Choosing Cabinetry Part 4: Finish Options

When picking out cabinetry for your next project, the wood and finish are probably the most noticeable choices. We discuss the most common options in finishes and wood species as well as how they can make a difference in your design and budget.

Photo by Pixabay on


Picking a color for your cabinets isn’t always easy, so to end our series on choosing cabinetry, we will discuss popular wood options, as well as painted cabinets. If you are more interested in laminate or thermofoil doors, read more about those options in Choosing Cabinetry Part 2: Cabinet Component Construction.

When choosing finishes for your cabinetry, you are not limited to just one. It is not uncommon today to see a mix of wood and paint. A classic mixture is a wood kitchen, with a painted island, for example. In fact, this is an easy way to add a burst of color. We are also seeing upper cabinets a different finish than the lower. As long as you limit your finishes to a just a few, to avoid visual overload, a tasteful combination can really bring some personality to your space.

Just remember to also keep with the personality of your home. Unless this is a part of a complete overhaul, it is usually best to keep with the current style of your home. This is especially true if resale value will be important in the future. An ultra-modern kitchen might look straight out of a magazine, but if it is in an early 1900’s home, it will look a little out of place. Same thing will happen if you try to go for a cabin rustic look in an otherwise standard 2000’s builder grade home. No matter how fabulous the space, you want to keep a cohesive feel to your home.

Let’s talk about what to expect from different options and some things to consider.



Cabinets can be constructed out of almost any hardwood, but we will review the most common. The overall look of your cabinets will depend on the wood that you choose because each wood species will have a different grain and way that it takes stain. We will go over what to expect so that you can make the right choice for your space.

All wood will have a grain pattern as well as knots, swirls, mineral streaks, color streaks, worm holes, insect marks, etc. that will vary in intensity and quantity by species. Each cabinet manufacturer will work with furniture-grade wood, which meets tolerances as to how much variation a piece of wood can have. They might also work with woods that have desired characteristics, such a larger knots, when offering a rustic-look cabinet. Each wood species will come in variety of stains. These stains will vary by manufacturer and will look different on different woods, so make sure to see the stain on your actual choice of wood species before making your selection.

Another thing to know about wood is that it ages with time. This can cause some darkening and/or yellowing over the years, especially when exposed to direct sunlight. Ask how old the sample you are seeing is and don’t be surprised if your cabinets arrive a little lighter than expected. Look for manufacturers that us a UV resistant topcoat to minimize this process. Also, especially if you are going custom or builder-grade, make sure the builder is using a non-yellowing top coat, as this can also yellow with time.

Now for some reality. When choosing wood for your cabinets, it is important to note that you can’t control mother nature. You will have variations in the wood that are unavoidable. If you like consistency, stick with a painted finish, laminate, or thermofoil. These man-made finishes will give you control, as what you see on the sample, is what you will get. Some custom cabinet makers may be willing to hand select wood pieces to match your preference, but this is usually costly. Otherwise, make sure your expectations are set correctly and understand that the sample that you are choosing from is just an example and that your cabinets will have variations. With that being said, here is what to expect:



Maple has very tight grains which make it one of the woods with the least variations. The color can range from almost white to pale straw to even a light auburn. It will usually be offered in a full range of colors from natural to very dark chocolate. It is also one of the less expensive expensive wood options so it is often used as the base for painted finishes.


Premium Baltic Birch Plywood

Birch is another fine-grained wood and is similar to maple. It will have slightly more color variations and is often less expensive than maple but does not accept stains as evenly. It is also used as a base for painted cabinetry, though not as often as maple.


Black Cherry Wood

Cherry is also a tight-grained wood, but the grain tends to curl a little more than maple. It has a reddish undertone and can range in color from almost white to dark brown. Expect streaks of the color variations throughout as well as worm holes. Both will be more apparent in natural and lighter stain finishes. It is typically one of the more expensive choices for cabinets, but can still be found in more affordable door styles.

Cherry is very susceptible to light and will darken and beautifully develop with time. It is not uncommon to find “halos” on your cabinet face frame where the cabinet door has been partially blocking light exposure.

If you like your wood to look more uniform, do not go with cherry. Dark stains will minimize the variations, but will not eliminate them.

Oak is a very open-grained and is one of the harder woods. Lots of grain is expected with oak and is often seen today quartersawn to give the rustic, textured grain without the swirl-like patterns seen in more traditional styles. The color will range from a pale tan to pinkish and reddish-brown. Mineral streaks are common with oak, so expect to see streaks of brown or green. In it’s standard form, oak tends to be a less expensive option, but expect to pay more for the quartersawn look as there is more waste material in this production process.



Alder is a fine-grained wood similar to cherry, though a little softer and lighter. Because of this, it may dent and scratch more easily so it is often used in distressed finishes. Its color ranges from a light tan to an auburn and often has small knots. Larger knotted pieces are sometimes used for more rustic looking cabinets. It accepts a range of stains well so is available in a variety of colors.

