After shunning them for years in favor of wood and wood veneer, homeowners have fallen in love again with laminate kitchen cabinets -- not the kind that look like wood, but a new generation of gleaming cabinets with a high-gloss finish.
It's not just glossy laminates that to which folks have taken a shine. Sleek, shiny cabinets are all the rage, from lower-priced laminates to high-end lacquered finishes that impart a modern or retro look, depending on the styling.
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Lacquer in particular "has more of a glamorous look to it, and people are warming up to it," says Elaine Williamson, principal owner of Elaine Williamson Designs in Dallas.
The trend is consistent with a "return to elegance" in interior design as a whole, she said.
"People still want clean, tight design but with a little bit of pomp and circumstance, and that's what lacquering does."
Homebuyers and remodelers have three main choices for glossy cabinetry: laminate or thermofoil, high-gloss painted wood or lacquered wood.
Laminates are thin, layered plastic coatings fused to a substrate -- a natural, earth-derived material such as stone -- or with heat and pressure. They offer a wide range of options for colors. Thermofoil, by definition, is a laminate but not a high-pressure laminate. Generally, it consists of flexible vinyl applied to engineered wood. It comes in a rainbow of luminous colors (apple green, cherry red, wine red, orange, yellow, cobalt); offers a high-quality sheen on an easy-care, chip-resistant surface; and may incorporate metallic elements in its finish, like the paint on a sporty car.
Thermofoil cupboards "offer a glossy look that's more affordable than a painted finish, and it's reasonably durable," says San Diego-based kitchen and bath designer Jamie Gold, author of "New Kitchen Ideas That Work" (Taunton Press, 2012).
High-gloss paint is another option, though it's not widely available straight from manufacturers. It's possible to refinish wood cabinets with high-gloss paint, but it takes a lot of work to achieve a glass-like sheen.
"For the best result, you need an oil-based paint, and it needs to be spray-applied, not brushed on, or else you're likely to see brush strokes," says Joseph Irons, president of Irons Brothers Construction in Shoreline, Wash.
The prep work is time-consuming because any scratches and imperfections that aren't properly mended will be magnified by the glossy finish. And if painting over wood, the grain might show through, Williamson warns.
Sanding, priming and several thin coats of paint are required for a smooth finish.
A capable do-it-yourselfer can refinish cupboards using high-gloss paint; however, lacquering is "an art better left to the pros," Williamson says.
In fact, lacquering may even be beyond the skills and equipment of home improvement professionals, Gold says. "You get a better finish from the factory because they have equipment and systems in place to control the multistep lacquer process."
Lacquering results in a harder finish, which Williamson likens to the coating on the M&M shell, whereas high-gloss paint is more like a malleable Skittles shell.
Besides the expense, lacquering has drawbacks. "It makes for a gorgeous, deep, rich, lustrous finish, but if it gets damaged, you have to replace the whole cabinet door -- you can't just touch up something that shiny," Gold says. "In a busy household where kids are banging into things, it may not be the best option."
With laminate or thermofoil, "You can get a very similar high-gloss look for less, and it's more practical," she said.
In recent years, sleek white wood kitchen cabinetry, with or without a glossy finish, has been a dominant trend in modern kitchen design. In glossy finishes, "white is definitely the hottest color, but I'm also seeing some red and different shades of relaxing blue tones," Gold says.
On the bolder side, malachite green may surpass apple green in popularity, Williamson says.
No matter the color, glossy cabinetry catches the eye as well as the light. "It makes a statement," Williamson says, "but a clean, refined statement."