Cabinet Basics, Part 4: Today's Cabinetmaking Revolution

Cabinetmaking was for centuries largely a local business. If a house needed cabinets, a custom cabinetmaker brought in a load of lumber and built them on site. The large cabinet factories did not appear until the 1950s and '60s to answer the need for a lot of good quality, inexpensive kitchen and bath cabinets for the masses of Post-War housing then being built.

To facilitate efficient manufacturing, the industry settled on stock cabinet dimensions that could easily be produced using a small number of jigs. Cabinet widths typically started at 9" and increased in 3" increments to a maximum of about 48" (Some companies go to 60"). So the standard cabinet widths were and still are 9", 12", 15", 18", 21", 24", 27", 30", 33", 36" and so on. This worked well in new housing where kitchen walls could be designed around the available stock cabinet widths.

The prediction at the time was that small custom cabinet shops would disappear. They didn't. But their reliance on labor-intensive standard woodworking shop tools (table saw, shaper, mortiser, and so on) meant that for many years they were basically fringe players. They could not compete with the national factories on price, so they survived by providing quality and precise fitting not available from stock manufacturers.

Then the Germans invented the CNC milling machine. The CNC or "Computer Numerical Control" cabinet milling machine is linked to a computer that is programmed to shape precise parts out of wood or wood-product sheets.

A software design program is used to specify each cabinet in a kitchen. The program then converts the design into a set of electronic cutting and shaping instructions that the CNC machine can follow. Material is loaded into the machine and the CNC instructions are sent to the machine's controller. After the dust settles, all of the parts needed to make all of the cabinets are cut, dadoed, rabbited, pre-drilled for screws, and labeled. All that remains is to put them together.

Temperamental prone to break down and very expensive in their early years with only rudimentary software, CNC machines quickly came down in price even as they became more reliable and more sophisticated with more powerful design and control software. Before too long they were small enough and cheap enough to be within reach of the average local and regional cabinetmaker.

It quickly occurred to many cabinetmakers that the machines allowed them to produce more components than they could use, and many began selling surplus capacity to other cabinet shops. Shops became specialists, no longer making cabinets, but making parts of cabinets for other shops that quickly found that they could be even more efficient by farming out a lot of their specialty milling.

Today there are specialists that mill only door and drawer faces. Others make only drawer boxes. Other shops cut and machine the cabinet case parts. The local cabinet shop assembles and finishes the parts, adds the hardware, and a new kitchen is born.

Some of the efficiencies are amazing. Our drawer box supplier, for example, is so efficient that he can mill, assemble and ship dovetail drawers at less than we pay for the raw wood, and make them faster than we can in our own shop, so our turnaround is faster than it has ever been and our prices have actually gone down over the last 7 years, even though the cost of wood is steadily increasing.

The effect is that small local and regional custom cabinetmakers are able to price compete with the national factories. In fact, considering the enormous overhead of the major cabinet manufacturers, and the retail markup of the studios and lumber stores that sell them, local cabinetmakers are often less expensive.

Using distributive manufacturing, local shops can duplicate the cost-lowering efficiency of large-scale manufacturing. The large factory has its door department; the small shop its door supplier. The large factory gets its drawer boxes from the drawer section; the small maker orders from a drawer box specialty supplier. Cabinet parts suppliers, like the national factories, order materials in bulk quantities at a substantial discount and can then charge lower prices.

So the competitive advantages of large-scale manufacturing and purchasing are no longer the exclusive preserve of the national companies. And every year the distributed manufacturing process gets a little more efficient. Relatively inefficient paper parts ordering is still the standard today, but increasingly cabinet parts are being ordered using actual CNC instructions sent electronically over the internet.

One forward-looking CNC manufacturer, Thermwood, even provides free software that permits a network of specialist shops that make the doors, drawers, and cases for a cabinet using its CNC machines to work together under the same set of electronic instructions. Each machine extracts just the particular instructions it needs to do its job.

Local cabinet shops have always enjoyed certain advantages just by being local. Chief among these is their low shipping expense. By necessity, the national manufacturers pay to ship a lot of air across hundreds, even thousands, of miles to their customers. A fully assembled cabinet is really just a block of air in a wooden envelope. It takes a lot of truck space to ship an assembled cabinet, but very little to ship the unassembled cabinet parts. Small shops pay to ship parts, then assemble the parts locally into a cabinet — sometimes right on the job site — at considerable savings.

The net result is that thousands of local and regional cabinet companies are suddenly not just competitive, but more than competitive with the cabinet giants such as Masco and Master Brands.

Local cabinetmakers can now provide their trademark quality, flexibility, and precise fitting at the price of a stock manufactured cabinet. Through distributed manufacturing they can efficiently make any size cabinet, in any style, with any finish, precisely fitting the space into which the cabinets are to be installed.

By contrast, the national companies with their inheritance of static manufacturing sizes have failed to make the transition to computer-aided dynamic sizing. They still concentrate on stock-size cabinets in factory-standard finishes. They compete with each other by offering a few more fancy finishes and additional storage flourishes. So far, they seem not to have noticed the distributed manufacturing revolution that is taking place outside their shop floors.

The only area in which local and regional cabinetmakers are still weak is in marketing and distribution. The national companies with strong, long-established ties to retail outlets such as the big home stores, lumber yards, and kitchen and bath studios have a retail presence that local and regional companies cannot yet match.

But even this is starting to change. Ever so slowly local and regional cabinetmakers are starting to figure out marketing and how to establish relationships with design studios and kitchen and bath boutiques. And design studios are starting to look seriously at local cabinet suppliers as additions to and even replacements for their national lines. The studios benefit by being able to offer exactly the cabinets a customer needs without compromises to accommodate factory stock sizing, finish and trim options. The local cabinet shop (which is usually wholly bereft of design acumen) gets excellent design help from experienced and often certified design professionals and a retail outlet for its products.

How this will all shake out is anyone's guess. As distributed manufacturing grows even more efficient, local and regional companies will continue their move into local kitchen and bath studios and designer boutiques, supplanting high-end national and international manufacturers in the process. Affiliations between local designers and small cabinet shops may become the rule rather than the exception.

But the large national brands are not going to disappear. There are thousands of new apartments and cookie-cutter housing developments to outfit each year, and this is an area where large manufacturers shine. They can manufacture good quality cabinets in large runs and ship them in truckload lots very inexpensively. Nor will they surrender the remodeling market if only because large retailers such as Home Depot and Lowes prefer to deal with a limited number of large manufacturers that can supply their nationwide chains with a uniform product.

But to retain their hold on the mid-range and high-end new housing and remodeling markets, the large manufacturers are going to have to offer a more flexible product. Most likely, in the very near future, one or more of the national companies will abandon stock sizing and begin to offer any-size cabinet components priced at or very near their stock cabinets. The first one to do so successfully will probably dominate the mid-range national market for some time until the other companies catch up.

Rev. 05/08/18