A Guide to Finishes for Kitchen Cabinets

modern kitchen cabinets

With so many factors affecting your choice of kitchen cabinets, thinking about the finish may seem like one more thing you can do without. However, if you choose wood cabinets, the finish is an important factor. The finish has a significant effect on the esthetics of the kitchen, as well as durability of the cabinets over time as the finish is the first line of defense against exposure to moisture, heat, and other chemicals commonly found in the kitchen.

This article will only discuss basic information about surface treatments and finishes for wood cabinets. Melamine and laminate covered cabinets are not included as they have built-in protection and esthetics separate from these types of treatments.


Below are the most common finishes you are likely to find on kitchen cabinets.


painted cabinets


One of the most common and versatile material for finishes is paint. Paint is available in a virtually limitless palette of colors, enabling you to choose the best one for your particular kitchen design and color scheme.


Milk paint

milk painted cabinets
This is technically still paint, but it deserves a separate entry because it is organic based, as opposed to the enamel base used in standard wood paint. It is a combination of lime, milk protein (hence the name), and natural dyes. Milk paint has been in use for centuries, and has a good absorption on wood. It is durable and water-resistant, and has an attractive look evoking the texture of period and vintage fixtures.



stained cabinets
Wood stains are surface coloring agents that change the original color of the wood substrate, but still let the grain of the wood to remain visible. Wood stains are the decorative component of this treatment. A clear sealer on top of the stain provides the protection from the kitchen environment.



varnished cabinetsSome wood species already look good as cabinets without additional treatment. A varnish is a combination of resin and oil, which provides a polished look to the wood, and protection from the elements at the same time. You can also apply a varnish over wood stain or other surface treatment.
You may also have the option to apply a catalyzed varnish, also known as a conversion varnish, which is basically a high-tech version of the standard varnish. This type of surface treatment involves the application of a catalyst such as urethane to make the varnish dry faster and with more durability. Cabinets treated with catalyzed or conversion varnish will last much longer, all things being equal, than cabinets treated with other finishes.


Lacquered cabinetsLacquer is a clear, protective coating applied to cabinets to seal in the surface. It is a resin dissolved in some type of solvent, and some types may contain a catalyzing agent to make it more durable. You may see a reference to “catalyzed lacquer” or “catalyzed topcoat” from some cabinet manufacturers.




glazed cabinetsA glaze is a translucent or transparent colored top-coating that goes over a paint or stain, or another base coat. It highlights the color of the base coat and enhances surface details, making the cabinet come alive. Some manufacturers apply the glaze and wipe it off by hand to create some texture and highlights in the crevices and corners of the cabinet surface.



paint to a cabinetThe appropriate type of finishing process will depend on the capacity of the cabinet manufacturer and the type of preferred finish. Bigger cabinet manufacturers may have the machines, facilities, and work force to carry out sophisticated finishing techniques, while smaller outfits may use simpler process or outsource the finishing to specialty firms.
In general, finishing a wood cabinet involves several steps, from preparing the surface to baking in the finish. Schrock, for example, has a 12-step process:
1. Selecting the best wood panels
2. Sanding it down smooth
3. Applying a toner
4. Applying a stain
5. Hand wiping off the excess
6. Applying the catalyzed sealer
7. Oven curing and drying
8. Hand sanding
9. Removing dust
10. Applying the catalyzed topcoat
11. Oven curing
12. Final inspection

Large manufacturers are more likely to provide a consistent finish to cabinets because they have the resources to do quality work in a relatively short time. They have facilities that are free of dust and dirt, which is essential for a flawless finish. This is not always the case with smaller outfits, at least not with the same capacity. You can still get quality finishes from these smaller companies, but they may take longer or cost a bit more.

In general, finishes that require hand treatments or more steps require higher labor costs, which translate to higher overall cost to the final product. This applies to both large and small manufacturers. Applying a glaze, for example, adds a pleasing dimension to the cabinet surface. However, this step may unnecessarily add to your cost. You may be able to cutting costs by choosing just the essential finishes you need for your kitchen design.


You can also get some great deals on you cabinet finishes by working closely with a reliable and reputable cabinet supplier. Cabinet Land Kitchen and Beyond work only with the top cabinet brands at the best prices compared to our competitors such as Advance Cabinets and Handsome Cabinets. We also offer better free consultation services and quotes, so you know exactly what to expect from your purchase.
We are a local remodeling company with a showroom located in Schaumburg, Illinois. Visit us today to see what we have to offer. We service Chicago land and have the expertise and resources to complete virtually any type of kitchen cabinets – ON TIME and ON BUDGET with top quality craftsmanship that will exceed your expectations.