Wood Finishes… To Mix or Match, That is the Question

This dining room designed by Beverly Hills-based Christopher Grubb, president and founder of Arch-Interiors, Inc., successfully blends multiple wood finishes to create a dynamic atmosphere.

Many think it’s a design “rule” that all of the finishes in a room or space have to match. But if you ask any professional interior designer, they’ll tell you this is one “rule” that most designers break…regularly. In fact, it’s not a rule at all. Furniture and cabinetry do not have to match to work well together.

The era of the “matchy-match” bedroom furniture and dining sets is long over. And in spaces like the kitchen and the bath, mixing cabinet finishes is actually a very hot design trend right now. Designers agree that using a variety of wood finishes actually adds personality and richness to a space. Successful combinations of finishes depend on the color and texture of the wood, the overall style of the space, the larger color areas of the floor, walls, and ceiling, the proportions of the furniture or cabinetry and the placement within the space. Basically, it’s all about balance. If you’re looking to create a space that blends multiple wood species or finishes consider these top tips from designers who are not afraid to mix things up a little…or a lot!

  • Identify the Undertones. If you’re not 100% sure which wood finishes work well together, go for pieces that share the same color temperature or undertone. Wood finishes with warm undertones appear yellow, orange, or red. On the other hand, cool undertones have a grayish cast. If the undertone looks beige, the wood has a neutral color temperature. Neutral undertones are the most versatile because you can mix them with either warm or cool finishes as well as with other neutral woods.
  • Close won’t cut it. When in doubt, contrast rather than unsuccessfully match. Remember that “close” only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes. Wood finishes that almost match look like you tried and failed. It’s a far better to complement than to choose a finish that’s close but obviously not a match. Mixing a variety of different wood finishes that complement each other looks like a deliberate design choice.
  • Mix Grain, patterns, and sizes. Just as you would use a mix of fabric patterns and pattern scales to add interest, go with a mix of varying wood grains as well. If your different woods all have a prominent grain, keeping the patterns similar will help retain the “mood” of the room. Generally speaking, large wood grains are considered to be more casual while finer grains are thought of as more formal.
  • Select a Dominant Tone. Any designer will tell you that equal amounts of anything in interiors can be a real snooze-fest. It’s especially true when it comes to wood finishes. Select one wood tone to serve as the dominant finish. A good example of this might be a wood floor since it’s often the largest surface. The pieces in your dominant tone don’t have to be an exact match, and they don’t even have to be wood. But by letting one tone dominate the space, you’ll create the visual “tension” necessary to help the other elements pop.
  • Soften the transition. Placing a wood table, for example, directly on top of a different wood floor calls attention to the difference. Using a rug or carpet in between will provide a visual buffer that softens the transition from tone to tone. It makes the difference less jarring to the eye.
  • Know your limits. Stick to two or three types of finishes in any given space. Anything more will create chaos. Limiting the wood finishes to two or three choices will feel more balanced. Also, be sure to scatter close finishes throughout the room. If dark woods all end up on one side of the space, that side will look too heavy and the whole room will feel lopsided. Spreading them out across the space will ensure a visually balanced look.
  • Incorporate Other Surfaces Into the Mix. It is possible to have too much wood in a room. Unless you’re going for the log cabin look, break up lots of wood by adding other hard surfaces to the space. Whether via decorative pieces or wall art, add lacquered and painted pieces. Metal and mirrors do a great job of breaking up the monotony of wood and elements like shell, glass and acrylic will add interest.

These tips aren’t hard and fast rules either. They just offer a few different ways to think about wood as it is used to decorate any space. Have you found your own strategies for combining various wood finishes? Please feel free to share your ideas!