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What are the Best Wood Stains and Finishes for Kitchen Cabinets

Explore the best wood stains and finishes for kitchen cabinets. Discover tips, types, and ideas to enhance your kitchen's style and aesthetics.

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Designing kitchen cabinets to compliment your style and home aesthetics is a tricky terrain. This is gaining importance as paints are slowly becoming uninteresting. Stains, along with finishes, are taking over the interiors now, especially in the kitchens. If you haven’t given it a thought, this might be your moment of truth. 

What makes this topic intriguing is that there are a multitude of options to explore now. For example, you can use wood stains to deliver a classic or modern look or a finish to turn your space luxurious and high-end. 

So, whether you are looking to build a new kitchen or upgrade your old restaurant kitchen, we have listed the best options for both. Check them out below. 

Wood Stains for Kitchen Cabinets

Generally, the stains are categorized into three types: oil stains, water-based stains, and gel stains. 

Wood Stains the Best Wood Stains and Finishes for Kitchen Cabinets

Oil stains

One of the most popular stains for wood is oil stains. They are easy to apply and require only a rag or cloth. However, if your kitchen cabinets have a finish, remove them first with mineral spirits before applying the oil stain. After application, removing extra oil left from the surface is super easy since these stains contain a linseed oil binder. 

Gel stains

Gel stains are unique in a way that they allow the wood’s natural stains and markings to show through. They are also easy to apply and do not require any pre-preparations. However, applying them can get slightly messier as they are thicker in texture than the oil stains. 

Water-based stains

As the name suggests, these use water as a binding agent, which makes it easier to clean them after laying. They dry up quickly, as these stains are made using pigments soluble in water. The quantity of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is lesser than that of oil-based compounds, making them a healthier option and hence more environmentally friendly.

Now that you know about the three categories, let’s shed light on the best wood stains for your kitchen cabinets.

Natural stain

There is a warm and earthy feeling about natural stains that makes people fall for them. They make the space look timeless and appealing. In addition to this, you get a chance to showcase your wood grain in its entirety. However, the natural stains are slightly transparent, so achieving an even look may take some extra effort. 

Amber stain

You might have seen products with “spice” or “honey” written on them; these are amber stains. Contrary to natural stains, amber stains make your kitchen cabinets look slightly darker. However, they do not hide your wood grain and will still maintain it as it should be. The best results can be seen on light-colored wood. Try it to know it!

Medium Gray Stain

This stain works best for people who are bored of the natural wood hue and are looking for something different and unique. It is an ideal match for the lighter countertops and helps you stay away from that painted look.

White or silver grain

To lighten up a kitchen with darker tiles, walls, or accents, white or silver grain works very well. It adds depth and character to your kitchen cabinets but will hide the natural lines and patterns of the wood. Stay away if you are averse to the idea.

Soft green

If you are a connoisseur of lighter hues, this one will take your breath away. The color is soft on the eyes and works with almost all colors done on the walls. Above all, it maintains the wood’s appearance and does not conceal or alter it.

Deep Red

The red stain offers the dual benefit of staying in the natural palette yet providing a pop of color. Deep red and oxblood are the two most popular shades. These can add a reddish tint to any wood grain. However, it is suggested to avoid using them on already painted surfaces as that can make your kitchen cabinets look even darker. 

Dark brown stain

Nothing compares to old-world charm like darker stains. They add a rustic feel to your kitchen and transport you to a different world. Choose a coffee tone, and it will make the place look rich instantly. But be careful: Dark stains have a tendency to partially cover the wood grain.

Black or dark gray

Apart from all the above, black and dark gray are also popular. They are used to create a modern yet minimalistic and muted look. What they do best is enhance the brighter hues of the space unlike any other. 

Best Finishes for Kitchen Cabinets


Lacquers are the best when trying to achieve a stain-free and waterproof finish on your kitchen cabinets. They also exhibit a sheen that makes your kitchen appear luxurious. However, these require some effort in the form of polishes and cleaners to maintain their looks. 

Lacquer Kitchen cabinet the Best Wood Stains and Finishes for Kitchen Cabinets

The thick coating of lacquers makes the surface less susceptible to damage from acids, alkalis, or water. There is no need for multiple coats, and they dry up faster, thus saving time. However, lacquers may develop a yellowish hue over some time and cannot be applied on old, finished, or painted surfaces.

Types of lacquers

You can choose one of the following for your kitchen cabinets.

  • Solid lacquer: If your cabinets are constructed using maple or oak, these are just ideal. 
  • Solid finish: High-end kitchens or restaurants that aim for a rich look can opt for this finish. While the entire process of adding this finish takes some time, the results are definitely worth the wait. To avoid any gap on the surface, hire a professional who will use the right rollers and brushes for the purpose. 
  • Paint lacquer: An inexpensive alternative to solid finishes, paint lacquer is also low on maintenance. It can be used on kitchen cabinets made from plywood, MDF, or particleboard


In a polyurethane finish, the small chains of resin molecules bond with each other tightly. This results in a finish that is stronger than most other finishes. So, whether you want your kitchen cabinets to have a rich golden tone or maintain natural lightness, there is a polyurethane type for it. 

