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Kitchen and bath cabinet business

Lots of people remodel their kitchen, laundry room, or bath, and want a large number of custom cabinets as a key part of the design. Sounds like an ideal business, but it is not as good as it seems.

A lot of the cabinet building techniques apply to other cabinets - entertainment centers, libraries, etc. Therefore experience building cabinets is a good thing. If you are a solo woodworker, maybe it is a good idea to build your own kitchen cabinets, for training and experience, even if you don't do it as a primary business (I have personally installed 4 kitchens and built all the cabinets for two of them). And I occasionally take other cabinet jobs, such as a storage room or laundry, where the volume is smaller, the timing is less critical, and custom fit or features may add value.

Cabinet design software

AutoCAD from AutoDesk

This is a CAD program - Computer Aided Drafting - so probably shouldn't be called Cabinet Design Software, but it is probably the ultimate engineering drawing package to "draw anything." It is quite expensive, and takes a while to learn, but an expert using it can do a "perfect" drawing faster than I can make a rough sketch. There are "CAM" (computer aided machining) tools to translate from a an AutoCAD drawing to drive CNC machines. There are imitations, such as TurboCAD, that make some people happy for a lot less money.

Microvellum CabinetMaker

Microvellum cabinet deigning software is built on top of AutoCAD - it provides the cabinet design tools and rendering (3D pictures) to sell the cabinets/kitchens. I have seen forum discussions that suggest the entire cost of the system was paid for in the first couple jobs, and another discussions where someone went to two week-long training classes and after 6 months trying gave up using it - cut their losses.

eCabinet from Thermwood

eCabinet is very sophisticated software. The price is right - it is free to anyone who can convince them that they are a legitimate business. How can that be? The software specifically supports the Thermwood CNC machines. Yes you can get pretty 3D design graphics to show your customer, and cost estimates and cut lists, and build the cabinets yourself. When you expand to a CNC machine, the software only supports the Thermwood brand. It is a good machine, and with the Thermwood software you have special features because of the integration of shop software and design software - for example, as you load a sheet of plywood to be cut, and see a flaw, you can tell the router to avoid that area and the layout will be recomputed to avoid the flaw without stopping, setting the flawed sheet aside, and going back to the office.

One of the neat ideas advocated by Thermwood is that people can make a business of using a Thermwood CNC, either to sell the excess capacity not required by their own cabinet business, or as a dedicated "router-only" business. Other shops (like yours), use the free software, and sell the kitchen. You then send the computer file to the shop with the Thermwood router, such as Halls Edge, and for a price generally based on the number of sheets of plywood cut, they will cut the parts for your cabinets (as specified in the file you created), label the pieces, and ship the bundle to you in a couple days. Some also do the edge banding (another job that benefits from expensive machines). You assemble, install doors and drawers, finish, and install the cabinets - without having to invest $70,000 in a CNC router.

Another Thermwood feature is furniture and carving. You can "rent" a design (pay a small royalty for each use), design your own, or can sell your designs to other users.

How expensive is "free?" I have the software, and have spent a huge amount of time learning it. It is so sophisticated (complex) that after days or weeks, I have to relearn it. People who do several kitchens per month still complain about having to relearn it each time. Thermwood offers training courses of 3-5 days, and still don't cover all the features (one person reported that after a week-long class, he still hadn't learned to prepare an estimate). When I originally got it, it required a really high end laptop ($2,200) to be able to run on a laptop at all. (Computers have come a long way, so that is less of a problem now, but it still does take a lot of computer resources). Bottom line, lots of computer space/power for the software, and lots of time to learn the system.

Cabinet Solutions

Cabinet Solutions reportedly offers a free two week download to try a full-feature version of the program. I have not tried it, but on the internet, comments suggest that the ease of use is great (a couple hours to learn), but the 3D graphics are a little primitive. Software is leased.


Think Kitchen Cabinet Design... I don't know what the w is for. KCDw supports kitchens and closets, but also handles lots of other types of cabinets. I haven't tried this one either, but I hear that the free trial costs about $50, then you can buy or rent the software. People who have used both Cabinet Solutions and KCDw reportedly prefer KCDw. The graphics are better.

Cabinet Vision

Planit manufacturing offers Cabinet Vision software. No experience with this one either, but I often see them at trade shows, etc.

Ballpark Estimates

My business model starts with either generating a ballpark estimate for the client, or learn their budget. If they want to proceed beyond the ballpark, they must pay for the detailed design - at least $200, or roughly 10% of the ballpark price. The primary advantage to me is to eliminate those who were just kicking the tires - just wondering, but not a serious buyer. As I prepare the proposal, if the price will be more than 20% above the ballpark, or will exceed their budget, I stop and refund the design fee (protecting the customer). So how do you make a ballpark estimate for kitchen-type cabinets?

Linear feet is a common approach. For example $200-300 per linear feet for a basic base cabinet. Same per linear foot for a basic upper cabinet. Tall cabinets are the cost of upper plus lower ($400-600/foot) or upper plus middle plus lower ($600-900/foot). Corner cabinets count double (measure into the corner along both walls. Raised panel ends are $15 per square foot. Fancy hardware and finishes are extra. Drawer banks are extra. Some use a lower per-foot figure, but count the appliances in the total feet. Others use a "wall length" approach - start at double the per-foot cost above, and count the length of all walls with any cabinets.

Another approach is to count cabinets. You have to define a "standard box." For one person on the internet, this is a frame-less 3/4 inch birch ply cabinet with 1/2 inch Baltic birch dovetail drawers, good slides, and furniture grade ply on end-panels. 5% less for shaker doors. 10% more for Cherry. 15% for a glaze finish. Handles, lazy susans, tip-outs, ropes, legs, arches are extra. His price before "extras" is $425 for a base, $325 for an upper, and $1000 for a tall cabinet, delivered but not installed. A variant is to charge less per cabinet, but add for each door, drawer, end panel, etc. (think spreadsheet).

In either the per foot or per cabinet approach, keep records of your final price (or what you know you "should have charged" and use it to update your estimating numbers. When I have designed (by my usual furniture quoting techniques) and built cabinets, I find that my simple cabinets cost about $200 per linear foot, and nicer cabinets (raised panels, etc.) cost $250 or more per foot.