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Cabinet Finishes

Choosing The Perfect Finish For Your Cabinets (Cabinet Finishes)

Choosing new kitchen cabinets in an important step in creating the perfect kitchen. There are many choices to make in considering cabinets, including deciding on a finish. There are pros and cons for each type of finish, so choose the one that works best for the kitchen style and personal taste of the homeowner.

Painted Finish

Painted finishes provide a wide variety of color options for striking accents in a kitchen. Painting is generally done on maple cabinets since the wood is smooth and uniform for a clean-looking paint coat. Some homeowners choose painted cabinets in bright or distinct colors as accent cabinets, then use wood for the rest of the cabinetry. Others choose a solid or distressed color to use throughout the kitchen. Paint is great for a light, clean look or for matching colors with the decor in the rest of the home. Some of the wood's natural grain shows through slightly with a painted cabinet. On the negative side, paint finishes are more likely to chip, show dents, and get nicks than natural finishes. The paint finish may rub off in high use areas, such as at the bottom of a door or near a handle. See if touch up kits are available when purchasing painted cabinets so the right color paint is available to cover any chips and scratches when they occur. Painted cabinets also show weather variations more than other finishes, since wood expands and contracts with the weather. This may cause cracks in the painted finish and make the joints more visible.

Stained Cabinets

Staining brings out the natural grain of the wood, with the color being secondary to the wood patterns. Stains are generally hand-rubbed, for a crafted, individualized look. Some of the characteristics of stained finishes can be positive or negative, depending on the personal taste of the homeowner. For example, stained cabinets have an irregular look to them. Some areas on the wood soak up more stain, while others soak in less. For example, a knot, a mineral streak or an end grain on a veneer will soak up more stain and look darker than the other parts of the cabinet. This creates a highlighting effect throughout the cabinetry. Although the variations seem distinct when looking at individual pieces, when the cabinets are installed the whole effect is complementary and has extra depth and dimension not available in a painted cabinet. Some homeowners like have the natural beauty, luster and unique characteristics of the wood grain showing through a finish, while others find those variations unattractive. Additionally, stains have fewer color options than painted cabinets. Looking at several different stain colors and finishing techniques will help when making a decision about cabinet finishes.

Varnished Finishes

Most wood cabinets, whether stained, painted or finished with a custom technique, have a varnish coat added as the topcoat. There are also tinted varnishes that some manufacturers apply to maple or red oak for a look that is similar to painted cabinets, but shows more wood grain. Tinted varnish finishes have many of the same drawbacks that painted finishes have, such as being more susceptible to chips, dings and wear.

Varnish topcoats provide durability, heat resistance and corrosion resistance. Traditional varnish is made from a combination of oil and resin. As it dries, it undergoes a chemical reaction that creates a hard, dissolving-resistant surface on cabinets. Many manufacturers today us a "catalyzed varnish," which means a catalyst is added to the varnish that speeds the chemical reaction time. These fast-acting varnishes are generally more durable, harder, or more corrosion-resistant. In additional to traditional varnishes, there are polyurethane varnishes, which have many positive qualities. Polyurethane varnishes tend to go on thicker and create a glossier top coat. They also resist age-related yellowing that is characteristic of natural varnishes made with oil. Most manufactures of modern kitchen cabinets use a polyurethane catalyzed varnish as a topcoat.


A glaze finish adds visual depth and interest to stained or painted cabinetry. Glazes are pigmented, meaning they have color, but glazes are transparent or semi-transparent, so the color is light rather than opaque. Glazes are applied over a finished base coat of paint or stain. They are put on by hand or with a brush, then rubbed off by hand. The glaze remains in corners, recesses and imperfections on the wood, highlighting the base color and bringing out details on the surface. Glazing is a premium finish requiring extensive handwork, so it may increase the cost of cabinets. It creates a unique surface with interesting color variations and depth of interest. Manufacturers apply a varnish topcoat after the glaze for durability and longer wear.

Water Based UV

Some environmentally-conscious manufacturers now offer a water-based, ultra-violet (UV) finish on kitchen cabinets. Unlike any other finishes, this finish contains virtually no volatile organic compounds, and emits no toxic fumes or chemicals into the air. This is true during the manufacturing process and after the cabinets are installed in a home. A UV finish meets or exceeds all LEED and air quality standards, and is more energy efficient to apply than traditional finishes. Like polyurethane, water-based UV resists yellowing with age. It is also an easy finish to clean, and resists scratching and flames. Water based UV coatings dry quickly, in about four to seven minutes. After drying, the pieces are cured with UV light. Once cured, the pieces are highly scratch resistant and low in odors. The look is virtually the same as the look of varnished, stained or painted cabinets. For homeowners who want to minimize their environmental impact, water-based UV finishes are the right choice.

Choosing new kitchen cabinets is an exciting decision, but one with many components. Examine all the finish options by considering all the different finishes available and looking at a wide variety of samples before deciding on the one that perfectly complements the style and design in your new kitchen.

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