Matching Color the Easy Way

In my opinion, color matching is something of an art form. There are so many different ways to arrive at a final color and look that it can drive you nuts! Lets see, there are alcohol and water soluble dyes in liquid and powder form, oil stains, water-based stains, pigments, toners, gel stains, glazes, and the list goes on and on. But does it always have to be this convoluted?? Let me spoil the ending for you: NO!

I was fortunate to work in a refinishing shop for a while and I had the opportunity to learn about color matching using various techniques and materials. We used to mix all kind of crazy stuff together to get that perfect match. Over the years, I began to realize that many times the perfect match is sitting in a can on the shelf. And if you can find the perfect color in a commercial product, I say “why not?”. The formula should always (hopefully) be consistent and if you ever need to reproduce the color again in the future, you’ll thank yourself.

This weekend, my buddy Ron from RJones Woodworks stopped by to bring me Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Well, to tell you the truth, that’s my standard color matching consultation fee. Pretty reasonable, right? Well anyway, he’s building a custom piece for a client who wants the color to match a particular bamboo cutting board. Now lets get one thing straight: there isn’t a damn thing you can do to oak to make it look like bamboo. This is an important detail that many clients don’t realize. I have had more than one customer ask me to refinish something made from pine so that it looks like something else made from oak. I would match the color perfectly, only to find the customer disappointed on delivery day because the pieces don’t look the same. So if you are ever doing a match for a client, its incredibly important to manage their expectations. OK enough business advice.

01So we were all prepared to pull out the pigments, dyes, lacquer and the HVLP. But before diving into that craziness, we decided to take some dyes and stains from the cabinet and see if we couldn’t find a pre-made solution. We tested numerous water and oil based stains and dyes (all General Finishes). From left to right we have oil-based Pecan, oil-based Antique Cherry, American Cherry gel stain, Nutmeg gel stain, Light Brown water-based dye stain, and Pecan water-based wood stain. The differences were subtle: some had more red, some had more brown, others had more yellow. But all of them were, of course, affected by the red oak laying underneath the color. This is why its always important to test your stains on an actual scrap piece of the material you plan to work with.

05Now the bamboo itself contains a range of colors from light to medium to dark brown, and mimicking the exact look would be nearly impossible. But if we could find a color that was a happy medium between the light and dark streaks, we would be in business. When it was all said and done, we decided on the Light Brown dye stain. We stained a larger area to confirm the match and I think we made the right choice. Honestly, I don’t think we could get any closer even if we tried. 04So once Ron gets the client’s approval, this is a done deal. Instead of spending hours trying to experiment with color, Ron can now hop online and order up a can of Light Brown Dye Stain. And if his client ever commissions another piece in the future, its going to be incredibly easy for him to match the color.

All in all it was a fun morning. And if anyone else wants to bring me free Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, I’ll be more than happy to help you do some color matching.

Category: Finishing


  1. Matthew Hills October 19, 2009

    I’ve often read that it is important to run your full finishing schedule when testing stains/dyes. What’s been your experience with this? was the bamboo unfinished, and you’re just trying to match tone (with the idea that further shifts from topcoats would affect both similarly?)


      thewoodwhisperer October 19, 2009

      We did add a little varnish to the board afterward to confirm it. The cutting board was a commercial product so I am not really sure what the finish was. Nothing very glossy. So the goal was really just to match the tone.

      Topcoats can make a big difference in the intensity and the overall appearance of color. The idea of this particular test was to just narrow down the choices for Ron.

      I am trying to get additional pics, but as it turns out, when Ron bought a can of his own dye stain and applied it to the whole table top, it came out too dark. We still haven’t figured out if this is a change in the formula or simply the effect of spreading the color over a larger surface. So there’s another thing to remember. A small test area can be a little deceiving.

  2. Mark Williams October 19, 2009

    Are you just rubbing in the fact that you can have dunkin any time?????????

  3. Germain October 19, 2009


    I’m not sure why someone would want to color match a bamboo cutting board. And I don’t know why someone would comission a custom piece made of flat sawn red oak. But hey, paying customers get what they want.

  4. Dean October 19, 2009

    Lot-to-Lot variation is pretty common. I’m not surprised by the difference in the final tone. Would there also be some variation in the red oak itself that may impart a darker or lighter tone? Your right about the sample size though. You might try a large black sheet of paper with a hole cut out to isolate the area your observing.

