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Should You Paint or Stain Cabinets? Pros & Cons of Each

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Painted vs. Stained Cabinets for the Kitchen or Bathroom

The choice between painting and staining your cabinets will depend on a number of factors. Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages. See how each stack up in categories like budget, water resistance, maintenance and return on investment.

Paint is best for: Stain is best for:
Aesthetic Smooth, modern look Traditional, natural look
Low Budget Higher-cost supplies Lower-cost supplies
DIY Tougher to do as it’s less forgiving to mistakes Easier to apply yourself
Water Resistance More resistant to water Less responsive
Cleanliness Shows less dust and more dirt Shows more dust and hides more dirt
Longevity 10 years 20-30 years
Low-Maintenance Not washable and prone to crack Washable and less prone to crack
ROI High ROI High ROI

White or Wood Cabinets – Comparing Types & Styles

You have many options for style and type with both products. Stain may be more limited, but you can still deepen or change hues with certain types.

Paint Stain
Types
  • Latex
  • Oil-based – Slow drying process evens out brush strokes.
  • Low-VOC
  • Water-based – Comes in variety of hues
  • Oil-based
  • Dye – Shows grain
  • Pigmented – Hides grain, adds hue
  • Gel – Thicker, doesn’t drip, hides mistakes
Styles
  • Classic white hues
  • Nearly limitless colors
  • Weathered or distressed
  • Two-tone
  • Hand wiped for uneven absorption and rustic look
  • Spray for even coat
  • Hues like green, gray, red, black and white
  • Two-tone
Most Style Options: Paint

Aesthetic

Paint
Pros

  • Streamlined, clean look
  • More color options

Cons

  • Covers natural grains

Stain
Pros

  • Natural look
  • Shows grain

Cons

  • Fewer color options
  • Will expose imperfections
  • May look dated

Paint is a popular choice for homeowners who want a solid, modern color. Stain is a great way to display the natural grain of the wood beneath.

Best Aesthetic Choice: It's a tie!

Cost

For those on a budget, the decision may come down to the price. Paint is a little more expensive. However, both options are more affordable than replacing the cabinets or doors.

  • Paint: Supplies will cost about $200
  • Stain: Supplies will cost around $100 to $150
Lowest Supply Cost: Stain

Expense of Professional Application

In most situations, repainting is more expensive because the professional has to take more care and may need extra coats to get a smooth finish. The difference in price is small, however, and depends on how many cabinets you have and how many coats you’ll need.

Lowest Labor Cost: Stain

DIY Ease

You can save a bit of money by doing this project yourself. For the best results, you’ll need to prepare the surfaces properly and be patient through the drying process.

Paint:

  • Shows even the slightest application mistakes.
  • Poor surface preparation will be apparent.
  • Often calls for extra coats, adding to project time.

Stain:

  • Won’t show mistakes as easily.
  • Doesn’t usually require as many coats, lessening project time.
Water Resistance: Stain

Hides Dirt & Dust

When it comes to dirt and dust, it all depends on the color of your cabinets. Dust will blend in with light paint or stain. Dark colors can disguise dirt in either finish.

Best for Dirt & Dust It's a tie!

Length of Life

Paint Stain
  • Lasts a little over 10 years.
  • More prone to cracking because it doesn’t move with the natural expansion and contraction of wood.
  • More prone to chipping.
  • Lasts 20 to 30 years.
  • Less prone to cracking because it moves with wood as it expands and contracts.
  • Not as prone to flaking and chipping.
Longest-Lasting: Stain

Maintenance & Touch-Ups

Paint
Pros

  • Washable options have made maintenance simpler.
  • Applying a top coat can make cleaning easier.

Cons

  • Touching up is more complicated.
  • Harder to clean.

Stain
Pros

  • Easier to touch up.
  • Easier to clean (soap and water).

Cons

  • Aggressive cleaners can dull the surface.
  • Harder to remove spills that you don’t clean right away.

Low Maintenance: Stain

Resale Value & ROI

Whichever option you choose, updating your cabinets is always a good decision for ROI and resale value. Refinishing or painting cabinets is typically part of a minor kitchen remodel, which has a return on investment of about 81 percent based on Remodeling Magazine’s 2018 Cost vs. Value Report.

  • Paint: Neutral colors are good for resale, but bold ones can detract from the home’s appeal.
  • Stain: Classic, natural look could appeal to more buyers.
Best Resale Value / ROI: Both! A refresh is always a good idea!
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Painting Cabinets vs. Staining by Wood Type

Aside from the general pros and cons of each option, you’ll need to consider the type of wood your cabinets are before you make any decisions.

Paint-Grade vs. Stain-Grade Wood

Paint-grade cabinetry is usually a smooth, flat wood made of lower-quality materials because the paint will cover the grain. Stain-grade is typically a higher quality wood. It can also have a rougher surface.

Is Paint or Stain Better for Hardwoods like Oak?

Hardwoods benefit from staining because it brings out their inherently beautiful grains. However, either option will work as long as you prep the surface.

Should I Paint or Stain Softwoods like Cedar?

Standard cabinetry is softwood and looks best painted. Cedar requires extra care. You’ll need to use a quality primer to trap the red tannins and prevent bleeding. However, if your softwood has a desirable grain, staining will allow that to show through. Use a conditioner to even out the pores.

Which is Best for MDF Cabinets?

Paint is the best option for refinishing MDF cabinets. Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is a non-wood, paint-grade material that doesn’t benefit from staining.

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FAQs

Gel Stain vs. Paint. Which is Best for Cabinets?

A gel stain is thicker than regular staining products and most surfaces don’t absorb it.

Compared to paint, gel stain:

  • Hides mistakes better.
  • Absorbs evenly across porous and non-porous spots.
  • Is very DIY friendly.
  • Doesn’t run.
  • Can glob up in corners.
  • Still bares grain but not as well as regular stain.

Are White Cabinets More Expensive?

White cabinets are typically more expensive than stained ones, both when you buy them and when you repaint them. White shows imperfections in the wood’s surface and application. Sand before painting and apply extra coats to get a smooth finish.

Can I Paint Over Stained Cabinet?

Yes, you can paint over a stain if you prepare it properly. Preparation typically includes cleaning, sanding and priming. In some cases, you may need to strip off varnish. However, there are paint products that contain bonding additives which eliminate the need to sand and prime.

Can I Remove Paint to Stain?

Yes, you can stain cabinets that currently have paint on them. It is a lot of work to strip and sand the surface, but it will be worth it if you want a natural wood look.

Is Stain and Finish/Varnish the Same Thing?

Stain and varnish are different products, though there are combination products like Minwax’s Polyshades.

Stain

  • Absorbs into surface
  • Enhances hue and grain

Varnish

  • Sits on top of surface
  • Often diminishes grain appearance
  • Can be flat or glossy

Should I Stain or Paint When Refacing Cabinets?

Both stain and paint can be used when refacing to match the existing wood of the cabinet with the new doors or drawers. However, the wood veneer used when refacing comes in a variety of grains and hues – even white – so you may not need to apply paint or stain at all. Still, if you want to change the color or style once you’ve added the new doors, the real wood will take either product in the same way as other woods.

Still have questions about your cabinet refinishing project?


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