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Color clash can cause a deal to collapse

During the last three months, I’ve been exposed to a number of finishing scenarios that dealt with matching a color or, more broadly, matching a look.

Here are two scenarios illustrating common errors in matching one component of the look: color.

Not liking the look

A cabinet manufacturer produced cabinet boxes of prefinished veneered plywood, cutting and assembling them in both stock and custom configurations, and installed custom or stock doors, drawers and hardware. Having no finishing facility of its own, and insufficient skill and machinery to manufacture the doors, it purchased unfinished doors and drawer fronts from a major supplier.

The stain, sealer and topcoat were specified by the cabinet manufacturer, but the exact process was not. The manufacturer of the doors did not have a finishing shop, so he engaged a finisher, as a subcontractor, to finish the doors in both stock and custom colors. This subcontractor was provided with a sample panel, not a door, of the cabinet manufacturer’s cabinet boxes to match.

The custom colors were not a problem as the finisher worked from a sample of the panels used and carefully matched all the doors and drawers in one batch (per kitchen) so that any variation was obvious and could be corrected before the kitchen was completed. Generally one or two people worked on a given kitchen.

For the stock product, however, a certain minimum number of doors and drawers were finished in a large batch, extending over several days. In a large open booth, one operator sprayed a pigmented stain onto doors and drawer fronts passing by on an overhead conveyer chain. The doors continued to an area where they were control-wiped by two to three stain wipers and then to a short drying tunnel before entering the sealer booth. At the sealer booth they were coated with sealer, dried and conveyed to a standing station where they were removed from the hooks and scuff-sanded, then rehooked for topcoat.

While there were color standards (sample panels from the cabinet), there were no actual doors with the contour and grain of the wood evident. The operator was simply looking for some degree of consistency in the overall look. Mostly he was interested in keeping up with the speed of the conveyor. Of course, his job — applying the stain — did not allow him to see the dried, wiped stain with sealer and topcoat on it.

The wipers, similarly concerned with keeping up with the input of panels, wiped as consistently as likely under the circumstances, regardless of differences in the wood, the sanding, how long it had been since the panels were sanded, the moisture content of the wood or any other of the myriad factors affecting the stain’s ability to color the wood. Consequently, there were variations in the result, but these were not noted or corrected at this time.

The drift or gradually increasing deviation from the desired results at each step culminated in an unacceptable mismatch between the cabinet boxes and the doors and drawers. This most often occurred between different batches. But it also happened within a batch, such as doors finished on Monday and Friday being installed together.

This could have been avoided by having a clear understanding among all parties of the look that was to be achieved. That look would include the color, depth, sheen, texture and level of the finish.

Standards, in the form of step panels, showing the desired result of each step of the operation, should be available for comparison with the actual doors at each step and sufficient education of the employees should be given to ensure that each person knew exactly what was expected.

Additionally, bracketing standards showing the acceptable range of look or color would be helpful to establish a go or no-go comparison. Doors outside the acceptable range could be rejected or corrected prior to any additional finishing.

Sufficient lighting, often overlooked, is a necessity for any operation that requires discriminating between colors, sheens, textures or other visual components affecting conformity to standard. The spray booth was adequately lit, but other areas had only ambient light of lower intensity. While the idea of each person as his own inspector sounds good, it is only effective when there is a system in place to reward the desired performance and provide clear guidance as to what that desired performance is and how it is to be accomplished.

A distorted view

In another situation, a finisher was engaged to apply a finish to wooden wall panels to be installed in an office. He was given sample panels to match — and did so in his shop — and secured written approval from the client on the match. After the panels had been finished and installed, he was called to the office to see the end product. The client was disappointed that the panels did not match the standard to an acceptable degree.

The finisher pointed out that the standard supplied and the sample he had produced had matched and he showed the client that the agreed-upon sample the finisher had produced, in turn, matched the installed panels when viewed together in the shop lighting. However, they did not match when viewed in the office lighting.

Part of the problem was what is called a metameric match, which is a match under one illuminant (light source) but not a match under another, usually caused by the use of different colorants for the different samples. Fluorescent lights are most problematic unless they are of the full spectrum type. Since the finisher had produced the working standard by matching a panel to the client-supplied panel, the products used on the working standard were the same as those on the wall panels. However, since the match of the working standard to the client-supplied color sample was performed in the shop lighting, not in the office lighting, the match of the wall to the client-supplied sample was not satisfactory.

To further complicate the issue, the angle at which the surface is viewed, the incident angle of the light and the sheen of the topcoat will also affect the perception of color. A lower sheen will typically look lighter and the higher sheen will look darker. In this case, the panels in the shop were sprayed in a horizontal position, but they were installed on the wall vertically. The light, therefore, was striking the panels largely at a downward angle from the high, ceiling-mounted fluorescent fixtures.

The finisher could have stood on the fact that the wall panels did indeed match the agreed-upon standard, but to maintain good relations with the client and to protect his own reputation, he agreed to on-site tweaking of the wall panels. Fortunately, he was able to make the adjustment with dye toner and topcoat and, because the building was still unoccupied, was able to spray at the site.

Not all situations can be solved so readily. In an occupied building he might have had to work at night or remove the panels for finishing back at the shop.

A little more care in matching under the lighting used in the office and a better understanding between the client and the finisher could have avoided the extra work and expense.

Greg Williams, formerly senior touchup and finishing instructor for Mohawk Finishing Products, is now a freelance instructor and consultant for finishing and touchup. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.

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