    It would be nice if you had a reflectance spectrophotometer (or spectrometer). You would get a spectral response curve of a reference piece of furniture, and compare to your samples. Unfortunately spectrometers are not cheap. I know I saw a DIY spectrometer in a magazine article many years ago.

    I did run across this site where the guy made his own spectrometer at a very low cost. I’ll paste it below if in the unlikely event there’s a woodworker out there that might want to put one together and test dye/stain samples.

    He has two links at the top for the grating and the software (it’s free). If you click on the software link, click on the English Datalyse link on the left, and then the Download link on the left.

  5. Marc,

    I remember in the early days on TWW, you talked about using off-the-shelf stains like Minwax, etc., for the reasons you stated above — repeatable for both you and the customer. That was one of several things that impressed me about your approach to woodworking.

    I still think that is a great approach although I must admit, for the most part I have been mixing my on TransTint water-based dyes but so far only with Red Mahogany and Dark Walnut.

  6. Claude Stewart October 24, 2009

    I have to admit that I used to use stain quite often(all the time), but now I just use a clear finish. I like the way wood looks all by itself and it easy to remember the finish.

  7. sam pettit March 20, 2010

    Well it seems we have to disagree – I’m on another website preaching to everyone to learn how to make thier own colors of stains and glazes etc.. Here’s why – 6 times in my 45 year career companies who had lines of premixed stains have went under or were bought out by other companies and left the companies i knew in a real pickle.

    Since the finisher’s were more applicators than colorist [by far] they had nothing of their own to turn to for help. As for me i learned as every other finisher had in earlier times how to mix colors from scratch no matter what type or base they may be. It has served me well and has never led to not being able to match “any” color or affect i have ever run across. I know of no single company that can offer what i know in every aspect of color material nor will there ever be one.

    To me, this is an art and science business, and the more you learn to do – the better off you will be. I would never want to find myself relying on someone else’s color or other products to be able to do my work or be held hostage by someone who offers a medium dark walnut color that i can’t match and have to depend on them to supply it to me, or find out one day they no longer make it or have shut thier plant down.

    My advice has always been to learn how to make them yourself. Though now day’s it seems most have no intent to follow it.



    • nick musgrave April 15, 2013

      Dear SAM i am a 27 year old finisher at a cabinet shop and we just bought a color machine from a paint and stain business that just went under a few years ago i can adjust stain great … but we have a guy who comes in and makes the stain who was supposed to train me but wont because it is $ out of his pocket ….”witch i understand” i learned to adjust stain because he is horrible at it and i always fix it … i have tried to start making it my self but can never get the beginning right and always go in the way wrong direction …. any advice on what i should do … like where do i start… if you would email me i would Greatly appreciate it and you could possibly help me further my career!
      Sincerley Nick Musgrave

  8. Dale Quinty February 17, 2011

    Where do I start. I’ve been looking all over the place for some sort of info that would give me a place to start when I want to do a close color match. Just point me a particular place to start. I guess it will help if you know my main concern and item. I’m looking at doing mostly spot repair of guitar related finishes. The finish (clear or tinted clear) I can usually do. But when it comes to matching the base color or tint (usually aged) I’m not sure where to start. Is there a certain color you should start with? How do you go about determining what color or shade or whatever to start and is there a default place and color to begin with? I’m just kind of at a loss and I would love to learn the art of matching a color, hue, tone….. whatever, just where would you start if you were going to walk into it for the first time in the morning? I do have a sincere intent and desire to find out how to do this in a logical manner but you’re right – doesn’t seem that many know how or are willing to share their experience with you. Thanks for the ear – eyes for my little rant.


      Hi Dale. This is something i learned directly from a refinisher and frankly, I haven’t seen much published on the topic. One of the reasons why is because there is just too much variability for there to be a definitive starting point. So what works in one situation may not work in another. So this is why I usually recommend folks try using over the counter materials to get as close as possible. The key is to know what you have. If the finish is a dark red color, you know you are going to need to get some brown and some red in there. How much of each is where the fun begins. So when it comes to base colors, I just get as close as I can with the available colors in my collection (without going too dark). Remember, you can always tint darker.
      The way we used to do things in the refinishing shop is we would get as close as possible with wipe/brushed on color. Then we’d start building coats of toner. The toner can be tweaked to have as little or as much color as you desire. And one light coat at a time, the color gradually gets closer and closer.
      The learning curve on color matching can be steep and you will make mistakes. But this is one of those areas in woodworking where there is really no substitute for experience. So if you EVER have the opportunity to learn this skill from someone directly, take it! You won’t regret it.

