The 10 Best Paint Colors to Update Wood (medium to dark stains)
While a lot of the chatter on this blog post is about the best wall colors for wood trim, doors, and cabinets, the same colors work if you have dark wood floors – there’s a little inspiration for everyone!
With a focus on updating the oaks and maples of the ’90s, it’s easy to bypass the slightly (or more) darker wood trims and doors of the ’70s and ’80s. Oh, those were the days…shag carpets, avocado-colored fridges, and macramé plant hangers. Wait, isn’t some of this back in style again?
However, there are also GORGEOUS medium and dark wood trims found on older homes – hopefully, these never go out of style.
Now, you might be in a rush to see the paint colors – I get it. However…
This is a ‘learn how to‘ blog, not a ‘Kylie tells you what to do, and you mindlessly do it‘ blog, even though that can be fun, too.
This means I want to teach you the WHAT and the WHY because it will help you make smarter, more informed choices when finding your home’s best color.
So, let’s talk wood.
HOW DO YOU MAKE DARK WOOD (TRIM or CABINETS) LOOK MODERN?
While painting your dark wood finish seems like the obvious solution, many of these darker woods are WAY too stinkin’ gorgeous to cover with PAINT! This means it’s about updating the space around them, to update them with modern surroundings that work with your wood but take things up a notch.
And while this blog post is geared towards the best COLORS (shortly), there are a few other ways to modernize your dark wood…
- Update any surrounding hardware, whether it’s on cabinets, doors, or light fixtures. The right finish all depends on the style of your home. Older homes often suit a golden or antique brass (super trendy right now, if you choose the right STYLE), whereas slightly more modern homes lean into polished nickel. Black can work on surrounding metal finishes, such as light fixtures, but disappear on dark wood cabinets and doors. Luckily, black is pretty universal, and if you do some black light fixtures, they’ll coordinate with your chosen cabinet/door hardware if you choose similar styling.
- Change your light fixtures. This isn’t just about the metal finish but the STYLE of your light fixtures. Edison bulbs are out of style, and dark wood finishes often benefit from light fixtures with white glass shades, as the white helps to reflect more light and brighten a dark space.
- If you have dark wood cabinets, update your backsplash with a subway tile!
- Notice the photos in this blog post – pay attention to what you think makes them beautiful, updated, and well-coordinated. Pick up these cues and apply them to your own home!
While I love the bones of this eating area, here are a few ideas that would update it and better accentuate the existing wood finishes…
- Upholstered chairs rather than wood chairs. Too much wood isn’t always a good thing – it’s good to add some soft surfaces for acoustics and visual balance.
- A new light fixture in a slightly more modern style. I’d also lower the light by at least 18″.
- Consider a round area rug for acoustics and to break up the wood-on-wood-on-wood look.
You’ll see my TOP COLOR PICKS shortly – keep on reading & learning!
MEDIUM TO DARK WOOD TRIM
While dark wood trims in older homes can be impressive in thickness and quality, wood trims from the 70s and 80s are known for being narrow. So…
If you think it’s the COLOR of your trim that’s the problem, think again…
- With its two-inch width, the SIZE of your trim is the 1970s, not the stain color. In other words, don’t curse the color; curse the size. Once you get three+ inches, things start looking better (that’s what she said).
- If you’re reading this blog post, I’m assuming that painting your trim is out of the question for financial, labor-intensive, and marital reasons (oh, those hubbies looove their wood…)
- While painting your dark wood trim from the ’70s would help modernize your home, keep in mind it will STILL be narrower than the modern style of white trim work. You’ll only get the full benefit when the trim is wide (in which case, you might be less inclined to paint it as it’s so darn pretty!)
The above two photos are great examples of wider trim than the ’70s and ’80s versions.
So, while there isn’t much we can do about the size of your wood (wink wink), there’s A LOT we can do with what’s around it (I’d say we could enhance your wood, but that might be crossing a line…which I do LOVE to do.)
Wood doors are either wrapped with wood trim in the same stain or white trim. Either way, if you don’t plan on painting them, I have colors for you to explore. Just consider that when white trim separates your wood door from the walls, you can often explore a bit more color – you don’t HAVE to. Still, in my experience, my Online Color Consulting clients are usually a bit more flexible when they have white trim surrounding their doors.
On the other hand, with wood trims AND wood doors, the inclination is often to downplay and mute things a bit. In the end, it’s up to you how you approach it, but if you want more colorful options, finish this blog post, then go to my SEARCH and type in the types of colors you love (like green, blue, taupe) and see which blog posts pop up!
