Matching Red Oak to Existing White Oak Cabinets

A difficult (if not impossible) matching problem leads to a discussion on how to get a uniform look in different woods. June 8, 2007

I have completed a kitchen addition - added a new island - and am now trying to finish new island cabinets to match existing. The existing cabs are a yellowed golden oak with no hint of red, so I assume the wood was a white oak. The new cabinet face frames are red oak (ordered by the owner).

Is there a simple solution to finishing the new red oak to match an aged golden white oak? The existing finish appears to be a toned sprayed on finish. I initially tried to yellow the new wood using a waterbased yellow stain, followed by the golden oak also in waterbase. But the red keeps showing through. Should I bleach first to get the red out? At last resort I will get some white oak veneer and just overlay the new face frames, but this will take time.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor J:
Some people expect you to make chicken salad out of chicken s***. You might try toning with a green toner to kill the red. This will give you a darker brown look that might tone with yellow and conceal the red. It is a lot of extra work and aggravation to do these types of jobs and the customer should understand that and pay for it.

From the original questioner:
The customer understands the problem created and is also discussing the re-finishing of the older cabinets. In which case I may think about a gel stain to unify the color of the new and old wood. I will try a little green toner first as you suggest.

From contributor H:
Before you assume any farther, sand the back of a drawer or door down to bare wood. That old yellow color you mentioned… Red oak need not be red, reddish, pink at all. Stain and old finishes yellow with age. As does the wood itself.

From contributor M:
I think you might want to go with a lighter tinter toner. Start with a white, add a little red to get a light pink = flesh color, and then seal the tinter toner in. You can then make up a glaze stain to bring the colors together.

You need to do some samples. You do not want to block out the wood; you want the toner as translucent as you can get the tinting toner even if it take a few passes to kick the red oak over to a whitish oak color.

From contributor B:
If I were doing this job I would not have accepted the red oak without a waiver stating a match would be difficult at best. But at this point, I would bleach the red out, then do the finish to match the old cabinets. Two part bleach on a test sample to eliminate the red, then finish the sample and have the customer sign the back of the sample. I would not want to get into dealing with the old cabinets and all the contaminants that are surely present at this time.

Yes, as stated, tinting with green to kill the red will work. It will move the red to brown but that isn't where you need to go, as it will end up too dark.

From contributor M:
He will first have to strip the piece before he can ever bleach it. And he better plan that bleaching may create another problem to the refinished wood. He also better make up some start-to-finish samples whichever way he decides to go.

From contributor B:
I was under the impression that the new part had not been coated. Assuming that it is not, then I would bleach with the two part to get it to white, or close to white, then after a light sanding, begin taking it to the gold or light yellow needed. No doubt, matching to a light color is the most difficult, hence my reason for wanting to start as light and red free as possible. If it has been coated, then by all means, strip it first, and lightly sand it. Still use a sample board as suggested. Get it approved and signed... to eliminate problems later.

I have never had problems finishing over woods bleached with two part bleach. Just lucky I guess. The more severe bleaching I have done was taking mahogany to white in order to get the final result. I do not follow the directions very well, as I tend to paint on the solution and keep painting it on for 15-20 minutes till it stays wet, then I leave it alone until 24-48 hours later, then if it isn't light enough, I go at it again. It is not one of my favorite things to do but there is always an extra charge to make it less of a chore.

From contributor J:
I agree that bleaching, if done properly, will not cause finish problems. I have never had a finish failure from bleaching. It's a nasty smelly job and should bring extra money.

From contributor M:
Once you apply bleach after stripping the wood, you never know what you're going to get. In many cases you may have to end up toning the wood to come up with light color finishes.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the input. Now the owner has decided to paint all the cabinets and solved my problems!

From contributor M:
Amen. Think twice, finish once.

From contributor G:
I'm not fond of the look of painted oak, but that's just me... Is he going to paint them himself, or are you still on this job?

From the original questioner:
The owner has decided to tackle the painting. He will paint the face frames only and leave the doors stained. I also did not think this was a good look, but I did see the first cabinet he did and it was okay - in an arts and crafts different sort of way.

From contributor I:
I know this is late and a decision has been made, but what I do in situations like this is suggest to the customer that the existing cabinets get veneered with a veneer that matches the new wood, then they get new doors on the old cabinets to match the new ones and everything gets stained at the same time and everything will be uniform today and in 10 years.

The problem I have seen with bleaching, toning, tinting is that even if you hit the color perfectly today, when they age, the artificially colored items will not look the same as the target items.

From contributor M:
One never really knows. Until it happens the shift may be so minimal it may not noticeable. If they use your suggestion and veneer all the pieces (which will be very costly) and then do the staining to match the finish and clear coat, there is no guarantee that the one will not change either, as the one is done with a different stain, and done at different times.

From the original questioner:
The other possibility I was thinking about was putting a white or off-white tinted basecoat over all the cabinets to have a uniform base color to start from. And then refinish from there. Is there an accepted product and method for this procedure? Must the final color be darker? I would think it would work if the customer were not so concerned with grain showing through, but more concerned with uniform color matching. Doors can be removed and sprayed, but face frames would need to be brushed if possible. Although masking and a small touch-up sprayer would work.

I don't need to worry about it in this case, but I have been offered other projects like this and usually turn them down unless the owner wants a full overlay of face frames as was suggested.

From contributor B:
Does the owner want the grain to show as in an open pore finish? If not, and he wants a filled finish, I would go away - fast. If open, then spraying with a tinted solvent based Zinnzer Kilz (or water based if you like that sort of thing) would be the first step in my opinion. Doors, drawers done at shop and frames in house with a high quality brush, roller, HVLP turbine, or whatever you are comfortable with and will work best. Then you can put any color over and have the consistency you want. The solvent based Kilz, being shellac, will bond well. The water based I cannot speak of.

From contributor M:
Tinting toners are very thin colored coatings. The toner has very little color in it. It may take a couple of passes to even see color. The key is not to block out the wood. By thinning the color, you will end up with a translucent color.

Start out with sealer coats so you will protect the wood and the finish from looking painted. Slowly make passes with the toner until you have uniform translucent color, then seal it, stain it or glaze it, and be sure to brush out the glaze.

From contributor T:
This is exactly what I am in the process of doing. Oak cabs painted with tinted BINS (sprayed) to give a kind of yellow/tan color. Then a sort of glaze or wash coat of Old Masters fruitwood stain. With these 2 steps you will get painted doors that look a lot like pine or maple in my opinion. Spraying the BINS leaves the pores pretty much still there, but not as exaggerated, and can be accented with the stain wipe. I plan to add another glaze of cedar which is a little less red than cherry.