Saturday, February 22, 2014

5+ Ways To Make Oak Work (Without Painting It All White)

Added this pic 2/25/16, but the kitchen is not finished and this is just a cell pic. We took the original island, painted it white, added faux wainscoting, molding, and faux legs. The Mr. built a butcher-block top on it. We added Patagonian rosewood floors with undertones that work with the oak without blending in with it. There's a lot more to come with the kitchen such as new lights, a chimney hood is our latest project, backsplash, new appliances, etc. I will update with more pics as we accomplish these tasks. I hope this gives you some inspiration for your 90's style oak cabinets...they really can be beautiful again!!

Moving into a home with a lot of oak (not builder grade) has brought out my resourcefulness; I've read blog posts, interior design articles, refreshed my knowledge of color theory, and good ole trial and error over the past several years. With all that, I've finally gotten a handle on how to work with oak. I hope by consolidating these tips, someone out there can save themselves from extra work and headaches.

But! Be forewarned...I break rules when it comes to trim. I don't think a house must have matching wood throughout, and that includes trim. To me, a house can be decorated however you want it to be, especially if you're planning on staying in it for the long haul.

Here are 5 tips for working with oak without painting it all white:

1) Paint color undertones

Paint color you choose for your walls can make or break the appearance of oak. Stay away from pink beige undertones in paint, tiles, flooring, etc. with oak. Pink beige clashes with the orange and golden hues making the overall look seem off, and often times, makes the pink beige appear dirty.

The undertones in oak are usually yellow, orange, or even some red; if you think about the color wheel, the complementary colors would be as follows:
  • Yellow ---> purple
  • Orange ---> blue
  • Red ---> green
The bolder the undertones, the bolder the colors will appear. If you choose neutrals that have subtle undertones, your oak will be subtly complemented. I will get into that more in #3.

Yellows also work with oak. Yellow and oak are sort of like allies; it doesn't clash the way pink undertones and oak do, but it doesn't make the oak stand out, either. Yellow, yellow undertones, and cream colors are a good choice if you want your oak to blend into the room without making the room feel cold.

2) Break it up

It seems when a house has oak in it, the oak is everywhere. My home had an all oak staircase, oak trim, flooring, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, fireplace mantel, etc. Rather than going through and painting all of it white, try breaking it up by only painting some of it, or my personal favorite, create two-tone looks with different wood finishes.

Using a darker shade of stain to create an accent piece can really change things up and refresh a room full of oak.

I have broken up the amount of oak in my home in several areas; let me share a few of them with you!

  • I painted the trim in the kitchen white, while leaving the window frame itself, oak. At this time, I'm not including pictures of the entire kitchen because I'm in process of making some dramatic changes (without painting the cabinets). Check back for the reveal! If you decide to paint some or all of your oak, be sure to get a stain blocking primer, otherwise the yellow will come right through and show on the white paint.
This color is Spalding Gray by Sherwin Williams and has purple/beige undertones.
Trim color is White Dove by Benjamin Moore.

Update 2/25/16: Changed the wall color to Natural Choice by Sherwin Williams because we put in new floors which made the space much darker. Still a lot to do...needs new countertops, new faucet, new windows, but this will do for now!

  • The fireplace in our home used to have a stained oak mantel with hunter green tiles. I painted the mantel white, and painted the tiles with a cream, faux marbleized finish, while leaving the oak trim in the room as is. You can find the full tutorial for the fireplace, here
Fireplace before

For my style, I think the combination of a white mantel with wood trim was a good choice; it really makes the fireplace stand out, while the wood trim blends in and helps create a warm, relaxed feel.
The paint color on this wall is Butternut Wood by Behr, and has green-yellow undertones. The mantel color is White Dove by Benjamin Moore.

Update 2/25/16: First of all, take a look at the you see the pink undertones next to the yellow tile and orange guitar? It clashes, and will be changed soon. It's more noticeable in lighting like this (overcast snowy day). Anyway, I don't claim to be an interior designer and I tend to just surround myself in things that make me feel clay pots made by a cousin, walking sticks carved by Grandfathers, musical instruments, and color that makes me think of nature. This is just an update...same wall color, same wood trim, just different mantel d├ęcor.

  • For the staircase, I knew a makeover was in order, but there were so many options and possibilities! After contemplating which direction to take the staircase, I decided to go with staining the spindles dark kona, and leaving the steps, risers, and banister, oak. This small change made a huge difference! The contrast is perfect and I absolutely adore how it looks.
During the process of staining the spindles, there was already a dramatic difference! In this pic, you can also see pink undertones in the wall paint (was here when we moved in) and how it clashes with the wood.

The color on the wall was here when we moved in and will be changed soon. It's hard to see the pink undertones in this picture in some spots, but if you look at the thin strip of wall under the moulding above the landing area, you can see the pink (specifically near the corner of the wall). You can see the undertones really well in the previous picture. 

