Natural wood doesn't mean you're purchasing cabinets that are entirely in the nude. To protect the wood from dirt and grease and maintain the look of unfinished wood, a transparent topcoat must be added.
A stain adds color to the wood without masking the beauty of the wood grain. Manufacturers use all different names for stain colors. One company's "amber" may not look anything like another's with the same name. Think in terms of tone. Choose the wood you prefer and then decide whether a stain with a light, medium, or dark tone will best achieve the effect you're after.
A stain isn't technically a "finish"; there are more steps to come once it has been applied. A finishing coat is applied over the stain to protect it. Typically, a stain will be coated with a catalytic-conversion varnish to give it durability and sheen-whether matte or high-gloss or anything in-between. When it's baked on, the varnish catalyzes into a hard, protective finish. You don't want to top the stain with oil, lacquer, or wax because those substances won't hold up and will yellow over time. Glazes can be used as an overcoat to achieve certain effects, such as an antique look.
Glaze can be used by itself or applied over a base stain or paint and then wiped off by hand. The glaze settles in the cabinet door's corners, edges, and open grain areas, defining its details and lending an overall patina. Glazes can be tinted any color. A hand-rubbed white glaze against light woods is a quick way to impart an aged feel.
With paint you certainly have an endless palette of colors to choose from. You can also achieve a range of special effects. Paint can look smooth and glossy or it can be sanded, rubbed off, or dented with rocks to look distressed. But you should be aware up front that hairline cracks will appear at the joints of solid wood doors as the wood expands and contracts. You can avoid cracking if you apply paint to MDF, a solid material that doesn't move with humidity changes.
It isn't that big of a leap to cabinets from cars, the surface on which this finish has been commonly applied. The same durability and quality needed on the road is also appreciated in the kitchen. There, polyester can be found on appliances as well as modern-style cabinets, in a glossy or matte finish. It fills the pores of the door more fully than paint, giving it a solid look and feel.
The technique might involve more than 20 steps of sanding and finishing. There's even a step where a special topcoat is applied in a dust-free room. The finish goes through numerous oven curings and hand sandings with extremely fine abrasives. Special glazes and polishes applied at the end help achieve the final, mirror-like sheen.
Perhaps not surprisingly, all that elbow grease makes this one of the more expensive finish choices.