“Cabinetry 101” Part 2: Choosing the Appropriate Finish Quality for your Cabinets

Finish quality impacts the ultimate longevity of any kitchen cabinet more than almost any other factor.

 Why Does Finish Quality Matter?

One of the first things that typically break down necessitating the desire to replace worn looking cabinetry is the finish.  Unlike other wood “furniture” which you don’t usually handle daily, acids from many years of repeated touching deteriorates lacquer surfaces over time.  Fading wood finishes as well as outdated colors and styles contribute as well to the longevity of any cabinet.  Food spills and splatters, and especially grease residue can leave wood surfaces gummy and sticky and are not easy to restore to their original luster.

It’s not always easy to detect differences in cabinet finishes just by looking at them, but if you look closely there are indicators in the least expensive cabinets of finish quality:

Uneven application of stain, evidenced by globs in crevices

Tiny particles of dirt or residue trapped under the finish

Murky stain areas, especially on edges; a result of toner stains used to blend the variations of different wood grains  (the higher quality the cabinet, the more likelihood that the manufacturer employs the practice of purchasing and matching wood “lots” and grains more carefully resulting in better wood grain and color consistency)

“Finish-on-site” by nature has the least ability to control the finish process, producing generally a low-quality finish as well.  Although they may initially look pretty, high gloss factory finish processes often attempt to mask imperfections and do not always indicate a high quality finish either.

So What Does a High Quality Finish Look Like?

High quality finishes are apparent when you inspect the following:

Even distribution of stain and glazes over panel surfaces, including ridges, crevices, and grooves of design

Ultra smooth surfaces that show little evidence of particles trapped in finish or top coat

The more sophisticated the finish process, the more velvety smooth and matte a finish will be (this is an indication of the sanding process as well as the staining/painting process, which all make up the “finish process”).

Often cost is an indicator of the sophistication of a finish process.  Typically as the finish quality improves; the cost of the cabinet goes up.  Highly customized cabinetry built in “smaller” (smaller is relative, many small cabinet manufacturers produce $10-$20 million per year in cabinetry) manufacturer’s facilities have a more people-intensive process; meaning the same person is hand applying finishes to every single surface of an entire cabinet order resulting in the most consistently uniform finished product, equivalent to what you would expect from a fine piece of furniture.

Production grade cabinetry, although highly customizable design-wise as well, is typically finished in a large factory facility. Finishing may be done by individuals in shifts, aided by computer operated assembly line type equipment.  The benefit is finish quality is typically very consistent, although not as much individual attention may be given to an individual order allowing more opportunity for finish imperfections to slip by undetected until after shipping.

Differing levels of attention may be given to the finish process depending on the manufacturer of choice.  Most use a multiple step process including sanding, sealing, hand staining, multiple levels of finish coating using catalyzed conversion varnishes, and baking.  Inquire with your designer about the specific finish process the manufacturer of your choice utilizes.

Determining how important the finished cabinetry is to you is an important step in choosing cabinetry.  Not only does it affect the look, but the longevity of the cabinet.  Balancing the finish quality of your cabinetry with your budget is a realistic part of making a cabinetry purchase decision, and an experienced designer can help you sort through the differences and settle on an option that makes the most sense for you.

Stay tuned for Part 3 in our Series.