CWB March 1999

A Guide to Mixing Colors

Using the system of Universal Colors, virtually any shade and color can be formulated.

By Mac Simmons

At the beginning of the color world, there are three primary colors -- red, yellow and blue. If you mix any of these colors together, the mixtures are called secondary colors. If primary and secondary colors are mixed together, they are called the tertiary colors, and if tertiary and primary colors are mixed, you have what are known as quaternary colors.

At the primary color level, following are a few examples of color mixing:

  • Red + yellow = orange;
  • Blue + yellow = green;
  • Red + blue = violet.

You can see that by using the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue and mixing them, you can get a total of six colors. From those six, you can mix in a multitude of other colors and get a variety of color shades just by varying the amount of colors you add together.

There are certain "rules" you can use to obtain certain results. For example, red is added to kill green; green is added to kill red and white makes colors lighter, changes their hues or makes up other color tints. Black will darken and dull out some colors, while yellow will mellow or soften some colors.

But let's cut to the chase. Most custom woodworkers want to learn about mixing and matching colors in order to finish wood, color repairs and restore and refinish furniture. Learning the theory of colors by starting out with red, yellow and blue is certainly not the easiest method to mix or match colors for furniture, as there just aren't many pieces finished in those colors (decorator and children's furniture aside).

There is another way to mix and match colors for furniture using the "Universal Colors" method that is much easier and faster to learn than going through all of those color types. It is basically the same method that is used by finishing products manufacturers for mixing and matching their own colors. It is also the same method used by professional color formulators to achieve their color lines.

In fact, if you ever bought a quart or gallon of mixed paint and watched how the salesperson mixed colors by using a standard formula, you have observed the Universal Colors method in action. The paint color machines that dispense the different colorants use that system to mix and match colors.

The Universal Colors are all standard colors and are used in many trades, including the furniture industry. The major furniture manufacturers use the same standard colors for making up all their pigmented colored products (the colors may be standard, but the color strength can vary from one manufacturer to another). In the furniture industries, they are used for making up all the pigmented stains, glazes, tinting toners, shading stains and colored lacquers for colored furniture.


This panel shows a sample of the Universal Colors: #1, Burnt Umber; #2, Van Dyke Brown; #3, Raw Umber; #4, Burnt Sienna; #5, Raw Sienna; #6, French Yellow Ochre; #7, reds; #8, blues; #9, yellows; #10, oranges; #11, greens; #12, whites, and #13, blacks.

The Universal Color palette consists of 13 colors. Number 1, Burnt Umber, is a brown/red color. Number 2, Van Dyke Brown, is a darker brown/red color. Number 3 is Raw Umber, a grayish green/brown color. Burnt Sienna, a red orange/brown color, is number 4. Number 5 is Raw Sienna, a dark yellow/brown color, and Number 6 is French Yellow Ochre, a light yellow/brown color.

There are a few different colors of reds, Number 7; blues, Number 8; yellows, Number 9; oranges, Number 10; greens, Number 11; whites, Number 12 and blacks, Number 13. All the Universal Colors are compatible and intermixable. You can lighten or darken them and achieve almost any color.

The "Theory of Colors" involving the three primary colors and on through the quaternary colors can be applied using Universal Colors. But if you use the Universal Colors, you will not need to do so much mixing, as most of these colors are already manufactured in universal colors and are ready for use.

A custom woodworker can learn to mix Universal Colors by experimentation and practice. To get started, I recommend purchasing a small can of each of the Universal Colorants and applying the color on the tops or the caps so you see the color. Allow it to dry and then clear coat the color, so you can see the true color when you coat over it. This will help you learn both what the colors look like and also the names of each color.

Then, purchase some color charts of stains and colored lacquers and see which colorants match or come close to the samples. Take some sample pieces of wood and try to duplicate the colors you selected. In many cases, more than one color will be needed to achieve the color you want.

