Refinishing Your Kitchen Cabinets – Choosing the Right Final Finish

Once the stain is dry and you are satisfied that everything looks fine, you need to apply a clear protective wood finish to ensure your hard efforts are enjoyed for a long time.

Selecting a clear wood finish to make your work durable is important. It’s something too many do-it-yourselfers overlook. They just reach for the nearest can of polyurethane varnish.

For one, polyurethane isn’t always the best option. This is only one type of varnish. There are other types of protective wood finishes which should be considered before settling on polyurethane.


This finish goes back over 100 years. It is a natural resin made from secreted by the female lac bug with water resistant properties. You don’t find it in most large home centers because once the resin is dissolved in ethyl alcohol it has a very short shelf life. Hardware stores and woodworking centers are more likely to carry it. Check the can to ensure it isn’t over six months old.

Shellac is only appropriate when you don’t mind an amber tint to your finished project. If you want a finish that seals well over almost any previous finish, shellac is a good choice. It is also one of the easiest finishes to repair if it gets chipped or scratched. New coats melt into previous layers. This means that a shellac finish is easy to repair if it is scratched or dinged.

Quick drying time is an advantage. It can also be used as a sealing coat so other finishes may be applied over top. The primary disadvantage of shellac is its tendency to react to water by becoming cloudy.


Lacquer is the professional cabinet maker’s favorite finish. Drying time is as little as 15 to 30 minutes, allowing multiple layers of finish to be applied in a short time. can be painted on but the best finish is by spraying.

Spray lacquer must be applied with a high-volume, low-pressure spray (HVLP) system. If you don’t maintain the spray equipment carefully it will be difficult to achieve a smooth, consistent finish. Many factors such as air control, fluid pressure and moisture in the air lines can ruin the results. Typical problems that can make a lacquer job look unprofessional include uneven or rough surfaces, pin holes and graininess.

Oil-based Varnish

There are several oil-based types of varnish on the market. Most of them are formulas using vegetable oil and resin, though there are also synthetic varnishes as well which are broken into three groups—alkyd, phenolic, and polyurethane.

Oil-based varnishes are durable and resistant to moisture and stains. Oil varnishes have long been popular because they brush on so smoothly and don’t dry so quickly that the novice doesn’t have time to lay the finish down before it starts drying. At same time, slow drying causes trouble if there is dust or bugs in the air.

If you don’t sand lightly between each coat of varnish, it won’t adhere to the coat below it. The tendency of each varnish layer to remain distinct from the layer beneath it makes it difficult to sand out blemishes and repair damage to the finish.

offers excellent resistance to wear, moisture, and heat, but tends to yellow over time. If you want a bright clear look varnish won’t work. It will also cause a color mismatch—best for stained or dark wood, not as a protective finish over white or very light-colored wood.

You need a minimum of two coats of varnish finish. Allow each coat to thoroughly dry before sanding and recoating.

Spraying will produce the best results on doors, and brushing will be necessary on the frame. Always brush in the direction of the wood’s grain.

Water-based Finishes

If anyone in your home is extremely sensitive to varnish vapors or other oil-based fumes, water-based finishes are less likely to trigger a reaction. The finish is durable, yet there are no high VOCs present. There are additional benefits. are less toxic and less prone to combustion when compared to oil-based finishes.

While water-based products don’t contain VOCs, they still aren’t good to breath. You will want to ensure you have proper ventilation while you are applying the finish and while it is drying.

These advantages come with a price. It can be more difficult to apply water-based finishes. Flashing and showing brush marks tend to be common problems. They also don’t polish out to the high-gloss that many homeowners want from a finish.

It is best to apply the gloss version of a finishing product as a base, even if a satin sheen is planned as the end product. The satin sheen products contain particles in them which defract light. Many layers of these defractors may make a finish look muddy, compared to a finish built up with clearer products.

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