Q. Matching Old and New Cabinets

My client wants to change the design of her eight-year-old kitchen and add new cabinetry. Fortunately, the same maple cabinets are still available from the manufacturer, either unfinished or with a clear lacquer finish — but I know they will look much lighter than the originals until they’ve had a chance to age, and even then the match probably won’t be exact. Short of replacing the old cabinets, what’s the best way to match the new with the old?

A.Scott Burt, owner of Topcoat Finishes in Jericho, Vt., responds: A light-toned wood species like maple doesn’t change in color as much as a dark-toned wood like cherry, but the change happens more slowly and the results are less predictable. That makes it difficult to “match” the effects of time on clear-finished maple cabinets. (The job would have been easier if the maple had been finished with a dark stain.)

Some cabinet shops that finish with HVLP equipment might try bleaching and toning all the finished cabinetry once the new units have been installed, but this takes a lot of prep work and protection, creates obnoxious odors, and produces results that can look artificial. I prefer a technique called overstaining, which is done manually on unfinished wood.

I begin by brushing a base coat onto the new unfinished cabinets, using a polymerized oil coating like Murdoch’s Hard Oil (800/322-1245, sutherlandwelles.com) or a sanding sealer like Zinsser’s Bulls Eye Sealcoat (847/367-7700, rustoleum.com). Over that, I apply an oil-based stain such as Old Masters gel stain (800/747-3436, myoldmasters.com). The process is similar to faux graining, only with a controllable tone, so getting good results takes some proficiency. After the wiping stain has cured, I apply a compatible clear finish, such as Zar Ultra Max waterborne oil modified polyurethane (800/845-5227, ugl.com).

For the project you describe, I would recommend leaving the new finish a tick on the light side and letting the target tone depth come in over time (typically within three to six months). Staining is a subjective art, so I always create about six stain-match samples and then narrow it down to three: one on the light side of the target, one on the dark side, and one that’s dead on. These samples help me explain to the client what to expect during the aging process.

Sometimes in a case like yours it’s easier to lighten the older cabinets by sanding and refinishing them. Solid wood face frames, doors, and drawer fronts can endure pretty vigorous sanding, though care must be taken not to punch through the veneer of sheet goods. After sanding, I make finish samples in the least conspicuous spots or on separate pieces of maple to find a good tone that matches the finish on the new cabinets. Waterborne poly is usually a good bet, since clear-finished maple tends to be quite blond — though some staining (over a sealer) might be necessary to get tones to match. While labor-intensive, this method makes finishing much less finicky and brings all of the cabinetry to a more predictable baseline; after that, natural tone depth change should be more uniform and less noticeable.