Painters Versus Cabinet Finishers

There are degrees of skill and accomplishment in both specialties but what's the real difference? 25, 2006

I'd like to get everyone's opinion on this. What is the difference between a painter and a cabinet finisher? Is there a difference? What does one have that the other doesn't? I ask because, at our shop, we've gone through several painters over the years and haven't kept any of them because they don't do the kind of finish work that we look for. I've been thinking that maybe we're looking for the wrong people.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor D:
While they do share some skill sets, I think one obvious difference is that painters are accustomed to coating with opaque finishes, which obviously hide the wood, while wood finishers are much more adept at clear and stained finishes that enhance the wood.

From contributor J:
When I think of a painter, I think of someone who paints houses. Walls, woodwork, etc. Generally involving prepping like patching, sanding and scraping. Followed by priming and painting, either by spray, roller or brush.

When I think of a finisher, I think of someone who finishes fine cabinetry and woodwork. Someone who would know how to mix and match stain colors, someone who would know how to do glazes, use toners, and shading techniques to name a few. A finisher should also be well versed in the finishes your operation will be using. They would know the differences and when to use different finishes, like lacquers, polys, CVs, polyesters, etc.

They both require skill and experience to do correctly, but I think they are very different professions. And if you are looking for someone to finish your cabinetry, you need to advertise for a finisher, not a painter.

From contributor R:

Having worked in both trades, I have a few opinions. There are different skills required for both jobs. Someone with the proper training can do both jobs very well. When I was a painter, finishers sucked and didn't know what they were doing and charged too much money. When I became a finisher, I heard that painters sucked and didn't know what they were doing. I think the biggest difference is, to be a good finisher, you really have to have some woodworking skills also, knowledge of construction and very good sanding skills. These things are generally lacking in painters. When I was a painter, we finished wood by wiping on a stain, sealing and topcoating, period. That is not good finishing procedure, but I didn't know that until someone with the skills showed me the correct way of doing things. I believe a good worker is a good worker, painter, finisher or whatever and training is the key to get quality finishers or painters. I still use a lot of the skills I learned as a painter every day and they help me a lot. I think you need to get someone with a good skill level and train within your company to get what you're looking for.

From contributor G:
Contributors J and R are right on in their comments. I started out as an interior house painter, went on to hand wood finishing, then learned spray finishing and was in charge of finishing at a cabinet shop, before I opened my own wood finishing and decorative painting business (faux finishes, murals, mostly). I still do conventional painting when I get the chance to keep up my brush skills. Each trade/craft is very demanding and requires a lot of focus to do a successful job on budget and on time.

From contributor M:
Cabinet painter, in my area, is someone who will finish the carcasses/doors post-install and will either clear coat them (in varying degrees of quality) with brush-on or NC lacquer, or brush on an oil-base or acrylic latex, a lousy finish that looks good for 6 weeks. Then when it gets dirty, well...

A cabinet finisher is someone who is prepared to properly, painstakingly sand and stain (if needed), understands wiping stains as well as spray-only stains, applies any dye toner to correct color variations if needed, applies glazes and crackle if needed, knows how to distress a job without making it look cartoonish and overdone, makes scratches and scuff marks go away as if they never existed, knows the difference between pre-cat, post-cat, and has only heard rumors of the old "CAB" lacquer but hasn't ever actually used it (just a little sarcasm - I hate CAB).

Both situations call for similar eyes and skills, as said. One is quite a bit more refined than the other, however, and is a slower process. Produces, in my opinion, a much better product. Who wouldn't want CV on their cabinets instead of oil base?

From contributor I:
I don't think it's a spraying versus brushing issue. I've seen good and bad finishes done both ways. In fact I've seen some interior designers in Toronto recently pushing hand painted finishes as the higher end finish. I have seen some that look amazing and kind of make my sprayed finishes look too perfect and boring. I also don't think it's really about the products used. Most products can be applied to look great. I believe it's more about how well the customer cares for their cabinets. I've seen CV look terrible in a few years and I've seen cabinets that look great 20 years after having oil based urethane applied to them. There are good painters and bad painters as there are good cabinet finishers and bad cabinet finishers. When either understands the products they use and uses them properly with high standards, I don't think there is a difference between the two.

From contributor A:
Being a 6th year Master Painter (16th year journeyman) and a spray finish specialist, I'd have to say that wood finishing is much easier and less complex than the wide range of coatings applications that a painter must deal with. Generally, everyone thinks that they can paint; however in our company, we find that only 1 in 20 painters with 10+ years experience has what it takes to work side by side and produce Master Craftsman workmanship. Granted, we also do a number of lower end jobs where above average is good enough.

We also have a spray booth where we apply finishes to all things that will fit inside. We apply finishes to metal, wood, plastics, stone and cement. The bulk of what we do in the booth is wood finishes. We mix our dyes, lacquers, toners, blend colours, and create custom effects by glazing and shading, etc.

With our high end work on million dollar plus homes, almost everything is spray finished in place. Different levels of quality require different levels of prep work and I must say that solid colour gloss lacquer is far more difficult and demanding than stain and clear coat.

It depends on how you define a painter. Find someone who is a papered journeyman and give him a test on wood finishing. Great attention to detail is an absolute with fine wood finishes. A Master Painter will be able to apply virtually any type of coating to any type of substrate by any type of application method. Honestly, I think commercial coatings applications are far more difficult than wood finishing.

From contributor W:
It's kind of the same difference/overlap between cabinetmakers and finish carpenters. Regional definitions and abilities vary.

From contributor C:
One is happy with French's mustard, the other demands Grey Poupon. At the high end of the spectrum, both require a high degree of unique skill to ply their respective trade. Like comparing a brain surgeon with a heart surgeon, both highly skilled. On the lower end of the spectrum, painting is more forgiving in that it covers all, whereas a wood finish tends to highlight both the imperfections of the wood and of the human applicator!

From contributor A:
So painting something a mirror gloss black (wet look) is easier than stain and clear coat? I find the stain and clear coat far easier to get perfect than solid colour gloss urethane and lacquers. Especially the really dark colours.

From contributor R:
I just recently did a set of high gloss black, buffed out cabinets and there are more difficult stain and clear coat jobs. For instance, right now I am working on an entire house that has a pigmented white base coat with a pearl automotive finish over the base coat. Also primavera veneer with a translucent pearl where you can see the grain from an angle but not straight on. Impossible to touchup, every elevation has to be sprayed with the pearl together or individual doors and drawers would never match. (This job sucks sometimes.) So yes, in this case I would take the high gloss black in a second. I also do automotive painting (they also think finishers and painters suck, by the way) and custom airbrushing and artwork (painters think artists suck). Personally, the more skills I can develop, the easier my job becomes. If you do a lot of high gloss work, it's not that difficult; if you only do it occasionally, it can be a nightmare.

From contributor M:
ML Campbell sells a pearlcoat that can be mixed with lacquer, conversion varnish, and their Euro post-cat poly. It's nice stuff. Are you using a high-gloss finish with the pearl?

From contributor R:
Luckily, it's just a 20 degree topcoat. Still a pain in the ass, though.

From contributor C:
Painting gloss black is at the high end of the spectrum, a difficult job with a high degree of skill to master. Simple, uncomplicated jobs? Less skill is required for painting than stain/clear coat. Once you get beyond that, both paint and stain/clear each require their own degree of artistry.