A desire for a gourmet kitchen is a 2021 kitchen trend

Paint or Stain for Kitchen Cabinets?

One of the decisions you will have to make for your new kitchen is paint or stain kitchen cabinets. Since the finish on your new cabinets is what gives your kitchen its personality, you’ll want to have all the facts before making a final decision.  

In this article, we give you the pros and cons of both paint and stain kitchen cabinets.

Paint for Kitchen Cabinets

Painted cabinets look amazing and offer customizing options you can’t get with stain. The smooth, clean finish of painted cabinets provides a sleek, modern look homeowners want.

One of your favorite paint colors on your new cabinets will make your kitchen look totally current, while showing off your personal style. Design trends come and go, It’s true. However, painted cabinets for the kitchen–especially white–are a classic look.

Advantages of Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Pro: Pick a Color, Any Color

There’s no contest. Paint offers the most color and style options. Cabinet manufacturers offer many standard paint colors. In addition, they can replicate specific paint colors from different paint suppliers, such as Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore.

They can also custom match any item you want to match, like a favorite purse. This ability to do custom color matches gives you even more choices.

Pro: Painted Kitchen Cabinets Provide a Smooth, Uniform Finish

No matter the color you choose, painted cabinets offer a smooth, sleek, flawless finish.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to get a smooth, consistent look with stain kitchen cabinets. Paint is ideal for homeowners who aren’t fans of the naturally-occurring character marks that can show through in stained wood cabinets.  

Pro: Paint Applies Better to MDF

MDF takes paint well. It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between MDF and real wood when they’re painted. Also, since MDF is not wood, there is no movement with changes in humidity that can cause hairline cracks at the seams.

Disadvantages of Painted Kitchen Cabinets

Pro? Or Con? Paint Hides Wood Features

Paint is thicker than stain, thus it doesn’t get absorbed by wood the way stain does. It stays on the surface. As a result, painted cabinets will hide the features of the wood. If you want to highlight the natural grain patterns of your kitchen cabinets, you will want to choose stain over paint.  

This feature of painted finishes can be seen as a negative or a positive feature, depending on what you like. Homeowners who want clean and uniform cabinetry will want paint that covers the wood grain, while those who are fond of wood’s natural beauty will see this as a negative.

Con: Painted Cabinets Show Cracks at the Seams

Changes in humidity affect wood. As wood expands with higher humidity, hairline cracks will show up in the paint at the joints.

The number one complaint with painted cabinets is hairline cracks at the joints. And this problem is pretty much unavoidable with painted finishes on wood.

You can ask your kitchen designer how the manufacturer of the cabinets you are considering addresses this problem. No supplier can guarantee these hairline cracks won’t happen, but the better ones will take steps to mitigate the problem.

Choosing cabinets with door and drawer fronts made from MDF will take care of the problem since MDF doesn’t expand and contract. Once painted, wood and MDF look the same.

Con: Paint on Kitchen Cabinets Costs More

Painted cabinets are more expensive than stained. How much more? The answer ultimately depends on the company making the cabinets and where you’re buying them, but typically they cost between 10% to 15% more. That can add to the overall cost of your kitchen remodel, depending on the size of your kitchen.

Con: Fingerprints Show on Painted Kitchen Cabinets

Smudges and fingerprints will show more readily on painted kitchen cabinets than on stained kitchen cabinets. This is especially true if you’ve selected a dark color.

Con: Painted Kitchen Cabinets are Difficult to Touch Up

Painted kitchen cabinets are difficult to touch-up, because the paint is sprayed on, not brushed. This is what gives painted cabinets their smooth appearance, but it is hard to recreate that look when trying to repair nicks or scratches with a paint brush.

You probably won’t know the exact color of the paint on your cabinet. If you’re buying semi-custom or stock cabinets, paint companies like Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore probably won’t have an exact match.

Painted cabinets are more vulnerable to visible marks, such as where your vacuum cleaner bangs into the cabinet side. It’s often difficult, if not impossible, to match the paint color exactly when you attempt touch-ups. Most painted cabinets have a sprayed-on, catalyzed finish. Although this type of finish provides that wonderfully smooth look you fell in love with, the downside is that touch-ups show up on that smooth finish.

Paint touch-up kits provided by cabinet manufacturers typically come with two bottles: the color and the catalyst you have to mix with the color to create the same type of finish material your cabinets were painted with. You can’t just go to Home Depot and say “I need some white paint to touch up scratches on my cabinets.” Whatever they give you won’t provide satisfactory results. In fact, you may make things look worse, and you’ll have to hire experts to come in and fix everything for you. FYI – the finish on your cabinets, whether paint or stain, is what is covered on the warranty that comes with the cabinets. If the finish “fails” – if it lifts, or buckles, or bubbles – this is definitely a warranty claim. The warranty covers both painted and stained finishes.

Stained Kitchen Cabinets

Stained kitchen cabinets are more traditional in look and style than paint. They will add warmth and character to your kitchen. A stained finish allows the natural wood beneath to show through. As a result, the overall look of the wood you’ve chosen is enhanced. Stained finishes come in a range of colors, from light to medium to dark tones.

