Kitchen cabinet clearcoating

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Forum topic by ferstler posted 08-06-2012 05:41 PM 5684 views 0 times favorited 12 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View ferstler's profile


342 posts in 3483 days

08-06-2012 05:41 PM

Topic tags/keywords: question oak refurbishing

Hey, I have a group of oak kitchen cabinets that I installed about 25 years ago. They still look good, but in a couple of places the finished has deteriorated to the point where the clear coat has flaked off or rubbed off. My wife uses hand lotion a lot, and I think that may have played a part. Yesterday, I installed handles and knobs on the doors and drawers to keep this from happening any more. However, the offending areas still need just a bit of work.

I want to touch up those areas, but I want to use the right clear coating. I know that most furniture makers use a lacquer clear coat, because it dries fast and does not need sanding between coats. Amateurs often use polyurethane varnish, because of its supposed durability.

My question is: would kitchen cabinet makers use the lacquer approach to get the job done fast, or would they stick with poly to insure long-term durability, even though it would slow down the production process?

Once I have the answer I can happily touch up the offending areas, either with artist-brush applied clear lacquer or clear poly varnish.

Many thanks for input.

Howard Ferstler

12 replies so far

View DS's profile


2894 posts in 2384 days

#1 posted 08-06-2012 05:51 PM

Today’s lacquers are fairly durable and high-performance.
I don’t know of any lacquer that doesn’t need to be sanded between coats.
The nice thing about catalized lacquers is they can be sanded about 15 minutes after the coat is applied (In the proper conditions). This lends to more volume production capacity.
In truly high volume shops they use a UV curable lacquer that goes directly into a UV curing oven after coating and emerges ready to sand even quicker.

For me, the biggest challenge is matching the sheen of your existing finish. Unless you are refinishing everything, a repair to one door will stick out like a sore thumb if it is more shiny than the rest of the doors.

I wouldn’t consider anything that needs to be applied by brush, if you intend to match just a small area. I just can’t image it will turn out the same.

There are some decent furniture polishes which, if the sealer coat is still intact, will bring up a finish on a door and make some blemishes nearly invisible. There are so, so many ways to do this that it is difficult to point you in the best direction. From your picture the cabinets don’t look like they’re in disrepair, so maybe a coat of lemon oil might clean them up nicely.

-- "Hard work is not defined by the difficulty of the task as much as a person's desire to perform it.", DS251

View Sawkerf's profile


1730 posts in 3032 days

#2 posted 08-06-2012 05:55 PM

If those are production cabinets, and you know who made them, it may be possible to find out what they used for the clear. They look like 80’s vintage so I would suspect that the clear is a precat lacquer.

You’re probably right about the lotion eating the finish. When my daughters still lived here, I had to replace the bathroom door handles twice because the “goop” on their hands ate the finish completely off.

-- Adversity doesn't build reveals it.

View Moron's profile


5032 posts in 3857 days

#3 posted 08-06-2012 06:08 PM

Try conversion varnish but first give the doors a good scrub with mineral spirits to remove any lotion in affected areas to receive new finish. Let it dry completely before applying new finish ( 24 hours )

Using pre cat lacquer will be a nightmare

poly will show up as a different and distinct “patch”

Good luck

-- "Good artists borrow, great artists steal”…..Picasso

View Clint Searl's profile

Clint Searl

1533 posts in 2324 days

#4 posted 08-06-2012 07:41 PM

Waterborne poly. Don’t overwork the problem.

-- Clint Searl....Ya can no more do what ya don't know how than ya can git back from where ya ain't been

View pintodeluxe's profile


5620 posts in 2776 days

#5 posted 08-06-2012 08:25 PM

My guess would be lacquer. A majority of modern cabinets are finished with lacquer.
If the damage is on doors and drawer faces, I would scuff sand with fine sanding sponges, clean with cheesecloth, and spray a new finish in the shop. It could be brushed, but won’t lay as well as spraying.
BTW you should sand between coats of lacquer. It might only take one or two coats to freshen it up.

-- Willie, Washington "If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice" - Rush

View NiteWalker's profile


2736 posts in 2540 days

#6 posted 08-06-2012 08:32 PM

What Clint said.

-- He who dies with the most tools... dies with the emptiest wallet.

