Varnish question

my tale of woe. Just finished an expensive renovation on my kitchen. All custom cabintry, Maple cabinets, all solid wood behind the veneers everywhere. Before the cabinets were installed I had a long converstaion with my cabinet maker regarding finishes, I was told to use a post-catalytic varnish, he uses a pre-catalytic varnish. He said they are all the same, blah, blah, blah, and because i can't build or make anything and am entirely off my area of expertise i acquisced and let him do what he normally does. Well we've been in the house for about 3 months now and I started to notice that the bottoms of the cabinet doors near the sink are starting to show wear. The finish is disappearing in little streaks that look like a mountain range, about 1/4" high in places now, but I'm sure it's going to get worse. When I called him to ask what was happening he said that this was my fault because i wanted counter edges that were flush and so the water was dripping down the front of the cabinets and the drips were hanging at the bottom of the doors and this was causing the finish to disappear. On the face he's right, water does drip down the cabinet doors, but we are talking drips not streams of water (both me and my wife could earn OCD couple of the year awards for keeping our house cleaner than the inside of a microchip factory). He also said that no varnish is water resistant and that if water stands long enough it's going to get through the finish. I guess i was surprised because one, we're talking about vertical surfaces not places where water is standing like a counter top with a sweating glass of water, and two, even on the horizontal surfaces where I'm also seeing the finish disappear, like the top of the drawers in the bathrooms, we're talking about drops of water, not puddles. I would hope the water would evaporate before it would get through the finish. He agreeed to come fix the problem (letting me know that he doesn't guarantee the finish and usually charges for fixes, but would do this one gratis), but I told him not to come yet. I wanted to gather enough information so that i could have a informed converstaion with him. Of course his boys showed up anyway while I wasn't at home and wanted to fix the problem, my wife said they couldnt' take the doors away and they said they weren't gong to take them away, they were going to fix them there. She stood firm and they went away.
So here are my questions: 1) is there a difference between post and pre catalytic finishes? 2) is one more reccomended for use around sinks? 3) is there anyway that drips from a sink should take a finish off? 4) it is possible to fix this and match the finish (it's a clear satin coat)? 5) how could they fix this finish without taking the doors off and taking them to some dust controlled shop to re-spray them?
also, as i was looking around for other water damage, which i found in other places in the kitchen (near the stove-top, and the bathrooms) i noticed that some of the panels that make up the sides of the cabinets feel like they have very small ridges that run down the cabinet. it's hard to describe, but it feels like very, skinny creases. when I asked the cabinet maker about it, he told me that i was feeling the grain, which is complete bullshit, since these are veneers and they are sanded and finished and i've never felt the grain on a finished piece of furniture unless that was the was the way it was designed. I asked the cabinet guy if the veneer could be coming off and he told me that it was not possible, the veneer was heat adheised to the wood and it could not come off. Anyone have any ideas what I'm feeling?
Sorry this was so long winded, but as is the case with all the things that have gone wrong in my renovation i've found that knowledge is the best defense, so any help is appreciated.
Thanks.
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leon spinks wrote:
<snipped tale of woe>
Leon, where are you?
I hate reading stories like this! It sounds to me as if Leon is in need of some "expert opinion" here...
I'm not an expert but /do/ use varnish on some of the stuff I build for my shop - and I've never experienced anything like this, even on a sailboat.
--
Morris Dovey
DeSoto Solar
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I'm not an expert either, but something is obviously terribly wrong. Perhaps you could have another finisher to come and give his assessment? Could be money well spent.

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I've already made an appointment with a company that finishes cabinets to have him take a look at what is going on. my guess is that my cabinet guy is good at making cabinets (the cabinets really look great if you don't count the finish), but instead of hiring someone to finish the cabinets for him tries to do it with his own crew who have no idea what they are doing.
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i'm in southern california.
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snipped-for-privacy@excite.com wrote:

Sounds like you're on the right track with the cabinet finisher appointment. My intent in asking was to get you hooked up with one of the resident rec.woodworking experts in your area.
I suspect your assessment of the situation is accurate; and that you're taking exactly the right action. Good luck!
--
Morris Dovey
DeSoto Solar
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The following observations are my opinion based on research--I'm not an expert on finishes.
leon spinks wrote:

SOLID wood behind the veneers? Not ply? Unless the guy who put this together is a real genius, that's asking for trouble--MDF and plywood are good surfaces for veneer because they don't move much. Solid wood is likely to move enough to crack or loosen the veneer.

"Pre-catalytic" vs "post-catalytic" normally applies to lacquer, which is not usually considered to be "varnish" (although the resident pedant is probably going to jump in here and argue the point). While lacquer is a good finish for many purposes, it's (IMO) a long way from ideal for kitchen cabinets.
"Catalytic" lacquer has a chemical added that causes changes during the curing process that make the finish more durable than "regular" lacquer. That doesn't make it "durable" though, especially in wet areas.
The "Pre-catalytic" type has a catalyst added at the factory and starts to crosslink as soon as the can is opened, the post-catalytic type has the catalyst added immediately before use. Small shops that use catalyzed lacquer tend to use the post-catalytic type because they typically won't use up a can of pre-catalytic before it hardens in the can, while larger shops tend to use the pre-catalytic because if they do high volume it's easier to not have to mix in the catalyst.

In his defense, it's remarkable how much water can be absorbed that way. I used to have a cheap particle-board microwave stand that I kept the coffee maker on. Over time the drips from filling the coffee maker resulted in a good deal of swelling at the bottom. But that crap didn't have _any_ finish on the bottom. Still, I've seen dirt cheap plywood doors that have been in place for 30 years that don't show anything like what you're describing.

While this is to some extent true, if he used a lacquer it is much more susceptible to water damage than a conventional varnish and vastly more than polyurethane.

That sounds like lacquer--one of its advantages is that it's relatively easy to repair. The disadvantage is that it needs a lot of repairs if it's used in an area subject to a lot of wear.

From the viewpoint of the guy applying them, yes, from the viewpoint of durability after application, no. And neither is very durable.

Neither is. While lacquer has many good qualities, water resistance is not one of them.

With lacquer, yes. One of the things they used to make you to do in boot camp (in the Navy anyway) was run hot water over your belt buckle until the quartermaster lacquer came off, then polish it.

Yes, but it probably won't stay fixed.

Lacquer brushes or rubs on nicely, and is easy to remove. One of the finest finishes available is lacquer rubbed on according to a specific process called "French polishing". Fixing it in the field isn't that big a deal.
His fix isn't likely to stay fixed though.

One possibility is that with finishes that don't have good water resistance used in damp or humid areas the finish gives way over indentations in the grain first, lets a moisture differential develop, the wood swells more at those points and you end up with roughness in the surface. I have a mirror in my bathroom on which this is happening to the frame--one of these days I need to strip and refinish it with something durable but I haven't gotten to it yet.
Or it could be that you're seeing the effect of movement of the underlying wood if the grain is oriented differently from that of the veneer.

The bottom line on this is that there's a tradeoff between fineness of finish and durability--you can get a pretty surface with lacquer but it's not very durable--you can get a very durable surface with polyurethane but some people don't like it aesthetically. In between are the alkyd varnishes, which should stand up for a good long time in typical interior use. Personally I'm of the opinion that kitchen cabinets are to be used first, looked at second, so I prefer a durable finish over a pretty one, but that's just me--you might feel otherwise.
This guy _should_ have discussed that tradeoff with you though. If these are _really_ expensive cabinets I'd hope that a two-component urethane (the kind of stuff that will last ten years on a boat deck) would be an option.

--
--John
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