Kitchen Cabinetry Finishes 101

As a professional who works with various lines of kitchen cabinetry, I find the biggest indicator of cabinet quality is its finish. Obviously, finish affects overall appearance. But more importantly a superior finish, in substance as well as form, testifies to the manufacturer’s quality standards. A superior finish adds longevity to the life of cabinetry–not just a few years, but decades of use withstanding moisture, chemicals, food splatters, and bumps and scrapes. In summary, it stands up to the test of time—which is the most rigorous test of all.

Finishes Typically Found in Kitchen Cabinetry

Finish is an extremely complex topic. In order to get an in-depth professional opinion, I called Bill Adams, a finishes and coatings expert and representative of Accessa Coatings Solutions in Indiana. Bill used to be professional finisher (technical applicator) at a very high end custom cabinet manufacturer—so he understands the finish process for kitchen cabinetry. When he began to answer some of my very basic questions, I found myself thinking: “Wow, there is a lot more to finishes than I thought.” Regardless, Bill was able to convey the information for me in layman’s terms–for the sake of keeping me from having to write a Tolstoy novel. So here we go.

For kitchen cabinetry, there are essentially four kinds of chemical finishes, from least to most superior in quality— NC and Pre-Catalyzed Lacquers, Post Catalyzed Conversion Varnishes, and Polyurethanes:
1) Nitrocellulose Lacquer
2) Pre- Catalyzed Lacquer
3) Post-Catalyzed Conversion Varnish
4) Polyurethane.

Nitrocellulose Lacquer is considered an “everyday” type finish–inexpensive and cures or dries easily. There have been some improvements in this finish since its invention in 1921, but is it is still considered by the “pros” to be in the lowest end of the spectrum in quality for the following reasons:

• Tends to conform to the surface below it showing any imperfections of the substrate (Lower Volume Solids)
• Scratches and wears off easily (interacts with other chemicals/materials)
• Tends to yellow over time.

Some cabinet manufacturers use this finish because of its low cost and quick curing time.

Pre –Catalyzed Lacquers offer a step up when compared to straight Nitrocellulose Lacquer. The “pre” catalyzed version is called such because the catalyst is added into the mixture before it is sold to the end user, it is ready to use and requires little preparation. Additionally, it has a longer shelf life and requires less professional expertise for its application, when compared to Post Catalyzed Conversion Varnishes. Although superior to straight Nitrocellulose Lacquer, most have quality limitations such as a lower volume solids ratio (15-20%) and a tendency to yellow (not curing “water white”) so its performance is not as superior as the next step up.

Post–Catalyzed Conversion Varnish is often higher in cost per gallon when compared to Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer. It has a higher volume solids ratio of 30% to 45% thereby providing better coverage, build and fill and creating a better chemical barrier against wear and tear that stands the test of time. For cost and benefit that is the most noticeable in the industry, most would say it is the “go to” finish for high quality.

Polyurethane is another finish, often applied on items that take a beating from the elements. This finish is costly in dollars and time, and requires more safety / risk considerations. Post Catalyzed Conversion Varnish and Polyurethane’s protective qualities are so similar overall that the benefits of polyurethane (durability vs. cost and time) can be considered by many manufacturers overkill for kitchen cabinetry.  Therefore, for most discerning clients, Post-Catalyzed Conversion Varnish would be considered the ideal product to use for high end kitchen cabinetry finishes.

Sandra Brannock has designed beautiful and functional custom kitchens for clients throughout Northern Virginia and the metropolitan Washington, DC region. For more information, call Sandra direct at (703) 801-6402 or email