DARK WOOD CABINETS
In my Online Paint Color Consulting work, when my clients have medium or dark-toned wood cabinets, more often than not, they want to lighten and brighten their kitchen, and I’ve got some GREAT options to do that!
However, remember that while you’re focusing your attention on the cabinets, your backsplash is the REAL shot caller in the kitchen.
Because it’s on the same vertical sight line as your cabinets, your backsplash ‘usually’ matters the most. I mean, sure, your walls are vertical, too, but your paint color is more changeable than your backsplash. So, when choosing your wall color, nod towards your cabinets, but pay closer attention to how these colors coordinate with your more permanent hard finishes.
Here’s the ‘usual’ hierarchy (there are exceptions based on the kitchen’s layout/amount of each product/etc.)…
- FLOORING & CABINETS OFTEN CARRY EQUAL WEIGHT
And yes, if you don’t have a backsplash, the next one in line is the countertop.
Now, if you’re inclined towards a bit more color on your walls, that can be gorgeous, too. While you won’t find overly colorful shades below, I have over 500 blog posts full of the best blue greens, violets, and more (type your fave color into the SEARCH and see what you get!)
MEDIUM TO DARK WOOD FLOOR
If you have a darker wood floor, you might be looking to lighten and brighten your space. Just remember that while your wood floor and its undertones matter, finishes that are VERTICAL can play a bigger part in your color palette. Don’t forget to nod toward your stone or brick fireplace, other permanent hard finishes, and soft furnishings when choosing your paint color.
WOOD STAINS, COLORS, & UNDERTONES
When choosing a stain for wood finishes, we often choose a ‘stain color’ without considering the ACTUAL color we’re creating. Colors like English Chestnut, Weathered Oak, and Early American don’t really MEAN anything in the color world. Besides, how they look will change depending on the species of wood they’re applied to.
So, whether you’re staining new wood or learning to coordinate with an existing wood surface…
Stop thinking of your trim as a ‘wood/stain’ and start thinking of it as a COLOR!
To help see the color of your wood, blur your eyes to block out the grain. It’s easier to see the COLOR of your wood when you take out the details, and you can then decorate accordingly around that.
Let’s look at a few examples…
This next trim is an orange-red colored wood with a lot of brown in it, so it’s a brown-orange-red. So, when I’m picking paint colors, I might not look at colors with a lot of yellow-cream in them, as the wood is more inclined to orange (beige) undertones or maybe even some taupe (violet-pink). On the other hand, green is a beautiful CONTRAST to this wood color if I want to highlight it.
If your wood trim is in this range, seeing as it’s a bit lighter, check out THIS BLOG POST once you’ve finished this one (I’ll include another link at the end for you).
This next wood is a bit deeper, richer, and has more red compared to the degree of orange in the last one…
Mahogany is a wood species with a red undertone. It’s commonly found on trims, doors, and furniture. It’s not always as strong as the red-stained wood above, but it’s usually noticeable.
What paint colors go with red-orange woods?
There are so many; where do I START? Some of these woods love a subtle taupe, with its gentle violet-pink undertone. Others look great with a muted, modern, off-white beige. However, there’s a lot to be said for contrast with the right greige (green undertone) or an interesting blue-green blend!
You’ll see my TOP COLOR PICKS listed shortly!
DARK RED-VIOLET WOOD (CHERRY)
Red hues are red-orange or red-violet. This next wood trim and door are definitely red-violet with not a drop of orange to be found!
While cherry wood finishes are the most common red-hued woods, red oaks also have red-pink undertones, as can any wood if a reddish stain is applied!
What best suits this red-violet wood stain?
Colors with violet-pink, such as taupe, can look stunning, as can warm grays (you’ll be seeing some shortly!). However, if you want to accent this type of wood, you might hit up a darker shade of blue or a subtle green. Even dark green can be stunning.
The stronger the red stain is, the less it will love a yellow hue or strong cream, especially those that lean into green.
Here’s another wicked, pretty red-purple…
This wicked shade of navy is PERFECT with the red-violet hues in this room (and with the floor)
DARK BROWN WOOD
Some wood stains just look more or less DARK BROWN. Sure, there’s a smidge of orange-red in the one shown below, but the overall impression is BROWN, especially compared to the previous wood color.
