wood being stored

Is Wood Color Too Light Or Dark

Wood Colors 101

Over the years I have heard some claim that wood color is too dark to use for a project in their home. The odd part is I have also heard others claim that it is too light. It is interesting how we get a perception of what something will look like based upon some past experience.

The truth is that wood comes in many different colors albeit the natural tones which wood possesses. They range from very light to also very dark.

A well combined work of art and wood color can increase the value of the wood art exponentially.

I have seen some mix the dark and light in a hardwood floor for a cool effect within a home alternating species from board to board.

Knotted wood can have high contrast in color and aid in creating a beautiful effect. Some species display this variation with greater detail than others.

I will detail information from my experience below and also give a reference here to a more detailed list that expands into information by species. Much can be said as to the characteristics as they all offer unique qualities in wood carving and art.

Light Colored Wood

Depending on your location in the world you may have access to alternate species than I may list or speak of. Be aware that if you are looking for more exotic species there are regulations that governments impose on some importation. This may affect availability and price.

  • Light Wood List:
  • Basswood
  • Beech
  • Birch
  • Cypress
  • Hard Maple
  • Soft Maple
  • Poplar
  • Willow (Some darker grain lines are common)
  • Avodire
  • Iroko
  • Lacewood
  • White Limba
  • Obeche
  • Butternut

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I have left out some like Pine and White Oak which is very common and others which are less common. Some within this list will not be for use in things such as hardwood floors while others are. One would need to know the species hardness in order to determine if it is suitable for the desired use.

Why Are Light Color Woods Common To Use?

There is a benefit to using light colored wood when compared to dark. Yet with this benefit comes a sacrifice. Nevertheless its benefit is the ability to better stain and finish to any color which one likes. The darker the wood is the more difficult it becomes to alter its color.

The sacrifice one makes in using wood species of this kind is the lack of darker grain transition across a board. Often darker woods will have more prominent grain lines which will shift from medium tones to darker colors. Light colored wood will have a more consistent tone across the entire board with few prominent grain lines.

Oak, Maple, and Birch are three common species which this principle would apply to in North America. There are variations to these species that can be found when they are not farm grown. Natural weathering or damage which can occur to a tree can produce exceptionally beautiful grains that naturally would not exist.

These spalted woods are often more expensive as they are more difficult to find than what is carried by most stores. If one is desiring light colors while also having strong grains which are prominent this would be the way to go despite the added expense. There are few woods which can compare in beauty in this case.

An additional benefit to light colored wood is the ability to mix and match other interior colors with prominent features of the home. As the largest impact is often cabinets or hardwood floors within a house the selection of species will be important in theme design.


There are disadvantages to a light colored species as well. While any color can easily stain these species it can still be tricky. Aside from farm grown trees lacking strong grain lines know that targeting an even appearance in stain color can be challenging.

Without the stronger grain lines to help break up color transition one begins to see a transition in the stain color more prominently. The stain color can vary from board to board even if the wood comes from the same tree. This is due to relative hardness of the wood based on where it was cut from within the tree.

The outer layers of any tree are not as hard as its innermost layers. The more dense wood is at its center and will result in it absorbing less color from stain. Meanwhile the outermost layers will be more porous and accept color more readily. At times these outer layers can turn out darker than initially desired.

Note that this density does not reference to wood strength. While there is a relationship its impact is different to a finished product.

There is a way to help minimize this impact. Sanding aids in creating a more uniform appearance. The finer grit which is used in creating a smooth surface on the wood the lighter the stain color will become. The more coarse the surface is the darker it will take the stain. Generally speaking a smooth uniform surface helps ensure a more uniform color transition across a surface.

Nevertheless it is accepted that when using wood there will be differences from board to board. This is natural and a part of what brings out the beauty of the species.

Medium Colored Wood

In between the world of light and dark is the various species which give a medium color allowing for more grain transition. Certain species in this category have been placed by some in the darker colors yet this can be subjective.

  • Medium Wood List:
  • Cedar
  • Cherry
  • Hackberry
  • Hickory
  • Red Elm
  • Red Oak
  • Sap Gum / Red Gum
  • Sassafras
  • Sycamore
  • Aniegre
  • Lyptus
  • Makore (Some consider this dark)
  • Shedua
  • Canarywood
  • Ipe (Some may be dark)
  • Tigerwood (Some may be dark)
  • English Brown Oak
  • Red Grandis

Many more species reside in this medium color range. They provide a balance between the two worlds of light and dark allowing for more color transition. Often with many of these species a natural stain color can be applied simply allowing the grain itself to provide its own beauty without color manipulation.

The Benefit Of Medium Colored Wood

The greatest benefit to these woods is that they will blend with most home themes easily. You gain the benefit of the beauty within the wood at the same time not making a room appear dark. Almost any color can be used with them on walls or furnishings.

