gold line svg


Bad Wood Finishes


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. Before we dig in here some of my other design mistake PSAs: The Generic Sofa Roundup | Rugs That Are Too Small | Painting A Small, Dark Room White | How To Hang Curtains | How To Hang Art Correctly | Generic Art | Not Having A Plan | Who Pays For Design Mistakes | My Biggest Design Mistakes -And What You Can Learn From Them | When to Hire vs. DIY.

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 … 

My other design mistakes/PSA’s: The Generic Sofa Roundup | Rugs That Are Too Small | Painting A Small, Dark Room White | How To Hang Curtains | How To Hang Art Correctly | Generic Art | Not Having A Plan | Who Pays For Design Mistakes | My Biggest Design Mistakes -And What You Can Learn From Them | When to Hire vs. DIY

Fin Mark


Never miss a single post and get a little something extra on Saturdays.

Comments are closed.
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

This is, by far, my favourite series you’ve done! Preach, lady, preach!


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?




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.



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*.

Emily K

“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.


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

Megan T

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

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.


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.


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.

signora sessofiglio


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.


You make me laugh Emily and I love you


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


Hmmm… I think Rachel Dolezal may have ruined Tan Mom–at least for this year.

Emily K

Ooh good point

Lisa H.

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:

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. 🙂


Plus the off-gassing of all the fake materials. Keep your windows open!


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.

Red Cherry.. has got to be one of the worst ones, ever. My parent’s bedroom still has red cherry pieces, and I shudder every time I visit their place.

I’ll admit though I never thought about painting pieces black, especially with gold hardware. But it sounds gorgeous!

Josh | The Kentucky Gent

Sarah Beth

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!

Jacquelyn Markwardt

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


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

Sarah Beth

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?


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.


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.


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.


Thank you!


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.


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.


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!


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?


Love this post and the series!


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.


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.

I love you. That is all.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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!


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.


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.

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.


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!


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.

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.


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.

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?


You nailed it here!!! Thanks for sharing the post.

Oh my gosh I love all of these! We made a lot of these mistakes when we first got married and are in the process of cycling a lot of it out of our house… like our massive maple bed… and our espresso entertainment center!



My friend dressed up as tan mom a few Halloweens ago and it was awesome!! Do it!


good god, woman; THANK YOU for this post.


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


laughed out loud; great post!


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

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!

It all makes perfect sense! But we also have to be mindful of a choice of rug that would match the wood in a room. I personally recommend bold patterns:

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)

LOL Cherry finish is the “Tan Mom” of wood tones!


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!


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 🙂


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…


Good to hear from you on this, Kay 🙂


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.


My favorite series ever.


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???????


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?

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!

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.


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!

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…

Go To Top