This wood was trendy in ’70s and ’80s homes on trims, doors, AND cabinets. Some people refer to it as ‘walnut,’ which it can look like. Some walnuts look brown, whereas others pick up a touch of red or even a bit of yellow.
What paint colors suit brown-toned wood?
That’s a loaded question. While a really BROWN looking wood can handle almost any color – gray, greige, taupe, cream, beige, etc… if any undertone pops through, it could be a bit fussy. This is why the colors listed below are a great place to start.
DARK, ESPRESSO COLORED WOOD
This finish was popular on cabinets, in particular, in the late 90s and early 2000s and is known for its DRASTIC depth. More often than not, this wood color has a violet undertone, although some species flash a touch of red and, more rarely, yellow.
In this next kitchen, the dark wood floors and cabinets have a violet undertone, and I might see a tiny wink of red in that floor, too…
What colors go with dark, espresso wood finishes?
Most espresso or super dark wood stains love grays with violet undertones (which you’ll see shortly), as well as varying shades of taupe. Of course, this is assuming they have a bit of violet in them themselves. However, some dark woods suit muted, warm off-whites (of which I have some listed below), as well as greiges tones.
Just LOOK at the purple undertone in this wood floor!
Dark woods with more noticeable violet hues can be fussy with creams with too much yellow in them, as well as some of the more muddy greige tones.
I have a blog post that goes into more detail on LIGHTER wood trims and cabinets, their colors, and their specific paint color needs (I’ve included a link at the end of this post). As for this one, I don’t get into as much detail on wood COLOR; this is just to get you started in the right direction with POPULAR, neutral paint colors that are liveable, suitable for resale, and great for updating your home.
These colors won’t suit EVERY dark wood finish, but they’re the PERFECT place to start your color journey!
1. BENJAMIN MOORE BALLET WHITE OC-9
Ballet White is a soft, warm, subtle way to complement your dark wood trim or cabinets, as well as more mid-toned woods. While Ballet White has a cream base, it nods lightly at tan and greige, meaning the traditional yellow hue found in most creams is GREATLY reduced.
Ballet White suits a variety of wood stains and colors but isn’t as great for wood stains with a LOT of red or violet in them.
Here’s Ballet White again (below) in a relatively low-light living room with a beautiful brick fireplace…
The trim in this room is a bit more ‘standard brown’ compared to the slightly stronger red-orange hues in the above kitchen, and you can see how soft and subtle Ballet White sits with it.
BTW, I rely 99.9% on photos from my E-Design clients, so you’re seeing REAL homes with REALISTIC budgets.
SIMILAR SHADES OF HYBRID CREAM TO EXPLORE
One of the most IMPORTANT parts of choosing the best paint colors is to COMPARE them to other similar colors…
- Benjamin Moore Navajo White, which has a bit more creamy warmth to it
- Sherwin Williams Shoji White, which is very similar to Ballet White but a bit lighter and less warm
- Benjamin Moore White Sand has a similar look with a bit more body. Just be cautious of it with woods with a STRONG red hue
- Sherwin Williams Creamy is more cream, but has a super light, subtle look
2. SHERWIN WILLIAMS BALANCED BEIGE 7037
If you want a slightly cozier but still modern-looking beige for your room, Balanced Beige is one of my favorite light-medium shades. It’s popular because rather than having a typical beige-golden look, it leans slightly into gray. It’s similar to Accessible Beige, which is like a lighter version of Balanced Beige and another personal fave.
Neither color caters to an overt undertone, which means a minimal commitment to green, yellow, orange, or pink (which are common with this type of neutral). Of the undertones, a vague green comes up the odd time, but it’s situational.
As shown below, Pavilion Beige is similar to Balanced Beige but has a touch less gray in it…
Notice how red the ceiling beams and trim are – they LOVE the wee wink of pink undertone tucked in Pavillion Beige! Don’t let the ‘p’ word scare you; it’s really a beige with an orange undertone. I’m just being my usual particular self and like to point out the SUPER subtle bits here and there.
SIMILAR SHADES OF BEIGE TO EXPLORE…
Because one color doesn’t fit ALL homes, it’s good to do some comparisons…
- Sherwin Williams Accessible Beige has similar intentions but a lighter approach.
- Sherwin Williams Loggia is QUITE similar, just a tiny shift in undertones – watch that it doesn’t look murky green against some woods.
- Benjamin Moore Stone Hearth is a beige-gray with a bit of a gray backdrop to calm it down.
