Furniture Detective: Matching color finish an inexact science

Very often when finishing or refinishing a piece of furniture, the objective is to match an existing piece. “Matching” is a very inexact science (art?) and the process encompasses a wide range of subjects, which includes, but is not limited to, considerations of color, texture, sheen, grain, contrast, depth, etc. Most often however, when someone refers to a match they simply mean color.

There are people, like those blessed with perfect musical pitch, who possess perfect color abilities. They can look at a given color and name the components of the color to mix. Of course, experience is a great help here too, but swimming in the right gene pool certainly has its advantages. For the rest of us there are some hints and tricks to use in color matching.

Be mindful of lighting

Since perceived color is the combination of absorption and reflection of light, the most important element is the kind of light that is absorbed or reflected. The two main categories of light are artificial and natural, and each has its own set of characteristics along with several sub-categories.

“Natural” light is the visible spectrum from the sun and is the primary light source in our lives. Therefore we tend to regard this kind of light as neutral or true. There are, however, great variations in natural light depending primarily on the time of day and the direction you are facing. The “truest” or “cleanest” natural light for color matching is white filtered mid- to late-morning northern light. This type of light does not seem to impose itself on color. Early morning light is too dim and late afternoon light is too “hot,” making things look redder than they really are.

Artificial light is very difficult to deal with and should be avoided if possible in matching colors. Most home lighting is incandescent, bulbs with a glowing metal or mineral filament. This type of light is very warm looking and comfortable for a home environment, but it gives everything a relatively “hot” or red cast and can be deceiving if you try to match colors using it.

The other most common type of artificial light is fluorescent; the most common type of fluorescent is what is known commercially as “cool white,” which, of course, isn’t cool. Cool white tends to distort colors to the yellow and green side and will mute red tones.

The best artificial light for color matching is fluorescent “daylight” bulbs, which are good simulations of clean light but have two disadvantages: daylight bulbs tend to be dim so more wattage is required for the same amount of visible light, and they tend to be ever so slightly on the blue side. The best of all worlds is a combination of clean northern natural light with a mixture of daylight and cool white fluorescent bulbs for added illumination.

Now that we are no longer working in the dark, let’s get back to the matching process. The next thing is that you must see the original piece in order to match it. Color memory is even more transient than auditory memory, and you can talk yourself into believing that you have the right color very easily. You MUST be able to see the match. It can be difficult sometimes if you are trying to match a large piece of furniture or one in a distant location. In those cases, try to obtain just a piece of the match — a drawer, a door, a knob, an astragal, a mirror support, ANYTHING, so long as you can see it.

Try the ‘white card trick’

The next step is to compare your color selection with the match. Sometimes you can just look at it and know it’s right, but usually the results are not so clear cut. Perhaps it looks OK, but it’s not quite right somehow, and you’re not quite sure. Just putting the two pieces side by side doesn’t always work. Sometimes you need a better method of comparison. In a case like this, use the “white card” trick.

Start with any white piece of paper or cardboard (business cards are ideal). Cut out a 1-inch by 1/2-inch rectangle from the center of the card and place it so that the original match takes up half of the rectangle and your color selection takes up the other half. With a white surrounding area and the two colors side-by-side, any color variation becomes immediately apparent.

Most important of all, be aware of the pitfalls and limitations of matching. A piece of oak stained the right color is still not going to look like mahogany and a bed painted with a “wood color” is not going to look like wood. Make sure your expectations are realistic. ?

Photo courtesy Fred Taylor

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


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