Color-Matching Basics

Tips on mixing pigments for matching existing tints. June 10, 2006

Does anybody know of resources on how to match stains, like color guides? I am fairly new and would like some how-to. There has to be some method besides just trial and error.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor G:
WOODWEB likely has the largest collection of color matching advice anywhere. Do a search (upper right hand corner) and you will have days of reading. You can also go to the Art Instruction section of the library and you'll find color theory.

From contributor D:
My guys achieve a lot of their colors by using only three colors: red, yellow, and black. When needed, a forth colorant they use is white.

From contributor B:
This a vast subject that you're constantly learning. The actual material you're working with (the pigments or dyes, etc.) is only half of the equation, though. Lighting is the other monster you'll fight, and background, the bare color of what you're coloring and how it reacts with what you do to it. It is very trial and error, with or without a method.

From contributor G:
The differences in the colors of stains between different woods is a *huge* factor and you have to make many thousands of samples over your stain-matcher career to be able to zero in on the color as you train your eye.

From contributor M:
Another factor in color mixing and matching is that there are no standards in colorants. Each company can use a standard color name like burnt sienna, raw umber, etc., yet their colors may be close but not exactly the same as other manufacturers. Basically, the universal colors are the colors used in the wood finishing industry, although you can describe the universal colors so most finishers will know exactly the color you're describing. Usually it's as close as one will get to the color. Many wood finishing colors are actually dilutions of one color. It's the reduction that produces the different colors. Many companies use different names for their stains and other products, when they are actually one of the universal colors that was diluted down. There's a lot to learn about mixing colors, then you have to learn how to match colors.

From contributor S:
There are many ways to learn. But what a learning curve! There is no question that it helps to know color theory. But it helps because you have to interpret the coloring and the looks that you see and then you have to go one step further and reinvent that coloring and those looks, applying the recipes to your project so that you can get consistent and predictable results, piece to piece, project to project.

Color matching a painted wall will never be the same as matching the look of a stain grade surface. The finish schedule on an opaque surface is a lot simpler than the finish schedule on a stain grade look. Your task is to devise finish schedules that give you results that match and that you were planning on getting.

Your end game is called multi-step finishing. It is the craft and the art of layering finish steps, both in colors and clears so that in the end the interplay between the woods and your layered colors and clears all add up to what you want.

Just as an example, if you take any dark brown stain and thin it way down and spray a couple of light passes, you do not get a dark brown look on maple. You get a very light tan, almost a peach, even though you used no white in your stain (and sprayed no pastel). It is the interaction of the existing color of the bare wood plus what you layer on top which gives you your color. And that's what you need to get a feel for.

Search on "Mac Simmons" in the WOODWEB Knowledge Base - Mac's coloring articles are the best written for anyone looking to develop that feel and conquer that learning curve.