Coating Options for Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets

Due to the significant expense of replacement, homeowners with 20-30 yr old kitchen cabinets are opting instead to refinish what they have, provided that they are in good condition and their architecture still remains in style. Most – though not all – of the cabinets being refinished today have been stained and varnished, this was a look in the 70s and 80s that celebrated the natural beauty of a particular wood species.

However, varnishes and polyurethanes ambered over time, and woods in some instances oxidized to yellower and darker tonalities which became both unattractive and incompatible with the new design trends of the 90s and new millennium that called for brighter and more uplifting kitchens. This new look was achieved by coating cabinets with opaque whites and off whites, and in many instances antiquing the painted surfaces. Additionally, faster drying and more durable cabinet coatings – Conversion Varnish to name one – became available and revolutionized the industry for their superior finishes as well as their production and packing efficiency in the factory environment.

When refinishing a set of kitchen cabinets for his or her client, whether over varnish/polyurethane or the new generation of harder, catalyzed cabinet coatings, the painting or finishing contractor is challenged when choosing a coating system that will 1) adhere to the existing finish; 2) provide durability and ease of cleaning; 3) be aesthetically pleasing to the eye and touch; and last but not least, be user friendly and environmentally safe in the client’s home. It is therefore of paramount importance that the contractor – taking nothing for granted – deliberately approaches each refinishing project with a first priority of testing his or her finishing system for adhesion and coating compatibility before commencing with the finishing process. The new generation of waterborne bonding primers e.g. Stix has made this task a lot easier.

Our shop operation at Renaissance that dates back to 1981 has created a niche for us in the cabinet refinishing industry and has become an important segment of our painting and decorating business. Because we can remove doors and drawer fronts, clean, prep and spray them in our shop, we are able to offer our clients catalyzed products that are far more durable than waterborne architectural paints purchased in paint stores, but too toxic to apply in a residential environment. Because the flash time is also much quicker, the finish is virtually dust free and with a superior leveling capacity. That said, we typically opt for manual application of a waterborne finishes – matched to the shop applied finish – on the cabinet boxes and face frames unless the client does not wish to see any evidence of the applicator i.e. brush strokes and orange peel from rollers, and specifies only spray application. In this case we must “tent off” the cabinets and protect all other surfaces from overspray.

Besides the limitations created by their toxicity, the downside of catalyzed conversion varnish type products as a refinishing option for the homeowners lies in the difficulty of touching up, since the coating must be remixed (catalyzed) and sprayed in a shop environment. On the other hand, waterborne products can be touched up manually – out of the original can – on site by a contractor or homeowner. The kitchen featured in this blog was spray primed – after testing – with BIN primer sealer both on site and in the shop, spray finished with Benjamin Moore’s Waterborne Advance (Waterborne Alkyd Hybrid), antiqued and clear coated with General Finishes Enduro Poly. The clear coat was applied to both protect the antiquing medium as well as to achieve greater depth in the finish. Clear coating over a waterborne enamel, while an additional expense, is an option that provides greater durability and water resistance, as well as depth of finish.