What's a Durable Hand-Applied Finish for Cherry Kitchen Cabinets?

The customer doesn't want a spray application. Here are some suggestions for brushed-on alternatives that supply that "hand-rubbed" look. January 27, 2007

I'm doing a kitchen where the client wants a hand rubbed (non-spray) finish on shaker style cherry cabinets. I'm thinking something along the lines of a thinned polyurethane or maybe one from the General Finishes brand with a Briwax finish. I've done this a few times and it looks very nice on cherry, but is there anything I need to be wary of since this is a kitchen and durability is a main concern? Do you folks have favorite easy to apply wiped on finishes that look great on cherry and hold up over the years in a way nearly comparable to spray lacquer or conversion varnish? Is Briwax a bad idea on kitchen cabinets due to possible liquid spatter?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor W:
Actually, I think it would be the customer's decision on which he/she wants - a finish "look" or the best durable finish used for kitchens. I would give her the disadvantages of one over the other. I would not be responsible for failure of finish to do its job. Wax is not the finish for a kitchen... there's constant maintenance required. CV or 2k poly is preferred - less/no maintenance needed for a kitchen. Even if it's a wipe on varnish with a wax polish job, it's not durable enough, in my opinion, at least in the long haul of wear and tear. Let them decide what they want, to relieve you of responsibility for repairs in a month or so.

From the original questioner:
Thanks - that sounds like good advice. Perhaps wax is ruled out because of the maintenance required. Am I correct in assuming that a wiped on finish with some polyurethane in it would not be as durable as a lacquer or conversion varnish?

From contributor R:
What's wrong with a full strength brushed on poly or varathane or just a satin varnish? If you explain to your customer what contributor W suggests, and she still insists on a finish that won't last, have her sign off that she understands the drawbacks. Then explain to her that you offer a touch-up service at XXX dollars per hour and you would like to come by at least four times a year.

From contributor J:
I had a customer that wanted that hand rubbed look with not a lot of build. I used 10 degree post-cat, sprayed on. They liked it.

From contributor C:
Polyurethane wipe on formulations can be used to get a finish of quite high durability. A dozen coats should get you pretty close to the durability and moisture exclusion level of two coats of 2K poly. The dilemma is that this will result in a build that is probably more professional looking than the customer has in mind. I'd suggest that you discuss these trade offs with the customer so that they understand what their options are and have some idea of the outcomes that can be expected. It would be nice to give them a few samples finished with say 5 coats, 8 coats, and twelve coats, for them to test and get a feel for before deciding. You could throw a sample in there with your own recommended coating done too. See what they like.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your input. I'll do just what you recommend. I think I'll avoid brush-on, however. There's nothing I hate to do more.

From contributor M:
Recently I did an entertainment center in cherry. The first coat was a Watco cherry tinted Danish oil. I let that cure for 3 days, then followed with three coats of General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Satin. I'm not sure I would like it for a kitchen, but I would have applied more coats if I did use it in a kitchen. It gave it the more traditional cherry color and a sheen that wasn't too glossy. Exactly what the customer wanted.