Doors, panels, stiles, kicks and rails of a stained or unfinished kitchen cabinet sets need to have some type of protective coating applied to them.

Shellacs, waxes or tung oils and other finishes, can be used but clear coats are much more durable, wash easily and will give your woodwork a deeper richer feel.

Below you will find information on the types of clear-coats you can buy along with step by step application advice.

If you haven't stained your doors and other pieces but intend on doing so, check out the staining unfinished kitchen cabinet doors and woodwork page.


Dis-assemble your unfinished kitchen cabinet set and remove the hardware. Woodwork that isn't being stained should be sanded with an electric palm sander and sponge sander (for the hard to get at spots) prior to clear-coating.

Clear-coats are usually (but not always) lacquers, water based Varathane, alkyd (oil based) urethanes.

My number one choice for clear-coating is a sprayed on catalyzed lacquer, followed by water based Varathanes.

Catalyzed lacquer dries very quickly collects less dust from the air and i can apply numerous coats per day. Keep in mind to that lacquer doesn't raise the wood as much as a water-based product so it's easier to sand.

Also, since you can ad layer upon layer of a lacquered finish, they tend to look better but that's only my opinion.

With that said a top of the line water based Varathanes dries quickly, smells better than lacquer and can be easily brushed on. Lacquer is brush-able but a sprayed on lacquer is far superior in looks than a brushed one.

Oil based urethanes which are also brush-able would not be my choice for clear-coating. Oil finishes are very durable but take way to long to dry and can yellow or become orange over time. An oil based urethane also accumulates a large amount of the stuff that floats around in the air.

There are tricks to remove the dust (rubbing and polishing) of course but that adds to the amount of time to complete your project.

Some finishes are wipe on and very easy to use but time consuming and expensive because they come in such small containers. Other clear-coating products contain stains in them, but to be honest I'm not very fond of how they look.


Below are an assortment of tools and materials for coating unfinished kitchen cabinet doors and trim. Since most project are different you'll need to decide on the requirements for your particular job.

  • Your chosen clear coat
  • Thinner
  • 2 1/2" or three inch sash brush/cut can
  • Quick or whizz roller with foam cover (sleeve) & tray
  • Box of white, rags for clean up
  • Rubber gloves
  • Proper face mask for the job
  • Tarps or drop cloths
  • 2x4 lumber for the woodwork to sit on while spraying & drying
  • Plastic covered table/s or saw horses & plywood sheeting
  • 1" inch putty knife
  • Colored wood putty
  • Sand paper (120)
  • Electric palm sander & medium sanding sponge
  • Tape, plastic, masking paper (as needed)
  • Good lighting & a trouble light
  • HVLP or other type paint sprayer

Items that you don't have can be acquired or rented from a local home improvement retailer, hardware store or rental shop.


You might want to do this project in your back yard driveway or garage. Good ventilation is important and clear-coating unfinished kitchen cabinet sets is messy and requires tons of space.

If you're working outside check the whether, you need a few days and don't want wind, extreme temperatures, or moisture slowing you down.

Use tarps, plastic, drop cloths, masking paper and tape to protect items that you don't want clear coat on.

Lay tarps down in your driveway (secure them if needed) then place a table on your tarp. Situate one of your doors or other piece of woodwork onto the table. Use lengths of 2x4 lumber to lift the doors, stiles and rails etc., off of your table while coating them.

It does help to have extra hands when clear-coating. Mostly to place 2x4 lumber on tarps that are on your lawn or driveway and when moving pieces onto the the 2x4s themselves.

For the best possible outcome you want your kitchen cabinets to be unassembled. If your dealing with an assembled unit take them apart or in the very least remove doors and hardware prior to clear-coating.

You should also protect uncoated surfaces with masking paper, tape, drop cloths, tarps and plastic especially if there going to be in the way of spraying. When spraying remember to use 120 grit sponge sander between each application of dried clear-coat.

Start your project by filling any holes or cracks your woodwork may have with the appropriate colored wood putty. Let the putty dry, sand it flush then re-fill if necessary follow up with a final sanding.


Wiped on polyurethanes will give you a nice finish but require more work than other coatings.

Wipe-ons have a very thin (watery) viscosity keeping them from drying out as you wipe. Unfortunately because of the wateriness you will need to apply a number of coats to get the look that your going for.

If your only doing one unfinished kitchen cabinet the amount of extra work is not so bad. Having to wipe down a kitchen full of cabinets (five or six times) is an entirely different story. Even so the process is quite simple.

Wet a nice clean white (un-dyed) rag or kitchen sponge with your polyurethane then apply it in the direction of the woods grain. Wipe the polyurethane on making sure your getting into all those little nooks and cranny. Move your piece to the 2x4s and grab another door while the first one dries.

Were rubber gloves that are recommended for the product your using and most importantly watch out for those nasty slivers.

Keep wiping your polyurethane on, sanding between coats, adding more layers until you get the desired finish that your looking for.


Clear-coats that have a stain in them tend to work fine but I find color selection is very limited.

Also, in my opinion, they don't have the depth that a separate stain and clear coat has. Even so combination coatings do save time and some people actually enjoy their appearance.

Be sure to see a sample of what the finished wood will look like before you start putting the stuff onto your unfinished kitchen cabinet sets.