  9. Chris November 27, 2011

    For the hobbyist wood finisher, there is certainly a daunting lot of choices “out there.” That is where one must gain experience, either through others or DIY. I think the comment by Sam Pettit is certainly sage advice.

    Over the years, finishes change, as do formulations and regulations. I used to use Star glazes, as an example, and they’ve been bought up by Mohawk, I believe. But with the nature of business/competition, some good products just go away in history. So one has to understand some fundamentals, e.g., which underlying products are compatible with their overlying finishes. Also, one should learn color matching and practice some, instead of waiting til the last moment to have $25K worth of cabinets to be your “test dummy.” Yes, your’e quite right, that experience has no substitute. That said, learn from an apt teacher/mentor, take a class or two, but go forth and investigate.

    BTW, I like to shoot a sanding sealer, work with glazes, especially when there may be a variety of mixed wood species and I want to close the tonal variations. I can alway wipe of the glazes with some LT if I don’t like it. But after I hit the glaze with a coat of lacquer, I can then add some TransTint to tone it to get it wear I want it. Build up in coats and then burn in the last one with a higher ratio of LT to lacquer. But that’s just one way of getting to where one desires. Your mileage may vary.

  10. sam pettit (http://N/A) November 27, 2011


    I have a book I’m writing called “THE FORMULARY”, it is all about color and mixing of colors with a good overview on what dye colors are and as to pigment’s also. it also contains a good number of starting formulas from everything used in our field. Dyes/pigments/mordants/natural dye materials/ acids and alkalies/ and others.

    I also let the reader know up front that there can really be no true formulary for reasons pointed out here as to wood variances and color variances. but it is a good starting point for those who wish to pursue the art of color matching. all in all it will be over 300 pages and I’m at about the 165 page point, it will be sold through Amazon and will also be down loadable as a kindle or other electronic book reader purchase.

    In the meantime, know this as a first step in color matching, as to wood colors. With dyes, you only need 3 main primaries, blue/red/yellow. With pigments you should have the earth colors so often used in our industry. Black, van dyke brown, burnt umber, raw umber, raw sienna, yellow ochre, and white. with these, more than 90% of colors can be matched. On other needed pigment colors, 2-3 reds, 2-3 blues- 2-3 yellows, 2-3 greens, 2-3 of various shades can be purchased as the needs arise.

    you will find that most wood colors can be made from 5 main hues, burnt umber, raw umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna and van dyke brown, [with small additions of black to darken.]

    As to dyes most all colors can be made with no more than the 3 primaries, blue, red, and yellow, or industrial use 1 good red and one good green. . i hope this is of help.

    Sincerely, SP

  11. Terry Hughes September 3, 2013

    I have a sixteen year old drum set finished in orange burish. I’ve found orange dye but it’s too bright to match the satin finish of the orange burnish. It’s a pearl session in orange burnish (If goggled the image will come up). The finish is rare and discontinued so for me to expand I have to finish the raw drums myself. Help! I love this kit. I will glladly send gift cards for the coffee of your choice. Thanks.


      Well, color matching an old drum company’s custom color may be tricky. I can’t really recommend anything specific just by looking at a picture online as this stuff takes a number of rounds of testing to confirm the final formula. But I would start by working with dyes in various combinations. Use orange as your base and begin adding in small amounts of secondary colors to see if you can’t end up with the color you need. General Finishes has a nice selection of pre-made dyes that work great for stuff like this.

  12. Tilda Jones May 4, 2014

    We recently renovated our kitchen and opened it up to the dining room. We were able to use much of the old oak trim but we need to trim out the opening between the two rooms with new oak. Now the dilemma is how do we match a new stain to the existing one?


      Very carefully. :) Color matching isn’t easy but for most folks it’s a trial and error process. If you want to get into dyes you can make subtle changes to pre-existing stains to get as close as possible. But experimentation is the key.

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