Are you the type who has to have a very precise color match, like I am? Sometimes I can even get pretty obsessive about it. In our day of Pantone color matching, working with organic products like wood can be a bit frustrating. Like most of life’s disappointments, though, we can be proactive by informing and adjusting our expectations. We need to realize that lumber isn’t plastic, so color-matching lumber is about as far from Pantone as a tree’s leaves differ from a pile of paper-punched leaf shapes. Just as leaves each have unique textures and their own distinctive shape and color, lumber has an inimitable natural beauty that surpasses any artificial attempts.
Of course, there is color variation among species, but there is also plenty of variety within each species. In addition, all wood will change color dramatically as it journeys from sawmill to installation and will continue to transform throughout its lifetime. Once it is first sawn, wood will fade in the sunlight just like many other materials; however, many species also undergo chemical changes that impact their appearance. Because of the nature of color change, matching lumber for a new project to an existing structure can be quite complicated and take an extended amount of time ranging from months to many years.
Basically, any wood exposed to the elements will weather over time, causing its color to fade into a silvery gray. The only way to eliminate the gray is to cut, sand, or plane the wood to remove the outer layer. Sometimes, lumber customers desire to find wood that will end up matching an old deck or pergola that has already gone gray. Some species undergo transformation more quickly than others, and tropical hardwoods often contain high amounts of oil, preventing immediate color change. Basically, the sun bleaches the surface and dries out the outer layer, but when wood contains oil or resin, the process is delayed. That fact is exactly why adding oil to the surface of wood is encouraged as part of regular maintenance: It helps prevent the bleaching process; without any intervention, high-quality lumber will remain strong, but it will still turn gray.
The “secret,” if you could call it that, is to wait. In time, nature will help your new lumber to fade, eventually catching up with older projects. Depending on the species you choose and the amount of sunlight it receives, the amount of time needed will vary. Eventually, though, you can be assured that it will happen. Some homeowners like to use bleaching oils to speed up the process, but many agree that the artificial bleaching that occurs is inferior to nature’s own time-honored results. Part of the reason we simply can’t mimic natural color change is that weathered wood has been changed through a combination of UV light and longer wavelength light, along with heat, wind, and water.
So here’s the bottom line: If you really want authentically color-matched lumber, you’ll have to wait and let nature do the work for you!