Much like mixing metals, colors, or fabrics, mixing wood tones can be an exercise in subtlety. Variations in tone, grain, finish, and scale should all be considered when tossing different species of wood in a space. After posting about the update to our recently modified media console, we received a question from a reader in search of some guidance on mixing wood tones happily in a space that is currently dominated by dark walnut tones.
Do you have a recommendation on how to mix wood tones? Most of our wood pieces are a dark walnut. How do you make mixed wood tones look intentional and organic? – Gina
We’re often answering this question through emails and DMs, and Gina’s question was the kick we needed to pull our answer together under one post. We hope this helps!
1| Choose (or Accept) a Dominant Wood Tone
Large scale existing wood tones in the form of flooring, cabinetry, or a big furniture piece (such as a built-in) that will remain in the space will be the first variable to consider when embarking on a tone-mixing adventure. Our Chicago home has continuous red oak flooring that might not have been our first choice, but was in mostly favorable condition when we purchased the home. We’ve learned to
love, scratch that, like the selection since the tone and narrow planks feel like the floors could have, maybe, possibly been there when the home was built in 1887. We have no intention of replacing the floors, as the expense would quickly creep into the range of a very nicely equipped used car, so we’ve learned to work with the color and finish that we inherited. Existing oak-toned floors throughout our home doesn’t mean that we can’t use other wood tones – quite the opposite, really – but the floors certainly inform our choices on a very large scale. You’ll want to keep these large scale wood tones in mind at the start of your wood-mixing journey.
2| Limit the Number of Species
Speaking of scale, large quantities of one species of wood (i.e., flooring) should be considered alongside the total number of wood species within a room. That said, we think that a max of 3-ish wood tones in one space is generally acceptable, assuming that the individual pieces share a similar shape or style. With the exception of an extraordinarily large space with different ‘zones’, increasing the number of species thrown into the mix can end up looking chaotic and disjointed very quickly.
3| Consider the Undertones
We’ll go ahead and bend our own previous rule right now (we can do that because we invented it, thank you very much!). In the main open space of our Michigan Tree House, we’ve mixed a number of warm-toned woods into what is still a cohesive space that doesn’t feel at all disconnected. Douglas fir flooring shares space with maple cabinetry and pine floating shelves in the kitchen, and we also built an oak-topped console table behind the sofa. Oh, and the ceiling is a reddish reclaimed wood! Five wood species. In one space. FIVE. Unacceptable!
Just kidding. It’s fine – and here’s why: they all have warm undertones that play nicely off of one another. The Douglas fir, maple and pine are all very light in color value and look similar enough that they could, maybe, be mistaken for different variations of the same species. The oak is only slightly darker than the maple and pine, and the ceilings play nicely off of the medium baseball-glove leather tone of the large sectional. So while the space technically holds as many wood species as you can count on one hand, three of the five look very similar and are finished in a satin/matte finish to unify them further.
4| Use Textiles and Hard Surfaces as Buffers
Another reason that we’ve willingly broken rule #2 at Tree House is that, in almost every case, we’ve offered breaks between the differing wood species in the form of textiles and another hard surface. A large vintage rug, the leather sofa and the painted portions of the behind-sofa-console break the continuity between the flooring and the oak top of said console:
In the connecting kitchen, the light tone of the pine floating shelves is separated from the Douglas fir floor by white cabinets and countertops, as well as the greige tile of the backsplash. Similarly, the matte black bases and backrests of the counter stools offer a break between the maple cabinets, fir floors and oak seating surfaces:
The same rule of providing a textile buffer applies when mixing woods in a more temporary setting such as a tablescape for a dinner party or holiday celebration. In this case, the charcuterie board is separated from the dark wood of the table by the oversized placemats to offer a break in the differing wood tones. Preventing woods from directly contacting each other by way of a buffer material gives the eye a stopping point that prevents wood tones from looking too busy together.
5| Mind the Grain and Finish
When it comes to wood grain, larger, more pronounced wood grain generally lends itself to having a more rustic, rugged look. On the opposite end of the spectrum a more delicate and less noticeable grain can appear transitional or even contemporary. If the intent is to mix wood types that show more pronounced grain with their fair-grained cousins, similar finish sheens (matte, semi-gloss etc.) can be utilized to unite the wood items in a space. When considering the entirety of our living room/dining room space, all of the wood furniture pieces feature clean lines and finishes in the flat/matte family. We find that this brings the mix of oak, mango wood, stained pine and walnut (all with warm undertones) come together in a way that lends interest, but also a sense of cohesion to the space. While the grain is important to consider, the finish on top of the grain should be given equal thought.
Admittedly, there are a few bits of advice in this set of guidelines that could be interpreted as contradictory. It would be fairly easy to follow four rules while ‘breaking’ another and end up with a space that feels jumbled, or have success with the exact opposite formula. Overall, when it comes to mixing wood species in a home, success will likely be found in moderation. We find that if we loosely follow these guidelines and are mindful of tone, finish and quantity, a variety of wood pieces can blend cohesively in a space without much effort.