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Tips For Site-Finished Cabinets

We see a lot of questions around site-finished cabinets in our Ask A Cabinetmaker Facebook group and wanted to post an excerpt from a recent Expert Call where we jump into the details.


Start / Consistency of color comes from sanding

2:00 / Painters aren't always finishers

3:19 / Preparation is key

4:20 / Wood conditioner

5:33 / What the process should look like

6:30 / Maple vs oak

7:30 / Clear finish only

8:46 / Water-based vs solvent-based

9:16 / Stain can't be undone

Which Stain To Choose?

Unfortunately, some builders just hand over the Minwax catalogue and ask the homeowner to pick one. This is not how the process should start and rarely ends well. While the photos of the stain colors in these catalogues are close, there are just too many variables involved for this to be the only sample seen: sanding technique, type of wood, the amount of time the stain is left on, the specific type of clear coat, etc can all have a significant impact on the final color. As we mentioned in the video above, and discuss in our conversation with assertiveness coach Sonya Sadat (specifically a 25:26), advocating for the success of your project may ultimately be up to you. Offer to pay for as many samples as necessary so you can make an informed decision. The sooner this conversation happens, the better. If the finisher/painter isn't capable of creating the finish you want, pivoting to a clear only, painting everything, or finding a more talented finisher for this part of your project are only options if caught early.

Once a color is selected, having that stain applied to the exact door style and wood species you're using is the next step. Once approved, that sample becomes the finish control for the entire project.

Consider Just A Clear Finish

(Design credit: Studio McGee)

If you're not 100% confident that your finisher or painter can accomplish the finish you want, using just a clear topcoat on a pretty wood specific is a great option. This is a much simpler process to do onsite with a higher likelihood of success. The photo above is red oak with a solvent-based clear finish, no stain. Other woods with a similar tone are alder (both clear and rustic/knotty), pecan, and beech. Other wood species that are beautiful with just a clear finish are white oak, maple (if you're wanting something very blonde), cherry, and walnut.

A very important distinction in clear finishes is water-based vs solvent-based. Simply saying, for example, that you want "white oak with a clear finish" is not specific enough. The photo below is white oak with a solvent-based finish on the left (note the more amber, warmer hues) and water-based on the left (much more tan, opaque, and more similar to the unfinished wood). Both finishes below are technically "white oak with a clear finish", so be sure to specify and get as many samples as you need from your finisher to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Can Painted Cabinets Be Done Well Onsite?

Absolutely yes! This, in fact, may very well be the best option. Painting on-site does not involve the sanding techniques required to create blotch-free, even colors on stained pieces. That said, please insist that your finisher/painter is using a catalyzed cabinet coating (we get into the details on this recent blog post). There is a very big difference between interior latex paint bought from a home center and a professional-grade, spray-only, catalyzed cabinet coating. Brands like ML Campbell, Centurion, Sher-Wood, and Milesi all have US dealer locators and should be part of the conversation with your finisher (also, calling these distributors is a good way to find finishers in your area... just ask to whom they are selling their product and you'll have a few good options).

(Design credit: Studio McGee)

Be sure to ask for the Chemical Resistance Evaluation for your finish, as well. This is an industry test of how the finish hold up against common household liquids like boiling water, nail polish remover, red wine, and more.

We're Here To Help

There is often a misalignment of incentives between the homeowner and the contractor/subcontractor and we've found it's best to keep the relationship as even as possible. They may be suggesting solutions convenient to them, not necessarily what you're wanting. Additionally, it can be difficult to have a valued opinion if you're the only one ever with questions, and they're the only one ever with answers. To help maintain this balance, we offer 1:1 virtual advice in our Cabinetry Consultations giving you unbiased expertise by someone whose only priority is ensure the success of your project. Ask all of your questions, clarify technical language, and get started-off as prepared as possible.

There are so many details in a new build or remodel that it's easy to become overwhelmed. We completely understand, and that's exactly why we're here to help. No matter your question, frustration, apprehension, or concern, we'll help you find your way home.


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