Comparing the Pros and Cons of Painted and Stained Cabinets

By HomeAdvisor

Updated December 2, 2021

beautiful modern kitchen with blue cabinet
slavun / Adobe Stock

Whether you’re remodeling or just refreshing your kitchen, you’ll likely choose between paint and stain for your wood cabinets. Both are solid options that look and perform differently. Painting your kitchen cabinets will completely cover the wood grain for a smooth, modern look, while stain will get absorbed by the wood for a natural, traditional aesthetic that’s long-lasting and easy to maintain.

On This Page:

  1. What’s the Difference Between Painted and Stained Cabinets?
    1. Stained Cabinets
    2. Painted Cabinets
  2. Paint vs. Stain: Which Is Better?
    1. Aesthetic and Colors
    2. Type and Style Options
    3. Material and Installation Cost
    4. Maintenance and Repair
    5. DIY Ease
    6. Durability and Lifespan
    7. Moisture Resistance
    8. ROI and Resale Value
  3. Paint vs. Stain: Which Is Best for Your Room?
    1. Which Is Best for the Kitchen?
    2. Which Is Best for a Bathroom?
  4. Paint vs. Stain: Which Is Best for Your Wood Type?
    1. Which Is Best for Hardwood Cabinets?
    2. Which Is Best for Softwood Cabinets?
    3. Which Is Best for MDF Cabinets?
  5. Paint vs. Stain vs. Other Finishes
    1. Paint vs. Gel Stain
    2. Stain vs. Varnish
  6. FAQs
    1. Are white cabinets more expensive?
    2. Can I paint over a stained cabinet?
    3. Can I remove paint to stain?
    4. Should I stain or paint when refacing cabinets?

What’s the Difference Between Painted and Stained Cabinets?

grey and white kitche
starush / Adobe Stock

When choosing a look for your cabinets, paint and stain are two of the most popular finishing options.

Stained Cabinets

Stained cabinets offer a simple look that’s more at home in traditional kitchen designs. Stain creates different color tones when it soaks into the wood of the cabinet, allowing the character of natural wood grains and knots to show through. Stain is also absorbed into the wood, allowing it to expand and contract with changes in indoor climate to prevent cracking or chipping.

Painted Cabinets

In contrast, painted cabinets are clean and modern. Since cabinet paint is thicker than stain, it creates a smooth, uniform finish that does not show any of the wood character underneath. You can choose from an endless array of color options, including trendy tones like gray, blue, green, and black.

Paint vs. Stain: Which Is Better?

kitchen with painted white cabinet
sonyachny / Adobe Stock

Aesthetic and Colors

When it comes to appearance, the choice between paint and stain comes down to the homeowner’s preference.

Paint:

  • Smooth, modern look
  • Covers the natural wood grains with a solid color
  • Available color options are practically endless

Stain:

  • Displays the natural look of the wood grain
  • Shows the imperfections of the wood
  • Color options are more limited than those for painted cabinets

Best Aesthetic and Colors: Tie

Type and Style Options

Both paint and stain offer a variety of style options.

Paint Stain
Finish Types
  • Latex
  • Low-VOC
  • Oil-Based
    • Slow-drying, even brush strokes for a smooth finish
  • Dye
    • Highlights grain
  • Gel
    • Thick, doesn’t drip, hides mistakes
  • Oil-based
  • Pigmented
    • Hides grain
  • Water-based
    • Wider color variety
Style Options
  • Classic white hues 
  • Nearly endless array of colors
  • Solid, two-toned, weathered, and distressed looks available
  • More limited color options
    • Green, gray, red, black, white, blue, wood tones
  • Hand wipe for uneven absorption and rustic look
  • Multiple colors for a two-toned look
  • Spray on for an even coat

Most Style Options: Paint

Material and Installation Cost

When it comes to material costs, cabinet paint costs about $200, while the cost of stain can range from $100 to $150. You’ll spend another $200 to $600 for supplies such as brushes, rollers, drop cloths, and tape.

Although paint tends to be slightly more expensive than stain, both options are more affordable than completely replacing kitchen cabinets or doors. However, for homeowners on a budget, the decision between paint and stain may come down to that slight cost difference.

You’ll also need to consider the cost of application by a local professional. Painting requires more care and extra coats to achieve a smooth finish, resulting in a slightly higher cost than staining.

Your total labor costs will depend on how many cabinets you have. Professional paint application costs $2,000 to $5,000 on average, while stain application costs about $1,500 to $4,000. Contact local cabinet refinishing services and compare quotes to better understand how much your specific project will cost.

Lowest Cost: Stain

Maintenance and Repair

Both paint and stain are capable of hiding dirt and dust, depending on the color you choose. Dust will blend in with lighter paint or stain, while dark colors will disguise dirt.

When your cabinets require touchups due to chips and cracks in the finish, paint is usually more complicated to fix. While you can touch up stained cabinets with a simple stain pen, you may want to contact a cabinet painter to touch up your paint.

DIY paint touchups with a brush or a roller can leave marks that degrade your cabinet surface. Painting is also difficult around handles, pulls, and other cabinet hardware. A pro will use a commercial-grade fine paint sprayer for a factory-like finish that won’t chip or peel.

Paint is traditionally more challenging to clean than stain, although washable paint options and protective topcoats make care simpler. When removing kitchen grease from painted cabinets, avoid harsh abrasive cleaners in favor of soft microfiber cloths and mild dish soaps.

