Finish Options for Door Backs

Many cabinetmakers use just a clear finish on the backs of doors (even if the front gets stain), and customers don't seem to mind. October 13, 2008

I'm probably going to get the usual "bah humbugs" from the purists here, but here goes: I have recently been just clear coating the back of cabinet doors instead of going through the entire specified finishing process for the cabinet exteriors. This seems to save a lot of labor in finishing since you can clear coat one side of a set of kitchen doors pretty fast, for instance, and then you have only a one-face, no-turn-over proposition to do the front sides.

I started doing this after getting the idea and asking the customer if he was OK with it, and he said fine. The doors were maple and the cabinets were prefinished natural maple inside, so the backs of the doors went with the interiors and it all seemed quite natural. Since then I have even done this with oak, which is quite light naturally and goes with maple ply or melamine interiors as well. I have never had a customer complaint.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
I think it is a great idea. Do you spray your stain? Is it hard to not get any stain on the backs? That is my reason for not doing this.

From the original questioner:
Yes, I spray and wipe oil base stain. I also spray toner over that. Whatever stain smudges I may get on the backs just wipe off since I clear coat the backs before doing anything else. Toner overspray isn't a problem since the door backs are always down.

From contributor B:
This happens all the time in high-end paint projects. The fronts of the doors get brushed but the backs only get sprayed.

From contributor C:
This is an interesting idea. Do you have any problem with the clear coat getting on the door edges and affecting the staining?

From contributor D:
You could argue this point. It's just like painting a door between a white room and a red room. It seems a little odd.

From the original questioner:
It hasn't been a problem with clear coat overspray getting on the edges, but I always make it a point to spray at a slight outward angle along the edges when spraying the backs. This way the spray pattern is going away from the edges. It's more of a problem getting some stain overspray on the backs from shooting the door edges, but by using oil base stain, it easily wipes off, even after being there a while. You can always use paint thinner on a rag as well, as the thinner won't attack the lacquer clear coat.

From contributor E:
This is all I have ever done for a stained job. Fronts and edges get stain, toner and first clear cover coat. I seem to manage a little bit of stain on the backs, so I don't do the final finish sand on the backs until the first clear coat goes on the front. This way I kill two birds with one stone, with a final sanding and stain clean-up in one. I've never heard a comment about it. If I have doors with glass, that's a different animal. I always would stain the inside. But I have seen some others who only clear coat the inside and door backs.

From contributor F:
I was afraid someone would eventually ask why I didn't glaze the backs of doors like the fronts.

From contributor G:
I'm more than just a little surprised. I would love to do this but I can't imagine a customer not complaining that when they open a door and see two different colors. But I am going to try running it by them in a "we-always-do-it-this-way" manner and see what reactions I get. I hope you guys are right. I'd love to cut my finishing time by 30%.

From contributor B:
When I built my first showroom the cabinets we put on display were as pretty inside as they were on the outside. We didn't have an automatic edgebander at that time so all of our boxes were built with white melamine sides and 1/4 inch cherry edgebands. The horizontal surfaces were colored plastic laminate with cherry edgebands also. It was a beautiful box and as durable as we could make it. I eventually had access to an edgebanded product so my offerings now include white melamine with white PVC edgebanding. We put this together side by side in a display. It gave us a way of discussing budgets. We demonstrated how it all looked the same when the doors were closed but that you could get as special as you wanted on the insides.

As you can guess the customers really only cared what it looked like when the doors were closed. Given an opportunity to upgrade the parts that didn't show, our customers decided they would rather allocate those dollars someplace else. One out of ten cared about nuance but only one of those ten would pay extra for it.

I still think the original questioner is right for asking the customers about what is important to them. Sometimes just asking the question will make you stand out.

From contributor H:
Not only is it a timesaver, but many people (me included) like a certain amount of light/dark color contrast. The opportunity for creativity is the lure that drew me to this craft. It's all about identifying what the customer wants. The customer interview process (some refer to it as a sales call) is so important.

From contributor I:
Being a cabinet maker, if I opened a cabinet and found the back to be unstained, only clearcoated, I'd instantly think "cheap shortcut". But your customers aren't cabinet makers, and if they are fine with it, no problem! How many coats (and what type of finish) do you apply to the backs of the doors?

