Basics of Color Mixing and Matching

A newcomer gets introductory advice on learning how to mix custom colors. March 13, 2009

I've been finishing cabinets for about a year and a half and I canít really figure out what the basic instruction are for matching color. Any help is appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor J:
Here is a tip. All colors have secondary or background colors. For instance, reds usually have a blue or a yellow background. If you want to see what that looks like, take the pigment and smear it on white paper until the red is gone and the secondary color appears. This will help you in if you need a purple red or an orange red. This is important because sometimes you will add a little red expecting to go redder and it will go more yellow. And you will keep adding more and it will turn orange and you'll say crap, I'm adding red but it's turning yellow. Maybe you needed the other red. I would recommend checking all of your tints and dyes this way so you know what other colors may affect your outcome.

From contributor M:
Get yourself a color wheel. This will tell you how colors interact. It saves a lot of time when matching colors.

From contributor R:
Any good art supply store will have a color wheel also.

1. Take a class at your local community college on color theory. They will teach you how to mix colors and understand the theory behind it.

2. The next step is to realize when matching stain colors you have to consider the color of the wood first and then adjust that color to the final color you are after.

3. Any time you work around someone who knows how to mix colors well ask a lot of questions.

From contributor D:
Color wheels are an excellent tool to begin your understanding on how colors interact when mixed, but for the most part the colors used are not the ones available from professional wood finish manufacturers.

Practice, good notes and a sample library will do a lot to increase your proficiency. One little tip. Often the first instinct when making a brown stain is by starting with Burnt Umber and then adding other colors to shift the color in the direction that you want. This often leads to a large amount of colorants in the mix. It is usually better to start with two colors that make a brown that is close to the hue that you desire, such as Lamp Black and Quinacridone Red, Pthallo Green and Red Oxide, and so on. Then adjust the proportions if the two colorants to get yourself closer to the desired color. This gives you much better control of the color. Add additional colors to tweak the color to the final formula.

From your color wheel knowledge you will understand that sometimes you add a color to increase a certain color characteristic and other times to reduce it. The color canceling concept is one that is often forgotten. If you find yourself having six or seven colors in a formula it is usually best to start over and take a different approach. Most stain bases have a maximum tint load and usually having a lot of colorants in a formula will result in going over the maximum volume of pigment that the base can handle resulting in a muddy look, poor wipeability or worse adhesion problems.

From contributor M:
I suggest that as a finisher you first learn how to match finishes using the pigmented colorants for matching the wood colors like BU, RU,RS, BS, VDB then learn to mix the primary and secondary colors in both the pigments and in the dyes. The color wheel is helpful, and worth having in your shop. A quick tip for you, unless you clear coat over colors you will not see the true colors.