Q: Our new kitchen is going to require some custom cabinets, and my husband would like to build them himself to save money. I am concerned that the finishing touches will be compromised and shortly upon completion we will see them yellow, peel or warp. Any ideas on how we can seal or coat the cabinets? –Isabelle (Burlingame, Calif.)

A: We believe that the fun of renovation is the process, from concept to execution. The best way to make your new kitchen truly yours is to add those special touches only you can provide. Kudos to you and your husband for tackling your kitchen cabinets.

Finishes for custom cabinets run the gamut from clear coats such as polyurethane to paint, plastic laminates and baked-on enamels. All these options, except the baked-on finish, are within your capability.

Warping occurs from the use of inferior wood with a high moisture content. To prevent this problem, always buy kiln-dried lumber and cabinet-grade plywood for building cabinets. This will ensure a low moisture content.

If you are planning to paint your cabinets, consider using a manufactured wood product such as medium density fiberboard (MDF) to construct the boxes. It is hard and stable, easy to work with, sands well and takes paint well. MDF has virtually no moisture, and warping will not be a problem. Compared with paint-grade plywood, it’s very economical. The money you save by using MDF can be used for upgraded appliances or other items that may not otherwise be in the budget.

To prevent peeling and yellowing, buy the best finishes and apply them according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Apply paint with a good nylon or China bristle paintbrush. Foam brushes work well for clear finishes and stain.

If you plan to paint your cabinets, a high-quality oil enamel applied over a coat of oil primer and a split coat is the traditional method and will give you a long-lasting, durable and easy-to-clean finish. A split coat is a mixture of half primer and half finish coat applied over the primer as a second coat. Sand between coats with No. 220 grit sandpaper and make sure you wipe the dust off with a tack rag.

If you plan to stain your cabinets, apply one or two coats of stain, depending on the depth of color you want. It’s a good idea to stain and clear-coat a scrap of the wood you used to build the cabinets to make sure the color is what you want. After the stain is dry, apply two coats of the clear finish you select, sanding and tacking between coats.

If you want to let the natural beauty of the wood come through, use a clear finish. Apply a wood sealer first and then two coats of the finish. Sanding between coats will ensure a professional finish.

We’ve used varnish, marine varnish, lacquer and polyurethane to finish cabinets. Bill prefers spar varnish for its workability, and Kevin prefers polyurethane for its durability.


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