Stained vs Painted Cabinets

Jul 1, 2023

Stained vs Painted Cabinets?

What are the fundamental differences between stained vs painted cabinets? Which is more durable? Which is easier to touch-up? These are all questions we have received before from potential clients online or at trade shows. Many homes, feature stained maple or oak cabinets.  Furthermore, the trim and banister railings throughout the house often match the cabinets providing a cohesive style.

While stained wood is still stylish and relevant in certain aspects, the stain colours considered stylish have changed dramatically over the years.  So clients with older, well built cabinets may not be fond of the colour of the wood anymore.  New solid wood cabinets are in the upper range of affordability, so people will often seek to refinish their existing cabinets.  This is also considered to be the more environmental option as well.  Who wants to throw a perfectly good set of cabinets into the landfill just to change the colour?!

There has been a trend of late for two tone cabinets.  For example, white perimeter cabinets may be chosen with either a wood or darker painted island.  In this case, stains and paint can exist in the same kitchen side by side.

Penetrating / Wiping Stains

Penetrating / wiping stains are oil or water borne products that absorb into the wood to give it more depth and colour.  The downside of a wiping vs sprayed stain is that the finish is dependant on the absorption rate of the wood.  Some types of wood absorb evenly – like walnut or oak.  Other types of wood like maple or pine can end up being more blotchy.  Wood conditioners are sometimes used to even out the absorption rate.  Penetrating / wiping stains benefit is that it will show the grain of the wood much more clearly.

Because the stain absorbs into the wood, light surface chips and scratches will often go unnoticed since the scratch may not go deeper than the colour. High quality wood found in rustic or rural designed homes will often feature a penetrating stain surface in order to protect and preserve the natural wood appearance.

Sprayed Stain Finishes

Sprayed stains are used sometimes in conjunction with wiping stains but often on their own.  A sprayed stain is a somewhat transparent colour that is sprayed over top of wood.  The benefit of a sprayed stain is that is not dependant on the absorption rate of the wood and as a result achieves a much more uniform finish.  (Think of the dark brown stained cabinets that were popular in the early 2000’s).

Sprayed stain still shows the grain of the wood but much less than a wiping stain would.  The downside of sprayed stains is that they are notoriously hard to repair or touch up.  A chip in the surface doesn’t have the hiding characteristic of a wiping stain, and also isn’t as easy to match as a solid paint type product would be. Those who’ve had the unfortunate experience of replacing a door on a sprayed stained cabinet quickly discover that it’s nearly impossible to match and almost never completely blends in.

Sprayed Solid Finish Cabinets 

In contrast to staining, a spray painted surface creates a synthetic, smooth coating over the surface, fully encasing the material in multiple layers of paint or coating. As opposed to naturally-inspired wood colours, sprayed lacquer or latex cabinetry features striking solid colour schemes like blues, greys, whites, and greens. As more cabinetry and built-in home features are crafted using MDF and maple, smooth wood products without grain, flawless smooth sprayed surfaces are becoming more desirable. So to are the nearly endless colour options you can choose from, as more home owners see the benefit in revitalizing their cabinetry as creative centre pieces of their home.

One of the primary benefits of a painted kitchen or other type of cabinet, is it’s easy of repair.  While products like lacquer have a more technical skill set to repair, it can still be achieved in an almost seamless – if not impossible to notice – fashion.  In the repaint market, where a coating is applied to an older kitchen, there are a few benefits of paint over stain.  The number one benefit in this writers mind is that a primer can be used.  The prime coat is the glue in a cabinet refresh.  And primer is not possible where the transparency of a stain is required.  There are other reasons as well that a re-stain may not be possible on an older kitchen.  We cover that in another article called ‘Can I re-stain my wood cabinets?’

Comparing Stained vs Painted Cabinets

In a new build, the options are wide open.  Stained wood cabinets are more expensive than painted cabinets as a painted cabinet will generally be built with a product like mdf or a less expensive wood product where the beauty of the grain doesn’t matter.

When repainting older cabinets, heavily grained woods such as oak will still show the grain texture through a sprayed lacquer surface, but not nearly to the extent that a stain will accentuate it.  Woods like maple paint perfectly smooth and show no grain at all.

Which is best for my home?  Stained or Painted Cabinets

When it comes down to it, think of a stain as being a part of the wood, whereas sprayed latex or lacquer forms a coating over top of the wood. All wood products may chip or dent, but sprayed cabinetry is as durable a product you can get while providing a luxurious, high-end finish on nearly any surface material in-home. The biggest decision to make is, as stated before, what theme do you want to portray inside your home? Modern, chic design trends lean towards the clean lines of sprayed solid colour trim and doors, whereas rustic or more traditional themes may benefit from quality woods and stains.

It also depends on if you are building a new cabinet or refinishing an older one.  Of course, at the end of the day, you want your cabinets to blend into the style of the rest of your home and reflect your unique tastes.

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