How to Choose the Finish for Your Kitchen Cabinets


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Choosing the right kitchen cabinets can be a difficult task. So many options are out there, you can suffer from analysis paralysis. Certainly adding the choices available for the finish is one thing you would rather not have to consider. However, the finish has a profound impact on your choice if you get wood cabinets. It will affect the way the cabinets look, which in turn will affect the look of the kitchen itself. It also has an impact on the integrity of the cabinets because the finish provides a measure of protection against the potential damage caused by heat, humidity, and other substances you will often find in kitchens. We will only look at some of the basics of finishes and surface treatments specific to wood cabinetry. We will not include laminates and melamine cabinets as these are actually surface treatments already.

Common finishes

Some finishes are more common that others are, and you will most probably encounter the following in many kitchen cabinets.


Most people choose stains for wood cabinets because they change the color of the wood without obscuring the grain. Many wood species look a bit light once you cut through the first layer, so the stain can deepen the color and make it more attractive. This is the main purpose of using stains for wood cabinets. For protection, cabinetmakers put a layer of clear sealer over the stain.


In some cases, the wood color is nice enough that it does not require any alteration. In these cases, you can choose to put a varnish to seal the wood from the kitchen environment. A varnish is typically a mix of oil and resin, which repels moisture quite effectively. It also gives cabinets a sleek, finished look. You can also choose to apply varnish over stained cabinet or other types of surface treatments. In some cases, the varnish can have a bit of color to enhance the existing color of the wood. One variation of the regular varnish is the catalyzed or conversion varnish. This is a kind of high-tech surface treatment using urethane or other type of catalyst to accelerate the drying process. This makes the treatment more efficient to use and durable. Wood cabinets coated with a catalyzed varnish tend to last longer than those treated with regular varnish, or any other type of finish.


A clear coating made of resin and a solvent, lacquer primarily provides a protective layer to wood cabinets. It fills in the pores of the wood and seals it to keep out moisture. Since it is clear, it keeps the wood looking as natural as possible, but increases its durability. Like varnish, a variation of lacquer is catalyzed lacquer or topcoat is available. It dries faster and provides a more durable coating than regular lacquer.

Enamel paint

The easiest way to finish a wood cabinet is to use paint. Oil-based or enamel paint is the best type of paint for wood as it permeates the grain and repels moisture. Paint is versatile and readily available in a rainbow of colors. You will definitely be able to find the right paint to match any kitchen color palette and style. It is a good choice for wood cabinets that do not have well-defined grain, or which have defects such as gnarls and knots.

Milk paint

Also a type of paint, this type of wood finish is more in line with the environmental protection trend than enamel paint. Milk paint is a mix of milk protein, lime, and natural dye. It is purely organic and fully biodegradable. In case you were wondering, it is not a new invention. People have been using it for centuries, and it works particularly well with wood. It provides good protection for wood cabinetry because it is water-resistant and durable. While it is not as polished looking as enamel paint, it does impart a vintage feel to kitchen cabinets.


If you want your painted or stained cabinet to look just a bit more attractive, you can apply a glaze to it. This can be either a transparent or translucent top coating with a bit of color designed to highlight wood surface details (in stained cabinets) or enhance the paint color. You can get a textured effect using a glaze by applying it and then wiping it off manually. It is a good way to bring attention to the corners and crevices of the kitchen cabinets for an “aged” look.


You can request these the basic finishes when you order RTA, stock, or custom kitchen cabinets. It can greatly enhance the look and durability of the kitchen cabinets if you choose the right one. This will depend on the style and theme of your kitchen. If you are not sure what type of finish you should get, consult with a reputable cabinet supplier to get some good ideas. Cabinets City is your best resource for this type of information in Chicagoland.

We carry some of the best brands in the country, from RTA to custom cabinets, and at the best prices compared to Cabinets To Go and Advance Cabinets. These include Schrock, Fabuwood, J and K, Forevermark, and Wolf Cabinets, each of which come with manufacturer warranties. We always deliver on time, so you will not have to worry about keeping your schedule to stay in budget. We can advise you on the best cabinets and finishes for your kitchen. Give us a call for a free consultation and quote, or visit our showroom in Mt. Prospect, Illinois. We service cities such as Chicago, Schaumburg, Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Hoffman Estate, Elk Grove Village, and surrounding areas.

Bayram Gulsen

Bayram Gulsen is the owner of Cabinets City. He always had this passion to redefine cabinetry to be at its best along with his dedicated team and the author of Cabinets City blog: You can find Bayram on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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