Varnish or Polyurethane for Kitchen Cabinets? Choosing the Best Finish 2022

You can always choose Varnish or Polyurethane for Kitchen Cabinets. Let’s discuss the two formulas and see which one comes on top!

Traditional varnish and polyurethane are popular formulas that cure into protective coats.

In addition, they resist harmful elements to keep the wood intact for a long duration.

However, woodworkers refer to these products interchangeably, despite featuring different uses and varying protection levels from elements.

So, it would be best to get some answers on the subject of varnish or polyurethane for kitchen cabinets, for better decision making.

Polyurethane products are the most suitable for kitchen cabinets.

More so, they deliver the best working conditions and results for indoor household tasks, like desks and bookshelves.

On the other hand, the varnish formula is famous for outdoor projects such as decks.

You will enjoy unmatched durability, protection, and varied color options from polyurethane and varnish.

But it would be best to pick what suits your project needs.

Also, read through this guide to learn more about these solutions and get the maximum value for your money.

How Do You Know When to Use Varnish or Polyurethane?

The first step is determining the project’s nature and your desired finish.

Also, it would be best to evaluate these formulas separately to know their distinct functions.

Thus, you’ll clarify the specific product attributes needed for the work.


Polyurethane comes in two variations: water-based and oil-based products.

The water-based version is best when working with low odor and delivers a more natural appearance. So, it is the best option for hardwood floors. 

In addition, water-based polyurethane products have a faster drying time and allow you to recoat the surface without compromising the wood’s color.

But you will have to spend more money as they are pricier than oil-based formulas.

Conversely, oil-based polyurethane delivers rich color and is more durable than its counterpart.

Also, although the product has a strong odor and higher toxicity, it offers better protection from elements.

On top of that, Oil-based finishes come in various colors and allow you to change the wood’s color.

The formula is also perfect for areas with high foot traffic, thanks to its moisture resistance abilities.


Varnish is a traditional resin comprising oils, waxes, and solvents. The product also has a higher solids ratio, making it less susceptible to UV light damage.

Thus, you can use it for outdoor projects, like exterior furniture, and expect longevity.

Please note that the formula has a tricky application process as it is prone to peeling, cracking, and bubbling.

This situation exposes the lumber to water damage and shortens its lifespan. So, you are safer following the manufacturer’s instructions to the end.

In addition, the surface requires more coats to deliver a more tinted color.

Therefore, you need more varnish to offer a suitable outcome, resulting in more financial and human resources.

Fortunately, you can get an expert to help out if you are unsure of your skills.

But if you insist on handling the project, please use the recommended thinning solvents and allow enough drying time between coats.

That said, here is a summary of the considerations to make before choosing polyurethane or varnish for your work.

  • Durability. Consider how long you want the finish to last and how many coats will make it possible. For example, it would be best to go for a water-based polyurethane product for a guest bedroom you rarely use. On the other hand, choose an oil-based polyurethane for surfaces subject to heavy traffic.
  • Color. Use a water-based product when you’d like to keep the lumber’s natural appearance. But you are better off with an oil-based finish if you want to change the wood’s color or give it a glow. 
  • Toxicity. Remember that some formulas contain more chemicals and are flammable. Therefore, you can pick water-based polyurethane for poorly ventilated areas or if you have children around.
  • Drying. Please select a water-based formula when there is a rush to use the surface. It dries quickly, and you only need a day to complete the work. However, since varnish and oil-based polyurethanes are more durable, you can consider them when you are not in a hurry.
  • Application. Water-based polyurethane products are easier to use than varnish or oil-based formulas. Thus, they are the best option for beginners. However, you can try a bold finish, like varnish, if you are a home improvement expert.
  • Cost. It would be best to determine how much you are willing to spend on the project. Oil-based polyurethanes are cheaper than water-based formulas and varnish products.

What Is the Most Popular Finish for Kitchen Cabinets?

Semi-gloss finish is the most popular finish for kitchen cabinets. However, please note that a painted cabinet dramatically changes the kitchen’s design.

And you are safer considering all the available finishes before making a decision.

