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.


Send a Letter to the Editor for publication.
Send a comment or news tip to our newsroom.
Please include the headline of the story.

Show Comments Hide Comments
Sign up for Inman’s Morning Headlines
What you need to know to start your day with all the latest industry developments
By submitting your email address, you agree to receive marketing emails from Inman.
Thank you for subscribing to Morning Headlines.
Back to top
Only 3 days left to register for Inman Connect Las Vegas before prices go up! Don't miss the premier event for real estate pros.Register Now ×
Limited Time Offer: Get 1 year of Inman Select for $199SUBSCRIBE×
Log in
If you created your account with Google or Facebook
Don't have an account?
Forgot your password?
No Problem

Simply enter the email address you used to create your account and click "Reset Password". You will receive additional instructions via email.

Forgot your username? If so please contact customer support at (510) 658-9252

Password Reset Confirmation

Password Reset Instructions have been sent to

Subscribe to The Weekender
Get the week's leading headlines delivered straight to your inbox.
Top headlines from around the real estate industry. Breaking news as it happens.
15 stories covering tech, special reports, video and opinion.
Unique features from hacker profiles to portal watch and video interviews.
Unique features from hacker profiles to portal watch and video interviews.
It looks like you’re already a Select Member!
To subscribe to exclusive newsletters, visit your email preferences in the account settings.
Up-to-the-minute news and interviews in your inbox, ticket discounts for Inman events and more
1-Step CheckoutPay with a credit card
By continuing, you agree to Inman’s Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

You will be charged . Your subscription will automatically renew for on . For more details on our payment terms and how to cancel, click here.

Interested in a group subscription?
Finish setting up your subscription