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Design Mistakes

Bad Wood Finishes

Henderson/Emery

Sometimes I feel like I write about these design mistakes as if they were Public Service Announcements; saving lives, preventing deaths … getting kids off drugs. But listen up America, don’t text and drive, stop shaking your baby, buckle your safety belt and never, ever buy really shiny fake toned wood furniture (or cabinetry). If you already have some don’t torch it, it can be totally fine. But what typically happens with wood is people think it all has to match, so once they have some wood pieces in a certain finish, they keep buying that same finish again and again, making the problem much worse, not better.

There are a few wood finishes to avoid as much as possible. Let’s expose them.

1. Bad Wood Culprit #1: The biggest enemy in the ‘stop the bad wood finish’ brigade might be The ‘Espresso Toned’ Wood. You know it:

Design Mistakes_Wood Finishes to Stay away from_espresso wood

We have all seen it, and most of us have probably owned a piece in the past or, (GASP) own a piece right now. It is readily available at most mass market furniture manufacturers, which makes it a prime target for us american consumers. Because of its pervasiveness we often aquiesce to it and end up buying it out of sheer availability and convenience. I get it. I’m just here to say ‘stop now’. It also runs rampant in the house flipping scene, taking on the guise of ‘contemporary’ instead of just ‘generic’ so hopefully they’ll read this and get the message. We don’t want espresso cabinets, we don’t need granite countertops just because they say ‘granite’ (it can be fine if it’s pretty, for sure), we don’t need glass mosaic tiles. Stop doing that to our old, pretty houses.

Back to espresso: No wood is really this color, so basically what ‘they’ do is take cheap, generic wood and paint it with this dark finish, as if it’s just this thick coat of dark, cheap foundation makeup hiding all imperfections (as well as wood grain). Often it’s laminate or veneer and tends to look fake (especially in this finish). Men tend to love espresso wood. I guess because it’s dark and therefore macho or something, yet they think it’s not as predictable as black. But the thing is that black looks like paint, and painted furniture is totally fine.

This ‘espresso’ is trying to look like real wood and when things try to look expensive and fail, they look cheap, cheesy and generic – a really, really bad combination. It’s like buying a cheap, obviously-fake knock off handbag (I’ve literally NEVER understood the appeal), if you can’t afford the real thing then just get a good less-expensive, yet real, option.

If you are into darker toned woods you do have options:

Wood painted black. Nothing is wrong with good, old-fashioned black lacquer, or better yet, black matte painted furniture, flooring or cabinetry. It’s a good option that is masculine and high contrast but not cheesy. Charcoal is also a great option. It’s not trying to look real, it’s just trying to look gray so therefore it is inherently less cheesy.

Design Mistakes_Wood Finishes to Stay away from_good wood_dark toned wood

If you like having more of a wood tone or seeing wood grain (which I do) then go for a dark walnut or just a deep brown toned wood (like above), with very little shine. Generally shine is not your friend these days, although maybe it will come back just like scrunchies will. I have some antiques that are shiny (from the 30’s, super ‘deco’) but generally a thick shiny veneer takes away from the beauty of the wood.

Lastly if you have a ton of espresso already, try mixing it with painted white, teak (or some other medium/light toned wood) or even black. You don’t need to give up, just don’t buy more.

2. Bad Wood Culprit #2: The ‘Shiny Maple’ Finish.

Design Mistakes_Wood Finishes to Stay away from_maple wood

Maple attacked america in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, much like ‘granite’ is doing now. It’s in every person’s kitchen that was flipped – I had it in my last one, too. But it’s still around because people think that since it’s already in their house that they should just buy more of it to match. So manufacturers keep making it and retailers keep selling it. It’s basically an orange toned wood and it’s always pretty darn shiny. It’s hard to mix with other woods, and it just looks really unnatural. Maple itself is a GREAT wood. It’s medium toned and has never wronged you nor I. It’s the manufacturers, who lather on coat after coat of orange varnish (typically on even cheaper wood than maple) to give it that real authentic ‘maple’ finish, who are to blame.

Design Mistakes_Wood Finishes to Stay away from_good wood_medium toned wood

Your options instead? Teak or oak … truthfully any medium toned wood, finished with a more natural varnish and not lacquered over and over with an orange toned clear coat.

Teak has a slightly more orange tone than most woods, so if you have maple cabinetry or flooring already start mixing in teak instead of more maple. That way if/when you do get around to renovating your kitchen at least you’ll have tasteful furniture for your tears to land on as you hear how much it actually costs to renovate your kitchen – tip: just paint the cabinets 🙂

#3: The ‘Cherry Finish’ Wood.

Design Mistakes_Wood Finishes to Stay away from_red cherry wood

This is the red headed stepsister of maple wood. They are very similar in some senses, but red cherry is often even more saturated and red toned, than maple wood. Maple is more orange, and just starts to scream “I’ve been marinating in sweet and sour sauce for the last 4 years!”

Cherry finish is the ‘Tan Mom’ of wood tones. Maybe she is more like ‘espresso’ actually. Or maybe I just want to reference ‘Tan Mom’ more often. (Side note. Listen, America,  when is it going to be politically ok for me to go as Tan Mom for halloween? Hasn’t it been enough time? Sure, there was a child involved, which has been my hesitation the last couple years, but it’s been 3 years now and this costume is just sitting in my mental closet, burning a very bright hole in my proverbial halloween pocket).

Design Mistakes_Wood Finishes to Stay away from_good wood_cherry wood

Cherry itself might be a very pretty wood, but it is rarely seen in the wild (or at retailers). We found those photos above, which claim to be cherry and they are totally pretty – so it’s not the wood that is the problem, it’s that cherry varnish that is posing to be wood all the time. I think that the closest wood that has the same red undertone that I love is Rosewood, albeit very expensive.