Fortunately for you, this section gives you various finishes to consider for your kitchen cabinets. Check them out!

  • High-Gloss Finish (100% Gloss Finish)

100% gloss surfaces are sleek and shiny and reflect light around the room. They turn your cabinets into statement pieces.

And although this style was popular in the 70s, it is still an excellent option for modern kitchen spaces.

A high gloss finish style has a few advantages. For example, it helps the space feel airy and bright.

The formula also offers a futuristic quality to contemporary designs and is easy to use. Thus, it is perfect for small kitchen spaces.

Sadly, high gloss finishes show dirt easy, especially for the white version.

In addition, they are prone to breaking, chipping, and failing more than other products, even when you apply a topcoat. 

On top of that, you will quickly notice scratches and imperfections on high gloss finishes, regardless of whether the surface is an oil-based or water-based product.

The product is also quite tricky to clean without damaging the finish.

It would be best to avoid these products if you live with pets and small children.

In addition, please consider other finishing alternatives when you want a low-maintenance kitchen cabinet design.

Lately, you can still use this product, especially if your kitchen cabinets pair well with nonstick pans.

In addition, the finish will remain impressive and bright with the correct maintenance routine and products. So, do not let its drawbacks limit your style!

  • Matte Finish

A matte finish is famous for being dull, not reflecting light. However, do not confuse it to appear dull and drab simply because it does not absorb light.

Many traditional and modern kitchens use the finish to deliver a sophisticated look. So it is still relevant.

Besides, Matte finishes give you more freedom to be creative and experiment with different colors.

For example, try mixing pastel pinks with pastel blues if you do not want maple cabinets and wood tones.

These flat finishes are perfect for beginners and simple DIYers as they deliver a colorful kitchen without being too much.

In addition, they are versatile and available as latex or oil-based products. Thus, you’ll get the most suitable formula quickly.

On top of that, the formula brings a new spin to the whole kitchen’s interior design. Also, it is ideal for larger kitchens as it delivers warm and cozy spaces.

Even better, marks, scratches, and dirt are less visible with matte surfaces. Hence, high traffic, pets, and children will not compromise your work.

However, the primary downside with matte surfaces is that they can appear dull.

For example, kitchen cabinets would look lifeless if you only painted them with two coats of a matte finish. 

Also, a matte finish can make your kitchen look smaller if you apply two paint coats.

And this effect is not appropriate when you want to sell the house. Thus, please play around with different colors to create a balance.

  • Satin Finish (Eggshell)

A satin or eggshell finish is similar to a matte one. However, it delivers a silky smooth look with a slight pearl-like sheen.

And it gives your old kitchen cabinets a unique and regal appearance.

In addition, satin surfaces reflect more light than matte kitchen cabinets. Hence, they are a perfect way to bring a fairly flat-feeling style to the room.

Better still, the finish reflects only little light. So, it gives the cabinets a slight dimension without making them obvious.

An eggshell finish is suitable for multiple household applications.

For example, you can use them in homes with animals and children, spaces with heavy foot traffic all the time, and kitchens that get messy quickly.

Also, although the paint’s pearl-like sheen is elegant and opulent, streaks and rough spots are pretty visible.

Thus, it is easy to deliver an awful-looking finish if you ignore the correct application procedures.

You can consider hiring a professional to help deliver flawless kitchen cabinets. This way, you’ll avoid ending up with a failed product. 

  • Semi-Gloss Finish

Semi-gloss finishes have impressive light-reflecting abilities that help make the space appear bigger and brighter.

Even better, they make kitchen cabinets stand out without going too overboard or hurting your eyes.

In addition, this finish is a perfect choice for woodworkers experimenting with various color palettes that may appear tacky and gaudy.

It also allows DIYers and creatives to try different styles without worrying about excess gloss.

One of the primary advantages of semi-gloss finishes is that they are locally available.

More so, they have been a popular option for decades and show no signs of being extinct. Therefore, you can quickly get the product for reapplication projects.

Even so, a semi-gloss finish is not the best appearance for houses on sale. More so, it delivers a very safe and palatable style that will not blow anyone’s socks off during house hunting.