- Sherwin Williams Tony Taupe is a fun guy and has a bit more depth to play with.
3. BENJAMIN MOORE REVERE PEWTER HC-172
When it comes to POPULAR neutral paint colors, it’s hard to beat Revere Pewter. So it’s no surprise that it not only looks great with white trim but with wood trim as well!
However, being a warm, muddy shade of gray, Revere Pewter appreciates a room with at least moderate light. You might not notice its green undertone and depth as much as you would against white trim, but it can still be pretty and organic with a WIDE range of wood stains. Be sure to read its full color review (link below) before biting the bullet – as with any color.
OTHER WARM GRAYS TO EXPLORE
- Sherwin Williams Colonnade Gray is a touch grayer with a bit less green undertone.
- Benjamin Moore Rodeo is like a lighter version of Revere Pewter with similar intentions.
- Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray is a more noticeable shift, but it can be hit-and-miss.
- Sherwin Williams Amazing Gray is kind of like a darker, slightly greener take on Revere Pewter.
4. BENJAMIN MOORE GRAYSTONE 1475
For those who want a darker shade, it’s easy to see how STUNNING Graystone looks with the warmth of the wood doors (orange-red). Graystone’s slightly warm gray/greige approach adds some balance to the warmth of the wood without making the room look cold and uninviting. Its green undertone is a contrast/complement to the wood doors. However, it’s the warm white trim that really sets it off…
COLORS THAT ARE SIMILAR TO GRAYSTONE FOR COMPARISON
- I have some beautiful darker shades of greige in this blog post, as well as this one.
- Sherwin Williams Dorian Gray can be stunning, especially with darker woods. It’s lighter than Graystone.
- If you want a bit more depth, gray, and drama, Dovetail is a great choice.
5. SHERWIN WILLIAMS WHITE DUCK 7010
As you can see in the above kitchen, while the travertine tile backsplash would love a BIT more of a beige tone, White Duck offers a muted, subtle warmth that helps to balance the weight of the dark wood cabinets. By the way, these cabinets have a violet undertone. If White Duck had any more yellow/cream, it wouldn’t work with the cabinets. As is, it’s a happy medium between the violet in the cabinets and the more beige preferences of the backsplash, countertop, and tile floor.
When using light and bright paint colors like creams and off-whites with dark wood finishes, make sure your home décor can visually support a high-contrast look. Without getting into too much detail, you need other high-contrast items in your room that mimic the contrasting combo of your trim/walls.
COMPARING A FEW OTHER SHADES TO WHITE DUCK
- Sherwin Williams Shoji White is White Duck’s kissin’ cousin
- Sherwin Williams Aesthetic White shifts out of yellow-cream and introduces a bit of beige (mad love)
- Benjamin Moore Ballet White, as mentioned previously
- Sherwin Williams White Heron takes a slight departure with a brighter approach
Before we look at more colors…
TIPS & TRICKS: PAINT COLORS WITH DARK WOOD TRIM, CABINETS, & FLOORS
- The lighter the paint color is, the more high contrast your palette will be. As your color darkens, the contrast lowers. High-contrast combos can make a space look smaller, especially if you have a lot of doorways and windows. However, sometimes, we have to find that happy medium between that and brightening our homes when dealing with dark wood finishes!
- When sampling paint colors, include white paper alongside your samples. It can be hard to get a read on the depth/undertones in a paint color on a small scale without something white to compare it to. I ALWAYS recommend using Samplize peel-and-stick paint color samples, as they’re more affordable and effective than paint sample pots.
- I’m a HUGE fan of dark colors, even with dark woods! If you paint your room a darker color and have dark wood, you’ll need adequate lighting to bring things to life. Lighten and brighten your space via accents and decor so there’s contrast, reflective value, and visual interest. If you ignore these topics, things may fall flat and heavy.
6. BENJAMIN MOORE COLLINGWOOD OC-28
Collingwood is one of my FAAAAVE warm gray paint colors with its soft, subtle violet undertone. This particular undertone can be a beautiful complement to many dark wood finishes, especially those with red or violet hues, but it can also complement some orange and yellow undertones.
And while there’s NO shortage of popular grays to choose from, when it comes to DARK wood trim, I usually prefer light grays that lean into a violet undertone, more so than blue (learn all about gray undertones HERE).
