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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 …