To stain or not to stain — should all wood tones match in Max’s apartment?

vintage-furnitureDesignDilemmaReader Max is about to move into a new apartment in Chicago and has been frequenting estate sales to collect vintage furniture for his new place. He has found several pieces he loves — a dining set, end tables, record player, easy chair and vintage pendant light — but he is unsure if the mismatched wood finishes will all work together in the main living area of his tiny city apartment. Should he stay true to the original or try his best to make all the wood tones more matchy-matchy? Readers — let’s hear your points of view, then Pam and I will be back at noon with our thoughts and a mood board. 

Max writes:

Hi, my name is Max. I love your blog, and consider it to be the fountain of knowledge on all things retro. I recently acquired two gorgeous, if slightly out of shape danish modern end tables. I love them, but there just one problem – they’re teak, and the majority of my collection of mid century furniture is blonde. And therein lies the rub. I have to refinish the tables, and was wondering if it would be a huge mistake to redo them in a lighter tone to match my other furniture. Your help in this moral dilemma is appreciated.

I’m really excited about this! Let me apologize in advance that my furniture isn’t together at the moment – it’s currently spread around my mother’s home in preparation for my move into a new apartment in Chicago. Here are the photos –

First, the blondes –

vintage furniture

Above: My mid-century dining set. This is my only non-estate sale find, I bought it online, and it’s being shipped from LA.


vintage furniture

Above: My record player – decidedly blonde.

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Now for the darker woods – above: one of my two, tiered end tables. You can’t tell from a distance, but it’s in pretty rough condition.

vintage furniture

Above: My sconces, which match nicely with the tables…

vintage furniture

And finally, my chair, which is kind of in between the two wood tones I have.

I should probably mention that it’s a truly minuscule apartment, and all this furniture would be in the same room. So do I stain my furniture into one, cohesive tone, or set my OCD aside and embrace the chaos? Can’t wait to hear the responses, thanks for responding!

Match the woods in one room — or mix and match?

Kate replies:

Personally, my home is a mix of many different tones of wood — and I think they all work well together. The key is treating the wood like a color in your room design, making sure to repeat it once or twice throughout the room to help create a cohesive overall look. That being said, the blonde of the dining set is repeated in the record cabinet and the teak end tables look to be about the same color as the wood parts of the pendant light and the arms of the easy chair. Heck — the upholstery on the easy chair seems to be a similar color to “blonde” which further repeats the color throughout your space. In my opinion, refinishing the end tables in a finish close to the original and leaving the chair and light alone is perfectly okay.

Pam replies:

First of all, this is no “moral dilemma” in my book. We’ve discussed this issue several times before — to stain or paint or otherwise refinish original wood finish furniture, and oh my, can opinions start to flare. Let’s all be polite, please, on this! Here is my longest monologue on the subject — it’s about painting, but clearly goes for refinishig too. It was originally posted in this story about Jeff and Debbie’s trash-to-treasure vintage furniture makoever — there were lots of good reader comments, too:

When it comes to repainting wood furniture — or wood trim in your house — I see this as a very personal, aesthetic issue — not one of righteousness. That said, I encourage readers to learn about the pros and cons of each approach, including how painting will potentially affect the underlying monetary and/or historic value of a piece of vintage or antique furniture … same with original wood trim, paneling or cabinetry. If you have ever watched Antiques Roadshow and seen a piece of vintage furniture appraised for thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars including because it has its “original finish and patina,” well, there you go, that’s why you might want to go slow before fixing in on the decision to paint over an original finish wood.

Overall, though: Whether we “like” furniture and trim painted versus with a natural wood finish generally is a function of fashion. One year natural wood is “in”. The next year, painted is “in.” [One year it’s light wood. The next year it’s white paint.  The next year it’s dark wood. The next year it’s distressed paint. The next year it’s medium wood. The next year it’s milk paint…] Ping. Pong. A wood finish can be very beautiful. A painted finish can be very beautiful. I consider either finish choice an aesthetic preference, not an aesthetic imperative or aesthetic absolute.

All that said: Mixing and matching wood tones can work just fine — but I do think it requires a deft eye. In your case, the fact that you have the blonde in the dining area and the teak in the living area makes it much easier, because these two areas serve distinct functions.

Since your space is small, I think you can work to tie the two rooms together with your textiles. Perhaps you can find a fabric for pinch pleats or romans or fabric blinds or pillows, at the least, that includes both the light and dark wood tone colors within the pattern. You can also consider putting a brown leather or vinyl or woven fabric on the seats of the dining room chairs, which will harken to the darker woods nearby.

If you own your apartment and can paint, you might also want to paint an accent wall in the dining area set that makes it more of a room within a room.

Finally — and here’s another great thing about buying vintage furniture cheap and cheerful: If you decide you really don’t like the mix and match, as reader Dietz123 pointed out in the morning comments, “you wrote to us because it really does bother you…. If you enjoy the hunt, then pick a wood tone (perhaps blonde) and then only collect that color going forward and resell the rest.” I was going to say you could refinish everything to match — but other readers pointed out that it would be very diffficult to get different wood species to match in tone even with the same color stain. Vintage furniture is pretty darn abundant — sell off what you don’t want — and patiently wait for the Retro Decorating Gods to deliver what you are looking for — they usually do!

Pulling wood tones together:

How might it look if we use textiles and accessories to pull the two woods together? Pretty good, we think!


In place of the orange — we could also imagine either blue or green (both well-saturated) as a principal accent color. E.g. Robert’s Is it True Blondes Have More Fun bedroom designs. You could also bring in more color with a different rug, although again, we’d like to see both woodtones in it, too.

Good luck! Let us know how it all turns out!


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