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Cabinetry Finish Types

By: Brian Albrecht
Posted: Jan 14th, 2021

When it comes to selecting the overall look and feel for your cabinetry the two most important pieces are the overall style and the finish. Both have an almost endless number of options and it can be overwhelming when trying to decide which to go with. In a previous Insight (Cabinetry Styles) we have covered the different styles that you have to choose from. In this portion we will discuss the various types of finishes that you can select to complete the overall look.

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Painted Finish

A painted finish hasbeen the most popular look for cabinets in recent years and a staple for decades. A painted finish offers an opaque look of whatever color you choose, but the overall end finish is dependent on the surface it is applied to. A tighter grained wood, such as maple, yields a far smoother overall finish than other woods like oak or walnut which will allow the texture of the grain to show through the paint (this is why painting old oak cabinets is not often recommended). A painted finish is also much easier to touch up after some wear and tear than a stained finish which would require a refinishing of the entire surface rather than a spot finish.

Figure 1 - Painted kitchen with no glazing detail. Project by Albrecht Wood Interiors.

Stained Finish

A stained finish is a classic look that can provide warmth and richness to a space while alsoletting the wood shine. Stains are used to tint the wood to a desired color without covering the naturalgrain pattern as a paint would. The species of wood selected will play a crucial role in the end result aseach species receives stain slightly differently. For example, a cherry cabinet will look entirely differentfrom an oak cabinet even with the same stain applied, so it is always important to see a sample on thewood species you’ve selected before proceeding. In addition, the differences in wood grain and thenatural color of the wood will change the way the stain looks upon completion, so it may be importantto discuss whether you are looking for something that leans more brown or red in color as a starting offpoint to determine your wood species. The overall grain pattern of a particular wood can also impact whether a cabinet looks more contemporary or traditional as well. A tighter, straighter grain can lookfar more contemporary than a wider, less linear grain, which is why certain species are frequently usedfor the different architectural styles.

Figure 2 - Stained cabinetry with glazing to enhance edges. Project by Albrecht Wood Interiors.

While a stained finish will almost always allow the wood grain to show through, the color of the stain will determine how much the grain is featured in the overall look. A lighter stain will allow the grain to shine more prominently, while a darker stain will hide much of the color variation found in the grain pattern. If you are considering a dark stain color, you may be able to use a cheaper wood species as the darker color will be the prominent feature over the grain pattern.

As mentioned in the painted section, a stained finish is also more difficult to touch up over time as the stain will fade in color and doing a touch-up on a small spot is incredibly difficult and often requires refinishing a much larger portion of the cabinet so as to not see the lines where the new stain ends and old begins. It is also important to note that every piece of wood is different. With it being a natural material, there will be variation in color and grain pattern from even the largest of samples. If you are looking for an extremely consistent color, a painted finish may be the way to go. However, if you enjoy the natural beauty that wood offers, as well as the character that the varying color and grain provides, a stained finish can be an excellent choice.

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Natural Finish

A natural finish is a clear protective finish that is applied over the natural wood of the cabinet without any of the tinting that comes with a stain. A natural finish allows the natural tone and grain pattern of the wood to show prominently and is a favorite of many wood workers who believe in letting the wood shine as it was naturally intended. While a stained finish can cover some blemishes in the wood, a natural finish will only highlight them so it is important for the cabinet builders to be particular in their selection of which pieces are used.

Figure 3 - Naturally finished knotty alder cabinetry with no distressing or glazing additions. Project by Albrecht Wood Interiors.


Glazing is a method of highlighting edges and details ona cabinet or molding. It can be done to both stained and painted finishes at varying levels. Glazing is accomplished by finishing a cabinet as it typically would be (stained, painted, ornatural finish) and then applying a paint or stain to the desired areas, wiping it clean of the flat areas, thereby leaving it in the grooves and on the edges to highlight them. The color of the glazing has a drastic impact onthe overall look of the finished product, as well as how bold the highlighting affect can be. A subtle glazing can add nuance that is only discovered upon closer viewing,while a bold glazing can change the entire complexion of a room.

Figure 4 - Painted and full wash glazing woodwork. Project by Albrecht Wood Interiors.

It is also important to note that, depending on how the glazing is applied, the glazing can slightly change the base color of the cabinet. If a glazing is applied with a direct or pointed finish whereby the glazing is applied only to the areas where it is intended, the base color will remain exactly as intended. However, if the glazing is applied as a wash where the glaze is applied to a much larger area and then wiped clear, it can leave behind a slight change in color, and even a slight texture. This change in color and texture can be part of the intent of the glazing so seeing a sample of the finished product is important to determine which method you prefer.


Distressing is a method of purposely aging a cabinet or piece of woodwork to achieve a more rustic or aged appearance. This can be done by purposely damaging a cabinet, leaving knicks and dings that might occur over a long period of time, or simply by rubbing off the finish to expose the wood
beneath as if the paint or stain had worn through. When looking for a distressed appearance, it is important to convey what level of distressing you are looking for. A cabinet can be worn at many different
levels, changing the end appearance drastically. If you are looking for something slightly worn, then a rubbed off finish that highlights the edges where paint would typically wear through the most might be more in line with what you are looking for. If you are looking for a truly rustic and thoroughly aged piece, then you might accompany the rubbed off finish with worn corners, scratches, and simulated decay or other types of damage. When doing a distressed appearance, it is typical to accompany it with a glazed finish which allows the glazing to highlight and emphasize the distressing which gives the piece the appearance of having been refinished multiple times over the years.

Figure 5 - Distressed entertainment center cabinet with antiqued copper panels. Cabinet by Albrecht Wood Interiors.

One benefit to a distressed appearance is the durability of the overall look. Often times a clean and flawless appearance can look great, but only for as long as it is clean and flawless. By embracing the aged look, any future wear and tear blends with the overall aesthetic and simply enhances the appearance. This also makes it incredibly easy for touch up and repair later on.


The sheen, or glossiness, of the end product can play a major roll in the aesthetic of the piece. While higher gloss levels are typically reserved for a more contemporary appearance, they can also posea large number of problems. A high gloss finish is almost always going to be substantially more expensive as the surface must be absolutely flawless before the finish is applied. The higher the gloss,the more imperfections become visible. This is also something to keep in mind when considering the long-term viability of a glossy finish. Even the slightest of scratches can become drastically more apparent on a gloss finish than on a lower sheen, and as such, is not recommended in almost any situation.

As an industry standard, almost all interior trim (casing, baseboard, etc.) has a semi-gloss sheen applied. Using this as a baseline can help in your determination for other sheen levels. Typically, walls and areas that are high traffic or heavily used will be a slightly lower sheen so scuffs and scratches do not show as easily. The sheen of your cabinetry is something that will be a personal choice as you understand your daily routine and how hard you and your family are on the things in your home better than anyone else. However, when in doubt, it is always better to error on the side of a slightly lower sheen than end up with a severely scratched up glossy finish.

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