Ok, y’all, this is where design gets really exciting. I know what you’re thinking: Did she just refer to wood stain selection as exciting? Yes! When it’s time to decide on the exact tone to finish the wood in your home – floors, cabinets, stairs, beams, furniture – an opportunity arises to use science and the artistry of design to complement elements of both nature and your personal style. Now, that’s exciting.

There have been many occasions when I walk into a new build with clients and hear, “Wow, I LOVE the color of those unfinished floors – can we keep that?” Or something to the effect of, “I’d love to feature my grandmother’s antique buffet in here. Is it possible to use that as inspiration for the stains on the hardwoods, mantle and existing beams?” The answer is yes, but it takes intention, knowledge and a bit of experience to get it right.

Where to begin? Let’s start with a big cleansing breath. Choosing a stain can seem scary because it’s somewhat permanent. There are certainly ways to change it later, but none of them are easy. So it’s better to be sure on the front end, which is why we’re here to help! In this post, I’ll share some of the stain expertise I’ve picked up through formal design study, on-project experience and lots (and lots) of trial and error. Here we go.

Get to know wood as a natural element.

Like most products of nature, wood is dynamic with each species having its own set of unique characteristics. For example, walnut is durable but light-weight. Cedar is soft and sometimes knotty. Maple is extremely hard and has an even grain. One should take into consideration how each type of wood varies in porous structure and rate of absorption, not to mention age and original color. And these attributes can even change from board to board! My point is not to scare you but to introduce the necessity of being familiar with the quirks of each piece of wood you are wanting to be stained. And also like the natural world, just when you think you’ve figured it out, wood can surprise you. Which is why we have sampled (and sampled, and sampled) to be sure we can find just the right stain for you.

Consider the environment.

In addition to the intricacies of the actual wood being stained, it’s also crucial to think about the surrounding design aspects of the space. This includes paint and décor colors, natural and artificial light and other wood types, textures and colors. Putting a stain next to yellow hues will suck the color out, while adding a blue-grey stain to red woods will help neutralize the tint. Finding just the right stain requires not only numerous samples but also bringing those samples into the design environment where the stained wood will live.

Test a variety of stains.

We’ve done the homework here by testing eight popular stains (courtesy of Sherwin Williams) on six different types of wood blocks (provided by 38 Woodwork). While there are hundreds of stain color options to choose from, Sherwin Williams is my go-to brand, and these are my go-to tones for many projects. Take note of how each stain reacts differently to each type of wood, including the way it plays up or mutes the natural wood grain. The top half of each block represents the stain as is, while the bottom half shows what it looks like after being diluted by paint thinner (or water in the case of water-based Charwood). See, science can be fun!

The art of selecting the perfect stain brings into play the nature of the wood, the science of color theory and the art of considering how your entire design tableau will work together. Ultimately, you are aiming for an overall palette that looks intentional and has a collective feel. Hopefully we’ve helped to de-mystify the process a bit and make this seemingly daunting task a little less terrifying. If you’re ready to choose the right stain for your home,  we’d love to help you through thoughtful consideration of the design, nature and cohesion of each element involved. It’s what we do.

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