11 Tips for Mixing Wood Finishes

How to Mix Different Wood Finishes in a Room

Mixed wood finishes at Homestead Seattle
A gorgeous mix of wood finishes at Homestead Seattle. medvjek/ CC BY 2.0/Flickr

Furniture stores and catalogs show matching wood furniture because they’re selling those sets. In a real room, a skillful mix of different wood finishes looks far more stylish, but the process isn't always intuitive. To keep the look cohesive, here are 11 tips for mixing wood finishes:

1. Shop with Your Samples

Creating a pleasing mix of wood finishes should begin long before you take the pieces home.

That's why you should always shop with your wood samples in hand, ideally as part of a flea market tool kit.

With newish wood furniture of identifiable brands -- bought new or secondhand -- you may be able to order small wood samples from the manufacturers. Otherwise, take photos of your wood furniture finishes and check them for color accuracy. 

2. Remember that Complementary Is Better than Close

When you buy your furniture one piece at a time from the offerings at flea markets, yard sales, and other secondhand sources, you're not going to end up with a lot of matching sets.

That should take care of the matchy-matchy issue, but lots of do-it-yourself decorators still try to get close. That's a mistake. Wood finishes that almost match look like you tried and failed. Mixing a variety of wood finishes that complement each other, though different, looks like a deliberate design choice.

3. Identify the Undertones

If you're not sure which wood finishes work well together, opt for pieces that share the same color temperature, which is also known as the undertone.

Wood finishes with warm undertones appear yellow, orange, or red. Cool undertones look 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 either warm or cool finishes, as well as with other neutral woods.

If you're having trouble identifying a wood finish's undertone, focus on the palest tone in the grain. Or, look at the piece from across the room so it appears as a single shade. If you wear glasses, take them off for the latter process.

4. Keep a Common Element

Though your stains shouldn't all match, your wood pieces should make sense together. You can accomplish that by making sure the pieces all have one or more -- though not all -- elements in common.

In addition to the aforementioned color temperature, common elements to consider include the formality, period, style, or shape. A common shape doesn't mean they all have to be the same. It just means sticking with curvy vs. clean-lined shapes, for example.

5. Add a Unifying Piece

If you're new to mixing wood finishes, consider adding a piece with multiple tones -- one that contains most or all of the room's wood finishes -- to tie the various finishes together visually. Good options include zebrawood, inlaid furniture, burled finishes, and high-contrast pieces with large flame-shaped cathedrals. 

6. Opt for a Mix of Grain Patterns and Sizes

Color isn't the only element that distinguishes a wood finish. The grain pattern and size matter too.

The grain pattern refers to the stripes, swirls, or flame-like shapes you see in the wood. The grain pattern size is simply the scale of those elements. Just as you'd use a mix of fabric patterns and pattern scales to add interest, opt for a mix of varying wood grains as well.

7. Scatter Close Finishes Throughout the Room

When you decorate with different wood finishes, you have to be careful about both their placement in the room and their proximity to each other.

If all of the dark woods end up one side of the room, for example, that side will look too heavy and the room will appear lopsided. Instead, scatter finishes that are close in color throughout the room for a visually balanced look.

8. Adjust the Contrast

It's fine to start slow when mixing wood finishes for the first time.

Opting out of the matching set doesn't mean you have to jump into a high-contrast mix of espresso-stained ash and pale pickled pine.

Get your feet wet with a light-and-medium or medium-and-dark mix.

You can always add more contrast when you're ready.

9. Choose a Dominant Tone

Using equal amounts of anything is rarely a plus in an interior, and that includes wood finishes. It's boring. Using unequal amounts creates tension -- the good kind -- which adds visual interest.

Choose one wood tone to serve as the dominant finish. That might simply mean it's by far the biggest surface, such as flooring or a dining table that seats eight more. If none of the wood surfaces are significantly larger than the rest, reserve two to three pieces for your dominant tone.

The pieces in your dominant tone don't have to be an exact match, and they usually shouldn't. If they're all dark or all orange-toned, for example, that's enough to consider the dark or orangey wood the dominant tone. 

10. Soften the Transition with Textiles

Mixing different wood finishes doesn't mean you have to pile them atop each other. You can if you like the look, but it's also fine to soften the transition from tone to tone with textiles. An area rug is a good example.

If the finish on the hardwood floor is significantly different from the finish on your cocktail or dining table, placing a colorful rug on the floor between them makes the difference less jarring. 

11. Add Other Hard Surfaces to the Mix

Unless you're going for the lodge look, it's possible to have too much wood in a room -- no matter how skillful you are at mixing the finishes.

Break up the woody look by adding other hard surfaces to your space. Lacquered and painted pieces are good options. They don't count as wood for this purpose because you can't see the grain.

Other possibilities include metal, shell, mirror, glass, and acrylic surfaces.