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The Complete Guide To Oak Cabinets

Oak cabinets have quickly become the most popular choice in the United States, and for good reason. The soft, natural look of rift white oak or the warm amber tones of flat-sawn red oak... but what do all of these words mean? We'll break down every detail, and help identify possible issues to help ensure your new oak cabinets look as beautiful as those on your Pinterest board. Let's jump right in!

A photograph of a sleek, modern kitchen, featuring oak cabinets.

(Photo and design credit: Jake Arnold)

White Oak vs Red Oak

Simply put, white oak is a bit more tan and red oak is a bit more orange. The latter is also less-expensive these days, which makes it a great option if you are using a darker stained finish. Both have very pronounced grain and are extremely durable, which makes them such a great choice for kitchen cabinets. Below is an example of both flat-sawn white oak on the left, and flat-sawn red oak on the right:

A photograph showing a side-by-side comparison of flat-sawn white oak and flat-sawn red oak.

Flat vs Rift vs Quarter Sawn

This refers to how the log was originally milled and will create drastically different grain patterns, especially in oak. Flat sawn (also called plain sawn) is the least-expensive and often has wide, arching grain and lots of color variation between the "high" and "low" grain. Rift-sawn is slightly more expensive, has very tight, parallel grain, and generally much less color variation. Quarter-sawn, often the most-expensive (it's a very wasteful way of milling, unfortunately) is effectively the grain pattern of rift-sawn with little squigly patterns called ray flecking on top of the grain (very popular in Arts and Crafts furniture at the end of the 19th century).

Shown here from the left to right is flat/plain-sawn, quarter-sawn, and rift-sawn.

A collection of photographs comparing three kinds of cabinet wood. From left to right: flat-sawn, quarter-sawn, rift-sawn.

(Door styles and photos from Plain & Fancy Cabinetry)

A diagram showing the differences between plain-sawn, quarter-sawn and rift-sawn wood.

How To Achieve The Perfect Oak Finish

While there are many popular oak finishes on Pinterest and Instagram, so many kitchens we see these days are oak with a "natural" or "clear" finish. While beautiful and designed to enhance the natural beauty of the wood, this finish can also lead to a lot of headache, as simply specifying "natural" or "clear" isn't specific enough. We need to take it one step further: water-based clear or solvent-based clear. Water-based topcoats (we get into the details of what proper, professional-grade cabinet coatings are here, and why it's so important to use them!) are quite opaque and will keep oak looking very similar to how it does when unfinished. This is often how the very popular "rift white oak" or "white oak" look is achieved. This applies to both red and white oak, though the former will push a little pink:

A photograph of a sleek, modern kitchen, featuring light oak cabinets.

(Photo and design credit: Chris Loves Julia)

A photograph of a warm, modern kitchen, featuring both light and dark green oak cabinets.

(Photo and design credit: Kelsey Leigh Design)

This can sometimes push both white and red oak a tad yellow, as well, so be sure to have your cabinetmaker or finisher sample, sample, sample until you've found the perfect tone.

For a warmer, more orange/amber tone to oak cabinets, a solvent-based clear topcoat should be used. Amber Lewis uses this look a lot in her designs:

A photograph of a kitchen, featuring cabinets with an amber tone.

A photograph of a kitchen, featuring cabinets with an amber tone.

(Design and photo credit: Studio McGee)

Bonus tip: The wood used in this beautiful kitchenette above by Studio McGee is referred to as "rustic" white oak: knots, intentional color variation and mineral streaking. This adds a very warm aesthetic to the room and can sometimes be a more cost-effective option.

You can see here how drastic the color difference is between water-based (right) and solvent-based (left). Both are "oak with a clear finish", but look quite a bit different:

A photograph showing a side-by-side comparison of water-based and solvent-based oaks.

Stained Finishes

Both red and white oak stain very nicely. These days, there is a fair amount of natural color variation in oak, so if a very even-color look is what you're after, using an oak colored stain could be a great option. The sap wood (the part of the tree directly underneath the bark) is bright white on oak. While this used to be rejected, oak is in such high-demand these days, we're seeing it make its way into kitchen cabinets much more often:

A photograph of a kitchen cabinet with a sap wood finish.

While beautiful in the right context, this streaking can certainly be disappointing if you weren't expecting it. Be sure to have a conversation with your cabinetmaker/supplier about how much (if any) sap wood and color variation in general should be expected. Again, this is why seeing and approving samples beforehand is so very important. We want aligned expectations between everyone involved.

If a very even-toned, lighter look is what you're going for, an oak-colored stain like below can be used:

A photograph of a kitchen with even-toned, lighter cabinets.

(Design and photo credit: Samantha Stein)

Another option is a process called "toning" or "tinted topcoat" can be used to create a very even color and tone, muting the natural color variation. Whenever you see an inspiration photo with very soft, muted grain, chances are the finish is toned:

A photograph of a kitchen, featuring cabinets with a "tinted topcoat" finish.

As I mentioned above, oak stains very nicely, though another cautionary note: if flat-sawn is being used, the color difference between the high and low grain can be very pronounced, so be sure to see samples before finalizing your color:

A photograph of a kitchen with flat-sawn cabinets.

Bonus tip: We recently wrote a blog on how to make red oak look like white oak. This can be an excellent option if you're on a tight budget, as red oak is considerably less-expensive!

Veneer Vs Solid

As we've discussed before, veneer is an excellent option in the right setting. Large, flat cabinet doors being one of them! The slim-Shaker photo above, for example, is in fact veneer. It is very common these days to use solid wood for the door's frame, and veneer for the center panel. Given the different ways that finishes absorb into solid and veneer, there can be a lot of color variation (this is what causes the "picture framing" comes from we've all seen). Easily managed by a skilled finisher, it's something to be aware of when deciding on cabinetmakers/suppliers. You want to be sure they're aware of this potential issue and are capable of preventing it.

A photograph of a kitchen with veneer cabinets.

(Design and photo credit: Studio McGee)

Here is a lovely example of solid wood door frames with a veneer center panel:

A photograph of a kitchen cabinet with solid wood door frames and a veneer center panel

(Design and photo credit: No. 17 House)

The Value Of Unbiased Advice

With so many details to consider on a large-scale project, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. If you need help vetting a specific cabinet company, deciphering those beautiful finishes on Pinterest so you know exactly what to ask for, preventing a potential disaster, reducing costs (like this recent example where we saved a family $95,000 on their cabinet order... yes ninety-five thousand!!), or anything else with your project, consider booking a free 15-minute consultation to see how we can help. There are often misaligned objectives in a new-build or remodel (builders want what is familiar, showrooms and designers want what is most expensive...), we are completely unbiased and will advocate entirely for you, your budget, and your design.

We're here to help make your project go as smoothly as possible!


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