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Cabinet Finishes 101

There can be a lot of confusion around all of the technical terms used in cabinet finishes. We'll break down each concept so you'll know exactly what's what when it's time to order your new cabinets.


(Photo credit: Studio McGee)


There are two main concepts in wood finishes: penetrating finishes vs topcoat finishes. There is also a distinction between professional and DIY/homeowner-friendly finishes. Let's get into both:


Penetrating Finishes


This refers to any wood finish that is designed to soak into the wood and seal from the inside out. It typically refers to oils like mineral (think food-safe for your butcher block) or Danish (think antique furniture), are very easy to work with, but unfortunately provide very little protection. Stain is sometimes also referred to as penetrating finish, though stain's only job is to change the color of the wood, not to offer any protection. Like a lot of terms we'll learn, some are used synonymously with others, however technically incorrect they may be.


Topcoat Finishes


These finishes are designed to not soak into the wood, rather sit on top and offer protection from the outside. These include common clear finishes like varnish, lacquer, and polyurethane, as well as pigmented finishes like paints, and come in different sheens from matte to high gloss. Clear topcoats are used to seal raw wood for a natural look, or sprayed over top of stain to lock in the color and ad protection.


Professional Grade Finishes


Professional grade finishes are very common in kitchen and bath cabinetry as they are developed specifically to hold up to high wear, scratches, humidity, and common household cleaners. They are designed to be sprayed on with an automated machine or a skilled finisher, dry and cure very quickly to become extremely durable, are very smooth to the touch, and often have a multi-decade warranty. Often referred to as a "factory finish", brands like ML Campbell, Milesi, Centurion, Gemini, Akzo Nobel, Chemcraft, Renner, and Sher-Wood are the leaders in this space.


DIY / Homeowner Finishes


This is what you would expect to find at your local big box retailer. Wipe-on and brush-on finishes that are designed to be applied with very little skill. They have long "open" times (the time it stays wet), dry very slowly, and while they do offer a nice level of protection, are substantially less durable than their professional counterparts. These would include Minwax or Varathane stains and polyurethanes, for example.


(Photo credit:Unknown)


Water-based vs Oil-based


A quick breakdown: wood finishes are made up of the solid (the color or protective component) and the suspension system (whatever is used to emulsify the solids and "suspend" them to atomize for spraying). Once the finish is applied, the suspension systems evaporates off and just the solids are left. The difference between water-based and oil-based refers to that suspension system: are the solids suspended in water, or are they suspended in a solvent like acetone or lacquer thinner (technically, "oil-based" isn't really a thing any more in professional cabinet coatings. Solvent-based is a much more accurate and widely-used descriptor among professionals).


While the industry had sworn by solvent-based finishes for most of the 90s and 2000s, the once-suspect durability of water-based finishes has made significant improvements, and now the two are both very common in most US cabinet shops. Waters typically leave a more opaque, white, and lighter finish, while solvents leave a more warm, amber, and darker hue.



For example, the image on the left is white oak finished with a water-based clear varnish and the image on the right is white oak finished with a solvent-based clear varnish. You can see how different the two hues are, though both white oak, and both with a "clear" finish. Knowing the difference between the two can help prevent often costly and frustrating miscommunications with your cabinet company.


Will my clear finish turn orange?


This depends entirely on what clear topcoat is used to seal and protect your cabinets. As we discussed above, solvent-based finishes are more prone to pushing the wood into that warmer orange / amber tint, and prolonged UV exposure can change the color of the wood, as well. While the nitrocellulose lacquers of the 80s and 90s have just about all left the industry (think of the orange maple basketball courts at your middle school), it's still worth asking your finisher two things: is the topcoat we're using water-white, and does it have strong UV protection? The first refers to not yellowing the wood as much immediately when the finish is applied. The second refers to additional UV blockers in the clear topcoat that will help prevent the wood from changing under sunlight exposure. While some patina is to be expected, the wood tone of your cabinets should be about the same on day 10,000 as it is on day 1. If you tell them strong UV protection is a priority for you, they will have access to a finish rep that can pair them with the best product for the project.