If you love the look of cherry (or already have a lot) buy rosewood, or invest in getting it stripped and waxed to see the natural beauty of the wood and not just the reflection of the varnish.

My rule of thumb, although I do stray from it sometimes, is that wood should look as natural as possible. Don’t buy something that is so off-colored that it doesn’t look real, as if it couldn’t exist in nature. A little bit of stain or oil is fine – its like getting highlights or putting on foundation – it just helps clean everything up. But make sure the tone works with the natural tone of the wood and stay away from shine (there are a lot of non-shiny polys or varnishes these days).

You might be wondering – but what if what you are saying is the just the current trend that will pass, too? Yes, you may be right. Things we hate now we might not hate in 7 years. Hell, if you haven’t noticed, women are wearing white cross trainers and what looks to be hospital gowns to nightclubs right now. The zeitgeist is unpredictable. But I don’t think that most people with good taste actually ever loved any of these finishes when they first made their national ubiquitous debut 20 years ago. I don’t know though, I wasn’t in the scene.

I’m not saying that based on this blog post you should burn down your maple toned house – and YES! Sometimes it can work! But if you are in the market for new wood furniture or cabinetry, just stay away from these three fake looking finishes and go with a tone that looks more natural. IF and WHEN (dear god) these finishes come back into fashion which I’m predicting will be YEARS, then you can always slap on a coat of varnish and at least the wood underneath will be prettier. But just don’t buy it now. Please. Think of the children.

The more you know … 

In case you missed any of our other design mistakes/PSA’s: The Generic Sofa Roundup | Rugs That Are Too Small | Painting a Small, Dark Room White | How To Hang Art Correctly

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  1. i love your rant on the “fixer upper” shows on tv. they do the exact same thing to every house and think it looks contemporary when they are ruining these beautiful mid-century homes! drives me crazy.

    p.s. how does HGTV not have a mid-century design/rehab show yet?

    1. I think I’m fine that HGTV doesn’t have a MCM rehab/renovation show. It’s my favourite style but unless it’s done properly and really respects the original materials and intent of the architect I’d rather not have a show that will only propagate the destruction of MCM gems and encourage others to do the same. I’m not a purist but I’m so sad when all the wood paneling is removed, the original wood ceilings are painted white (which can work in some instances or if it’s already done a new coat of paint can be nice) and good layouts are changed for the sake of a fully open concept.

      If it was done properly I’d love to watch it but I don’t think HGTV would be the one to do it. Now if Monique Lombardelli were to host I’d be all for it.

    2. These design mistake posts are my fave – listen up, world, important PSAs.

      I adore the house flipping shows on HGTV and DIY – I spend the whole time yelling at the TV (common exclamations include “Nooooo not LAMINATE!,” “Don’t spend your extra money on travertine!” and “UGH do NOT put that accent tile in the shower!”). Don’t even get me started on the cost breakdowns they provide – best case scenario they are just describing cost of materials and not labor – or how often these flip folks are wearing flip flops in construction sites (that’s NOT why it’s called a flip, people). I can never explain to my poor husband why I so love to watch shows that send me sputtering and swearing into my pinot. They are just the best worst thing on TV aside from the Real Housewives franchise.

  2. I truly love your PSAs. I read every word. We recently moved from a condo to a house and i have so much more space to fill. It’s sooooo hard to find affordable options that are not prime examples of bad wood finishes. I was starting to think I was crazy for not liking it (Thanks for the vindication). I **think** I’ve managed to avoid it but it’s really hard. Just yesterday I was referencing your rug PSA so keep the PSAs coming, please. Now I’m off to search the onternet for general decor, *sigh*.

  3. “I’ve been marinating in sweet and sour sauce for the last 4 years”. ROTFLMAO!

    This is the year for Tan Mom!! I fear if you wait longer she will start to fade from our collective memory too much to make the impact a great costume should. And that, lady, is a great costume.

    1. As long as you don’t take it too far and end up looking like you’re in some strange version of blackface… 🙂

  4. So true! I was trying to figure out why I didn’t like some wood furniture I inherited from my mother that my husband just loves. It is because it is shiny espresso! I’ve slowly been replacing the pieces as I go, but man do I have a lot of this type of furniture. boo

  5. TOTALLY agree with ‘wood should look as natural as possible.’ And I love antique pine pieces and am thrilled it’s not considered stylish which means it is generally affordable.

  6. I love this series!! Your words of wisdom are super educational for someone like me! I agree with everything you’ve said in this post, for sure. Whyyyy are stores still mass producing these horrible pieces of furniture? Wait, I know the answer to that. Why are my mother and aunts and in-laws still buying this stuff? is the better question. I need to show them this post.

  7. UGH. All three I’ve never been a fan of, but my husband loves espresso finish furniture. If I had to choose amongst the three, I’d rather deal with the espresso than the cherry and maple, so I’m thankful he’s not into those two finishes, ha.

    1. right?

      espresso is something i don’t mind. it certainly looks better with the dark walnut on the floors than cherry or maple or wev. and oak? unless it’s my 85 yo hardwoods, i only like it when there’s absolutely no stain on it and either way, it can’t be shiny. like at all.

