Stain Matching for Beginners

Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish: easier said than done. January 25, 2013

What is the best way to match colors? I want to start color matching doors and am wondering the best way to make sure the colors match. I will be supplying new doors that have to match doors already on site.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor F:
If you are a one man shop it would be more time and cost effective to pay the local distributor of your coatings to build your colors for you. I've been matching colors for over 20 years and without a doubt can tell you if you are not equipped for it, it will not be cost effective for you. I have had multiple days invested in certain color combinations and if your shop rate is at least $100 per hour just do the math at how much money you could have invested in just one color. If it is a job where you are just repairing a door or two you would have to charge an exorbitant amount to make any money.

Most distributors will do it for a small fee or even free just to get the finish business. This may not be what you wanted to hear but it's what I feel is the truth. The cost to be equipped properly is pretty high as well and you would waste a lot of the colorants, dyes, and concentrates that you don't use very much due to shelf life.

From contributor J:
Color matching is a skill and an art that cannot be explained in a paragraph or two. I try to do a little bit of color matching on the occasional piece. It can be incredibly time consuming and expensive to match colors. More importantly however is having a good eye for color. Being able to see when you need to add a color to get a different color (like a bit of green to dull some wood that's too red), is a real skill set in itself.

Knowing about the different kinds of stains and how and when to use them. Knowing how to use toners and shading lacquers - it gets pretty involved. If you want to start out I'd suggest some basic books like 'Understanding Wood Finishing' by Bob Flexner. You can at least get an understanding of the basics before spending any money or time on trial and error. I still get most of my stains matched by my supplier, itís so much easier.

From contributor A:

The other issue that was not mentioned is materials. We do a fair amount of color matching for stains, but not colored lacquer. You need a lot of different colors to make it right. If you have half a dozen different cans of stain around forget it. We have a couple of dozen stain coulours and about 15 NGR stains to work with and still get stumped at times.

From contributor R:
I'm not sure if this applies to the area you're in, but in my area there are a number of professional finishers (some better than others) that have the resources, knowledge, and background to match finishes that are critical.

I do a fair amount of finishing and I love playing with stains and colors (I keep stock solutions of red, blue and yellow in addition to various wood dyes and pigments) and I think I'm pretty good. But if there is a critical finish job I'll turn it over to a finisher that is a miracle worker and a real pro. Find a real pro and ask for some help, then watch how they do it. This isn't something that can be learned without lots of experience.

From contributor I:
You really need to study art instead of wood to match color. Use of the color wheel is essential. Another difficulty to matching existing work is the use of toners, dyes, and the schedule at which they were applied. My early years consisted of a lot of furniture to add to existing Thomasville or Ethan Allen. All that stuff had tons of toner and glaze in the 70's. Matching was really tough. If you have the local supplier match it, take him some stock from the same wood you will be using, and sanded just as your work will be sanded. Take him a couple pieces if the tone of the wood varies. It's also not uncommon that if the match is old, you will need to either tone, or use a coat of orange shellac to match the yellowing of the old clear finish.

From contributor A:
The fact that there are so many variables involved makes color matching difficult by nature, including the age of the original. I would love to buy a magic bullet but my 30 years of woodworking and finishing makes me a bit doubtful. I'd love to be surprised, because color matching is very costly.

From contributor Y:
One way to learn to match finishes is to experiment. Get some dyes, stains, and glazes and try different colorants in different combinations and concentrations on different species of wood. Look at some of the manufactured kitchen door samples at your local home center and try to match them.