These species also have spalted variations if one desired. The colors one can find in these spalted woods can be dramatic and beautiful. At times one can find a rainbow color effect within the wood. Yet expect the spalted versions to be generally more dramatic from light to dark with more prominent grains.

In hardwood flooring there are few options that are better if one wishes to have lighter colors but also retain the beauty of the wood grain. As with the light colored variation do expect the spalted version to be considerably more difficult to come by and it will be more expensive.

In terms of staining typically a lighter color stain is used. The same principle applies to how the color is absorbed into the wood as I detailed earlier. The outer and inner layers will vary based upon how dense the wood is absorbing the stain color differently. Again this is a natural phenomena found in every piece of lumber.

Dark Colored Woods

In more modern homes there has been a phase in some recent years where dark colored wood has been used. As trends continue to change in home decoration and design one may find this to become more common in your region. The days of wood floors and cabinets being dominantly oak are gone.

  • Dark Wood List:
  • African Mahogany
  • Walnut
  • Afrormosia
  • Andiroba
  • Bloodwood
  • Bocote
  • Brazilian Cherry / Jatoba
  • Brazilian Ebony / Ironwood
  • Kingwood
  • Black Limba
  • Mahogany
  • Zebrawood
  • Bubinga
  • Cocobolo
  • Cumaru
  • Purpleheart
  • Rosewood

This is not an all inclusive list yet it is an excellent representation. Some of the medium and dark colored woods exist on the border of one becoming lighter or darker. At times the climate in which it grows will impact this and its access to nutrients and water.

Benefits To Darker Colored Woods

The greatest benefit is that it will hide how dirty your floors may be. Also it will hide other artifacts such as scratches or damage over time. Clearly this is relative to how dirty something may be or how much damage is present.

Additionally you benefit from its natural beauty and color variation. Although it is darker wood you still can match it with deep tones very nicely. Lighter pastels do work as well yet some do not care for this pairing.

The disadvantage is that one may need to become more picky with the color theme of a home. This will be subjective to what one likes or believes will match. There is also the matter of the wood creating a darker room.

In flooring less light is reflected from the surface in addition to it being dark. The wood will heat more easily if windows are not protected and UV exposure can alter the wood color more easily. This can be resolved by window treatments, tinting, or films which block UV light. It is advisable that this be done with any home to protect wood of any kind.

Mixing Wood Species

Some have found that mixing wood species within their flooring or cabinetry and even furniture offers more in terms of contrast and color. This can be an excellent option for getting the most out of the beauty of these features. Achieving this can be done in various ways.

One can mix from board to board or create borders, designs, or other features to accent a home. A floor which has a darker outside border and lighter colored wood in its center may be appealing. Perhaps the reverse is preferred. Using creativity in doing this can allow one to have a very unique setting which appeals to different color themes and designs.

Application In Wood Art

For woodworkers it is common to use different species within the same project. Most often it is to maximize the color and beauty of the creation. My art boxes are a perfect example of this. By mixing Maple and Walnut as I commonly do it gives a very unique appeal.

box art wood hinges

When carving features, words, or art into wood often lighter colored woods are more desirable for allowing contrast. This allows for the artwork to stand out from the lighter color of the wood giving more visibility to the art.

Typically in carving when this contrast is desired darker woods are avoided unless they are used as an accent to the focal point being the art. If a design is cut into dark grains then it will blend in with the surrounding surface making it more difficult to appreciate.

The spalted variations of these lighter species work very well. You gain the contrast as desired while still obtaining a gorgeous grain to display in the work. Often this is in part why my cost to produce one piece is quite higher than run of the mill generic counterparts. The quality and beauty of the wood is a major factor.

tree of life version 2 wood art

Some of these more rare finds can run into thousands of dollars just for raw lumber when compared to the farm grown counterparts. While it may not be practical to use this type of wood for flooring due to cost, in wood art it allows for exceptional work to be created.

Many who create more exceptional tables have used this type of wood. In terms of furnishings within the home they can provide additional accents that otherwise could not affordably exist. Some artists use these woods for guitar making due to its beauty and resonance qualities.

Wood definitely holds its own within the many arts which exist for what it can offer. We are only limited by our skill and imagination in how to apply it.

Past Perception Laid To Rest

If one takes the time to search out what wood can do for a home and its beauty it will not take long for past perceptions to be laid to rest. Certainly the old wall paneling of years gone by was not appealing. Often these manufactured options we run into are due to affordability rather than beauty.

Likewise if all one were to see of vehicles was a Civic one may decide that cars are too small and uncomfortable. It takes a little exploration to see what others are available to fit ones needs. Wood is much the same way in that there are many options which exist beyond a single model. Unfortunately it is not as commonly known or explored.

Just be careful for once one begins a journey seeing what can be accomplished often one becomes hooked into a new hobby. Although that would not be so bad when compared to other addictions.