  8. Halleluiah!! Ever single one of those examples made me cringe!! When will stores stop selling those monstrosities?? #allhailEmilyourSavior 🙂

      1. I actually didn’t know who Tan Mom was, so I did a quick Google search. You might want to read this article before you go forward with the Halloween costume:

        http://www.nj.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2014/11/nj_tan_mom_patricia_krentcil.html

        Regarding wood finishes–how can they be so bad? In my family, oak furniture is practically a sin, basically because my dad is a woodworker who hates the stuff. His favorites are figured maple, walnut, and cherry. In all cases, he works tirelessly to find the perfect stain to bring out the wood’s natural beauty. 😉

        I think the biggest problem I have with wood furniture (other than people painting MCM pieces) is anyone who places the appearance of the finish over the quality of the wood. Plywood, pressboard, laminate, and the prices that go with them at most furniture stores make me so sad!!! That’s why I am a-okay with secondhand and vintage furniture. 🙂

    1. The difference between Tan Mom and Rachel Dolezal is all in the wig and clothing. Rachel Dolezal has dark brown hair and dressed as a professional. Tan mom clearly dyed her hair blonde and dressed like a soccer mom. Although after her fifteen minutes of fame, she looked like she was trying to rip off Kim Zolciak style.

  9. will you do a post on decorating around some of these finishes? I am moving into an otherwise-beautiful vintage apartment with horrible bright “cherry” cabinets in the kitchen. Luckily, I can paint, but I don’t know what to choose! just ignore the cherry and pick a color that goes with my scheme in general? try to find something to complement it, even if it might not be my ideal? Because these wood finishes are often built into the house, it would be great to have a post on how to work with them when you can’t get rid of them!

    1. do a google search, there have been some good posts on this subject. midnight blue and charcoal grey seem to work beautifully.

      1. In a kitchen? It seems so dark and dreary! I’m stuck on white but still mulling about a color that I would like.

        1. I agree that the darker colors will complement the cherry, but then I am faced with an already teeny kitchen (1 window!) that’s now saturated in dark color! I’m thinking I might just got really fresh white and brighten it up with a colorful rug?

    2. If what you are painting is the cherry cabinets, then why does the paint need to coordinate with them? It will be covering them up.

  10. I love these posts, too!

    I have a serious question. What are the least environmentally damaging or most sustainable woods to use in furniture and in floors? What can I buy that will not make me feel like I’m destroying limited resources? Or is this not a real problem or maybe an exaggerated one? I’m assuming antique or used furniture is a better choice environmentally. When I see vintage rosewood furniture I feel so proud of myself for fantasizing about gorgeous wood that it’s too late to feel guilty about and that I probably can’t afford.

    1. Some exotic woods from South America and Africa are over harvested. Look for American oak, red or white oak. Very sustainable. Her recommendation for teak I think is a bad one. Very expensive and very limited on where it can be harvested.

      1. Thanks, Nathan. I agree. Typically I buy only vintage teak furniture for that reason (and because its readily available in LA) and if you are worried about sustainability (which is good that you are) then stay away from anything too exotic like Nathan said (including Rosewood, that I love).

      2. I agree. Coming from tropical country that (supposedly) produces teak wood, even us have very hard time getting teak wood in our own country, and the teak available is often exported and often taken from protected woods due to the lack of supply.

        Please don’t recommend teak and if you can , other tropical wood (brazilian cherry, tiger woods, etc). Unfortunately, unlike woods from developed countries, tropical woods is often take from protected forests and combined with the one from production forests. So even if the woods has green stamp, it doesn’t really protect the environment there due to how easy it is to ‘play around’ with papers and regulation.

    2. Bamboo is a very fast-growing grass. Buying used or buying nothing at all of course are the greatest options. Oddly enough, I was told by a major environmental organizations boss, that he often suggests Ikea. It’s all recycled paperboard, and the manufacturing process and shipping in flat boxes is actually kinda green.

    3. Look for wood products that have been certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). These products have been grown in sustainably managed forests and manufactured sustainably. But reuse is definitely the best option!

  11. Love this post. Very reaffirming as I move into my first home which is fine but features many of the dreaded “flipped home” tell tale accents. Can you provide tips on painting varnished wood?

  12. You have a few very good points in this post but recommending rosewood as an alternative? Really? Brazilian rosewood is an endangered species and had been for decades now so unless you have deep pockets, good luck with that. There is a natural wood that has an espresso finish and its Wenge. I’m surprised you didn’t mention golden oak in this post. By far one of the worst offenders in the ‘bad’ finishes for wood.

    1. Golden oak is sort of like brass. Everyone recognizes that it’s bad so it’s not as prevalent in stores. My whole 80s house is golden oak. I’ve painted the kitchen cabinets and I’m living with the trim.

      1. Agree. there are some other bad woods out there (including golden oak), but we kept it to the top three. Also good point about Rosewood – I forget you all don’t know that that I am mainly talking about buying vintage rosewood or teak furniture (more affordable and obviously more sustainable) than buying new. Will edit.

  13. I think wood is one of the hardest things to get right inexpensively. Buying anything new that isn’t laminate is way over my budget. I’ve found a few great pieces on Craigslist, but sometimes I actually NEED something (bookcases) and can’t wait for the right thing to come up. I tend to fill with espresso – I feel like it doesn’t fight with my other décor as much as the other options. I loathe cherry. I have one bookcase left in cherry (college purchase) – I painted the matching desk white and it’s so much better.

  14. My favorite series! Love every single one. So glad I didn’t have the funds to furnish our place when I first got married 8 years ago- my house could be filled with espresso particle board . Thankfully I grew up and have much better taste.

  15. Yes!!! This!!! Everything about this!!!! I want to post this everywhere but I’m afraid of offending most of the people I know because they all have espresso furniture or cherry cabinets.

    PLEASE do one on the granite countertops you mentioned.