Stained cabinets can be wiped down with relative ease using a cloth and water. You should remove spills as soon as they occur and avoid aggressive cleaners that can dull the surface.

Lower Maintenance: Stain

DIY Ease

When finishing or refinishing your cabinets, you can save thousands of dollars by doing the project yourself. For best results with either material, you’ll need to properly prepare the cabinet surfaces and stay patient throughout the drying process.

Paint tends to be more difficult and time-consuming to DIY than stain. Poor surface preparation will be apparent, and paint will highlight even the slightest application mistakes. It also often needs extra paint coats. Stain won’t show mistakes as easily and it usually doesn’t require as many coats, reducing the total project time.

Easiest DIY: Stain

Durability and Lifespan

Since stain gets absorbed into the wood, it’s less prone to cracking, flaking, and chipping when the wood cabinets expand and contract naturally with changes in humidity. Stained cabinets tend to last 20 to 30 years.

Painted cabinets are more prone to cracking because the paint doesn’t move as the wood expands and contracts. They tend to last a little more than 10 years.

Better Durability: Stain

Moisture Resistance

In most cases, stain is technically more water-resistant than paint. Because stain soaks into the wood, you can clean stained cabinets by wiping them down with water without the risk of removing or damaging the stain.

However, the moisture resistance of your finish tends to vary from product to product. For example, waterproof or water-resistant paint can be useful in areas like the bathroom where shower steam is common.

Better Moisture Resistance: Stain

ROI and Resale Value

Homeowners typically refinish their cabinets as part of a kitchen remodel, which offers a return on investment (ROI) of about 81%. That means that regardless of whether you choose to paint your cabinets or stain them, updating your finish is a great way to increase your home’s resale value and get a good ROI.

If you’re painting your kitchen cabinets, choose a neutral color that will appeal to a broad range of buyers. If staining, choose a classic, natural look for the same reason.

Best Resale Value and ROI: Tie

Find a Cabinet Pro Near You

Paint vs. Stain: Which Is Best for Your Room?

Which Is Best for the Kitchen?

brown stained kitchen cabinet
Iriana Shiyan

Kitchen cabinets can get messy from cooking, so you may prefer the easy-to-clean surface of a stained cabinet. In the event of cracking, chipping, or other types of damage, stain is easier to retouch because it can blend with your existing stain. On average, stain tends to last at least twice as long as paint, meaning you won’t have to retouch it as frequently.

If you want to paint your kitchen cabinets, be sure to select a product that’s specifically formulated to resist dirt and scuffing.

Which Is Best for a Bathroom?

Paint works well for bathroom vanities, base cabinets, or medicine cabinets. Choose an oil- or water-based paint with a 100% acrylic enamel formula to help stand up to the high degree of foot traffic that most bathrooms experience. You’ll also want to use waterproof or water-resistant paint, so that shower steam won’t cause chipping or peeling.

Paint vs. Stain: Which Is Best for Your Wood Type?

brown and white kitche
bmak / Adobe Stock

The type of wood used to make your cabinets should also be a factor in your finishing decision. Some cabinets are made from lower-quality paint-grade wood, which is usually smooth and flat. Stain-grade wood is typically higher-quality, with a rougher surface that holds stain better.

Which Is Best for Hardwood Cabinets?

Cabinets made from hardwood, like oak, will benefit from staining because it brings out their pronounced grains. However, either option will work as long as you properly prepare the surface.

Which Is Best for Softwood Cabinets?

Standard cabinetry is made from softwood and it looks best when it’s painted. Some softwoods, including cedar, require extra care due to chemicals in the wood called tannins. When tannins come in contact with certain liquids, they can rise up or “bleed” through surface paint, causing splotches and streaks.

Use a high-quality primer to trap the red tannins of the wood and prevent bleeding. Alternatively, if you want to preserve the grain pattern of your wood, even out the pores with a conditioner and then stain it to allow the pattern to show through.

Which Is Best for MDF Cabinets?

Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) looks best when it’s refinished with paint. This non-wood, paint-grade material won’t benefit from staining, as it has none of the grain or other surface features of wood that stain would otherwise enhance.

Paint vs. Stain vs. Other Finishes

Paint vs. Gel Stain

Gel stain is a type of stain that tends to be thicker than regular staining products. Like paint, most surfaces don’t absorb gel stain. In comparison to paint, gel stain:

  • Hides application mistakes better
  • Absorbs evenly across porous and non-porous spots
  • Much more DIY friendly
  • Doesn’t run, but can glob up in corners of the wood
  • Still shows wood grain, but not as well as regular stain

Stain vs. Varnish

Stain and varnish are sometimes mistaken for the same thing. Although they are sometimes combined, they are different products. While stain absorbs into the wood’s surface and enhances its hue and grain, varnish sits on top of the surface and can diminish the grain appearance in favor of a more matte or glossy appearance.

FAQs

Are white cabinets more expensive?

Like any painted cabinets, the cost to paint cabinets white is typically higher than staining, both for materials and labor. Applying white paint to your kitchen cabinets can show imperfections in the wood’s surface when it’s not prepared properly, so sand them before painting and apply extra coats for a smooth finish.

Can I paint over a stained cabinet?

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

Should I stain or paint when refacing cabinets?

The wood veneer used when refacing cabinets comes in various colors and grain patterns, so you may not need to apply paint or stain. However, if you want to change the color or style after adding the new doors, you can apply either stain or paint the same way you would during other applications.

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