Decisions Decisions

One of the first decisions you’ll be faced with is picking a cabinet finish. While your immediate response might be “I just love antique white cabinets!” or “You can’t beat the timeless look of stained cabinets”; slow down a bit and think through some of the factors and options.

What is the intended purpose of your cabinets? Yes obviously to store the items in your kitchen, but going beyond that; will they only be used by careful adults or do you have some little Tasmanian Devils that might want to see which pot makes the best noise against a cabinet door. Durability and ease-of-repair may be big factors for you.

Along similar lines, do you want cabinets that can camouflage your less ambitious cleaning habits or are you going to wipe them down with clockwork regularity?

And finally, of course, what looks good to you and matches the room.

There are 3 main categories of cabinet finishes: Stained, Painted, and Laminated. You may say “Wait! There are way more than that!”. Yes, there lots of variations within these and even combinations but for simplicity we’ll cover these 3.

Plastic Laminate Cabinets

For the budget-conscious, plastic laminate cabinets can offer great value. While very few homes utilize laminate cabinets in kitchens, they are used in more utilitarian locations such as laundry rooms, kids’ bathrooms, craft rooms, etc. Plastic laminate cabinets are almost exclusively used in commercial settings and for good reasons.

That leads us to laminate cabinets most redeeming quality, durability. Laminate cabinets are made by applying a sheet of layered plastic resin to a wood substrate such as MDF. This laminate sheeting can take a lot of abuse. It’s very easy to clean and maintain usually just requiring a wipe down.

While you may remember your aunt’s psychedelic pattern plastic laminate counters, the patterns have come a long way toward a realistic wood grain look…if that’s what you are after. There’s also a wide variety of colors and options to match any motif.

Unfortunately, the plastic laminate sheets that add durability also limit how the cabinet can be constructed. All the cabinet panels must be flat without any dimension elements. So that means no raised panel doors, beadboard, or other decorative elements. Many prefer this flat modern look, but it is a limitation.


Laundry room with washing machine in modern home

Painted Cabinets

While stained cabinets’ popularity tends to ebb-and-flow, painted cabinets have enjoyed a consistent adoption in homes. Much of this can be attributed to their ability to adapt and change color with trends…literally the chameleon of cabinet surfaces. Beyond having unlimited color options, painted cabinets can be repainted as your own tastes change.

Durability for painted cabinets is likely the lowest of these 3. Though huge strides have been made in lacquer paints and baking processes, paint can still chip, scratch, and dent. Also, because cabinets are usually a solid color these imperfections are noticeable. Paint touch-up can give acceptable results but often a repaint is needed to return a panel to its former glory.

Maintenance for painted cabinets is easy enough but the surface can be susceptible to staining with some chemicals. Direct sunlight can also be an enemy to some paints causing them to fade or yellow over time. Even with great maintenance, most painted cabinets will eventually need repainting.


Stained Cabinets

If only a beautiful authentic wood grain will do, stained cabinets will be your go-to. Because stained cabinets use higher quality wood to showcase the grain and require extensive labor, they will cost a pretty penny too. The results are often worth it as stained cabinets can have a look that is both fancy and traditional. Although there are quite a lot wood species and stain options, you are still bound to the brown-ish family of colors. With some special processes, colors can get closer to red/orange, gray, or black, but at some point the grain becomes invisible and it begin to look like painted cabinets.

Stained cabinets usually have a clear polyurethane coating on top of the stain that provides a surface significantly more durable than paint. It forms a hard protective shell that also makes maintenance easier. Because of the irregular patterns caused by wood grain, blemishes are less noticeable than on painted cabinets and several scratch cover methods work well. Applying a polish is also a good practice to maintain the shine and add some protection.

Although stained cabinets do offer better durability than painted, they are not easily recolored or refinished. Stained wood cabinets can be sanded down and refinished another color but its substantially more involved and should usually be left to a professional. Because stain penetrates the surface of wood achieving a consistent new stain color is difficult. So ideally you want to pick a stain color you can live with for a long time.

Picking a cabinet finish is not as easy as it may seem. Sometimes the look we want may not jive with our budget or intended use. But it’s ok to have fun with the process while letting your pesky rational side ensure you get what fits your needs.


Kitchen in new construction home with wood and marble island

Written by: Colby Malone 

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