  16. This is my absolute favorite series of yours! As a first-time homeowner, it’s an incredibly helpful resource, and (as always) your writing makes it entertaining. Thank you for shedding light on these common mistakes! P.S. YES to the fake designer handbag comparrison!!! I have always felt that way too!! Don’t try to be something you’re not. Just be what/who you are!

  17. ok– totally agree!!! SO, here is my question (and i imagine many others have the same question)…do we strip and refinish the piece we have in one of these hideous tones or just scrap it and when one can afford a new piece buy that instead or are they salvageable???????

    If you strip or sand and repaint any suggestions on a DIY (maybe for another post idea)??? Thanks Emily!

    1. I think if its real wood and you like the shape then strip and refinish (or paint). If you hate the shape anyway then its a lot of work to fix something you might not be that happy with anyway. But just make sure that its not laminate or a really thin veneer – neither of which can be refinished very well. xx

      1. Just want to put in a plug for stripping and refinishing if you can. I recently refinished my husband’s ugly espresso-finish dining table from his bachelor days. It was real wood underneath, and had decent lines, and once the espresso stain came off, that baby was beautiful.

  18. Oh, Emily. I just yesterday finished staining the top of a dresser that had that shiny fake finish. Unfortunately, you will probably hate what I did to it. I put on a dark, almost black stain (Kukui) to go with the white paint that I’m painting on the body today. But it will be okay as long as I don’t call it espresso, right?

    I love your PSA’s. Keep them coming.

  19. Love, love, love this! I was a bit confused by the photo labels at first… I thought you were saying that Dark Toned Woods were offenders and I was all: GURRRL YOU LOST IT! But then I caught on. Of course, for the whole post I was holding my breath and looking around my house for bad wood. I *think* I passed this round of PSA’s.

  20. I read this post on my lunch break, and literally had to stop myself from spitting my salad all over the computer screen. Hilarious, and SO true! I have those heinous maple cabinets in my rental apartment and I’m really thinking of painting them. They’re the worst!

    P.S. I totally wouldn’t judge you for going as Tan Mom for Halloween. Someone needs to.

  21. oh man! This made me laugh!!! And yet all I could think about was our espresso coffee table, it’s not horrible but I’ve been giving it the side eye lately…. And my best friends cabinets! They are sorta walnut and now I should just push her to paint them like she wants to! Haha! And dang… My cherry china cabinet which is gorgeous, but I’ve been dreading bringing that wood color into my house! I think it needs stripped!

    Please tell me granite is your next PSA?!? We just put granite in but it’s gorgeous, veined, crema delicatus, not some bland homogenous brown yuck granite!

  22. I think Tan Mom would be a hilarious costume, except that you could be mistaken for wearing blackface a la Julianne Hough as Crazy Eyes (or, as Laura pointed out, Rachel Dolezal). Bummer.

  23. This post is everything I want it to be and more. My boyfriend and I just tackled the huge task of moving in together and we have vastly different tastes. He, like a true guy, favors espresso wood and his bedroom was chalk full of the stuff. Maybe we’ll try painting it black!

    Also, it feels like ‘maple’ and ‘cherry’ wood is in every suburban kitchen in my tiny suburban town. It definitely feels very 90’s / early 2000’s. Blah.

  24. Great post. I LOVE these quick guidelines for the layman… but would add one more thing:

    Homogeny is bad. Mixing is good.

    Any of these woods, even the more pleasing tones, smattered all over an entire kitchen of full upper and lowers, or every wood piece of furniture in bedroom, is a snoozefest. Matchy-matchy with a beige (or gasp, grey!) background looks cheap and bad.

    Of course real wood with a light stain or clear coat is best, but even it can be overpowering if there is no design or mixing. Unless you have a huge room with lots of other visual interest a matching set will always look plopped down in an unfinished room.

  25. Absolutely love this post, and love this series. Wondering what your suggestion would be when the prettiest woods aren’t within price range. Is paint the best way to go?

  26. I enjoyed the post ( and mostly agree with your opinions). But I do love expresso! Isn’t ebony a naturally dark wood??

  27. Yes, to everything in this post. When I need a design pick-me-up & some delightful banter I always turn to Emily Henderson.

  28. I cannot agree with you more with the bad wood finishes! I’ve always hated every single one of those!! Don’t get me started with flips. I’d like to make it my future career goal to make beautiful flips starting with good wood finishes!

  29. Sometimes I feel so alone in my thoughts about these things–poor wood finishes, my disdain for ‘granite’, the dreaded generic sofa… and then you make posts like these I find I’m not crazy and have kindred spirits across the globe! (with the added bonus of being able to laugh at it all together)

    1. Could you do a post on what to do with wood windows, doors, and trim that is stained and varnished? Is there a way to minimize its impact on decor, short of painting it? Mine is orangey stained oak and I can’t imagine painting every casement window. Plus, my screens are aluminum and that gray aluminum color is the color of the frames. Even if I painted the windows and trims, I would still have the color of the screens ugh! I know several people have this issue. I wish you would address it in a post. Love your blog. Thanks!

  30. It’s not that those of us with, e.g., espresso finish floors/cabinets, would not strongly prefer a true wood grain. The issue is that the use of the former is very often exactly WHY we could afford to buy a home. Thanks 🙂

    1. Good point, Janet. I’m obviously in the minority but I didn’t love this post. I think most people do the best they can with whatever limited resources they may have. Decorating and design are very subjective—-hope we never forget that…

      1. Emily, I enjoy reading your blog. But, this post was a bit too harsh. I agree with Janet and Kay. It is very subjective. It may be helpful to many if there were a post about what to do right if one has furniture in the wood finishes described above.

