You will probably want to choose a durable wood specie for your cabinetry if you expect it to receive a lot of wear and tear in your household. Just as important as the durability of the wood itself is the quality of the finish that is applied to it. In the following paragraphs I present a very broad overview of the most common finishes for kitchen cabinets. While there are many, many finish materials and options, and just as many opinions on what produces the best finish, the two best finishes for kitchen cabinets are catalyzed lacquer and conversion varnish. First, let’s talk about lacquer. Whether water-based or catalyzed, lacquer makes a beautiful and smooth cabinet finish, but some common lacquer products (such as nitrocellulose) may not have long term water resistance. Over time, the finish can yellow, crack, and break down in those areas where water drips have been left to dry: most frequently, the front of the sink cabinet and the baseboards, base shoe, window sills, etc. Catalyzed lacquer will have very good water resistance because it involves a chemical reaction that results in a tough and durable finish. However, varnish surpasses most other finishes in its resistance to water, heat, solvents and other chemicals. Conversion varnish takes a skilled person to apply it evenly. Most manufactured cabinets have a conversion varnish finish and many of these larger companies apply the finish using complex mechanical spraying machines that are calibrated to apply the finish at just the right thickness. In smaller cabinet shops, they use a spray booth where the finish is sprayed on by a skilled technician. This photo shows our cabinet finisher working in a spray booth, applying conversion varnish to a stained cabinet.
Conversion varnish is clear, for finishing stained or natural wood cabinets, but it can also be tinted any color so that it looks like a painted finish. Tinted conversion varnish applied to cabinets results in a very smooth, very durable, water resistant finish. The downside is that it isn’t easily repairable if a cabinet should get damaged after it is installed. A scratch or ding on a finished door can be repaired by bringing it to the finisher in his shop, but if a finished part of the installed cabinet box needs repair, that’s a little harder. Sometimes the finisher will go to the jobsite and build a small “tent” for himself to try to contain the spray and odor as he works on the repair. Over the many years that our company has used conversion varnish on hundreds of cabinets, I believe we have had only two repairs that required our finisher to go to the jobsite to fix. That tells you a lot about the durability of a conversion varnish finish.
Here is a beautiful kitchen where we used tinted conversion varnish for the cabinet finish. Again, it can be tinted to just about any color, so if you prefer chartreuse cabinets, we can do that!
A painted cabinet finish can also be achieved with an oil or water based paint, sprayed in a shop or on-site after the cabinet boxes are installed. This finish will be less durable than tinted conversion varnish but it will be easier for a homeowner to make repairs themselves.
Hopefully, this brief introduction to cabinet finishes will help you when you select your new cabinets. Ask about the finishing products, and if you hear something like “3 wet coats of catalyzed lacquer” or “conversion varnish”, you can feel confident that you are getting a durable finish that will resist the water, chemicals, and heat found in all kitchens.