Exploring wood color


Woods used in furniture span a range of value from White (holly) to black (ebony), in between most are earth tones, shades of brown.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mixing different colors and hues of wood in a furniture design. A couple of things are rolling around in my head. There’s a great book  The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour, by Robert D. Mussey Jr that’s worth careful study. The Seymour’s built furniture in Boston in the early 19th century and were absolute masters at exploiting color in their work. They often took the same form but offered it in a number of color combinations. There are dark formal mahogany cabinets that become completely different pieces when lightened up with maple or satinwood doors or drawers. They sometimes contrasted dark framing elements (legs, stiles, and rails) with lighter panels, and sometimes just the reverse. Even if you are not a fan of federal or Empire furniture, this book is worth a look just to observe their explorations in color. There’s a sideboard design I’ve been toying with for a few weeks. The thought has occurred to me to make a batch of three and use it as an excuse to explore some color wood combinations. Barbie will get her pick of the three and then I’ll put the other two in a local gallery. Right now I’m thinking about:

1. A solid walnut version. I have some nice air dried stock and a handful of crotch panels I can use for drawer and door fronts.

2. A case and top made of curly cherry with figured maple drawers fronts and doors.

3. A solid figured maple version with a blond shellac finish to keep it as light as possible.

I ask myself when looking at the Seymour pieces. Did they offer the different color combinations to cater to the whims of their clients or did they have something more in mind? Did the lighter pieces work better in a newer architectural style with bigger windows flooding the interiors with more sunlight? Did the lighter pieces work better with the overall color schemes of the day?

I am no expert on color, I know just enough to be dangerous. I do know that with wood we are primarily limited to a pallet of neutral or earth tones, different hues of brown basically. Some woods may lean towards a reddish or yellow hue but in a general sense we are primarily working with nuetral browns.  Any color can be expressed in a value that spans a range. It can be diluted until its white or intensified until it’s black. In between are an infinite range of values. This photo shows a range of values of some common furniture woods. At opposite ends are Holly (white) and Ebony (black); in between are walnut, cherry, mahogany, and maple. Oak, ash, cypress, most other common hardwoods would fall somewhere between maple and walnut. You could easily lay these out from white to black in value. When pairing woods or different colors it’s helpful to think about the values and what will harmonize.

This ebony and holly are from opposite ends of the value scale.

Think about a piano player. A pianist doesn’t play with arms outstretched to opposite ends of the keyboard. Instead the notes that compliment and work with each other are far enough apart that they are different, yet close enough that they compliment rather than compete. Place the ebony and holly side by side and we have a shouting zebra, even pairing maple with walnut is a similar stretch. Colors at extreme ends of the value scale are often employed in a very restrained manner as in thin stringing or inlay. Otherwise they may compete rather than compliment. Maple and cherry work well as they are a fairly close pairing and will compliment. What are your favorite pairings of wood colors?

George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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7 Responses to Exploring wood color

  1. aaron says:

    I agree. I cringe a little bit when I see the somewhat popular maple-walnut combination. I very much like walnut and cherry however, and I’m currently experimenting with mahogany and cherry.

    • Steve says:

      It is funny that you say that about the maple/walnut connection. I’m relatively new to woodworking and I just started my first experiment with contrasting colors by using maple/walnut in a picture frame holder I am designing. I did this simply because the two colors were available in my shop (I have some cherry, but I’ve been working a lot with it lately and I need a break). Ironically enough, I wasn’t too fond of using those woods, so do you have any suggestions on how to liven this combination up? Stains, dyes, oils, etc?

      • walkerg says:

        First it’s important to note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t mix maple and walnut, just that it’s quite a jump in contrast and can come across busy or loud. Two things are going on from a color standpoint. The walnut is at the dark end of the value scale and if it’s kiln dried it may tend to be colder (tend towards blue rather than red). If it’s already assembled there’s not much you can do with the walnut. Sometime’s I’ve seen walnut given a light bleach treatment to pull it lighter followed by an amber or redish stain to pull it warmer. It may be easier however to pull the maple towards the walnut. Since it’s naturally light, a glaze or stain can push them together and make them work. You should be able to mask the walnut and stain the maple. I’d tend to use a light amber or something with a reddish hue, use multiple light coats and sneak up on it. Good luck.


  2. Tom says:

    I like trying different combos. Look at my piece at http://www.tomwoodworker.com/index_files/Page1650.htm and besides all of the marquetry I used cherry and red oak. The neat thing is over time the piece is slowly defining a contrast.

  3. Morton says:

    Great timing and thanks for the tip on the book – I’ll have to check that out. I’m currently (getting started on) building a bow front table using walnut. I’m going to use cherry for some interior components (since I have more of it) and the drawer box (walnut front). I think the two will go very well together and showoff the dovetails on the drawer front nicely.

  4. Neal Foxworthy says:

    The April 2010 issue of Fine Woodworking has an interesting article by Garrett Hack on the use of contrast. The article has examples of good parings and some not so good parings.


  5. Pierre-Alexandre says:

    I personnaly love the contrast in wood, even pronounced one.
    My favorite combinaison so far is Jatoba (brazillian cherry) and maple :

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