Paint or Stain Kitchen Cabinets (Pros & Cons)

Here we cover whether to paint or stain kitchen cabinets including pros & cons, cost differences and which is best for your kitchen design.Stained wood kitchen cabinetsWooden cabinets are usually finished in one of two ways; stain or paint. A stain is a thin liquid that seeps into the surface of the wood, permeating the top layer and altering the color. The knots, grain, and texture of the wood remain visible. It can be thought of as translucent or transparent.

Paint, on the other hand, is opaque. The surface of the wood is texturized and perhaps prepared for painting with a primer, which is then applied on top of the wood, obscuring the grain. [toc]

Painting Cabinets Pros and Cons

Painting kitchen cabinets whiteOne advantage of paint is that it can be applied to wood or MDF, while stain can only be used with real wood. Painted cabinets are currently more popular than stained, and most new-build homes have painted cabinets installed.

While you’ll still need to lay down drop cloths, ventilate the area, and prime the wood, the project should take less time from start to finish if you choose to paint your cabinets instead of staining them.

Latex-based paint is a popular and durable choice, and could easily transform your kitchen cabinets in a day or two.

Oil-based paint has an attractive sheen that looks great on kitchen cabinets, but comes with a longer drying time, extending the project by requiring more waiting time between each coat.

Cabinets are a high-use feature of the modern kitchen and see a lot of hand traffic. White or light-colored paints will need frequent cleaning but show less dust than their stained counterparts. Paint also has virtually unlimited options for color and finish, while the range of stains is much more limited.

Over years of repeated use, the paint will eventually start to crack, chip, and peel, requiring touch-ups or a completely new paint job. Make sure to get more paint than you need so you can save some of it for touch-ups, or use this as an excuse to rejuvenate your kitchen’s style.

You can expect the paint on your cabinets to last about ten years with appropriate care, cleaning, and maintenance.

Staining Cabinets Pros and Cons

Kitchen with stained wood cabinetsStain can only be applied to wood cabinets. Stained wooden cabinets are not as popular as they once were, but they have not fallen completely out of style.

One advantage of choosing stain over paint is that it’s an easier and more forgiving process for DIYers — as long as you don’t apply too much stain or let the stain drip and pool, you’re likely to be very happy with the results.

They are also easier to touch-up than painted cabinets, and imperfections in finish tend to be obscured somewhat by the grain of the wood. A good stain can transform less expensive, untreated wood into a facsimile of expensive hardwoods like walnut or cherry.

Stained wood cabinets look great in traditional kitchens. They are usually sealed and varnished to protect the wood from stains, smudges, and liquid.

A major benefit of staining cabinets is the durability of the finish. Stain is long-lasting and will not chip, peel, or dent. A quality stain with an appropriate sealant will maintain its appearance for many years. This is an advantage in all situations but one: when you want to change the stain.

Restaining cabinets requires all the existing varnish to be stripped away using varnish stripper and a significant amount of patience and labor.

The cabinets then need to be cleaned with TSP before being restrained. The process will take several days, and you should ensure adequate ventilation at all times.

This is not a project to undertake with small children in the home. However, you can always paint over stained wood, provided you use appropriate priming techniques.

Stain is oil-based, and latex-based primer will therefore not adhere to stained wood. Instead, choose an oil or shellac-based primer.

Oil primers need significantly more drying time — about two days — and will need to be roughed up a bit to form a texture that latex paint can adhere to.

Shellac-based primers will be dry and ready to accept paint in just a few hours, although for best results it is often recommended that you let it dry overnight.

Paint vs Stain Cabinets Cost

Kitchen with blue painted cabinetsHiring a professional will guarantee professional results. Expect to spend between $2,000 and $5,000 to have your kitchen cabinets professionally painted.

A professional stain application is less expensive — between $1,500 and $4,000. When you consider that stain generally lasts twice as long as paint, it is clearly the more cost-effective choice.

This cost difference all but disappears if you do the job yourself. Expect to spend around $200 on supplies to paint or stain kitchen cabinets, and don’t forget to calculate the value of your time!

What’s Best, Painting or Staining Cabinets?

Both painting and staining cabinets are legitimate options with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. One method is not inherently superior to the other, but they do each have strengths and weaknesses. Which is best depends on your particular situation.

For instance, if you plan to rent the property to tenants, staining is the best option. The increased durability and limited maintenance allow your tenants to have functional and attractive cabinets without requiring a lot of work from you as a landlord.

Painting kitchen cabinetsIf you plan to live in the home or sell it within the next few years, painted cabinets are currently more popular.

Painted cabinets tend to work best in contemporary and modern kitchens, while stained cabinets are more suited to traditional design.

The quality of the wood is perhaps the biggest determining factor in whether to paint or stain. Because stain is meant to enhance and showcase the qualities of the wood, it’s a great fit for smooth, fine-grained wood with few knots.

If the wood used to construct the cabinets is full of unsightly knots or dark streaks, paint is the better option.

Ultimately, both staining and painting cabinets can produce an attractive and long-lasting contribution to your home’s design.

For more related content visit our page about the best colors to paint kitchen cabinets here. Let us know whether you prefer to paint of stain kitchen cabinets in the comments below.

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One Comment

  1. I really liked the part of your article that stated that stained wooden kitchen cabinets are perfect for traditional kitchens. We’re planning to turn our house from a dull modern-looking one to something more like the olden-days, and we want to do this in every room possible. We currently don’t have a plan for this in the kitchen, so I’ll take your advice and look for any kitchen cabinet providers that can arrange some stained ones for me.

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