From contributor E
Contributor I says that as a cabinetmaker, if it was his cabinet, with no stain on the inside of the door, he would think "cheap shortcut". I am not asking this next question to be confrontational, just curious, so please don't be offended. Where do we draw the line for our own satisfaction on the question of whether we should or should not be staining the door backs? There are endless points of woodworking and cabinetmaking that can be opened up to the question of "how good is good enough", or what is the best method for a certain type of joint, etc. I would guess that most if not all of us are willing to step down from a higher pedestal in our beliefs of how woodworking should be done and make compromises in our methods and materials, in order to satisfy the economic constraints of the customers. If they were my cabinets, I wouldn't even be staining them. If I wanted a cabinet that looked like Cherry, I'd use Cherry; If I wanted Walnut color, I'd use Walnut!

From contributor J:

It's difficult to not let our own egos get in the way. We need to judge value from the customer's perspective rather than "that's how I like it" or "that's how dad did it" kind of thinking - or in this case, the "can I get away with this" kind of thinking. I'd guess that nearly 10 out of 10 of my customers would look at me funny and laugh if I suggested not finishing the backs of fronts. But then, I like both sides of my steaks grilled too.

From contributor B:
To contributor J: I don't think it's fair or realistic to characterize the original poster's question as being one of "can I get away with this"? I see all kinds of stuff in the woodworking world that you couldn't get me to put in my house on a bet. Some of the more famous cabinetmakers that post here use Raymond Enkeboll-esque corbels and market this to their customers as "old world craftsmanship". Look at how many styrofoam corbels and crown moldings you see in what are supposedly the finest built homes of America. During the peak of the dot-com days our corbels were hand carved but if I had it to do again I would have hired the UPS driver to build them. I'd have made more money and my customers' happiness quotient would have been unchanged. This would have been a win-win for everybody.

From contributor E:
To contributor J: Did you think that the doors the original questioner referred to were "unfinished" on the backs? I believe he said he finished them, and just did not stain them.

From the original questioner:
I am the original poster for this thread. I think that my customers having no objections to doing the backs of doors with just a clear coat is probably due to the fact that the light natural color of the oak and maple doors I have been using closely coordinate with the natural color of the cabinet interiors, typically prefinished maple plywood or maple grain melamine. The only time you see the back of a door is when it is opened, at which time it is always next to a cabinet interior of nearly-matching color. The clear-coated door back looks "correct" in this scenario - perhaps even more correct to the layman - than if the door backs were the stain color.

From contributor J:
I'm hardly a purist and am not meaning to "bah humbug" your idea here. I totally understand your logic, and more power to you if you can pull it off, especially with a win-win for everyone. The actual process would confound me more than anything else probably.

From contributor B:
We used to build the nicest drawer box commercially available on the continent. We now exclusively sell apple ply with butt joints and pocket screw construction. Our PR machine calls these pocket screws "threaded steel dowels" unless of course we are talking with architects. In that case they are "threaded steel dowels with US 10B finish."

From contributor J:
To contributor B: I've been using those boxes more recently for spec'd sidemount slides. Do you have a trick (other than sharp tooling) for eliminating or reducing the ply tearout on the pocket holes?

From contributor B:
We do get a little bit of fuzz at the end of the pocket hole but not something I would necessarily consider tearout. We are using a Castle TM35 for cutting the pockets. In any case you can't see the pocket when our drawer is installed. The drawer face covers the screws at the front and the back of the drawer is buried in the cabinet. We have a great way of selling this particular drawer box and the Accuride side mount slide. We do this with a side by side comparison with a tandem undermount.

From contributor K:
I do believe it is tacky. I believe it is cutting corners just to make a buck, and yes, I believe it should be considered unacceptable by everyone, the customer and builder alike. It is just wrong like not finishing the backs and bottoms of drawer boxes. One vote from a bah humbug purist in favor of giving as much attention to the back of a door as you do the front.

From contributor J:
The bottom of drawer boxes too?

From contributor K:
Yes, certainly the bottom of the drawer box. Look at it this way - if you outsourced finished doors from one of the major door manufacturers and one day you get a shipment with the faces stained and the backs just clear coated, what would you do? The same goes for drawer boxes - if you outsource finished maple dovetail drawer boxes and find raw wood on the bottom of the box, what is your response? Some might say it would be fine if the manufacturer offered a reduction in price but that defeats the manufacturer's reason for doing it - to make more money.

From contributor J:
I've outsourced maple dovetailed boxes for 8 or 9 years now but neither supplier sprays the bottoms. The first outfit, a major southern California supplier, didn't even spray the outside of ends. It's kind of like pocket holes - it doesn't show but forces an applied front on rollouts that wouldn't otherwise need one.