Thus, you can only use the finish to tone down overdone kitchen cabinets.

Finally, this finish is neither dramatic nor eye-catching, allowing you to find other ways to decorate your home.

Therefore, please consider it for a safe and well-balanced aesthetics that can withstand changing trends. 

Should You Clear Coat Kitchen Cabinets?

Image of a clear coatIt would be best to clear coat your kitchen cabinets when creating a brighter and more friendly space.

In addition, the clear coat will protect the wood from scratching, dirt, and chipping and enhance its durability.

Besides, natural light causes paints and other finishes to discolor and fade over time.

Hence, you need UV blocking clear coat with lots of natural light.

This way, you’ll preserve the cabinet’s beauty for a longer duration.

Additionally, there are a few things to check for when buying or using clear coat products.

For instance, finishes have different life spans, and it is prudent to know when you can recoat the surface.

Also, your assessment will reveal whether you need a clear coat to keep the cabinets attractive.

Please check the clear coat’s durability, application procedures, and maintenance requirements before purchase.

Also, confirm if it can withstand scratches, scrapes, and heavy use in the kitchen.

How Do I Know What Finish is On My Kitchen Cabinets?

You can determine the type and age of the finish on your kitchen cabinets by using boiled linseed oil, acetone, and denatured alcohol.

Also, follow the procedure below for an accurate result.

  • Rub some drops of boiled linseed oil into the lumber and observe. The wood will absorb the oil drops if it has an oil finish and bead up when it has a hard finish.
  • Rub acetone on the hard finish in a gentle and circular motion. Varnishes and shellacs will become sticky and form gel-like substances immediately, while lacquer will dissolve the solution. On the other hand, polyurethane products will shed the acetone like a glossy surface.
  • Sprinkle some drops of denatured alcohol on the lumber. Varnish will react slowly while shellac dissolves the solution quickly.

How to Varnish Kitchen Cabinet

Varnish cures into a thin glossy film with amber or faint yellow. More so, this finish is similar to what you get with an oil-based polyurethane.

However, varnish formulas contain more compounds like alkyd resin and other solvents that make them stand out.

In addition, varnish features a high water resistance and solids content that makes it apt for exterior applications such as deck chairs, water-exposed outdoor decks, and boats.

Even better, it offers UV rays protections and preserves the wood’s original color.

Varnish products are a favorite among DIY woodworkers, who work with softwoods like pine, as they are easy to use.

But you are safer adhering to the application method below for a durable outcome.

  • First, determine whether you want to refinish the whole cabinetry. If yes, unscrew the cabinet doors at the hinges and then empty the drawers. Also, you can use an electric drill to remove pulls and for easy application.
  • Next, clean the cabinet doors with a strong degreasing cleaner, like trisodium phosphate. You can also get a toothbrush and a kitchen scrub sponge to remove grime in corners and grooves.
  • In addition, ensure that you eliminate all the dirt and grease. These components may compromise adhesion and eventually ruin your project. So, clean the cabinets, rinse them, and give them enough drying time.
  • Examine the cabinet doors and drawers for cracks, holes, and dents. Fortunately, you do not have to stress over affected wood because the carpenter’s wood putty does an excellent job. Even better, the product comes in various colors, and you can choose the color closest to the original wood.
  • Allow the putty to dry and sand the cabinet drawers and door. Also, it is okay to use 100-grit sandpaper and an electric sander for the first sanding session. But ensure that you graduate to a medium-fine sponge or 150 or 180-grit sandpaper for the final touch.
  • On top of that, remove the sanding dust using a ‘tack’ rag. You can also get a vacuum cleaner attachment for larger projects as it helps eliminate even the finest dust that can affect paint adhesion. 
  • Apply the stain using a fine-bristle paintbrush. Then, wait for five to ten minutes and wipe it off with a clean, lint-free cloth. In addition, use the formula liberally to deliver full coverage. 
  • Wait for about 24 hours for the stain to dry, then apply the varnish. Also, it would be safer to wait for eight hours before turning the cabinet doors over to stain the other side. However, this aspect only applies when working on both sides of the doors. Thus, you can proceed with the varnishing step if you only need one stained side.
  • Apply at least two polyurethane or varnish coats, and remember to sand the wood lightly between the layers. In addition, use a high-quality brush or a sprayer to avoid brush marks and other imperfections.

