Matching Color the Easy Way

Added on October 19, 2009

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.


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