When you understand how color change varies from species to species as well as over time, you begin to realize that lumber color can be a pretty tricky subject. Even within a species and with freshly milled boards, though, there’s plenty of variety when it comes to color. As an organic material, wood simply can’t be realistically compared to a made-to-order product or a manufactured item with a dye lot. Once we stop expecting it to be, we’re well on the road to appreciating the natural beauty of lumber: Like snowflakes, each board is truly one-of-a-kind.
Primary Influences on Color
While species certainly helps determine color, you’ll find many variations within each species, and some more than others. Grain and imperfections (or character markings — depending on your perspective) contribute to that variation. Sometimes anomalies exist, such as green Ipe or Walnut, making it difficult for even lumber experts to determine the species of a board. In addition to such unusual specimens, factors that often affect lumber color include the following:
• Location of the tree (and related soil chemistry)
• Local climate in which the tree grew
• Season of harvesting
• Sawing and drying methods used
• Time (or occurrence) of milling
• Amount of time and location for storage
With all those factors figured into the equation, even the remotest color coordination (which is probably a more appropriate term than color-matching, but I digress) is something of a miraculous occurrence, and when it happens, we should all break out in wonder and amazement! Now on to the more practical part: There are steps you can take to have a better shot at color-matching or color coordination.
Why Grain Ranks Highly
While many things influence color, if we had to choose one main one, we’d have to go with grain. Even boards that come from the same tree can exhibit quite different coloring, based on the grain in the area of the tree from which it was cut, as well as the way in which it was cut. Grain is a biggie, and there’s a logical reason: density. Depending on the cross-section of the log, your board can be more or less dense, and based on that density, the board will reflect light in a way that determines its apparent coloring.
Now, in an alternate reality in which trees grew perfectly straight and with straight grain, all the while creating parallel wood fibers, that would be a different story. But not only is that the stuff of lumber-science fiction, it’s also not as great as it might sound: That kind of so-called lumber would look a lot more like mass-produced plastic building materials, and I think we can all agree that we’re glad for natural wood with all its variety and beauty.
To read more about how grain and other factors impact color matching, check out Part 2.