How to Polyurethane Kitchen Cabinets

Polyurethane works best on unfinished lumber. However, you can get desirable results with a painted surface.

A polyurethane finish also cuts down the wear and tear of kitchen cabinets. Therefore, it is a perfect top coat for your work.

In addition, polyurethane formulas cure to deliver a hard plastic-like coat. Hence, nothing can penetrate it and compromise the wood.

The product also is easy to apply and features an impressive drying time.

Polyurethane surfaces are resistant to water and chemicals, and you won’t have to worry about wood damage.

Even better, the product is available in various shines, like satin, low-gloss, and high-gloss.

Also, remember that preparation is the primary requirement to delivering a professional result. The process ranges from stripping the old finish to applying the new formula.

And it would be best to include sanding, using paint removal, filling, and sanding to your work schedule.

Ensure that the surface is dry before adding the polyurethane coat, especially if the surface has a stain or wood filler.

This way, you’ll enhance the formula’s adhesion and deliver a flawless result.

Additionally, consider the most suitable tools for the job. For example, it is prudent to only use a sprayer for latex polyurethane. Otherwise, an oil-based formula will clog up the work.

Also, please use a high-quality brush, lint-free cloth, or lambswool applicator to avoid streaks and brush marks.

Another tip to remember is that most wood types need at least two layers of oil-based polyurethane formulas.

The first coat serves as a sealer and primer, whereas the second works as a topcoat.

Also, please add a third coat when using a water-based product.

But ensure that you sand in between coats and wipe the dust with a clean cloth. This way, you’ll keep the finish from wearing away quickly.

Sometimes you’ll notice missed spots on the surface after application. Well, this discovery should not stress you.

They are a result of inadequate penetration and poor wood penetration.

And it is possible to correct the issue by redoing the work or getting professional touch-ups.

Additionally, it is best to know that not all polyurethane products are clear.

Some have some color and resemble pigmented shellac. Thus, you may need to apply several coats to deliver your desired color.

In other cases, you may get a perfect hue without achieving the needed sheen. So, let the cabinets dry well and apply a clear polyurethane finish to complete the task.

However, please note that this clear finish may slightly change the underneath tone.

Lastly, low gloss polyurethanes have a lesser lifespan than high-gloss formulas.

Therefore, you are better off using a low-gloss finish as topcoats to reduce the shine in high-gloss coatings.

Here’s a Video On How to Polyurethane Kitchen Cabinet

Is Lacquer Stronger than Varnish?

Yes, Lacquer is stronger than varnish. It is a solvent-based formula containing shellac and alcohol, producing a resilient synthetic coating on surfaces.

Even better, this finish is resistant to alkali, casual bumps and knocks, water, and acid.

Also, although lacquer is more hard-wearing than varnish, it can still suffer scratches and discoloration over time.

Thus, it is wise to keep an eye on the finish and reapply the formula when necessary.

Fortunately, all you need is a quick spray of lacquer, and the surface becomes attractive again.

In addition, the product comes in multiple sheen levels and shades. So, you have more freedom to choose the most compatible finish.


Applying a finish to your wooden kitchen cabinets is perhaps one of the most critical home improvement projects.

But it is easy to be torn between polyurethanes and varnishes. So, engage with this article and get an answer to the concern:

Varnish or Polyurethane for Kitchen Cabinets

Polyurethane is the best formula for your kitchen cabinets. It is ideal for indoor applications and emits a low odor.

In addition, the product offers a pretty fast drying time, and you won’t have to wait for long to use the cabinets.

Image of a woodworker wearing hearing protectors for woodworking

Tyron Otieno

Tyron is an avid woodworker and writer. He founded this website to help other woodworkers, whether hobbyists or professionals by sharing his knowledge and experiencie after a decade of woodworking.

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