What is Cabinet Finish?

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  • Written By: M. McGee
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 15 August 2019
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A cabinet finish is a substance placed on the wooden components of a cabinet to complete it for construction or sale. In general, these finishes fall into one of three categories: paint, varnish or laminates. Each of these three types of cabinet finish provides a different feel, appearance and set of properties to the underlying wood. In most cases, painting and varnishing may be done after the cabinet is constructed and delivered, but laminates must be applied when the cabinets are constructed. A laminate-finished cabinet may still be painted, but it cannot be varnished.

Applying a cabinet finish is often the last step in its construction or the step before assembly. When paint or varnish is used as the main cabinet finish, it is usually applied after the cabinet is assembled. If the wood is laminated, the process takes place before the cabinet is put together. After a laminated cabinet is assembled, it is usually ready for sale.

Paint is often used on older cabinets. Paint both allows a cabinet to match the existing room and provides a small amount of protection from damage. For many consumers, paint is one of the least attractive options for a cabinet finish, mostly due to its tendency to fade and chip. The chief advantage of paint is that it may be used on any type of cabinet, regardless of the previous finish. This allows users to repaint, rather than replace, their cabinets if the kitchen is updated.


Varnish is a common finish on more expensive cabinets. There are two types of varnish: stain and lacquer. Stain enhances the natural wood pattern of the cabinet by creating uneven darkening on the grain of the wood. Generally, darker areas become much darker, while lighter areas don’t change very much. Stains come in a huge range of glosses and colors, but most simply amplify existing colors in the wood.

Lacquer is a colored varnish that has an appearance similar to paint. Unlike paint, lacquer is considered to provide exceptional protection to the wood. It bonds with the wood itself, creating a shell-like outer covering. While many lacquers are colored, translucent and even completely clear lacquers are available. These work like stain, except they are not bound to the color of the wood. The cabinets may have a totally natural appearance or may appear to be stained with non-natural colors like orange or green.

Laminates are the most common type of cabinet finish. These are layers of wood that are sealed on top of the cabinet. The cabinet may be made of unattractive wood or pressboard and then covered in a laminate to improve its appearance.

Many laminates are pre-compressed. They are thicker pieces of wood that are placed in a press until they are very thin. This protects the cabinet from impacts, as any impact would need to hit with more force than what was applied by the press in order to penetrate the coating.


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