  31. what is it about contractor/flipper generic and wood? beyond the porn connection? i just don’t get it, and monstrosities are committed in its name. i wish you’d take on the contractor/flipper generic kitchen, which has almost nothing to do with the way people cook and what they need (stainless steel appliances, granite, mosaic glass now morphing to subway tiles……ISN’T THERE ONE OTHER WAY TO DO A KITCHEN IN THE UNIVERSE???????

  32. This is by far my favorite series on your blog. Would you please consider writing a post much like your affordable art post that helps us pick out affordable, stylish rugs?

  33. Ha ha – very funny post, we’ve all had these pieces (I live in the UK) but like bad nights out before the internet, there’s no evidence of them now! I hope the vogue for reclaiming and buying (less) good quality pieces keeps getting stronger, this stuff serves nobody, least of all the planet!

  34. oh my gosh, the expresso woods are the worst! the worst! they scream i’m from a big box cheapo furniture store.

    i grew up in a house wild (WILD) about cherry and dark woods (but never that cheapo crap) especially antiques so i do love me some wooden furniture. but with that love comes the appreciation of other colors. unless it’s god awful oak that is country kitchen. you know what i mean? that super light yellowy oaky blah blah i live in the sticks and look at my plaid pig curtains? no thank you!

    i think teak is definitely the way to go if you like light woods. thankfully the midcentury style has weaseled its way into most people’s hearts and we all love that type of light colored wood. i’m rambling.

    i love the mistake series. loooove it.

  35. Everytime I watch an episode of Flip or Flop, I yell at the TV when they choose to do a dark cabinet and granite. No one wants a dark kitchen – everyone should want a light, bright kitchen. Seriously. Would love to see you talk about floor color/choices in an upcoming post!

  36. these posts are great! Do you think you could add to them sometime, and share some places we could get reasonably priced furniture in the yes category? I think sometimes people buy the ugly stuff because its affordable…

  37. Yes, yes, and hell yes!!! “I’ve been marinating in sweet and sour sauce for the last 4 years!” Hahaha! Suck it cherry wood stain!

  38. Hello! I have been reading your blog for years and I feel like I’m getting a free education from it! I just moved into a condo that was remodeled in the 2000’s and it has fake orangey maple floors and orangey maple cabinets. Would it be possible to get a post on glass dining tables? I always see a lot of posts on what to pair with wood tables, but how do you pull off a glass dining table? Thank you!

  39. Great post. I’m crossing my fingers that you’re still reading comments and replying, because I have a DIY question about refinishing wood pieces.

    We have a kitchen table that is a total workhorse but is badly in need of refinishing. It’s oak, and from preliminary findings, it’s solid. But geez louise, is it ever so orange and seemingly gets brighter by the day.

    So my question is, how do I refinish it to keep it from going orange in the future? I’m pretty sure some sort of stain will be required, as a natural finish will almost certainly go back to yellow-orange, at the very least.

    I like Waterlox a whole, whole lot as a sealer and finisher, but it definitely has an amber cast to it, so I’m thinking the stain would have to be pretty dark.

    So help me, Obi-Wan-Emily. You’re my only hope. What would you do to refinish a solid oak, much used kitchen table to keep it looking gorgeous for years to come?

    1. Strip it well. Sand it well. Stain in a water-based color that is grayer or darker than you’re going for, which should counteract the orangey oak. I like Minwax’ Special Walnut. Then, use a food-grade oil as your finish! You can use the kind they sell for conditioning cutting boards. It will have a lovely matte finish, will repel water, and you just need to re-oil every couple of months.

  40. Yes yes yes! This is amazing. I also love this series so much. It really reminds me of the time when my coworker who knows I’m into interior design said to me excitedly, “I just bought a new couch!! It’s so cool, you’d love it!! It’s faux leather along the bottom and arms and like a suede material on the cushions!” I was speechless.

    1. More specifically, the photo you are using as an example for natural cherry is really natural walnut. I can confirm this because I work for the company that sells that furniture and took the photo. 🙂

  41. I love my flat-front 1950s maple kitchen cabinets. They are shiny though! 🙁 The inside of the doors are a substantially less shiny finish which I think would look even better but would not clean as easily.

    1. I would love them, too..I wish I had vintage maple cabinets to match my ’50s house..I’m definitely a big fan of vintage and the higher quality of the past & solid wood cabinetry, unlike the weird fake stuff of today.

  42. I feel like, here in the South, a very, very close 4th would be the prevalence of “chalk painted” furniture that wasn’t great in the first place. OMG. STOPPIT. Covering your 80s furniture in chalky, unappealing colors and then “distressing” it is not making you look chic or like your house is full of history.

    I have to rant here because all of my friends and family here in TN/MS are obsessed with this trend. I keep trying to tell them that if the piece is quality they are ruining it or will spend about three days stripping it when the fad is over, and if the piece isn’t good in the first place, they could literally find a better, real wood piece on Craigslist for the price of the trendy paint.

    But, I guess it’s better than shiny maple, eh?

    1. omgchalkpaint!!

      For the love of sanity, why?

      On the plus side, chalk-painted anything in a store window at least tips you off to not walk in the store that is bound to be anti-everything you stand for.

  43. Thank God for you, Emily! I’m guilty of purchasing during the Espresso craze… Luckily I just moved and sold all of it. Your blog is so inspiring… and entertaining. An adorable picture of your son here and there helps too. 🙂

  44. You are definitely providing a public service with these posts! I think you need one on the faux leather ottomans and club chairs….

  45. Great series – love the PSAs! I totally agree, but like others have said, it is HARD to find non-ugly wood in many furniture stores. I don’t live in a place that has great vintage or a lot of non-chain stores, and it’s a constant struggle to find wood pieces that look the way I want. Thanks for the great tips!