  • We also added faux wainscoting and painted a rose on the landing in the kona stain to add more contrast and character. A full staircase makeover post is coming soon, but you can find the rose landing tutorial here.

3) Contrast

Contrasting colors are the groups of colors opposite on the color wheel, aka: warm vs. cool tones. Oak is warm, so cool tones add contrast; warm tones will blend in and reduce contrast.

Contrast is something many people are drawn to, and is often what makes white trim look so good. Even when placed against a cream color, white stands out. With oak, a contrasting color is what makes the oak stand out. There is such a thing as too much contrast, so keep that in mind.

Tips for adding contrast to make oak pop:
  • Rich colors. Going for medium to dark shades helps make oak appear bright. If your oak is really light, dark colors will make it appear even lighter.
  • Choose colors with cool undertones.
  • Two-tone effects like adding a darker shade of wood to some of the oak, or painting some of it white when there are large amounts of the same shade of oak in one space.
  • Hardware that adds contrast. Dark hardware works really well for this.
Tips for reducing contrast to subdue oak:
  • Choose colors that are Earth toned. Wood is a natural element, so when you pair it with an Earthy tone, it can reduce boldness in the appearance of the oak. If you go back to the picture of the fireplace, you can see how the earthy wall subtly complements the wood while the white fireplace takes center stage.
  • Choose colors with warm undertones (don't forget to stay away from the pink undertones though!).
  • Yellows, yellow undertones, and cream colors can reduce contrast without clashing with the wood. 
  • Paint colors that are close in shade to the wood.

4) Hardware

Oak cabinets from the 90's look especially outdated when they are embellished with outdated hardware. By changing out hardware to something more current, it can make your oak look current as well. I personally like the contrast of dark hardware on oak.

5) Shine

Oak has a lot of wood grain going on, which can camouflage dirt and flaws like no other! The downside is, you might not realize just how dirty it is! Once oak gets dull looking, it immediately looks like old wood from the 90's. Seems too simple to be true, but try giving it a good cleaning; it can really make a huge difference!


6) Perception

The last tip is a matter of mindset. I know, I know, bear with me for just a minute or two...
If you focus on what you dislike about your oak, it will always look ugly to you. For some of you, this can't be changed, and maybe painting the oak is the best option for you; however, if you are the kind of person who can adjust your perception, you might find that you can appreciate your oak, and in turn, grow to like it!

Let's explore a touch of history...

The unique grain patterns in oak have made it a sought after wood throughout history, commonly used in high status homes, ships, cathedrals, and other prestigious buildings.

Oak is a strong, hard wood that is highly resistant to fungal growth and insect infestation because of a high tannin content. The strength and resistance made oak the primary timber choice for the construction of European timber-framed buildings, and was also used in Europe for the construction of naval ships, until the 19th century.

I enjoy looking at the oak throughout my home, and appreciating its unique and lovely grain patterns. Some of the most beautiful wonders on this planet have markings of distinction; the Bengal tiger, giraffe, zebra, leopard, birdseye maple, marble, granite, etc. I see oak similarly.

Try not to see the 90's when you look at your oak; while oak was very popular in that decade, it's been around long before that and can still be beautiful when paired with modern flare and the right colors.

More ideas for working with oak without painting:
I hope these tips can help you work with your oak. If you have any tips, suggestions, or pictures of ways you've made your oak work, please share!

Until next time...create away!



  1. Fads come and go. Good design lasts whether it is a modern Frank Lloyd Wright style or historic craftsman with a lot of oak. I think it is sad that everyone feels they need to conform to the latest trend. It is much better to respect the integrity of the architecture of a home and even the time period it was built. This is not to say updates are taboo. Modern living and maintaining a home requires that but keep elements that are integral to the original style of the home. I like that you encourage people to view homes with open eyes and not just jump on the bandwagon of latest change.

    1. Thank you! I agree with you. I try to strive for a mindset that balances updating with maintaining the integrity of the original design. One thing I keep wondering about the all white trend is, what happens when white everything is the next outdated oak everything? It's coming in under 10 years. White is classic, but white everything is a trend. What happens then? Strip it all back to wood? Paint it all black? Striving for balance and not just following trends is what will keep it timeless (aside from possibly needing minor upgrades like hardware, light fixtures, faucets). Some may enjoy making major changes to keep up with trends, but I'm not one of them :) Thank you for visiting the blog and for you comment. Have a lovely day!

  2. Would love to see a bigger picture of the window where you painted the trim but not the frame. I have oak colored vinyl windows, and want to paint the trim around it white, but have no idea how it would look. Your window would be the perfect example!

    1. I can certainly do that. I will post a new pic of my kitchen with the window as well as how we did the island white.

    2. I posted a pic, but there's more to come! We are not done with this kitchen yet!

  3. I love your ideas. Our house sounds very similar to yours. Golden Oak floors, trim, kitchen, fireplace, stairs, vanities, doors, EVERYTHING! I am definently going to be using some of these strategies. :)
    Do you have any suggestions for a backsplash with the golden oak?

