Furniture Tips & Tricks

April 1999



Color is always a consideration in furniture whether you’re buying new or refinishing. As important as color is it’s amazing how little the average person knows about it. In this column we’ll try to add to your education. Be warned, this is a reader-participation’re going to have to do something in order to get the full benefit!


When talking to a painter, decorator, or anyone who deals with color all the time you’re liable to hear enough strange terms to make your head start spinning. Primary, secondary, complementary...what are they talking about? Take a piece of paper and draw a triangle. Label each corner of the triangle with one of the following; Red, Blue, Yellow.


These are the primary colors. All other colors are made by mixing one or more of these colors together, combined with black and/or white to get various shades. Now on the line between the primary colors, place the following labels; between red and yellow, place orange; between red and blue, place violet; between yellow and blue, place green. These are the secondary colors. These colors are made by mixing the adjacent primary colors. Add white, you get a lighter shade; add black, you get darker. Complementary colors are those directly across from each other. For instance, directly across from Red in our triangle is Green. Green and red are complementary colors. Theoretically, mixing any two complementary colors together should give black. It practice, you get a dark brown.


You often hear talk about "warm" and "cool" colors. Warm colors include red, orange and yellow; cool colors would include blue, green, and violet. In decorating, warm and cool colors are used to emphasize or de-emphasize room areas. In paintings, particularly in portraits, cool colors are used as a background in order not to detract from the subject of the painting. Warm colors are also used in paintings (along with perspective) to draw your attention to a particular point in the painting.


Color is very important in the choice of woods for furniture. Mahogany and walnut traditionally have imparted a "rich" look. Oak, pine and maple, less so, leaning more to function and practicality. Each species of wood (a subject for another column or two) has its limitations as far as color is concerned. It would be very difficult to make mahogany as light as pine. Because of the grain (which is a function of color) it would be nearly impossible to make oak look like anything else.


Color matching in stains is not difficult once you understand what the color you see is composed of. A deep, rich mahogany has blue and red in it. A medium oak has yellow/orange and black (believe it or not!). The traditional (30's,40's & 50's) reddish maple has a reddish/orange and black.


As you might have guessed, most refinishers don’t use pure colors for furniture. We use the same color charts artists do, and not for any over-appreciation of our skills. We use them because the color names used by artists are universal. Just as a passing note, here are the colors I keep in my shop that I use to mix and match stains: Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Burnt Umber, Raw Umber, Van Dyke Brown, Thalo Blue, Thalo Green, Vermillion, Chrome Yellow, White and Black. These are all oil based colors I use to make stains and glazes, as well as minor touch-up work.


If you would like to further your education on color, stop by an art supply store. Many of them have what is called a "Grumbacher Color Wheel" - a handy device for defining and mixing colors. The library would be another source for further information. As for me, if you have any questions, drop me a line at the Enterprise, or email me:



George Utley has about 20 years experience in furniture
repair/refinishing/manufacturing. His last full-time job in the industry was
as quality control supervisor for a Virginia mfg. producing solid walnut and
cherry period pieces (Queen Anne & Hepplewhite).

George Utley