  46. Hallelujah! These just say no pictures had all of us in the studio recoiling and shielding one another from the shock and pain.

    I do love natural matte clear coated cherry, it was a beautiful addition to the old 1920’s Craftsmen house I used to have. Woods can enhance or detract from good architecture.

    Granite attack. Make it stop. Fun article, world heed thy advice.

  47. Had so much fun reading! you couldn’t have said it better.
    Thank you, Emily for keeping our eyes wide opened. We love you!

  48. Love these posts too! We can all get down with a bit of snark and I love looking around to see if I’ve committed the crime mentioned (almost always, damn I just realized I even have faux-espresso on one of those ikea coffee tables in the kids playrooms but I put a new top on it to make a train table so you almost can’t see it, so I’m OKAY RIGHT?!)

    On the flip side I have a 1960s Danish rosewood and brass wall unit with grain to DIE FOR. It’s the purdiest thing in the world.

  49. Great post! Emily, would you do a post on how to mix wood? I’ve got rosewood, chestnut, and teak pieces in my living room, most in rich deep stains/oils. I’ve got mixed wood in my bedroom too. As my living room doesn’t get a lot of natural light, I’m thinking of using a lighter stain on a piece or two to brighten up the space.

  50. The maple and cherry where not news to me but the espresso was somewhat of a revelation. I don’t own any, and have never been drawn to it, but I hadn’t really realized just how major of an offender it is until you laid it out so clearly. YIKES.

    My current (hand-me-down) dining set is of the maple variety and it makes me cry stinging tears. Can’t wait to replace it.

    It’s so weird to think that what we’re so sure about right now regarding what looks good or what doesn’t might be completely different in a matter of years. I applaud your willingness to accept that. It’s a little disconcerting and must be even moreso when it’s your job to know what looks good!

  51. Hi Emily

    Love your designs and I agree they do the same thing each and every house. I’m like no don’t pick that for this house.

    Well I do have espresso cabinets and that is for very good reason – The type of cooking I have in my house – cant allow for the lighter or white cabinets. I had white cabinets that the builder had installed and when I was changing them I saw that there was a yellow tint to it because of our cooking.

    But I have mixed it up a bit I don’t buy the same type of wood tone furniture.

    Great post Emily

    Thanks

  52. From a popular real estate blog :
    Re: Function of flippers in this transitioning market for providing affordability to many (and no, I do not have any personal stake in this 🙂 “A better balance between supply and demand will eventually return to the region’s housing market as equity continues to seep back into it. But until it does, we commend the very useful role that housing investors and flippers have played in expediting our market’s return to normalcy”

  53. THANK YOU, EMILY!! I’ve been trying to persuade my parents from installing a new shiny maple kitchen, so this is the perfect piece of evidence to slap down in front of them 😀

  54. Amen! All those flip shows make me want to barf..and slap the whiney homeowners/buyers upside the head. Personally, I don’t get the whole granite movement..I say it a million times “why does anyone want gravestones in their home?” I also think is it ever going to go away? I mean the trend has been going on for a very long time, it’s a big permanent slab & still that’s all you hear people wanting.

  55. Love this post! Ugh. Espresso. I have some. I felt compelled though to comment after your Tan Mom Halloween costume question…I went as her last year! The wait can be over 🙂

  56. My 110 year old house was flipped with “whatever” granite countertops and nice maple cabinets. I have to say that even though they wouldn’t be my first choice, I’m so grateful someone did it for me. It’s nice to have one room that isn’t a mishmash of DIY and hand-me-down furniture. Because let’s face it – renovating and redecorating takes a long time and a lot of money. If I could have done it all at once 6 years ago it would have been wonderful, but then you get a dog and a couple kids and it’s not so easy to buy that teak dining room table that you wish you could have.

  57. Omg I was thinking the same thing when I was watching Flip or Flop last night. Why god why do they use horrible espresso cabinetry and granite countertops and brown glass mosaic accent strips in the showers, why?! I guess people who aren’t into design don’t notice those things and think they are “nice.” Thanks for the PSA. 🙂

  58. We bought a house a couple of years ago that has the ugly maple cabinets which appear laminate. Please tell me how to paint laminate cabinets. It also has wood floors that match and unfortunately they replaced the laminate countertops with the generic granite right before we bought and it’s absolutely awful.

  59. As I was read through the first one I was ‘oh yeah that IS the worst!’ and then ‘That’s EVEN worse!’ and then ‘IT. GOT. WORSE.’
    I agree with you 100% on these. If you could save ONE person from this totally accurate and potentially life saving PSA then the world would be a better place.

    Definitely love this series, keep it coming!

  60. Love it! I’ve thought all this but only the Master of wordage, Ms. Henderson, can describe these wooden atrocities with such aplomb.!!! btw…my kitchen cabinets are marinating in sweet and sour as we speak. They’ve been soaking for about eight years.

    1. Thank you for this comment. I so agree. You can’t win. In 10 years we will all be decrying the things we love now and calling them the “worst sins in decorating.”

  61. I am loving this series you are doing. This one may be the best, or at least funniest, yet. And yes, as much as I love some hgtv, it drives me crazy when they flip houses using the same generic stuff every builder does. (I’m looking at you flip or flop!) Some of us love mid-century design and other non-generic styles.

  62. I have been looking at houses and condos lately and there are so many of them that tout themselves as “recently remodeled!!” and then their houses are filled with these hideous “woods” and granite countertops. I am so sick of it all that I am looking at a condo that has an entire mirrored wall just so I can have its adorable 1930’s kitchen with tiles and plain white cabinets!

