialty (i.e. Equipment) Cabinets 

Gone are the days when cabinetmakers built lovely hardwood cabinets to hold phonographs and early radios or televisions.  Even today, however, most electronic equipment is safer and looks better when it is installed in a handsome cabinet.  Usually these take the form of custom entertainment centers, which are a good line of work for many cabinet shops.  The server cabinet that we made a few weeks ago is another good example.  I had a friend of a friend who made a good income by building cabinets to hold metal detector equipment in the lobbies of government buildings.

The shape and size of every equipment cabinet will be dictated by the shape and size of the equipment.  You also need to consider air flow, ease of connecting cables, and adequate structural support for heavy equipment.

One of the best parts about this work is that the equipment usually becomes obsolete in a few years which gives you the chance to sell the customer another cabinet. 

No comments:

Post a Comment