Unfortunately, I don’t remember what color the walls are in this next beautiful home. Also, the kelvins of the bulbs will skew how it looks, but I would GUESS that this is the general vibe of a warm gray like Benjamin Moore Classic Gray, which is lighter and a bit warmer than Collingwood but can also harbor violet (violet-pink) undertones…
OTHER WARM GRAYS WITH VIOLET UNDERTONES
- Benjamin Moore Balboa Mist is similar to Collingwood but lighter.
- Sherwin Williams Alpaca and Popular Gray are worth checking out as they have slightly stronger undertones.
- Here’s a blog post with the best warm grays with violet undertones.
By the way, if you’re looking for the best WHITE paint colors to go with your dark wood, I have a blog post DEDICATED to this topic. I’ve included a link at the end of this blog post for you.
SAMPLIZE offers peel-and-stick paint color samples – simple, easy, affordable, AND arriving on your doorstep in 1 DAY!
Visit the SAMPLIZE website HERE
7. BENJAMIN MOORE EDGECOMB GRAY
Oooooo, I LOVE me some Edgecomb Gray with wood! Edgecomb Gray is just a fabulous paint color as it’s like a bridge between the warm and cool worlds. Also, with its VERY non-committal undertones, it’s happy with a wide range of wood colors, species, and finishes.
Look at how STUNNING Edgecomb Gray looks with the dark wood (oak) floor in this living room…
OTHER FLEXIBLE COLORS TO CONSIDER
I would love to tell you that Sherwin Williams has a similar or at least comparable shade, but Edgecomb Gray really is a creature unto itself. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t colors with similar intentions and versatility.
- Sherwin Williams Modern Gray is a lovely take on a warm gray taupe. It’s different from Edgecomb Gray but still somewhat flexible. It’s really as close as Sherwin William’s has.
- Benjamin Moore Winds Breath is kiiiiind of like a lighter shade of Edgecomb Gray (but NOT literally, there are shifts).
- Sherwin Williams Egret White is a personal fave, right up there with Edgecomb Gray, for its versatility and pretty softness.
- Sherwin Williams Mortar (a newer shade) is sure to be a fave with great flexibility – it’s a good shade lighter than Edgecomb Gray.
- Sherwin Williams Whirlwind, another newer shade in the Emerald Designer Edition, is worth exploring, with a bit more gray-taupe than Edgecomb Gray and some great potential.
REMEMBER, the depth of an off-white or light color would be more noticeable with clean white trim. Dark trim tends to make light colors look LIGHTER than white trim – get some white paper alongside your samples to see their depth.
8. SHERWIN WILLIAMS AESTHETIC WHITE
With trends leaning warmer and warmer, Aesthetic White is bound to be a popular shade. While old school beiges are more golden and rich, Aesthetic White has a gray backdrop calming it down. This atypical approach to beige is a great way to add passive warmth to your room without hitting the Tuscan end of things.
While a more modern approach is to paint the upper and lower walls the same color when you have a chair rail, the style of this room and the tone of the wood suit this two-color palette MUCH more than one single color would.
Thank you for sending your photos; you make my colorful little world go round!
9. SHERWIN WILLIAMS SEA SALT 6204
COLORS THAT ARE SIMILAR TO SEA SALT
10. BENJAMIN MOORE COVENTRY GRAY HC-169
While many lean into lighter grays with dark wood trim, choosing a gray with a bit more meat on its bones can be a stunning complement to warm wood tones.
Coventry Gray is a soft, stormy gray with VERY passive blue (slightly blue-green) undertones. As shown in this photo below, it offers a nice balance to the warmth of wood tones…
The headboard is a great example of a relatively BROWN wood.
OTHER SLIGHTLY DARKER SHADES OF GRAY TO EXPLORE
- Benjamin Moore Stonington Gray (for a lighter approach)
- Sherwin Williams Silverplate
- Sherwin Williams Tinsmith
A FEW MORE POINTS TO PONDER
- Generally speaking, the more ‘color’ you add, the less modern your room may look. Now, this isn’t a bad thing, as it can also look more vintage and have more personality than a neutral color; however, if updating is your goal, NEUTRAL is usually best.
- The more color you add, the more you may complement your dark wood, meaning your wood could stand out and ‘pop’ more. Read more about that here: The Best Paint Colors to Coordinate with Wood.
I hope I’ve helped to enhance your wood (a girl can dream!) and lower your stress level!
Check out my affordable Online Color Consulting Services!
Originally written in 2018, awesomely overhauled in 2023