Should Your Shop Install Your Work?

by WOHe

What kind of work does your shop do? Are you building work
that’s very difficult to install? Could the “average Joe” general
contractor deal with putting in your work? Could he or she make it
look as good as it did when it was on your shop floor?

The answers to these questions may well determine whether or not
your company gets involved in installing the work you build.

If, for example, you’re doing tract home work, and all of your
kitchen or bathroom cabinets are very similar, maybe you don’t need
to think about having too much involvement in the job site end of
Or, perhaps you can put out a good, detailed set of installation
instructions that accompany your product and hope that whoever has
the thankless task of actually assembling, hanging and adjusting
your work may actually read those directions.

Or, maybe your shop is involved in commercial work, and there’s
a good, experienced contractor on site who has a team of
experienced finish carpenters people who can manage the field work
for you.
Remember, though, whatever the case, it’s the installers who end up
making your work look either crisp or sloppy!

A different breed
Installation work is really a different business, and very
dissimilar to shop work. It involves a special type of employee,
one with a different mindset. More importantly, the working
environment is completely unlike that of your shop.

You’ve probably seen it yourself: You walk onto a job, and
there’s a spaghetti junction of extension cords to greet you. The
oversized plumber is lying in your sink cabinet, his Channel-locks
grinding away at the back of your carcass. The electrician is
standing on the plastic laminate countertop, adjusting the recessed
lights, while the superintendent is asking you why things are
taking so long to get finished.
In other words, it’s total chaos, compared to your organized,
orderly shop.

The type of employee who can function well in this installation
environment is often very different than a shop worker. We’ve
found, at least at our shop, that the kind of person who excels at
installation is often someone who’s more adaptable than the typical
shop worker. A good installer can roll with the punches; he can
deal with a wall that’s an inch out of plumb, or something similar
that was missed when the job was measured. The even-tempered
installer can also work alongside a painter who insists on putting
up a step ladder two feet away from where the installer is trying
to scribe a walnut end-panel that’s eight feet high.

Throughout the years we’ve been in the cabinet business, we’ve
found that it’s rare that the two personality types shop worker and
field installer are the same. As a result, you may be asking for
trouble by making your shop people work in the field. They may be
very uncomfortable without the security blanket of the shop around
them their bench, the tool cabinet, certain other employees, and so

By the same token, your field people may not be able to work in
the shop all that well. They may want to work faster, more
sloppily, and just get the work finished up and looking good on the

A field staff
We’ve found that a crackerjack installer is a rare bird and this is
the main obstacle to creating a field crew of installers.

Not only is it hard to find good people, it takes a long time to
train people in the field. There are, after all, so many variables
on the job site. Because of this, solid experience really only
comes after a good five years of doing installation on a daily

All of these factors may motivate you to keep your installers in
the field, busy all the time, instead of having them come in and
out of the shop, bouncing between field and bench. I don’t
recommend the latter scenario. Quite apart from the difference in
skills and approaches to the work that I noted earlier, there’s the
unpaid down-time of mobilizing, tear-down and clean-up.

Then there’s the equipment issue. The installer probably needs
both a truck and a full complement of good tools. Is your shop
prepared to finance that, or would you expect the individual
installer to foot the bill? Either way, it’ll cost you by buying
the tools yourself, or by paying the employee more so he can
purchase the chop saw, compressor, nail gun, etc.

Then there’s the whole “managing” part of installation. How do
you do that without actually being there yourself to watch what’s
going on? While it’s relatively easy to keep an eye on things in
the shop, it’s a totally different thing to stay in touch with the
job site. Here, your installer or your team of field people have to
be on top of things. There has to be a lot of unsupervised
motivation and that’s usually possible only if you have a key
person in charge of your field work.

You’ll need to pay this installer well, probably more than your
shop people. It’s not uncommon to find field people making up to
25% more in wages than their counterparts inside the shop and this,
of course, can cause friction.

Not only do you have to pay more, but somehow you have to make
money out of this work, too! Be sure to price it high if you

Other issues
Many shops find installation difficult to estimate. Again, there
are many variables, some of which you may have no control over:
changing schedules; the job site not being ready; access issues;
other subcontractors in the way and on and on.

Hand-overs giving the job from the shop to the field are also
critical. Many shops insist on the foreman, project manager and
installer sitting down to discuss areas of concern prior to going
out and beginning to install the work.

When you’re actually installing your work, suddenly you’re
responsible for a lot more including how the final product really
turns out. It’s totally your thing now, and the risks are higher.
Do you really want all that?

In the final analysis, though, installing your work can be an
excellent way of really controlling the way your product looks and
the way it functions. It can also be a great exercise in public
relations, especially if your installers take pride in what they
do. You can fix problems on the fly sometimes without your customer
ever knowing those problems existed in the first place.

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