Tips for Choosing Wood Colors in Your Home Décor

Selecting wood colors in your home can be tricky. To help, we asked experts to share their secrets to help you choose your wood colors wisely.

No matter where you look — trim, flooring, cabinetry, built-ins, beams, wall paneling — wood is an integral part of most homes. And the color of that wood matters. Whether you’re buying new, undertaking a renovation or simply updating a room, we asked experts to share their tips for choosing wood colors for your décor.

Know Your Species

You’ve probably seen plenty of oak (usually in honey tones or dark brown), clear blonde maple or deep red cherry in homes built a few decades ago. And while these choices are still popular, today your local home store, cabinetmaker, flooring supplier or lumberyard has a wider array of species to choose from. Consider the unique characteristics of each species to determine the perfect color and look you want.

Cherry wood patinas and will darken over time,” says Jayme Lennon, a designer and cabinet specialist with New Spaces. “The same stain on maple versus cherry will evolve differently over time. If you like the stain on maple, it will stay the same forever, but in cherry it will get warmer and deeper over time.”

Lennon also says finishing processes have improved, so cautions of years past are less a worry.

“Maple used to be difficult to stain, sometimes resulting in a blotchy product,” she says. “Today, you can get maple beautifully stained in any color.”

Certain woods lend themselves to different styles, too.

“White oak is so popular right now with a lighter finish for a coastal trendy look,” says interior designer Kelly McDermott of Kelly McDermott Interiors. “If you’re going for a more rustic, cozy craftsman style, we see a lot of knotty alder with longer grain that takes a darker stain better than white oak. Walnut lends itself to a more modern or mid-century modern look.”

Undertones Rule

An important consideration when selecting wood colors is undertone. Many kinds of wood have a distinct background hue that will affect stain colors, ranging from warm (hints of yellow, orange or red) to cool (tending to blue, green, black and gray).

“Cherry is always reddish,” says Amber Ranzau, a designer for Modern Design Cabinetry. “Walnut will orange as it mellows and maple will get more yellow.”

Paying attention to undertones when refinishing existing wood can spell the difference between a look you’ll love and one that doesn’t quite work. “A lot of the homes we work with have existing oak floors,” Lennon says. “We’re adding stains to give them a completely new look.”

Lennon says many older homes have red oak floors that don’t take well to a cool grayish stain. But, she adds, a lot of her clients are going for a coffee-brown color.

Added Ranzau: “If we’re working around keeping the orange-tinted red oak floors original to the house, a lot of times we’ll lean toward superior alder wood for cabinets. The grain on alder is smooth and will pair nicely with the stronger grain of the oak, and it can stain pretty much any color.”

Sarah Obert, a senior project manager with Engstrom Wood Products, recommends homeowners compare stain options against an existing floor to see how they fit. “If you have really red flooring and pick a blacker toned stain it might clash, so there is a coordinating process to see how they look together,” she says.

Consider Grain and Imperfections

It’s also smart to consider two other wood characteristics: grain and imperfections. Choosing distinctively grained woods for a new project, like hickory, knotty pine or reclaimed wood, will provide a distinctive focal point.

Obert suggests thinking about what you want to appear most prominent before you make your choices. “A client may select more muted cabinets if they want the flooring to stand out,” she says.

A beautifully-grained wood is often best left more natural, too, “I personally haven’t been putting a lot of stain on flooring like hickory, my favorite hardwood for floors,” says Lennon, who loves the different color elements and variations.

Coordination is Key

Our designers all agree that coordinating the various wood components in your décor takes a little effort, but it’s well worth it. In some cases, it’s about matching new materials with the old. And that, McDermott says, means “painting the whole picture of all the finishes in the space.”

Added Obert: “We’re seeing a lot of families wanting to keep with the home’s architectural theme. They want to remain true to the character of the home.” Designers work with customers to find the best wood species that works with the old, then match a similar tone to keep with the theme of the house.

It’s usually smart to choose one or two wood colors for the more prominent wood components.

“You can play around with different wood tones with your more decorative items and furniture that you maybe change out every few years,” McDermott says. “For flooring and cabinetry or other more permanent components, you’ll probably want to pick one or maybe two wood colors and try to keep it consistent throughout your house.”

Ranzau says, “We’re seeing a lot of our clients wanting to go pretty neutral on the big items, then they can swap out the seasons and their mood through accessories.” Lennon says she prefers timeless items for the big pieces. “If we’re going to something trendy,” she says, “we do it in small doses so it doesn’t overtake the project.”

For Love or Money

There’s one more thing to consider when choosing wood colors: the why. If you’re planning to sell in a few years and want to add value to your home, all our experts recommend going with more neutral tones.

“Are you updating it because you want to feel great in the space?” Obert says. “If this is your forever home, if you want something you just love that overwhelms you with joy, it may not be a kitchen for everybody. But we’ll find a way to make it all work.”

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Wendy B. Danks
My 40-year-plus career in marketing and communications was both fun and rewarding, not least of which was the 20 years I got to manage the largest Parade of Homes in the United States. But through it all, I was happiest when I had pen or keyboard in hand. Whether an ad, a press release or magazine article, I found a home with words.