  • Let's look at some examples to see how to use Universal Colors to make up furniture colors for stains or other colored finishing materials. Following is a list of some common furniture colors that come from the Universal Colors. As you work with them, you will see why these colors are the easiest way to learn to mix and match colors schemes for wood products.
  • Walnut colors are made using the two browns of Burnt Umber and Van Dyke Brown. Adding a little black will give you a darker walnut, while Van Dyke Brown can also be used for making up a brown mahogany. To lighten these colors, start with some Raw Sienna or go even lighter by using French Yellow Ochre. Adding additional browns will give you the right shade of color.
  • Red mahogany colors start with a red color and then become darker with additional black coloring. Thinning out the color with a reducer will also give you many other shades, while different colors of Universal Color reds will also give you different colors of red mahogany.
  • Brown mahogany colors begin with a red color, and by adding some Burnt Umber to darken and some Van Dyke Brown, you can obtain a nice color finish.
  • Cherry-colored finishes start out with Burnt Sienna, but Van Dyke Brown is added to darken the color. Raw Sienna will lighten the tone if the color is too dark.
  • Dark pine colors begin with Burnt Umber and have black added to give them their color, while light pine starts with the French Yellow Ochre and needs Burnt Umber to darken the color.
  • For the maples, brown maple starts with Raw Sienna and adds Burnt Umber to get its finish. Red maple starts with Burnt Sienna and adds Burnt Umber to darken its color.
  • Perfect brown colors start with Burnt Umber, then add a little green to the mixture. This will kill the red in the Burnt Umber and give the finish a nice, brown tone. (Remember that red kills green, green kills red and the yellows are used to mellow out colors.)
  • Antique white colors start out with white, but add a little Raw Umber to get the right shade. This will dull the color and make the paint look "older." Provincial white colors start out with white as well, but need a little French Yellow Ochre to achieve the right look.
  • Almond and beige colors also use white as a base. Add a little Burnt Umber if you want to head towards the brown side or add some French Yellow Ochre to go towards the yellow end.

"Kicker colors" are added to give a color a slight hue, making it sometimes difficult to duplicate the manufacturer's colors. In most cases, the kicker color will be one of the primary colors, or green, orange, black or white. Generally, just a small amount of colorant is used. In some cases, the kicker color may be an important component in order to match a color exactly; in other cases, it may not be that noticeable. But as always, make finish samples before you start a job so you can see the end results with the clear coatings applied.

Remember, all the Universal Colors are intermixable. Always start light and then add a little color to darken or change the hue. It is always easier to darken a color than to lighten it. Also, always use just small amounts of color, as these colors are very strong and adding too much can ruin the colors you already have mixed. Finally, always record the formula of the colors you mix, and save the samples and the formulas for future reference. This will be the easiest way to duplicate the tone in the future.

When it comes to quantities, the amount of color needed in finishing products will vary, depending on both the color you want to achieve and the strength of the colorants used. Following is a general guideline for amounts required in various finishes, but remember that these are only a guide.

To make a stain, the amount of colorant used in each quart will vary from 2 ounces to 5 ounces or more in some colors. These colorants can be added to most petroleum distillates, like naphtha, mineral spirits and toluol. You also can add a small amount of lacquer thinners to these distillates or use a combination of solvents when making up a stain.

Try experimenting to find what works best for the type of work you will be doing. And remember that thinning out the colors with the solvent will give you many other shades of color. If you start with a dark color, by adding some solvent you will have a medium color; by adding more solvent, you will have a lighter color stain. Most manufacturers do this -- in this way they can increases their color lines by using the same colors and just reducing the color strength through the addition of more solvent to the colorants.

To make up a colored lacquer, start off with a quart of white gloss lacquer, then add 3 ounces to 5 ounces of Universal Colorants. If the color you want to make has no white in it, then mix the colorants into a water clear lacquer. Be sure to mix the colorants and the lacquer thoroughly, then strain the lacquer to trap any particles of dirt or solidified resin.

To make up a tinting toner stain, reduce the quart of the colored lacquer in half using the proper thinners for the coating you are using. Mix it well and strain it. The tinting toner can be used to blend in different species of wood or to give woods a different colored background. By adding other colors to woods and then following with a stain, glaze or shading lacquer, you can obtain a variety of colors and finishes.

A shading stain is a coating with small amounts of colorant added -- as you spray on your coatings, you are also adding a little color to the work. Since Universal Colorants are tiny particles of color, they are translucent in the coatings. So you do not want to add too much colorant when making up a shading stain. Start with 1 ounce to 2 ounces of color to a quart of clear lacquer. Test the color on some sample woods -- you should not see any lines or trails in the coating. The color should be very light, so you may need to apply several coats to achieve the desired color. If the ends of the coating show lines or trails, thin out the shading stain with thinners and try again.

There is a lot to learn in mixing colors and there are a lot of variables in trying to achieve a certain color. That's why it is always important to test colors on wood samples and always keep the formula recorded in case they need to be duplicated or adjusted.


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