View ferstler's profile


342 posts in 3483 days

#7 posted 08-06-2012 09:12 PM

Thanks for the info, guys. Fortunately, the deteriorated areas are within the rough grain structure parts of the wood surface, and so I am hoping that just using a brush with the clear coat will do the trick. If they were in the smoother areas, a brush/patch job would be problematical.

Interesting about sanding. I was under the impression that with poly varnish it was necessary to sand between coats to give the additional coating something to grab onto. However, from what I have read, lacquer recoating basically melts right in with the previous coat. It also says on the can of Minwax spray lacquer I used for a recent project (not the cabinets) that it is not necessary to sand between coats. Several internet commentaries I have read said much the same thing: no between-coat sanding needed with lacquer, but with sanding needed for varnish.

Howard Ferstler

View DS's profile


2894 posts in 2384 days

#8 posted 08-06-2012 09:21 PM

A 2-part catalyzed lacquer hardens with a chemical reaction and will not “melt”, per se’, into a previous coat, except if applied before the previous coat actually cures. (This creates a whole host of other issues though.)
Freshly applied lacquer will ‘bite’ into previous coats, though, not likely very much after 25 years of curing out.

In this case, sanding is as much a measure to mitigate blemishes as it is to create adhesion to previous coats.

I seriously doubt that Minwax spray lacquer has any catalyst in it as the maximum shelf life is about 4 months once the catalyst (hardener) is introduced into the lacquer.

-- "Hard work is not defined by the difficulty of the task as much as a person's desire to perform it.", DS251

View Moron's profile


5032 posts in 3857 days

#9 posted 08-06-2012 09:29 PM

that and due to the age of the kitchen its highly possible that some one used “pledge” or similar furniture polishes on it and most contain silicone which is lacquers mortal enemy often turning the surface into an active yeast colony/ aka orange peel.

Conversion varnishes are quick to remedy chemical compatibility issues.

Jus sayn

-- "Good artists borrow, great artists steal”…..Picasso

View ferstler's profile


342 posts in 3483 days

#10 posted 08-06-2012 09:32 PM

I had used Minwax poly spray clearcoat (both the semigloss and satin versions) for desk building and cabinet building projects in the past (over time, I have put some of those projects on the group’s project pages), and only recently gave the Minwax spray lacquer a try on some bookcases I have yet to complete. (I hope to put that project on the pages, too, once completed.) The bookcase project is moving along quite well, although since I work much of the time out on my small shop’s outdoor workdeck, the current rainy season here in north Florida is slowing me down. Yes, it is hot and humid when not raining, but I quickly move the coated pieces into my air-conditioned shop and while it is sweaty and uncomfortable outdoors with the cutting work, I can retreat to the shop at intervals to cool off. I am doing the pieces separately, and will take them into the house for final assembly with Kreg screws and PL construction adhesive, because I calculate that EACH of the three bookcases, when complete, will weight 130 pounds.

Back to coating. Both types look fine when applied correctly, but the lacquer is one heck of a lot easier to use, and it gets the project done faster, too. Unless I need the super-hard surface of poly, I will stick with the spray lacquer from now on.

Thanks for the input, guys.

Howard Ferstler

View cutworm's profile


1075 posts in 2757 days

#11 posted 08-07-2012 12:45 AM

A high probability it’s lacquer. Try a little on the back of a door first. I’d buy a spray can at Lowes or HD for touch up.

-- Steve - "Never Give Up"

View ferstler's profile


342 posts in 3483 days

#12 posted 08-07-2012 07:44 PM

I have scoped a number of information sources and apparently you can use lacquer thinner to check for coating type. Use a Q-tip on an inconspicuous place (inside of a not much used door, for instance) and apply a small amount, rubbing lightly. If the coating softens and smooths out it is probably lacquer. If it does nothing or gets a bit rough and does not smooth out it is probably varnish.

Once I have the info, I can use a small artist brush to do the touch up. (I already have some semi-gloss poly varnish in a pint can, but I would have to buy a full quart of brush-on, Minwax lacquer to do the work.) The offending areas are not all that easy to see, anyway, so a careful bit of artistic work should be adequate. The other parts of the cabinets are in fine shape.

Howard Ferstler

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