We like to create articles on common questions or misconceptions we come across in the antique furniture world. Often times there is confusion about what someone means when the ask about wood color or finish and it seems the words are used interchangeably. The confusion is understandable especially if you haven’t grown up around the industry and with mass production companies using terms for their laminate colors like “mahogany”.
Wood color is really an erroneous term. Most of the time we find people asking what color it is are interested in the name of the stain applied. Some are even wondering what type of wood the piece is (one should not use color to determine wood type). Unfinished wood without any stain or finish applied is usually (depending on the type) an off white or yellowish tan color. There are a few exceptions such as cherry but even these exceptions are called “in the white” when unfinished.
As part of the finishing process stain or dye is used to give the wood its color. What many don’t realize is that different woods can be made almost any color. For example most people expect walnut to be very dark, but it could be stained very light like this piece.
Mahogany is often considered quite red, but can be finished to be brown or even a bleached color.
Technically, the finish on a piece are the layers of protection that come after coloration. Finish is usually clear and includes things like shellac, lacquer, wax, and polyurethane. The type used determines the sheen of the final product and its durability properties. Think of it like the top coat on your car.