Stock, semi-custom, and custom are the three main categories you get to choose from when shopping for new kitchen cabinets. But there is a fourth, lesser-known option: unfinished kitchen cabinets. Yes, you can actually buy cupboards that haven’t been painted, treated, stained, or sealed.
So what’s the appeal? While finishing unfinished cabinets requires some time and creative thinking on your end, the process allows you to put a custom spin on stock cabinets. Ultimately, it’s an opportunity for you to make your space your own on a small budget. (Premade, unfinished cabinets are the most affordable option available to homeowners, at $100 to $300 per linear foot installed, or $50 to $100 per linear foot for cabinets alone, according to HomeAdvisor.) Read on for where to shop for unfinished cabinets, plus how to put your own spin on them.
Where to Buy Unfinished Kitchen Cabinets
The hardware store is your friend on this one. Corner base cabinets, shallow upper cabinets, sink base cabinets—Home Depot and Lowe’s have a large assortment of all the essential types and sizes in unfinished options, spanning oak, maple, beech, and engineered wood. Wayfair and online surplus stores sell unfinished cabinets, as well, but so do smaller brands like Semihandmade, which offers unfinished fronts for IKEA frames.
It’s important to take note of the type of wood you’re going with. Affordable pine is a great choice, but be aware that the bold knots require more coats of paint if you want to completely cover them up. Pricier oak is more durable and resistant to dents and nicks. Then there’s chameleon-like birch, which can be stained to look like luxe hardwoods such as walnut, cherry, and maple.
Option 1: Seal
Behind door number 1: a colorless polyurethane finish that protects your wood cabinets from moisture and stain damage, but still gives you that raw, cabin-worthy look. Whether you want to paint your cabinets first or not, sealing is important, because if you leave your doors plain for too long, it becomes harder to clean off dirt and grime. Psst: Consider adding a dash of white paint to your treatment, especially if you go with white oak cabinets, which can often turn honey yellow when not neutralized.
Option 2: Stain
Staining the wood is one way to make the cabinets your own and give them style without totally losing the texture of the grain and its “naturalness.” When it comes to staining grainy varieties, designer Becky Shea swears by Rubio Monocoat’s VOC-free, plant-based application. Note: You can also use it on beamwork. Water-based solutions are low in VOCs so they create fewer fumes during the application process, while oil-based transparent dyes naturally repel water damage, making them a nice choice for anywhere around the sink that might get wet. If you want to save time, consider a varnish, which kills two jobs with one stone because it’s also a sealer.
As is true for painting cabinets, it’s best to take the doors off before you get started, and remove the hinges and any knobs or pulls. Give everything a light sanding to ensure you have a smooth surface to work with before applying a prestain conditioner, which will ultimately help the wood absorb the tint more evenly.
Option 3: Paint
Preparation is really everything if you decide to go the colorful route (see our full guide on all the steps you need to take beforehand here). As far as primers are concerned, for unfinished wood cabinets, Sherwin-Williams’s Premium Wall and Wood Primer is a great option, as it is designed for surfaces that require a greater degree of adhesion. The hue is all up to you, but we suggest visiting our essential swatch lists, below, before you make your decision:
Finally, pick a finish that suits both your lifestyle and/or reno timeline. Insl-X’s Cabinet Coat is quick drying, while Farrow & Ball’s Full Gloss brings the drama with a strong sheen. Race you to the finish line.