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Cabinet Finish

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Cabinet Finish

On wood cabinets the finish is just as important as how well the cabinets are constructed. The finish not only provides aesthetic appeal but is a key component in the protection of the underlying wood surface. It needs that protection from the moisture and chemicals that are typical in a kitchen.

(Keep in mind we’re talking about wood cabinets. Cabinets covered in laminate or melamine aren’t coated with these types of finishes and surface treatments.)

The amount of material to explain the science behind the varnishes, lacquers and other cabinet surface treatments could fill a book but it’s not necessary for a basic understanding of how a cabinet is put together. What we’ll focus on here are some of the common finishes that you’re apt to encounter in your cabinet research and their important features.

These are the most common finish treatments that you’ll find on kitchen cabinets:

Paint – The benefit of paint is that you have a limitless color palette available to you. MDF is a better option when painting (see section MDF vs Solid)


Water based is a generic term that applies to finishing that use water as a primary thinning agent. When you call a finish “water-base” it means that solvent-base was not used. Typically water base finishes have higher solid content which helps the finish bind faster, requiring fewer coats. Water base finishes are resistant to scratches and produces a hard, long lasting finish.

Water based finishes are non-flammable and contain fewer environmentally hazardous materials, resulting in a product that is safer to apply, and more appealing to the consumer.

Wipe or Spray Stains

Both methods are great depending on the look you want to achieve. Wipe the stain if you want to accentuate the grain, spray the stain if you want the stain to colour evenly.


The primary purpose of a sealer is to prepare the surface of the wood for future coats of finish. The sealer can promote adhesion, minimize grain raising and prevent the migration of underlying substances. There are also used as barrier coats to seal-in surface impurities and prevent them from leaking out of the wood through the finish. They can help two materials bond that wouldn’t normally to each other.

Technology Profile Courtesy FP Innovations

Varnish – Varnish is a combination of oil and resin that’s used to provide a protective layer over the wood and any other surface treatment like stain.

One of the finishing terms you’ll probably encounter more often than not is “catalyzed varnish”. It sounds high tech and in some respects it is. In more simple terms it defines a type of finish that uses a “catalyst” to cause or speed up a particular reaction between the chemicals in the finish, usually to achieve some specific result. Catalyzed varnish incorporates compounds that make it harder and more durable than it would be without them.

Lacquer – Lacquer is another top-coat protective sealer used on cabinets and furniture. It’s made by dissolving a resin in a solvent. It too can be “catalyzed” and you’ll see references to “catalyzed lacquer” in various cabinet.

Glaze – Glaze is a pigmented but transparent or semi-transparent coating that’s applied over a base coating such as paint or stain. Glaze is used to enhance the look of cabinets by highlighting the underlying base color and bringing out surface detail. When glaze is applied and then hand wiped some of the glaze remains in the corners and recesses of doors, providing additional visual highlights.

The Finishing Process

The cabinet finishing process is dependent on the type of finishes used and the individual cabinet maker’s capabilities and formula. Large cabinet manufacturers may have sophisticated facilities and processes to apply the finish whereas smaller cabinet makers may take a simpler approach or even farm out the finishing process to a local firm that specializes in that type of work.
Wood cabinet finishing involves a number of steps that involve preparing the wood, applying the surface treatments and baking the finish.

Larger cabinet makers may have the resources and advanced production capabilities to produce consistent quality finishes. Smaller shops may not have the same capabilities. One of the things on your checklist when researching smaller cabinet shops should be their finishing process. Achieving a quality finish requires controlled conditions free from airborne dirt and dust. Just be sure you understand your cabinet maker’s finishing capabilities and whether they’ll produce a product that will hold up to the rigors of the kitchen environment.

The finish options you choose will have a bearing on the final cost of your cabinets. Finishes that include hand-rubbed treatments or multi-step coating applications take time and ultimately raise the cost of the cabinets. Some examples are glazing and high gloss polyurethanes.