We at JASON BALL interiors try to use at least one wood tone in every space we design, whether residential or commercial. The warmth and richness wood provides is like no other material currently available. It connects us to the outdoors, reminds us of simpler times in our history, and provides color, texture and pattern all at the same time. However, wood and how to best use it can also be an enigma. There are so many different species, each with their very own set of characteristics ~ grain patterns, hardness levels, durability, stain receptiveness, etc. It's literally a forest of decisions (see the play on words there?) to be made. Thus, this blog post. Our goal is to provide an insight in the knowledge the interior design world has on wood and hopefully help you discover your personal preferences when it comes to the ubiquitous material.
Choosing Wood Species Based on Inherent Characteristics
When selecting a wood species to use in your next design project, consider both the visual appearance of the wood as well as the environment in which the wood will be used. Some woods are definitely better to use in certain applications than others. For instance, if there are children and/or pets in your household, consider harder woods that can take more wear and tear. Softer woods might be more appropriate for decorative elements, like wood walls or cabinetry. Once you understand or define the environment in which the wood will be used, the real fun of deciding which exact species to use begins!
There are two main characteristics we consider in selecting a wood species ~ grain pattern and stain receptiveness. Some clients have specific likes/dislikes on type of grain or wood colors that we take into consideration. We almost always start with the grain of the wood that will best fit into our overall design. Grain is a term used to describe direction of the natural fibers, such as straight, spiral or curly, as well as fine or corse grain pattern. Second identification is the color of the wood, an especially important considering when the wood will be stained. Knowing the wood's natural color and how color changes as the wood ages is crucial. For example, birch is naturally yellow to white and does not take stain very well, often appearing blotchy with standard wiping stains. Some woods, such as cherry wood, are naturally suited to take stain due to the structure of the fibers.
Selecting a Wood Species to Work with Your Design Style
Saying that certain wood species are more suited for specific design styles (contemporary, traditional, etc.) is likely to cause some conversation (and I would love to hear what you think on this topic). Even-grained woods, like walnut, rich birch, and cherry provide a more uniform appearance and consistent grain patterns easily adapt to both traditional and contemporary designs. Grainy woods, like ash and oak offer more of a casual look than elegant. Some grains can add a very dramatic feeling to a room, such as Hickory with its tight grain and usually some knots. Hickory can work well in country settings, as well as modern settings. Darker colors are most often used in formal or traditional spaces, while lighter colors work best in country, casual and contemporary settings. Walnut and cherry are popular dark wood choices. Other woods, like teak, have interesting gradations of color from light to dark all in one.￼ All that said, there is also something to be had for throwing a more "casual" wood species in a contemporary setting.
As an example, in one of our recently completed projects, we designed a fairly contemporary kitchen with a small black walnut trim detail. As an added design element, we used the same species to create a live-edge window shelf. This rustic element balances nicely against the structured detail in the rest of the space.
Here's another example of using a more rustic wood, hickory in this instance, to create a mid-century modern look. Additional wood species are used as well to create a nearly wood-clad kitchen ~ reclaimed walnut counter, pine ceiling and beams.
When all is said and done, selecting a species is really about preference. What do you like (or not like)? Work with professionals who understand the characteristics of wood to create an interior environment you'll be proud of. Once you discover your wood style preferences it may just be the key element in your next design project.
Specific Species Characteristics
Here’s are some helpful tips for some of the common wood species.
Alder Color: Very consistent in color - pale pinkish-brown to almost white. Grain: No distinct grain pattern Characteristics: Good working properties, moderately lightweight, low shock resistance. Finishing: Finishes smoothly and takes stain well
Ash Color: Nearly pure lustrous white, ranging through cream to very light brown. Grain: It has an attractive, straight, moderately open, pronounced grain. Characteristics: Heavy, hard, strong and stiff excellent bending qualities. Finishing: Because of its large pores it is seldom painted but takes all other finishes very well
Birch Color: Cream or lightly tinged with red. Grain: Fine grained (often curly or wavy). Characteristics: Heavy, strong, hard, and even-textured. Finishing: Birch takes paints and stains well.
Cherry Color: Rich, reddish-brown. Cherry darkens considerably with age and exposure to sunlight. Grain: Straight-grained and satiny. Small gum pockets produce distinctive markings. Characteristics: Light, strong, stiff and rather hard. Cherry's grain is more subdued than some other hardwood species, with very interesting character. Finishing: Cherry is unsurpassed in its finishing qualities-its uniform texture takes a finish very well.
Hickory Color: White to tan to reddish-brown with inconspicuous fine brown lines. Grain: Fine grain. Characteristics: Extremely tough and resilient, even texture, quite hard and only moderately heavy. Finishing: The grain pattern welcomes a full range of medium-to-dark finishes and bleaching treatments
Mahogany Color: Varies from light red or pale tan to a rich dark deep red or deep golden brown, depending on country of origin. Grain: It is generally straight grained but is prized for its figures which include stripe, roe, curly, blister, fiddleback, and mottle. Characteristics: Extremely strong, hard, stable and decay resistant Finishing: Finishes and stains to a beautiful natural luster.
Maple Color: Cream to light reddish-brown. Grain: Usually straight-grained and sometimes found with highly figured bird's-eye or burl grain. Bird's-eye resembles small circular or elliptical figures. Clusters of round curls are known as burl. Characteristics: Heavy, hard, strong, tough, stiff, close-grained and possesses a uniform texture. Maple has excellent resistance to abrasion and indentation, making it ideal flooring as well as cutting boards and countertops. Finishing: Takes stain satisfactorily and polishes well.
Oak Color: White Oak- ranges from nearly white sapwood to a darker gray brown heartwood, Red Oak-ranges from nearly white cream color to a beautiful warm, pale brown heartwood, tinted with red. Grain: The grain is distinguished by rays, which reflect light and add to its attractiveness. Depending on the way the logs are sawn into timber (rift-cut, flat sliced, flat sawn, rotary cut, quartered), many distinctive and sought after patterns emerge: flake figures, pin stripes, fine lines, leafy grains and watery figures. Characteristics: Heavy, very strong and very hard, stiff, durable under exposure, great wear-resistance, holds nails and screws well. Uses: Flooring, furniture, cabinets, ships and decorative woodwork. Finishing: Oaks can be stained beautifully with a wide range of finish tones.
Pine Color: Pale cream color. Grain: Has a distinctive grain pattern. Finishing: Takes most finishes well.
We hope you found this article informative and educational. Feel free to share any tips, tricks or example projects with us. We'd love to hear from our readers.