  4. Hi! Great article. I love your ideas! We have a very similar home: Golden Oak everywhere! Our kitchen cabinets, all the trim in the house, vanities, flooring, stairs, fireplace mantle, doors, etc. is all solid oak. I am definitely going to be using some of your strategies! :) Any suggestions when it comes to the kitchen backsplash with the golden oak? My first thought was white but I wasn't sure if that was the best way to go. Thanks!

    1. Hi Kaitlin, thank you for the positive feedback. Personally, I will be goingoing with a white backslash in my kitchen. I recently changed the wall color from the Spalding gray to a very light color because we put in new floors that are on the dark side and it made the kitchen feel a little too dark for my taste. I'll post the pic in this article. Another option for backslash I've been considering is buying those metallic sheets at Home Depot (in copper), painting it white, then sanding it to distress it and allow some copper to peak through. Those sheets are expensive though! Sometimes even more pricey than tile!

    2. I've decided I'm definitely going with a white backsplash...have you seen the lantern (Moroccan) tiles? They're gorgeous. Thinking about that, or maybe a white brick look, but not as contemporary as a glossy straight white subway tile. Have you decided on a backsplash yet?

  5. i have a yellow/orange oak floors and thinking of paint colors to match with that? i also dont want to paint the stairs and want to keep them original

    1. Hello, first I would stay away from ANY paint with pink undertones; it clashes with the wood color and appears dirty. Personally, I've really been into light wall colors lately and I tend to stick to off whites with greenish undertones if I want to cool things down, and warm greys if I want to keep things warm. Sherwin Williams Revere Pewter looks amazing with my woodwork! If you like dark colors, same thing...warm greys are nice, and green undertones are nice as well. For instance, when browns were all the rage, I went with an olive dark brown. The green undertones complemented the orange in my wood vs. the warm undertones in chocolate brown which would have been too much of the off the same feel. I've noticed that when choosing a really warm color, I look for a version of it with cool undertones (like green), and when looking for cool paint colors, I look for versions of it with warm undertones (but not pink!). Something about this go-to move seems to work well with oak. I hope this helped!

    2. Did you mean Benjamin Moore Revere Pewter by chance instead of Sherwin Williams?

    3. Hi! Do you have a picture of a room painted with SW Revere Pewter? I've seen pictures on the web that I like, but when I went to SW to get the paint chip, I was shocked at how dark it looked. Thanks!

  6. Great post...THANK YOU!!!! Been struggling for years with paint colors for 1920s bungalow which is loaded with or orangey oak woodwork & floors:)

    1. Thank you for your comment and I'm so glad this has been helpful for you.

    2. Hi, this is extremely helpful. I am trying to find the exact paints you posted here. The image that is labelled purple undertones and green undertones? Are they both Sherwin Williams and could you please let me know which paint colours exactly. We have a century home and currently it is painted in jewel tones. We want to keep some depth of colour, but really lighten it up. These look perfect, especially with our 100 year old fir trim! Thank you!

  7. Love the ideas..redoing our kitchen but leaving the oak cabinets. Biggest decision now is flooring (wood), without going too dark. Thinking of going with a different species of wood,so the woodgrain is not too much.

  8. This is such a great post. Thank you so much! I just bought a home with solid oak cabinets that are dated, but so functional! I am excited to try to compliment the oak instead of painting it.

  9. thanks a mil for this article! Right now I have brick red paint in the whole room (backsplash included) with the original wood trim around windows and doors which stained out much darker than the cabinets when we refinished them...the color works well with both but I really want to lighten the room around the eating area. Never mind all that, here's where you really takeaway was that there are ways to complement them but I can do anything I want...different woods for trim, cabinets, tables, whatever. If nobody else in the world ever does it my way then that's okay and the fact that I haven't stumbled onto a picture of what I'm envisioning doesn't mean it won't work. maybe that's just the perception thing...I'm not even sure you said that. Felt like you implied it...I think. Anyway..I know someday I'd wish I hadn't painted them so I'm going to figure this thing out.

  10. I have a very similar staircase and wondered what to do! I like the dark spindles but mine extends across the entire second floor - it may be too much

  11. Its been really great to read such article.I appreciate it..Thnaks for sharing..moonshine still

  12. Hi,

    I'm writing a blog post about updating RV's with oak cabinets. Would you mind if I included the photo of the oak drawers with modern hardware with your watermark and a link to this post in my article?

    1. I apologize for the late response. I don't mind at all. Thank you for asking:)

  13. Thank you for this article I am in a rent house for the next year and I can pain the walls but not the cabinets. It is so ugly honey oak cabinets, trim, walls and appliances all the exact same shade. Desperate for some way to tone it down

  14. What brand and color of stain did you use on the stairs?

    1. Hi Julie, I used Varathane Wood Stain in Kona.