Water Based Cabinet Finish

Water based cabinet finish is a very interesting finish.  The technology to manufacture it has been around for about 60 years, but it has only become popular in recent years.


Water based cabinet finishes are made in much the same way latex paint is.

Solvents and resins are used in its manufacture, but to a lesser degree than solvent based finishes (lacquer, shellac, varnish, polyurethane).  Solvent based finishes don't use any water at all.

If you find a water based cabinet finish being referred to as a polyurethane water based finish (and some are even labeled as just polyurethane), know that it is more closely related to all water based finishes than solvent based polyurethane finishes. (See Polyurethane Kitchen Cabinets for more information on solvent based polyurethane.)

To make water based cabinet finishes, tiny cured droplets of a resin like acrylic or polyurethane are dispersed in water.  Then a solvent that evaporates more slowly than water is added (usually a glycol ether).  Glycol ethers are a group of solvents that are more toxic than other solvents.  There is so little of glycol ethers used in water based cabinet finishes, they do not pose a threat to the environment when used in this way.

After being applied, water based finishes begin to cure when the water evaporates from them.  The tiny droplets of resin come close together (nice and snuggly like).  The solvent in the finish softens the outer molecules of the resin droplets so they can interlock.  As the solvent then evaporates, the droplets form a continuous film.

Whew!!  Neat technology to protect us and our environment!!


Read the can.  If the clean-up or thinning material listed on the can is water, you have a water based cabinet finish.  Remember, as stated above, solvent based finishes don't contain water.


  • There will be minimal solvent fumes (this is probably the biggest reason for their use).
  • Easy cleanup, as long as you clean up before the finish cures.  Use water to clean up, but if you've let the finish cure on your brush or spray equipment, you'll have to use a solvent like lacquer thinner to clean it up (because the water in the finish has all evaporated and only the resin finish is left).
  • Water based cabinet finishes are very resistant to scuffs.
  • Not a fire hazard (this is another big reason for their use).
  • Non-yellowing (a big plus for white finishes, such as pickling).
  • Water based cabinet finishes are a very tough, hard finish, even more so if polyurethane is used as the resin.

There are some drawbacks though (who's perfect?):

  • If your actual wood is dark, like mahogany or walnut, even cherry, water based cabinet finishes will produce a bland, washed-out look.  You can overcome this by staining the wood (before you finish it, of course).  The stain will help warm the color back up.  Be sure to let the stain dry completely, (especially if it's an oil-based stain) or you'll have problems in finishing (it could actually peel off).
  • If you are applying this finish, be aware of the weather around you.  It is sensitive and responds differently in warmer, cooler, and more humid conditions.  More so than many other finishes.
  • This one can be a biggie:  it raises the grain.  Whenever you put water on wood directly, you will raise the grain.  You can overcome this by doing something called "sponging" to your wood before you apply the finish (basically wiping water on the wood (for example with a "sponge"), letting it dry thoroughly, then scuffing the raised grain down before you stain or finish it).  Just staining your wood also helps.  But, with water based cabinet finishes, you will have to do a lot of scuffing between (at least the early) coats of finish (more so than other finishes).
  • Water based cabinet finishes are also more susceptible (after they've cured) to heat, solvents, alkali soaps, water and humidity, than solvent based finishes.
  • Because the finish is water based, your wood will expand and contract more with changing humidity conditions than with solvent based finishes.

Often water based finishes are marketed as floor finishes.  The flooring industry likes to use them because of low fumes, easy clean-up, and scratch resistance.  These are good traits, but don't place a cup of hot coffee on your floor (who would?) unless you want to chance a ring mark, or remove your fingernail polish over water based finishes.


  • If you are going to "sponge" the wood, this is your first step.  Be sure it dries thoroughly.
  • Brush (with a sponge brush or good synthetic-bristle brush) or spray your first coat on (if you have spray equipment).  Try to make this a thin coat (the raised grain will be easier to remove if this coat is thin). If you do spray the finish on, be aware that having an orange peel look to your finish at first is normal.  It should level out after several minutes. (Orange peel will be a problem if you put the finish on too thick).
  • Allow the finish to dry completely, then scuff (sand lightly) with a 320 grit or higher sandpaper (using stearated or self-lubricating sandpaper is a good idea, to minimize clogs).
  • Remove the sanding dust.  Don't use a tack cloth to remove sanding dust from a water based cabinet finish.  Tack clothes contain a small amount of oil, and you don't want oil to be mixed in with your water based finish.
  • Apply a second coat, keeping it thin.
  • Let the finish dry (at least two hours, or follow manufacturers guidelines for drying time).
  • Repeat scuffing and applying coats until you achieve the finish you want.

Keep in mind not to scuff with real steel wool: 

Particles from the wool will break off into your wood, and when the water based cabinet finish reacts with the steel wool particles, the resulting rust spots will ruin your finish.

If bubbles appear in your finish:

You may be stirring up bubbles with your brush.  Try to smooth them out as you brush, and make sure your coats are thin.  You could also add 10% to 20% distilled water, making the finish take longer to dry.  This may allowing the bubbles time to escape.

It might also be your finish.  Some water based cabinet finishes aren't designed to be brushed on.  Make sure you have a brand of finish that is made to be brushed on.

Remember to have adequate ventilation:

Even though you are using water based cabinet finish, and the fumes are minimal, there are still some fumes.  Be sure to adequately ventilate your area so you don't breath in any fumes.  Follow the manufacturer's safety guidelines.  It also never hurts to wear a respirator mask when using any finish.

Return from Water Based Cabinet Finish page to Cabinet Finishes page.

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.