Cabinet making is highly creative and deeply satisfying. The time from inception to completion is also gratifyingly short and the results of one’s work are permanent and visible to all.

I drifted into this trade. In most construction jobs there are cabinets to be installed and there are three main options.

  • They can be made on-site.
  • Made off-site and installed by carpenters already on-site.
  • The whole supply and install can be subcontracted.

In my contracting days in England I had a small shop which could make the cabinets required provided they were not too complex and few in number. I didn’t have the space for a full cabinet shop.

In Alberta I found myself working as a cabinet installer which is an irritating and boring job but pays reasonably well. I thought I could do better. I could but I was more interested in enjoying the process than making money. I focused on the residential market as it was more fun. This got me into the design process. In the commercial end you just bid on making the stuff. Also in the commercial end there was a problem of getting paid, promptly and in full. Main contractors have this aversion to paying in full and paying promptly. 

The drop in oil prices in 1980 caused oil exploration to stop in Alberta that was followed by a slump in new industrial construction that lead a reduction in new houses and thence to a near zero demand for cabinets.

The Edmonton shop had to close as there was just no residential business. The shop was costing $2,000 a month to keep open and there was very little money coming in. I tried switching to commercial work but that was slowing down and most of the jobs had already been tendered. The only active job was the third phase of West Edmonton Mall. That was an interesting experience.

Starvation forced me to move to Ontario. On arriving, I worked briefly for a cabinetmaker in Pickering. If you have a trade, it is usually easy to get a job quickly. This cabinetmaker was an old German craftsman and did very high quality work, unfortunately he had no dust extraction system at all.

Not only do I have hay-fever, but I’m affected by red cedar, red oak, and the formaldehyde-based glue in particle board. It produces an intense drowsiness. The effect is cumulative. It builds over days and is proportional to the time and intensity of the exposure. Two days away from the workshop and I’m bright eyed and bushy tailed again. I had suffered from these mysterious periods of lassitudes for several years. One doctor even suggested it might be psychosomatic. That worried me.

The clinching case was one shop in Edmonton where I was really enjoying the work. Unfortunately their dust extraction system was none existent and often by Friday I was just not interested in working. Some Fridays I called in sick. Natural the job didn’t last. It was a couple of months later that I realized what had been happening. This left me with mixed emotions. It reassured as to my mental stability, but removed the option of working as a cabinet maker.

I can take some precautions, but it’s a medical problem that elicits very little sympathy from employers, co-workers or friends. Most people laugh at the idea of a cabinetmaker who is allergic to wood and treat my problem as a joke.

The hourly rate for a cabinet maker is slightly below that of a carpenter. This makes sense. The work is safer, cleaner, and less strenous. It is also steadier work with no weather interruptions. Mind you the number of cabinet makers, who I’ve met, who have had missing fingers is distressingly high.