Pine is a very soft wood with a larger grain. It is really only used today in very rustic looks where it’s knots and grain are really put on display. The color ranges from a pale yellowish tan to auburn, but expect it to yellow a lot more with age.

Hickory is another wood that is used primarily for its rustic look. It is a hardwood with lots of streaks ranging from light blonde to dark chocolate. It is also prone to knots and mineral streaks. It often has open knots that you can see through to add to its rustic appearance.


Painted Cabinetry

Painted cabinetry has been a staple in design for many years now and the trend shows no signs of stopping. The color you choose can change the whole mood of your space and the varieties offered by cabinet manufacturers are numerous. White paint is always a neutral classic, although it has given way recently to more creams, light taupes, and grays. Dark, rich tones like black, red, and deep blue give a regal feel, while more ocean and earthy hues invoke the feeling of home or your favorite vacation.

When opting for a painted cabinet, it is especially important that the finish will last. Ever see a cabinet where the finish is missing or starting to peel around the knobs or pulls? This wear is common where great care wasn’t taken to protect the finish. Most of the larger manufacturers will use an oven cured process to their paints and top coats that will form a strong barrier to normal cleaning and wear. This is an important step to finishing stained wood as well, but paint can even be more noticeably vulnerable to wear over time.

Another thing to know about paint is that you are still dealing with a natural product in most cases. Joint lines on the door frame as well as expansion and contraction halos due to humidity changes are small, but sometimes a frustrating result of painting wood. We cover this more in-depth when discussing Framed Wood Doors and Drawers Fronts in Choosing Cabinetry Part 2: Cabinet Component Construction.


How Not To Blow Your Budget on Cabinets Part 3

To continue our miniseries on keeping cabinetry more budget friendly, here is where your finish comes into play. The most obvious option is to keep you choices timeless. If you don’t have the budget to replace your kitchen every ten years as styles change, timeless is the way to go. It will also help with resale value, as not everyone likes the trendy looks.

While a natural oak hasn’t stood the test of time, some woods and paints are more likely to last a little longer. Fine-grained woods, such as maple, stained in neutral dark brown tones, though not necessarily on-trend, tend to have a little more staying power. Also, cherry with a light brown stain can be more of a neutral. Stay away from stains with orange or red tones as well as woods, like natural maple, with yellow tones. These never age well.

When painting, staying with more timeless colors like white, pale creams, grays, and taupes that can keep your kitchen looking new longer. While darker greys and blacks are trendy now, and might have more staying power than say red, only time will tell if they become classics or will end up in the discard pile. Pairing these finishes with a classic door style, such as a raised panel, or a simple shaker, will also help to keep your cabinets looking fresh.

Another cost-saving strategy is going with a classic, more timeless finish on the majority of your cabinets with pops of something more trendy. This is a great way to keep with current trends, but are easier to change out as tastes change. A small island in a french blue, a hutch in a rustic grey quartersawn oak, or just some shelving in that deep red you have been eyeing, are some examples of how to incorporate trends without being stuck with something you hate ten years from now.

Keeping with the classics may also save you money up front. One of the least expensive options will be simple door styles in a stained maple. If you are wanting white, consider going thermofoil to save some dough. Frame style thermofoil, like we talked about in Choosing Cabinetry Part 2: Cabinet Component Construction, really look like the real thing and are usually quite a bit less expensive than painted cabinets.

What about designer commissions? Won’t they try to sell you on the more expensive lines and finishes? As a designer, it is important to work within your clients budget as much as possible and not to try and oversell just to make a commission. That being said, not all designers follow this philosophy. If your designer works on commission and your budget is tight, it is even more important that you take the time to ask questions about the product you are being quoted. Ask them where you can save and what you would be giving up if you moved to a less expensive line or finish. Their answers to these questions will often tell you if they are serious about finding you the best cabinet in your budget.

Reduce your cabinet budget a little to start and be realistic about your wants vs. your needs. Because most consumers only remodel a kitchen once or twice in their lifetime, it is common not to understand the true costs. Start with a little lower budget than what you truly are willing to spend to see if you can get what you want for that price. Once you have a design that you like, that extra money can be held in reserve, used for those nice-to-have upgrades, or for that special design idea that came up during planning.

If you need to make cuts, as always, key construction elements, previously discussed, should be maintained. Then you can work on aesthetics, such as specialty finishes and accessories.

The bottom line when it comes to your cabinet budget, is that the more knowledge that you have, the more control you have and the more you can put your hard-earned dollars where they really count.

Thank you for following us on our Choosing Cabinets Series. We hope you learned enough to make an educated decision on your next cabinet project. Make sure to follow us or subscribe so you don’t miss a thing on Practical Home Design.

Related Reading:

Choosing Cabinetry Part 1: Cabinetry Box Construction, Framed Vs. Frameless

Starting Your Project Part 1: Budget

Hiring the Right Contractor


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: