Does Unfinished Cabinetry Pay?

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Vanity unfinished paint stain

Unfinished cabinetry has some downsides to be aware of.

A family called to meet and talk about interior painting - the entire house. They had hired a "friend" that had been "recommended" as a "good painter" that "needed some help". This painter was not up to the task and had managed to create chaos throughout the home.

Here's what caught my eye: there were two bathrooms with a vanity in each - both unfinished. They had planned to paint the cabinets themselves. This sort of thing  starts with the best of intentions - a nice cabinet for a very attractive price. This is okay, but only if:

  • You actually do the work yourself
  • You can accept a less-than-perfect DIY finish

Stain or Paint?

On balance, staining unfinished vanities is easier than painting. Staining eliminates sanding primer and caulking joints. Stain also helps blend normal surface wear and tear - you're less likely to notice varnish wear off; you'll very quickly see that wear in a painted surface. Finally, the average homeowner is more likely to achieve satisfactory results when staining and varnishing whereas painting cabinetry requires more deliberate skill.

Purchasers of unfinished cabinetry may not realize the labor that goes into making their purchase look beautiful:

  • Remove hinges (and re-install when everything is dry)

  • Remove drawer glides (and re-install when everything is dry)

  • Find a place to do the work (because every bathroom is too small)

  • Proper prep

    • Ease sharp factory edges with a bit of sanding
    • Vacuum to remove all dust
    • Prime, let dry, sand primer smooth, vacuum again
    • Caulk joints (when painting)
  • Apply paint or stain

  • Second coat needed?

  • Apply varnish over stain

Drawer Boxes

Usually drawer boxes are sealed with a coat or two of varnish. This requires first staining the drawer fronts, dry time and varnish over all. Unless you're painting - then varnish the drawer box first, then paint drawer fronts. Of course, re-install drawer glides when everything is dry.

Now carry the all components back to the bathroom and install drawer glides and hinges without nicking anything. Remember to clean up the (basement? garage?) work area.

Bottom Line

You're always better to take advantage of a cabinet manufacturer's factory-perfect finishing process. You'll never achieve a similar level of finish on your own and the cost of paying a professional to come in and do it will not yield the expected savings.

What's it cost to paint or stain bathroom vanities? Generally, $100 per lineal foot is a good guide. So, a 5' vanity will be about $500 and a 3' vanity will be around $350. This assumes there is other work being done and, of course, your mileage may vary depending on the painter you call.

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