We get asked a lot about how to achieve the beautiful oak finishes seen on Instagram and Pinterest, and recently broke each finish down in our Ask A Cabinetmaker Facebook group, so wanted to be sure to post here as well. While it isn't important for the homeowner to know exactly how to achieve each finish, being able to identify the characteristics of each will help when discussing finish options with your cabinetmaker.
(Design credit: The Lifestyled Co)
Let's start with the simplest finishes first: natural. Don't let the name fool you, these finishes are very rarely "natural", the name rather refers to a clear topcoat only finish (no stain or pigment involved). This, as the name suggests, maintains the natural color, grain, and characteristics of the unfinished wood. As we've discussed before, there are two main distinctions in clear finishes: water-borne and solvent-borne. Water-borne clear topcoats (the image on the right) maintain the opaque, lighter unfinished look of the oak, while solvent-borne (image on the left) pushes the color more warm and amber (especially on red oak).
These finishes are beautiful, very easy to live with, and an excellent option if you are not 100% confident that your finisher/painters can achieve a more advanced finish like those discussed below. Color variations, however subtle, are to be expected, embraced, and celebrated. You're paying for the oak, might as well put a spot light on it!
(Design credit: High Street Homes)
The photo above is a solvent-based clear finish on flat-sawn red oak. See how how warm it is? And, conversely, the image below of a water-borne finish on red oak is much more tan and opaque.
(Design credit: Kelsey Leigh Design Co)
Whenever we see a finish that is very even in tone but still has pronounced grain, it is very likely that it has been stained. The beautiful finish of this No. 17 House oak kitchen is so well done: you still see all of the natural grain texture, but little to no color variation like we see in the natural clear-only finishes above. This is a considerably more difficult a finish to achieve, so whether you're using a standard stain color or something formulated custom, be sure to get plenty of samples from your cabinetmaker/finisher before proceeding.
(Photo credit: No. 17 House)
Similar to stained finishes, this technique involves changing the original color of the wood though with a slightly different approach. Rather than applying a stain that soaks in and exaggerates the natural grain variation, tinting the topcoat does the opposite. A small amount of colorant is added to the clear topcoat and, instead of soaking in, sits on top of the wood creating a more even tint to the entire piece. Whenever we see very even color and slightly muted grain, it's a safe bet it is tinted clear coat (also an excellent technique for blending more drastic color variations).
(Photo credit: unknown, though if someone reading this know please email us!)
(Photo credit: Wayhome customer photo)
Now a common finish on furniture and cabinetry, this elegant technique has its roots in the cosmetic industry. Originally created using a white, lead-based powder, it was used in cosmetic facial powder by women between the 1500 to 1600s to whiten their faces (think Elizabeth the First). Eventually banned in the cosmetic field for its toxicity, the French discovered that it could be used to create a beautiful finish on wood with porous grain such as oak. Applied to both clear-only and stained oak, the white pigment (often a glaze) isn't allowed to soak in, rather allowed to settle into the grain.
(Photo credit: Wood & Co)
Pickled Oak (also called White Washed)
Very common in the late 90s, pickled finishes are stained white. While the glaze of cerused finishes doesn't soak in, the white stain of pickled finishes very much does, thereby changing the color tone of the entire piece. Do note: white oak can become a little mauve when pickled, and red oak a little pink. Beautiful when used in the right aesthetic, just be sure to get plenty of samples before deciding. The difference in clear protective topcoat used is important on pickled finishes, as well: solvent-borne can push even more mauve, and water-borne even more pink.
(Photo credit: Brodie Jenkins)
Discuss With Your Cabinetmaker As Early As Possible
As we mentioned above, it's not necessary for you, the homeowner, to understand exactly how to achieve each finish. The way this process often works is you show as many inspiration photos to your cabinetmaker / finisher as possible. They should then be able to identify (1) the wood species and (2) the general finishing technique needed to achieve a similar look to that in your photos. Samples are created shortly after, and a final color/process is decided on. Once the final color has been selected, your cabinetmaker should apply the exact finish onto the style of cabinet door you're using. The exact sanding technique, stain (if applicable), water vs solvent borne topcoat, etc. Once approved, this door then becomes the finish control for the entire project.
With finishing especially, it's really hard to undo most things so it's best to have necessary conversations as early in the process as possible. To help get you best prepared, we've created our Cabinetry Consultation (you can book here!) with our cabinetry and finishing Expert Corbin Clay. Discuss stain and finish options, ways to save money (like how we recently saved a family $95,000!), or anything else needed to give you confidence and peace of mind that your project turns out exactly how you're expecting.
Building new or remodeling can be a very stressful process. No matter your question, apprehension, frustration, or concern, we'll help you find your way home.