    Now if we could just get people to stop putting down this god-awful fake wood flooring…

  63. This is a great post and I love this series. Our new home (built two years ago) has reddish cabinetry (which I dislike very much) and blackish granite in the kitchen with multicolored granite in the bathrooms. Given that we will only be in this home for another few years, we don’t want to invest a lot of money into new cabinets or countertops but I have been toying with the idea of painting the cabinets.

    Please, tell me how a mom of three with a deployed spouse can do this on her own! I want to do it so bad but the sheer amount of work involved stops me in my tracks every time! Not to mention the builder beige walls that still permeate my entire home! (And the beige carpet, don’t even get me started on that! We had to buy a new home for allergy reasons…can you tell I’m not a fan of generic?)

    I feel so overwhelmed. I have focused on refurbishing vintage furniture (I totally have that dining set at the top of the page – love it!) and now that I’m pretty much done with furnishings, I know I need to get started on paint but man! I just don’t want to!

  64. During my online dating days (thank heaven those are over), I once told a guy that I could tell him what finishes he had in his house before I had even met him. I predicted that he had espresso wood furniture and dark wood floors, dark leather couches, granite countertops, and a red accent wall somewhere in his house. I’m thinking of starting a business as an “Interior Psychic”. I wonder if there’s a market for that? Needless to say, it didn’t work out.

    P.S. One of my favourite posts that you’ve done. As a designer and Canadian whose ancestors were probably lumber jacks (seriously, my family is big into forestry), I’ve been preaching natural finishes for a long time. Why ruin something that is so naturally beautiful?! Thanks for this!

  65. Most of that dark furniture, unless it’s veneered, is made of very low quality wood that they cover up with those heavy stains to hide imperfections (especially what everyone thinks of as “cherry”). Natural woods with a clear finish are all very beautiful, even oak. I work at a custom cabinet shop and we have to explain this to most of our clients and show them samples of all the wood species before they understand. We encourage everyone to find a wood they like and let it’s natural beauty shine through but some folks just want a certain color that doesn’t occur in nature. It’s also true that most wood will darken with age and some “clear” finishes will yellow over time, especially polyurethane.

  66. Oh no I always learn this stuff TOO late! Even at 71 years I try not to make too many decorating mistakes but unfortunately I am led astray by trends!

  67. Emily, you and Orlando were mentioned on the Entrepreneur blog! ????The post is titled something like “Five things businesses can learn from bloggers.” Check it out!

  68. LOVE this post – I found you thru Hi Sugarplum! Thoughts on oak? We bought a house last year that we absolutely love, though it isn’t “in style” because the trim is all solid oak. Problem, my furniture is ALL oak too because our old house had white trim. We don’t want to paint the trim because it is so much easier to maintain than the white.

  69. Couldn’t agree more, but what do I do with my hideous ‘shiny, cherry’ kitchen cabinets???? On a budget……??

  70. Thank you for this post! I WAS a fan of the gross dark finish, but have redeemed myself and gotten rid of all of it!

  71. This post could not have been more well timed! I husband and I are considering buying a house that is quite modern overall, but has shiny maple finish in the kitchen with black granite countertops. Help! What would Emily do to a kitchen to make it updated? I know there are many people who think the maple and dark granite are a beautiful combination, but I can’t help but think it will keep the entire house looking older and less modern. What would you suggest? Can painting the wood white and leaving the black granite be my only option? Please help a sister out!

  72. Holly molly, how on earth did you get a picture of our shiny maple kitchen?
    Our house owner thinks it is the nicest thing there is about it. Sure maybe like in the mid-nineties. But Spaniards (we live in Madrid) have a thing for wood, preferably dark, shiny oh and rustic as well. Wood is quality (hmmm actually not always).
    If you need any tip on Spain, or rather Madrid if you are coming here, don’t hesitate!

    Corinne

  73. This was a great read. I think a big problem is that most people have never seen real wood furniture. I make furniture and one question I get all the time is “what stain is that”. When I tell them it’s just a clear finish they’re just blown away. It’s amazing what you can do if you build with the natural color and grain of the wood in mind. Thanks for this great post. I really enjoyed it!

  74. No matter what you do with them, they look bad. They are ugly from inside and out! Haha, these pictures REALLY demonstrates the difference between taste and ugly…

  75. I’m with the rest of your fans: this is a great series. I’d love it if you could do a post showcasing your 10 or 12 favourite wood furniture pieces (preferably the kind that are available to us mere mortals who don’t have designers or $10,000 for a single piece.)

  76. Ugh I have SO MUCH cheap espresso colored furniture from my poor college/apartment days. I just bought a house and am trying to phase it all out but that can be expensive! I’m both happy and sad after reading this post because it confirmed my suspicion that espresso wood is terrible and I have to get rid of all of it.

  77. Two or three things:

    1. As a woodworker, I can tell you that old maple (yellows) and cherry (gets quite red) are beautiful under natural finishes, but it’s the bad attempts to stain other woods that should offend you. Even old pine and fir can be beautiful, although you should avoid new growth wood (very wide rings/grain) if you possibly can. First or second growth fir is phenomenal stuff and completely different from the farm-raised softwood commonly sold. (It’s also a completely nonrenewable resource…)

    2. There are a number of good dark woods — look for wenge, for example — and once again, it’s the generic whitewood poorly toned and stained to look like wenge that’s the problem. Properly stained wood, like ebonized maple or walnut with a light stain to deepen the color, can be absolutely gorgeous.

    3. The woodworker’s design rule that I try to stick to is: color, grain, shape/form — pick two. A table, for example, in a classic design like a Parson’s table can be very striking with a distinctively grained wood or one with a noticeable color, but not all three. A table with an undistinguished design — a dining room table — can be beautiful if you use a strongly colored and figured wood like curly cherry.

