Defining the color characteristics of wood finishes
By Robert Cox Jr.
April 13, 2020 | 10:41 am CDT

The following terms define the overall color and aesthetic appeal of the wood finish:

Hue defines the characteristic of the color i.e. red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. There is no such thing as a pure white or black color.  Whites will tend to be on the yellow, blue, or red side of the hue.  Blacks are a blue black, (jet-black), or a red black (not jet-black).

Lightness describes the light reflection of the color.  White is highly reflective of light (bright) and black is non-reflective. 

Chroma is the intensity of the color coming from the purity of the color and freedom from being either a white or gray color. For instance, a white color saturated with a red pigment addition shows a pinkish color tone.

The following terms define color descriptions:

Transparency describes a very light, see-through finish with a tone (hue) either on the “warm’ or “cool” side.  Transparent colors accentuate the true beauty of the wood. They are highly reflective.

Semi-Transparent colors give clarity and depth to the wood.  They cover more of the wood to give more opacity to the wooden substrate.  While the finish is still considered light, the color development is more defined, the wood substrate accented a little less.

Semi-Opaque colors are usually made with more heavily pigmented products often with a white color base., and are formulated to partially hide the wood. These colors have a driftwood type look, such as off-white with a red, blue, green, yellow, or combination tint.  The pigmented stains are aggressively wiped off after applications to give definition to the wood grain.

Opaque is at the end of the color scale.  The color is fully painted on the wood or only a “touch of wood grain is showing.”  Opaque finishes are sprayed in multiple finishing steps.  Examples of an opaque finish are white painted cabinets, or a black or red accent piece.

Source: Robert Cox Jr. is the former president and CEO of The Gilbert Spruance Co. and Spruance Southern Inc. with 40-plus years of industry experience. He lives in Oreland, PA; e-mail:

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