5 Questions to Ask About Your Cabinet Finish | Before You Buy

Many people are under the false assumption that “custom” cabinets mean they must come from a local shop and can’t be done in a large factory. Customers must not be fooled by superficial similarities and should understand how high quality finishes, box work materials, and construction can make a major difference in the overall quality, performance, and value of their cabinetry.

This five year old shop-built cabinetry is showing lots of wear & chipping because of the finish used.

This happens to be a spectacularly designed kitchen in a fabulous home. However, the paint is chipping… not an uncommon situation with local shop-built finishes… but nonetheless, the homeowner didn’t realize that their kitchen would require ongoing maintenance.

They only had two options: (1) They could sand their kitchen down to raw wood and repaint it (still not a good finish); OR, (2) They can replace it with custom cabinetry that is factory finished and warrantied for life.  In going through this factory chemical heat induced finish process, the cabinets receive a highly durable finish that resists stains from food and liquids, which will keep them functioning and looking great for much longer. 

A catalyzed conversion varnish is a fast-drying finish that comes in two parts: the finish and an acid catalyst (hardener) that is added to the finish just before spraying.   The catalyst creates cross-linking (chemical reaction) in conjunction with added heat-curing to create the hardest most durable finish available on the market.

For year’s we had our own small shop here in Tuscaloosa, AL and we could never achieve the quality finish desired so we started selling products manufactured with catalyzed conversion varnish baked-on factory finishes.  Most shop built cabinets will have a pre-catalyzed or standard lacquer finish which tends to have a gummy finish/feel and will turn yellow in color with time.

When planning your kitchen, the durability of the finish is one of the most important consideration, especially if you don’t want the inconvenience of having to maintain it every couple of years and having to endure the sanding, dust, paint smell, and general household intrusion.

If you are purchasing small shop-built cabinetry, here are 5 questions you should be asking your contractor, designer, or cabinetmaker.

1)      Moisture Content in Wood | Do you check for moisture content in all the wood prior to making product from it? Our factories kiln-dry and check every piece of wood to achieve optimum moisture content, which ensures that you don’t have excess moisture in the wood. This intensive lumber-drying process prevents adhesion problems with your finishes, and it also minimizes the expansion/contraction results in the finished product. To achieve superior adhesion, the wood must be dried to a range between 4.2% and 4.7% moisture content.

2)      Dust in Finish Process | Are you finishing the cabinetry in your small shop or on the job site and what are you doing to ensure that your painting environment is dust free so dirt or hairs from paintbrushes are not seen in the finished product? In our factories, there is much better control of dust because there is a specialized area that filters all the air going in and all the air going out. This finishing area maintains negative pressure always, which means there is constant air being pushed out of the environment so that other dust and particles can’t find their way in through doorways or openings. Most smaller shops cannot afford this type of dust control, and it is not possible with a job site application.  You can feel the difference of a factory finish produced in a dust free environment. Rub the product with the softer back side of your fingers and feel the difference.

3)      Catalyzed Conversion Varnish Baked-On Factory Finished | What are you using as the cabinet finish to provide a durability & a strong, long-lasting finish? Are you using a catalyst in the varnish? Most local custom shops do not have the capacity to use a catalyzed varnish as the finish topcoat. Some reasons preventing them from using a catalyst are: (1) it requires much more expensive equipment that must be shot through stainless steel guns; (2) the equipment is much more difficult to maintain; and (3) they are forced to work in very short cycles due to the limited curing time (where the paint hardens quickly) causing a higher labor & intensive cleanup. This process would make their job much more expensive to operate. Since their options are limited, most local shop/job-site finished projects use a polyurethane, pre-catalyzed, or a lacquer topcoat, which is nowhere near the same hardness/durability level as the catalyzed conversion varnish process. You want a catalyst within the varnish because that’s what makes the finish hard enough so it is durable and doesn’t come apart. A catalyzed varnish finish is impervious to most household chemicals, including acetone, the major additive to nail polish remover. Without a catalyst, household cleaners will slowly erode the finish. Our factories use catalyzed finishes so durable that a permanent Sharpie pen mark can wipe clean with acetone and not affect the finish (we tested this ourselves).   Ask your contractor to provide you with a sample of their work (preferably a cabinet door) and drop a small amount of fingernail polish remover on the back of the door so as not to ruin the front. If the cabinet shop is using lacquer or polyurethane, the finish will lift away from the door.

4)      Oven Cured & Heat Dried Finish | How do you dry your finishes between layers or steps in your finishing process? Drying between layers is a critical step that the larger factories use.  They use massive ovens with high-powered lights to “oven bake” the finish and accelerate the drying process.  Some finishes require up to 28 steps.  Drying before applying the next layer assures maximum adhesion to guarantee that the finish sticks.

5)       WARRANTY | What kind of warranty on your work do you offer?  Most factories confidently offer a lifetime warranty on the product because they know the finish will last.

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