Applying a combination stain and clear-coat is the same process as brushing on a regular clear-coat product. I wouldn't be able to tell you much about using it as a spray finish as I have yet to try and apply it in such a way.


You can either use an oil (alkyd) based urethane or water-based Varathanes as your top coat. I prefer the water based product for all the reasons mentioned above. Both will brush out easily just keep a close eye on runs and sags especially with oil based products.

Brush your clear coat in the same direction as the wood grain. Also, remember to sand your unfinished kitchen cabinet sets between dried coats.

I use a Whizz or quick roller with a foam cover (sleeve) to roll my clear coat on. Follow up by (back) brushing the entire surface in one direction.

If there are groves, coves or indentations (the molding on cabinet door fronts and backs) brush them first then use a roller to finish up. After rolling back brush the wet surfaces of your unfinished kitchen cabinet set from top to bottom.

You need to brush the finish out because when its rolled coating tends to bubble up. Eliminating the roller and only brushing will work fine just be sure to apply a good amount of clear-coat when brushing.

Move your cabinet piece onto 2x4s, while it's drying repeat the process for the rest of your doors, stiles, and rails etc. Keep applying coats (at least 3) until you get the look your going for. Be sure to sponge sand between applications.


Spraying on a clear-coat is my first choice for applying protection to unfinished kitchen cabinet sets. Using a high volume low pressure paint sprayer HVLP with volatilized lacquer will give you the best results. Those are my preferences though, technique, quality products, the proper size spray pattern and environmental conditions will always give excellence finished job.

Your sprayer can be purchased or picked up from the home improvement center or equipment rental shop.

If you prefer, a sprayed water based product will give a superb finish but I do not recommend applying an alkyd (oil based) coating. Even quick drying alkyds dry slowly along with collecting particles in the air. Alkyd also take a long time to between re-coats.

I thin my lacquer by about 25% prior to spraying. Each technique, sprayer and product may require different procedures than mine.

Talk to your product and rental supplier regarding the project at hand, you'll then need to decide on what works best for you particular situation.

With the setup instructions above spray your woodwork on a table and use 2x4s as drying tables.

Below we start with the doors because they are usually the largest pieces of your unfinished kitchen cabinet items.

  • Place your cabinet door onto the 2x4s back side up

  • Adjust your sprayer to round or a as small of a width as needed.

  • Insure that the product and air knobs are at the proper levels.

  • Begin by spraying the doors edges.

  • Now adjust your knobs and gun for horizontal fan spraying.

  • Spray from top to bottom toward s you

  • Pull the guns trigger one or two inches before the door starts

  • Let go of the trigger one or two inches after the door ends

  • Overlap each sprayer pass by half. E.g, a 6" wide fan will be overlapped by 3"

  • Your spray fan should also overlap the sides of the door by the same amount

  • Keep spraying and overlapping each pass. Your surface needs to be uniformly wet

  • With your door done move it to the drying area. Use extra hands if needed

  • Don't touch the wet wood and make sure debris doesn't blow onto it

  • Grab another door or cabinet piece and repeat the procedures

  • Spray your unfinished kitchen cabinet sets with at least three coats of product and be sure to lightly sand between applications.

When spraying, have a couple of boards set up high enough for you to get your hands under without touching the wet wood.


No matter what type of clear coat or application procedures you use, be sure to always do a test. When testing, use pieces of wood that match your unfinished kitchen cabinet sets.

It's always a good idea to buy a smaller amount of clear coat, then practice with the spray system and coating dilutions for both technique and gun adjustment.

To little air causes a thin finish (even after many coats) were as turning up the product knob results in runs, sags and splatter marks.

Further more, when it comes to the product itself, thinning may be needed due to pitting and bumpiness of the finish (an orange peal look).

With that said to much thinning will inevitably cause runs and sags, laying your cabinet pieces flat while spraying and drying should eliminate them though.

Even so, applying a number of thin even wet coats then sanding between each coat will give you the best results. If you get a dull spot when spraying let your wood dry, sand it then spray the surface again.

When spraying do not stop or start on your piece of woodwork. Also, your gun and the spray fans (set horizontally) first pass needs to be centered with the middle of the starting edge of your wood work and finish in the same fashion.

As an example, when spraying a door start your spraying two inches from its top corner and have the fan spraying about three inches to one side of the cabinet doors edge. Pull the trigger and slowly draw the gun towards you.

Use even strokes and keep the distance of your gun from the surface consistent. How far away your gun needs to be depends on the sprayer being used (usually 6" to 12" inches).

Spray from top to bottom overlapping each swath. Finish your last pass two inches below the door and the fan three inches to the other side of the doors edge.

When your set to go, spray some cardboard before tackling the practise woodwork. You want to play around with the knobs on your gun to, along with trying different dilutions of Varathanes to water or lacquer to thinner prior to doing your cabinet pieces. Make nice even wet swaths and each wet strip or swath should overlap the next by half of the width of the first one.

Keep your sprayer cup full otherwise you will have missed spots halfway through a pass. Such missed spots will also result if the guns suction tube is in the wrong direction. You should now be able to take on your unfinished kitchen cabinet sets.

Interested in a little cabinet instillation help, Bret Spottke has created a very well planed out step by step e Book. The book has loads of pictures and excellent instructions for installing Ikea type cabinets. Your set up might not be from Ikea but that doesn't matter really you'll save some money and learn a ton of stuff regarding the proper way to do cabinet instillations.

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