Cabinet Finishes

While the door's type and shape may supply the back beat, the cabinet finish and/or color add rhythm and harmony.

A flat slab, oak door stained with a light color, for example, will sing a much different tune than a flat slab, MDF door covered with stainless steel. Besides everyone has their own preferences in color and texture.

Like the finest furniture, the highest quality cabinets are finished in multiple steps, which might include hand painting, hand sanding, rubbing with steel wool, and hand buffing to a baby bottom smooth surface.

When paint is used it will be applied in several thin layers so that if it chips it won't peel off. The multiple steps also help create that smoother texture and deeper color.

Your options for how to decorate the doors and drawers include staining, painting, stain and glaze, paint and glaze, wood veneer, polyester, plastic laminate, stainless steel, glass, and many more.


Manufacturers use all different names for stain colors. One company's "caramel" may not look anything like another with the same name. Think in terms of tone. Choose the wood species you prefer and the decide whether a stain with a light, medium, or dark tone will best achieve the effect you're after.

Your choice of wood will have an impact on the cabinet's ultimate look. f you want a light look, for example, you might start with a wood like ash, beech, elm, oak, maple or chestnut. In the mid-range you might consider alder or cherry with a natural finish. Or you can stain maple to be darker than it's natural color.

For a darker kitchen, you might want to start with a wood that has a little color pigment in it. But don't start with a dark wood like walnut and then try to lighten it. You can always darken the color of lighter woods, but it's hard to go the other way.

You can also consider clear finishes rather than stains on cherry, walnut, and other woods rich in color, such as butternut, mahogany, rosewood, and teak.

A stain shouldn't be confused with a finish. A finish coat is applied over the stain to protect it. Typically, a stain will be coated with a catalytic-conversion varnish to give it durability and sheen. Whether matte or high-gloss or anything in between. When it is baked on, the varnish catalyzes into a hard, protective finish.

You don't want to top the stain with oil, lacquer, or wax because those substances won't hold up and will yellow over time. Glazes can be used as an overcoat to achieve certain effects, such as creating highlights for an antique look.


With paint you certainly have an endless palette of colors to choose from. Just take a look at the range of colors available from Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams, Farrow-Ball, Pratt & Lambert, Glidden, Dunn-Edwards, Behr Premium Plus Paint, and Valspar American Traditional Paint.

You can also achieve a range of special effects. Paint can look smooth and glossy or it can be sanded, rubbed off, or dented with rocks and steel to look distressed.

You should be aware up front that hairline cracks will appear at the joints of solid wood doors as the wood expands and contracts. Some cabinet manufacturers will require a release to be sign by both homeowners and the designers that specify this finish.

You can avoid cracking if you apply paint to MDF, a solid material that doesn't move with humidity changes.

And just as with stained finishes many will add highlights with glazes can be used as an overcoat to achieve certain effects, such as creating highlights, light and heavy hazes, brush-stokes, spattering and heavy hang-ups in corners and crevices for an antique look.

Wood Veneer

Wood veneer is made from peeling strips of wood off a tree like you pull paper towels off a roll. They are typically referred to as "leaves". As a result, it's much thinner than solid wood and is typically applied to plywood, particle board, or MDF substrate to give it strength. It has two main advantages over solid wood: It can cost less and its grain can be more consistent.

You can stain wood veneer to match a solid wood door and use it on the side panels. Make sure sure both the veneer and the door are made from the same wood species.

wood veneer also makes an attractive option for cabinet interiors visible through glass doors.


It isn't that big of a leap to cabinets from cars, on which this finish has been commonly applied. The same durability and quality needed on the road is also appreciated in the kitchen. There, polyester can be found on appliances as well as modern-style cabinets, in a glossy or matte finish. It fills the pores of the door more fully than paint, giving it a solid look and feel.

The technique might involve more than 20 steps of sanding and finishing. There's even a step where a special topcoat is applied in a dust-free (!) room.

The finish goes through numerous oven curing and hand sanding with extremely fine abrasives. Special glazes and polishes applied at the end help achieve the final, mirror-like sheen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all that elbow grease makes this one of the more expensive finish choices.

Plastic Laminate

Plastic laminate comes in all kinds of colors, patterns, and textures. It's durable, stain-resistent, and easy to clean. But it can be hard to repair if it chips because it's made of layers. Like layers of craft paper (like that used in grocery bags), a decorative paper, and a plastic coating. the layers are all presses together under high heat.

The craft paper leaves a brown edge that can be covered and dressed up with a stainless steel, brass, or wood trim. Solid color laminate offers a sightly more expensive alternative that uses plastic sheets of the same color throughout so that no dark edges show.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel can be found on just about every design element in the kitchen these days. On cabinets, it's typically formed around an inner core material to give it substance and keep it from sounding tinny.

While you can get a very sleek look from stainless steel, it shows fingerprints and scratches.


Glass presents yet another option for the look of the cabinet. Mixing glass in with other door fronts in the kitchen can add interest to any design, particularly to stock cabinets that might otherwise lack unique touches.

Some glasses are ribbed, seeded or etched so that the colors - not the messy details - of the dishes or cereal boxes sitting be hind them show through. The ribbing may be be vertical, horizontal, or diagonal. Other glass doors may be clear, mullioned, or colored

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