    1. ken m – i think you hit the nail on the head. i love this post and had to laugh at it, but what is missing is the fact that even a beautiful, natural finish on (white) maple turns amber/orange/yellow over time and with sunlight. this is a natural process, no matter what varnish was used. water based finishes might take a little longer to turn, oil finishes turn much faster.

      what would really help is short of living in a cave, how do you prevent or repair maple that has oxidized? what woods are less prone? will white washing help prevent this? will a white oil finish prevent it?

      but i totally agree with emily’s subtle message: i LOVE a matte finish on everything lately.

  78. Love this series. Could not agree more about espresso. I think super shiny cherry can work for some people. I think bad maple rarely works, and espresso basically never works.

  79. Costco is still stocking the espresso furniture! The pictures above look like the Costco furniture section. I like more of a mix of finishes on wood. A lot of my wood is painted. Anything that’s not painted now will be at some point!

  80. Hi Emily

    Wanted to know where are your Share buttons for a specific post? Like – share this on email/fb/twitter etc.

    I remember your older website design had it and I used to share a lot of your articles visa email to my friends.

    I went up ad down this post 5 times looking for the share button and still couldn’t find them

    Its either not there or its hidden to an extent that it is not very visible

    You might be missing a lot of traffic that way.

  81. Love this post! But that cherry toned wood photo on the left looks like it’s from Room & Board and that is their walnut product, not cherry.

  82. Love the post, BUT…WHERE DO YOU FIND THIS MYTHICAL FURNITURE??? I have seen lovely, lovely furniture like this for, oh, $3,000. I crave this $3,000 furniture. However, anything affordable is in the most unfortunate espresso. My husband asks, when are you going to buy bookcases/desk/table? The honest answer, when I can find such things affordably, that are not espresso. Anyone have any suggestions of where you can find such things???

  83. Those espresso pics are so my husband’s house when I first met him! Thank you for attempting to innoculate the masses from this horrible design disease!

  84. It’s a great read but I must say that I disagree with the espresso color. I personally love it. I think that those pieces are very transitional. It’s a great “starter kit” for those that are just starting on their own. Having just recently experienced my 1st home fire on Christmas 2014 (nothing that I wish upon on anyone) I found those pieces very affordable and easy to come by.

  85. This is one of the most honest and hilarious design blog posts I have ever read. Thank you for bringing these PSA’s and please keep them coming! People need it and between these, the fabulous trolling Craigslist posts, and your style, this is one of my absolute favorites. Keep it up sister!

  86. Actually laughing about your PSA. Definitely, never ever buy shiny fake wood. Ever. And all wood definitely does not have to match. In fact, it’s often better that it doesn’t all match perfectly. I also laughed at “Maple attacked America.” Some of us are still battling that epidemic. This exact problem is what came to mind when I thought, “ALL WOOD DOES NOT HAVE TO MATCH.” Thanks for the laugh!

  87. Espresso is popular because most people don’t like black furniture but want something dark/earth tone and dark brown/espresso fits the bill. It’s popular because people like it. No one wants painted black or grey wood. That’s CHEAP looking. Plus Espresso gives you the dark color out of the 3 of a primary, neutral and dark for a room. It goes well with almost any palette and why you see it in all modern restaurants now.

  88. I have a 1990 Queen Ann king size bedroom set in cherry wood.

    Would I make a mistake by painting it a chalkboard paint? And if so, my walls are olive green, what colour would be best to paint the wood? Please help!

  89. I currently have espresso bedroom furniture (2 nightstands, 1 dresser) and a wrought iron bed (UGH!). I have found a beautiful mid century modern walnut (or med toned wood) spindle post head board. I can’t afford new (or vintage) nightstands and dresser, at least the ones I want. Is there a paint and/or finish you’d recommend to go with the medium toned headboard? I think refinishing what I have is my best option. Thanks!!!

  90. Hello. My wife and I have inherited a lot of high end 70s maple furniture from her parents, primarily a 12 person dining set that my wife wants to keep/use and a bedroom set. I was to refinish it all, as the current look of all of it is that “muddy” blurry finish with some antiquing. It is also in french country/baroque style, and we have a very modern minimalist style home with a lot of white, black, grey with pops of bright color and a mixture of natural low sheen woods, hickory, maple, oak. Our floors are natural hickory, so very light. The furniture just doesn’t go. I was thinking of redoing it with espresso to give it a dark look to fit in more, but now after reading your article, I am thinking maybe we paint it black. I’d be open to other ideas, maybe a grey to highlight the architecture but make it very contemporary?

  91. I am stunned you are so anti-Espresso. Honestly stunned. 8/ I mean, “I don’t think that most people with good taste actually ever loved any of these finishes…” seriously?? Damn well what the hell do I know. I guess I can understand how it wouldn’t fit in the “California-boho” style that you favor, but I think it works nicely, in smaller doses, in my vintage bungalow in Chicago. I just bought an amazing custom built dining table in a dark espresso finish that I love love love. Hmmm. I’m just going to go contemplate my existence now….. 🙁

  92. I could not agree more, and am so happy someone has informed the world!! I will never forget my first apartment with maple wood everywhere…I learned a lot that year.

  93. What about white washed pine? Is it back in?

    I’m building a studio in the Ozarks region, by the lake…but don’t want a cabin feel. I want an industrial sheik look.
    Thanks,
    Janet

  94. so you have detailed almost every kind of wood on the market as tacky……….
    is there any kind of wood that meets with your approval?
    or are you suggesting that we get everything from Ikea???