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Finishes for Wood Kitchen Cabinets

Nothing beats wood for beautiful kitchen cabinet exteriors. Wood’s natural appeal and adaptability to a wide variety of finishes and styles makes it the preferred choice of the vast majority of homeowners.

Some woods —cherry, for example—look stunning with a rich, deep stain, while others, such as maple, can be stained or painted for great results. Whether the wood is painted, stained or simply left “natural,” its appearance can be further enhanced through glazing, speckling, or distressing. These techniques are useful for highlighting a kitchen cabinet's door design, or for creating a rustic or antique style.

The Finish affects the Price

In general, the more complex the process and the higher the quality, the more expensive is the finished cabinet. For example, high-end factory manufactured cabinets use an intensive multi-step sanding process to produce a furniture-quality kitchen cabinet. Other steps might include adding toner to the stain for more uniform shading, wiping down excess paint or stain after it is applied, adding a clear top coat, and baking the finish at low temperature to seal all the coats. The environment in which the cabinet is finished should also be considered; factory made wood cabinets are finished in sealed, specially designed booths that eliminate contaminants, while cabinets finished on-site must contend with dust, splatters, and other hazards.

Cabinet Finish: the top coat

Custom cabinet shops often apply a final coat of lacquer or urethane. Many factory made wood cabinets have a baked-on finish, called a “catalytic conversion varnish.” This type of finish holds up well in kitchen use, resisting damage from acids in orange juice, for example, and cooking oils, which can stick to cabinet doors. Factory finishes are so good that many major cabinet manufacturers offer lifetime limited warranties.

Natural Finished Cabinets

A “natural” finish means that no toners, stains, or paints have been applied to the wood cabinet exterior. A simple top coat is applied to protect the wood’s natural beauty. When choosing natural wood cabinets, remember that any unusual patterns in the grain, natural mineral streaks in the wood and other inconsistencies will show. If you like the look of natural wood but want a more uniformity in appearance, consider selecting a light stain.

Stained Cabinets

Stains range from light to dark and from opaque to almost transparent. The staining process involves applying the stain uniformly to the wood surface and wiping off the excess so that the desired color saturation is achieved. When choosing kitchen cabinets, remember that different woods stain differently—the overall color and shade is a result of a combination of the stain and properties of the wood. For example, although medium-to-dark stains tend to look blotchy on maple, they get deeper and more glowing on cherry, with a more consistent coloration.

Painted Cabinets

The most common colors for painted kitchen cabinets are white and off-white (many kitchen cabinet manufacturers make a white cabinet to match white kitchen appliances.) The majority of wood painted cabinets are made with birch or maple. Oak is used occasionally to create a textured appearance. Because wood expands and contracts naturally with changes in temperature and humidity, hairline cracks will appear, but this does not require cabinet door replacement. For birch and maple cabinets, some manufacturers use medium density fiberboard (MDF) for the center panels of frame and panel cabinet doors. MDF is not affected by humidity changes and helps reduce hairline cracks by reducing surface stress.

Special Cabinet Finishes and Techniques for Cabinets

Creative effects in cabinet finishes have grown in variety and popularity. These techniques may cost a little more because of the additional labor involved. Creative techniques can be combined with natural, painted, or stain finishes for different styles and accents.

Glaze Finished

“Glazes” are a very popular choice for specialty cabinet finishes. Glazes are useful for adding accent colors to the primary finish, and highlighting details such as routing, grooves, and edges. Glaze finish cabinets are available in both “wet” and “dry." The wet glaze is applied when the primary finish is still wet, while a dry glaze is applied after it is dried. Wet glaze mixes with the stain to alter its color, while dry glaze is a separate layer from the stain. Application technique is also important; a glaze can have a brushed appearance, a pencil thin line of glaze, a heavy, diffused brushed finish, or a wiped finish that shows the rag marks.

Crackled Finishes

For a crackled effect, a chemical is applied to the paint before it dries, giving the paint an aged, worn appearance.

Speckled Finishes

For a speckled effect, different colored paint is splattered on the surface of the door in a random, speckled pattern.

Distressed Cabinets

Distressing consists of adding imperfections to cabinet doors, in addition to or combining with other finishes, to give wood cabinets an aged, distressed, rustic appearance. Common distressing techniques include adding wormholes, rasping, dings and dents, and sanding through the layers of finish and wood unevenly.


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New Cabinets: Buying Kitchen Cabinets | Factory vs Custom Shops | Types of Kitchen Cabinets | Kitchen Cabinet Quality |
Remodel Your Cabinets: Adding a Kitchen Island | Kitchen Cabinet Organizers and Inserts | Adding to Existing Kitchen Cabinets |
Refacing Kitchen Cabinets | Painting Kitchen Cabinets | Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets |
Kitchen Cabinet Design: Cabinet Design Styles | Finishes for Wood Cabinets | Kitchen Cabinet Door Styles | Faceframe vs Frameless Kitchen Cabinets |
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