Polyurethane finishes for kitchen cabinets are available in four forms: satin, matt, semi-gloss, and high-gloss. They are easy to apply and can be applied on concrete and metal surfaces. Also, they are durable and safe from dents, scratches, or smudges. But do not apply them multiple times, or it will leave you with a plastic-like appearance.

These are of two types: Oil-based polyurethane and water-based polyurethane.

  • Oil-based polyurethane: It delivers a warm, golden color while making the surface durable. There is no hassle in applying, and it takes its sweet time to dry up. That means you have ample time to work in between the coatings.
  • Water-based polyurethane: For a crystal-clear finish, you can consider a water-based polyurethane finish. But its watery texture is the reason you may have to apply more coatings. Nevertheless, they do not contain VOCs and thus are safer for the environment and your health. 


The most popular and commonly used top coating is varnishes. They are well-known for maintaining the beauty of the wood and saving it from the external elements. They are prepared by using different types of resins. 

Varnishes prevent scratches on the top surface and also protect the cabinets from damage due to spills.

These can be further categorized into two types: natural resins and synthetic resins.

  • Natural resins: examples include amber, balsam, copal, dammar, elemi, kauri gum, rosin mastic, sandarac, and shellac. 
  • Synthetic resins: acrylic, alkyd, and polyurethane are some of its types.


It is a water-based finish for those looking for an eco-friendly finish for their kitchen cabinets. It is prepared from the secretion of a female lac bug. Also, it is water resistant but not very durable in comparison to the above three. 

  • Seedlac: This type of shellac is taken from the branches that were previously laden with resin left behind by the lac bug. 
  • Button Shellac: Commercial button shellac is made by heating a canvas tube. The resin comes out and is laid on a steel plate, on which buttons are formed. It retains a small amount of the natural shellac. 
  • Waxy Shellac: Made from the rax seed lac, these are known for their natural wax content as well as their color. 

Choosing the Right Stain for Your Kitchen

Here are a few factors you must consider before selecting stains for your kitchen cabinets:

Red Oak Cabinet the Best Wood Stains and Finishes for Kitchen Cabinets

Wood color

This is the first thing you should think about. Take an example. Red oak has a pinkish undertone. If you choose to apply a golden yellow stain, the undertone will still be visible. Therefore, pick a stain that does not require enforcement on the surface and yet maintains its authenticity.

Wood grain

Wood species vary, and one of the variables is wood grains. Different stains are prepared to keep in mind the wood grain. So, pick one that is closer to the natural grain of the wood. This saves your cabinets from looking dramatic and overdone.

Stain a bigger piece.

To see if the stain will work just like you have imagined, then paint a bigger piece of the actual wood you have used for building the cabinets. Often, people apply the stain on a small chip. Do not make this mistake, as it won’t give you a clear idea. 


Once you stain a section, move it into your kitchen and have a good look at it. Is it complimenting the space? Do you like the way it looks under the fluorescent light? To make an informed decision, you should also watch them closely in natural light. This highlights the undertones and grain patterns so that you can make the right call.

The interiors

The overall look you are aiming for your home is a deciding factor. For instance, medium brown or warm stains work well for a rustic look. Similarly, cool and dark stains are a go-to option for modern, chic kitchens.  

How to Choose the Right Finish for Your Kitchen Cabinet

Look at your cabinet style.

A clear finish is the right finish for a customized kitchen cabinet done in natural wood. This is a common sight in Nordic kitchen designs. Just like its name, it does not add any color but accentuates the natural beauty.  

The size of the kitchen

In a smaller kitchen or with cabinets that are stained dark, consider lighter finishes. This helps in opening up the space. You can also combine two finishes but do it strategically. The kitchen island cabinets can be dark, but keep the rest lighter. 

Condition of the cabinets

This is vital. Aged cabinets, for instance, that are in a distressed state need multiple finish types to hide the imperfections. These may also demand distressing to make them appear old and used. In addition to using the right finish, these may require paint or stain as well. 

Combine with colors

Earlier, having kitchen cabinets using the same color and finish was a common sight. However, more and more people are experimenting with colors now, so much so that you might witness two different colors: lighter for the islands and darker for the cabinets and vice versa. 

Application Tips and Techniques

  • Always clean the wood surface before applying the finish
  • Clean them regularly to prevent grime buildup.
  • Use cleaning products that do not harm the finishes
  • Keep repairing minor scratches or dings as soon as you witness them
  • Reapply the finish as and when needed to maintain the aesthetic appeal of the cabinets

It’s Time to Wrap Up!

We agree that selecting the right stain and finish for your kitchen cabinets can be overwhelming. A multitude of choices makes it even tougher. Therefore, we hope our list of the best stains and finishes will help you make a quick decision. 

Ask your interior designer to replicate one of the ideas we shared. Or get in touch with us to create the kitchen cabinets you desire!


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