Advantages of Stain Kitchen Cabinets

Pro: Stain Shows More of the Wood Features

Stain is much thinner than paint. As a result, it gets absorbed into the wood, rather covering it like paint does. Stain showcases the wood grain and other unique features of your cabinet’s wood species. As a result, you’ll be able to see and admire the wood’s distinctive features.

Pro: Stain Kitchen Cabinets are Easier to Touch Up

It’s a fact of life: nicks, dents and scratches occur to cabinets. Touching up a stained cabinet is easy to do, and touch-ups blend well on stained cabinets. Touch-up markers for stains are easy to find, and even if there isn’t an exact match, there’s sure to be a color that closely resembles your stain.  Most custom and semi-custom manufacturers provide touch up sticks that match your cabinet’s finish.

Pro: Stain Kitchen Cabinets Cost Less

Stain costs less than paint, and choosing a stained finish for your cabinets rather than paint helps to keep costs down. This can be a huge benefit if you are on a tight budget. However, if you want a custom stain color or a specialized finish technique, the cost of stained kitchen cabinets will go up.  

Pro: Dirt is Less Noticeable on Stain Kitchen Cabinets

Dirt and smudges are much less noticeable on stained wood than on paint, which definitely comes in handy if you have kids.

Disadvantages of Stain on Kitchen Cabinets

Con: Stain Doesn’t Hide Flaws

Whatever you call them – flaws or character marks — some homeowners love to see what makes wood look like wood. On the other hand, many people don’t want to see wood’s naturally occurring character marks, uneven grain distribution, sap wood streaks and color inconsistencies. Stained finishes allow every distinct feature of the wood to show.

Con: Stain Doesn’t Look Good on MDF

MDF can offer savings on cabinets, but it doesn’t take stain as well as it takes paint.

Mixing Finishes

If you love both paint and stain kitchen cabinets and find it difficult to choose between the two, you’re in luck. The latest kitchen design trends are all about mixing things up when remodeling. This includes wood species and finishes.

For example, while white is still the most popular finish color for new kitchens, many homeowners want to tone down the white-on-white and add some contrast by using another color, such as black, green or blue.

Another example is using a light neutral paint color, such as white, cream, gray or greige, on the perimeter cabinets, and then choosing stained cabinets for the island. Combining paint and stain in a kitchen is trending right now. It provides visual interest and gives you the opportunity to express your personality.

Painted Cabinets vs. Stained Cabinets Costs – Why the Difference?  

Your budget may be what decides whether to paint or stain your cabinets. Painted cabinets cost more — between 10% up to 15% more than stained kitchen cabinets.

Painting is a more time-intensive, i.e., costly, process than staining. The paint process involves more steps and more materials is used. There’s a primer/sealer coat, the paint coat(s) and possibly a top coat. (Some manufacturers use a paint that acts as a top coat.)

Staining cabinets has less steps and uses less material. Stain, sealer and clear top coat – that’s it.

How Are Cabinets Painted at the Factory?

Painting cabinets requires a large investment in shop equipment. High-end cabinet companies have massive facilities filled with spraying machines. 

The method used to paint the cabinet will impact pricing and finish quality. If the cabinet is hung and painted with a sprayer, you will see more imperfections in your cabinet finish. When cabinet parts are laid flat, streaks and drips are eliminated. In addition, it allows for the maximum amount of finish to be applied and provides a high level of “build” for maximum durability and appearance.

What to look for in a painted kitchen cabinet finish? You want to see a rich, deep, luxurious-feeling finish.

What do you not want to avoid? Low quality painted cabinets will have a chalky feel. They will be rough instead of smooth to touch. The paint will appear thin, as if not enough coats were applied. You may see rough or unfinished edges on doors and drawers.

How are Cabinets Stained at the Factory?

No matter the wood species, stain is sprayed on, then hand-wiped off. After the stain dries, a sealer is applied, and every cabinet piece gets sanded. Then the final top coat, a conversion varnish, is applied.

Maple gets an application of toner to even out inconsistencies in the wood. The toner dries prior to stain application to create a more consistent finish color after stain is applied. Cherry wood stains well without needing toner to achieve uniform color.

Certain stain colors require slightly different processes to get the color quality just right for the wood species. Nobody wants to see blotchy stained cabinets.


To summarize: Both paint and stain have their advantages and disadvantages. Paint is best for a smooth, modern look, while stain is best for a more traditional, natural look. Paint provides more color and specialized finish options than stain. (Think rub-through or distressing.) Paint covers the natural grain of wood. Stain shows more wood character.  

We want to stress that there is no right or wrong choice. Both are excellent options and will provide you with years of beautiful kitchen cabinets. It really comes down to personal preference and what you are looking for in your kitchen.

KDP exists to offer insight and advice about all things related to kitchen remodeling. Our goal is to connect homeowners with talented, experienced kitchen designers who live and work in their communities. We are a serious resource for anyone preparing to remodel their kitchen so they can make the best possible choices about designers, contractors and products.