Wood Casework Surface Finish Requirements

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In this article we’ll look in detail at casework surface finishing, things to consider, requirements, and examples of finishing systems. 

Types of AWI Wood Casework Surface Finishes

AWI’s casework surface finishes – including finishes on custom, semi-custom or stock wood casework – are categorized into four sections. These are:

  • Exposed exterior surfaces – where all surfaces are visible
  • Exposed interior surfaces – where the casework interior is visible
  • Semi-exposed surfaces – where the interior is visible when doors or drawers are opened
  • Concealed surfaces – where neither exterior or interior surfaces are visible

Each of these categories has casework surface finishing requirements, and there are also casework aesthetics to consider. Because of ongoing changes to environmental regulations and new finishing technologies, it’s important to discuss different finishing options with the design professional and/or manufacturer.


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Custom architectural casework, built from exotic or traditional woods, may require a wood veneer or laminate finish. Semi-custom and stock products, on the other hand, are built and finished according to industry standards. For example, ANSI/AWI 0620 – Finish Carpentry/Installation encompasses installation of wood trim, paneling, casework, integrated door systems, countertops, and other related interior finishes.

As you can see from these design ideas, wood casework ranges from the basic to the extremely complex, and surface finish requirements change accordingly:

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What to Consider When Selecting a Casework Surface Finish

There are many things to consider when choosing an architectural wood casework surface finish

  • Finishing Cost: Costs vary greatly, and it’s important to do your research. Some finishes may seem good value but require more labor, which can add to your budget. Don’t cut costs by applying less coats of finish as you will not get the results you desire in terms of protecting and moisture-proofing the wood, or getting the right aesthetic
  • Chemical Resistance: Domestic and industrial cleaning products can contain some strong chemicals, which may be harmful to the surface finish. This must be taken into consideration during the specification phase
  • Wear Resistance: A good casework surface finish will be strong and thick with a solid molecular structure that makes it resistant to wear and scratches
  • Ease of Repair: Will it be a quick and easy job to repair the finish in case of scratches? What if the scratch goes deep – will that make a difference to the finish you choose? 
  • Clarity: From an aesthetic point of view, clarity is an important consideration. You want the finish to be as clear as possible in order to showcase the wood in the best possible way.
  • Adhesion: Will the finish adhere to the wood you’re working with properly? You don’t want to apply a finish that will become brittle and peel off
  • Elasticity: Wood moves according to fluctuations in humidity and temperature. Finishes which aren’t able to cope with this movement aren’t the right ones to use on wood surfaces

Examples of Wood Casework Surface Finishing

Wood casework

Including cherry, oak, pine, birch, and mahogany – is typically stained with transparent, semi-transparent, opaque, or semi-opaque stain so that the natural wood grain is shown to best effect. Wood surfaces can also be painted, glazed, or rubbed with oil. 

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Wood-veneered casework

Has a consistent finish across all surfaces and is normally stained. 

Laminated casework 

Is an off-the-shelf, inexpensive finishing option that’s durable, easy to clean, and easy to repair. 

AWI’s wood casework surface finishing requirements include three grades of casework surface finishing: 

  • Premium, which provides the highest degree of control over materials and workmanship, and the best aesthetic result
  • Custom, which provides a high degree of control and a good aesthetic result
  • Economy, which provides the minimum degree of control – laminate casework would normally come under this grade. 

It’s important to note that QCP only certifies projects that are either premium or custom grade.

Testing Architectural Casework Surface Finishes

It’s important to conduct tests on the finishes before the installation. For example, you may want to test how a kitchen surface finish may react to mustard or ketchup being spilled on it.

Testing is crucial because the chemical and stain resistance of different finishes can be affected by concentration, time, temperature, humidity, and housekeeping, amongst other things. It is recommended and we would advise that actual samples are tested in a similar environment with those agents. The QCP inspection process will also cover the testing of some finishes.

To give an example, one of our QCP inspectors was checking surface finish for a client when they came across a seemingly inexplicable discoloration on a casework surface. After talking with the client, they realized that a speaker with neoprene feet had been placed on the surface, and the neoprene had reacted with the surface finish. This is a good example of why testing surface requirements with different elements is so important. 

You’ll find further information on standards for casework surface finishes in ANSI/AWI 0641 – Architectural Wood Casework and ANSI/AWI 1232 – Manufactured Wood Casework.

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Contact us to find out more about how you can join the Architectural Woodwork Institute’s Quality Certification Program and build reputation for high-quality woodwork that will help you generate repeat business and greater demand for your services.

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