Professionals Don't "Paint"


Given the popularity of painted kitchen cabinets, let's dive into the details of what "paint" actually is. In professional cabinet coatings "paint" is technically pigmented varnish, often pigmented conversion varnish. It's the same very, very durable clear finish used to seal and protect stained or natural projects, just with added pigment to replicate the look of paint. This offers the best of both worlds: the look of paint with the added durability of varnish.

(Photo credit:Amber Lewis, Amber Interiors)


This is very different from the paint you buy at a hardware store and use on your walls, so be sure to get clarification from your finisher or cabinet maker on the exact type of finish they plan on using. One is designed to roll smoothly onto walls and ceilings, the other designed specifically to hold up to high wear, scratches, humidity, and common household cleaners. There is a reason our industry makes a distinction between painters and finishers.


Chemical Resistance Evaluation


This is the biggest differentiator between professional finishes and those found at a hardware store. This industry "standing" test takes common household liquids, allows them to sit on the finish for 24 hours, are wiped away, and then any damage to the finish is noted:

We only want to see 'Very Good' and 'Excellent' resistance to these liquids for kitchen cabinetry finishes. One of the most important questions to ask you cabinetmaker / painter / finisher is to see their preferred topcoat's Chemical Resistance Evaluation. We would in fact brag about ours, proud of not only how durable our finishes were, but how they're also completely maintenance free. Any pushback you receive, or if they're using a finish that doesn't have a CRE, I would really encourage you to continue looking for a new, more qualified finisher.


The most important component of a kitchen cabinet's finish is its long-term durability. We don't just want the finish to be even and smooth to the touch, we want it to look just as good after the 100th stir-fry night or forgotten about pot of spaghetti sauce splashed up. Good, professional grade coatings will have resistance not only to this, but to the cleaners needed to take care of any messes made.



Approve Samples In Writing


Whatever type of cabinetry you plan on using (RTA, in-stock, semi-custom, or full custom) please get a physical sample of the final finish you ordered and compare that to the finish that is delivered.


(Photo credit: ML Campbell)


Manufacturers and importers change their offerings, and finish manufacturers sometimes change their color names. You want to ensure that whatever you ordered 4 months ago is still the same thing! If there is any discrepancy on delivery day, you have the physical sample and the agreement in writing to fall back on.


It is not enough to simply agree on 'Minwax's Ipswitch Pine with a clear finish' either (there are about 25 different color variations of that "single" finish). As you can see in the picture, even the clear topcoat can change the color (this photo is of walnut with and without a clear finish. No stain, no dye, just the application of a clear finish changes the color of the wood significantly).



Once you get into the more advanced "specialty" finishes like antiqued, distressed, and cerused, the added component of subjectivity now comes into place. How distressed? How much glaze? A faint whitewash or white pigment deep into the grain? This is why, again, it is so very important to see and approve the final finish.


While smaller samples are nice to hone-in on a specific color or finish type, approving the final complete finish on your exact door style is the only way to ensure everyone is on the same page and expectations are aligned.




The Value of Unbiased Expertise


Here at Wayhome we have an Expert that specializes in professional cabinet finishes and is available to help with any of your questions (you can book a Cabinetry Consultation here or join our Facebook group Ask A Cabinetmaker). With so many options and decisions involved in selecting the perfect cabinets and finishes, we understand the process can quickly become frustrating and overwhelming. Additionally, there can sometimes be a misalignment of incentives... using catalyzed coatings, while best for the homeowner, is much more difficult for the pro (when compared to hardware store level finishes).



We recently received this feedback from a homeowner we had the pleasure of helping:


"Wayhome has been a huge help during our kitchen renovation! Our Expert was extremely knowledgeable about everything cabinets, from their style, type of wood, finishes and everything in between. He has been our lifeline to help us communicate to our contractor and cabinet maker exactly what we are wanting and our expectations. I highly recommend using their services!"

- Melissa, Homeowner


We help ensure that whomever you choose to work with is looking out for your best interest and long term happiness, not simply their own convenience. Rest assured that no matter your question or concern, we will actively listen, advocate, advise, and ultimately, help you find your way home.

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