Finish In The Shop Vs. Finish On Site - What's Better For Cabinets?

January 19, 2021

When you're a cabinetmaker you have 2 choices when it comes to finishing: Finish the cabinets in the shop or finish on the job site.

Go up to any cabinetmaker and I'm sure you'll get strong opinions on the matter. It's a hot topic, for sure.

But is one better than the other? Is quality compromised when cabinets are finished on site? And what exactly are the advantages of each? Let's discuss.

Finishing in the shop

Finishing in the shop is the most common for cabinetmakers. And for good reason, too.

Advantages of finishing in the shop:

1. You have more control. 

This is a big one. When you finish in an enclosed booth or spray room, it's easier to get a better finish. It's dust-free and climate controlled, giving you more control.

Plus, the quality of the finisher can make or break your reputation. But that's the name of the game - if you have control over the process, you can make sure it's done right.

2. No pointing fingers.

Piggy-backing off of more control, when you finish in the shop, it saves the finisher and cabinetmaker from pointing fingers. There won't be any back and forth about glue on the cabinets, improper sanding, messed up finishes, etc.

3. Less disruptive.

Finishing in the shop works best for remodels since it's cleaner for the homeowner. The finisher doesn't have to come in and set up shop on the patio or do anything that would be disruptive to your customer.

3. Proper ventilation. 

When you finish on site, you need to be mindful of the hazardous waste, VOCs, and fumes your finish emits. And depending on the finish you use, that smell can last in the house for days or even weeks before it airs out.

In the shop, this is less of a problem because you are working in an environment that (hopefully) has proper ventilation.

For example, we use a two-part conversion varnish when we finish our doors. The conversion varnish is a lacquer that consists of a solid two part post-catalyzed application process (Whoa. Try saying that 5 times fast). It's a high-end finish that is more durable and easy to clean than a standard water-based finish. It's something a water-based finish (what is typically used on job sites) just can't compete with in terms of quality and durability. And the truth is, you just can not spray this on site, it's way too strong and can only be used in a shop with proper ventilation.

The disadvantages of finishing in the shop:

1. Transporting the finished cabinets.

When you finish in the shop, you have to move the cabinets from your shop to the job. And sometimes during the shipping/handling process, things go wrong and get damaged. And we all know touching up and color matching on site isn't exactly ideal.

2. Screw and nail through the finish.

This isn't a huge deal if you know what you're doing. But sometimes when you screw and nail through finish cabinets, it can cause chips and dings, which is another thing you have to fix on site.

Finishing on site

Less popular and maybe a little misunderstood, finishing on the job site gets a lot of heat from several cabinetmakers. But we think it makes sense for a lot of different situations - and can actually produce a really great finish.

Advantages of finishing on site:

1. Helps out smaller shops.

This is an obvious one. Sometimes shops aren't big enough for a dedicated spray booth, so finishing on-site is either the only option or what works best for the situation.

2. Hire someone else to do it.

Finishing... isn't for everyone. A lot of cabinetmakers hate finishing and we don't blame them. Hiring someone that specializes in finishing can not only offer a wider variety of finishes, but also means you get to do what you do best: build cabinets.

We just suggest you hire full-time professional finishers that know what they're doing. You get what you pay for and at the end of the day if you're outsourcing work, it's still your name and reputation attached to that project.

3. More leeway.

Finishing on-site gives you more leeway for caulking transitions, filling nail holes, plugging screws, and sanding joints that need more touchup work. You'll also have zero visible seams between boxes or between boxes and mouldings.

4. Everything is uniform.

Raw moldings and other things can be fitted and sanded correctly and the finish will be uniform since everything is in place. In the shop, a door or cabinet finished at 8am might not get the exact same treatment as other cabinets or moldings finished at 4pm. If they're installed side by side, these differences become more obvious.

Disadvantages of finishing on site:

1. Not great for remodels.

Like we said above, finishing on the job site can be disruptive and messy for homeowners and that's why we don't suggest doing it for remodels. It's better suited for new construction.

2. Overspray.

When spraying cabinets with a quick-curing waterborne finish, there is an overspray that will settle on surfaces that have already began to cure, leaving a rough sandpaper-like finish. This doesn't happen in a paint booth environment since the overspray is sucked out before it can settle.

3. Less control.

A job site is not a controlled environment. There are dust issues, other trades on site, and as we mentioned above, overspray issues. This opens up doors for damage, carelessness, and worst of all, an unhappy customer.

And on top of that if you hire a finisher/painter to do the job, that's even less control over the final product.

Do what works best for you

So which one's better? It's hard to say.

You get a lot more control when you spray in the shop and more control means a better chance at getting a good finish. And the truth is, spraying on site isn't always the best option. It takes time to set up and break down an on-site spray job. But always do what works best for your situation. And at the end of the day, whether you're on the job or in the shop, a good finisher can make it work no matter where.

P.S. we're here to help

If you ever want a break from spraying, we're here to help. We have the equipment and materials to make finishing a breeze (see us in action here). And a dedicated finishing department that cares about your doors just as much as you.

Paint? Stains? Pre-primed doors? You name it. Check out our finishing page to see what we can do.

The doors are ready when you are.

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