Skip to Content

What is the undertone of walnut?


Walnut is a popular wood tone used in furniture, flooring, and décor. The undertone of walnut refers to the subtle hints of color that come through beneath the predominant brown hue. Determining the undertone can help coordinate walnut pieces with other woods and fabrics in a space. So what exactly is the undertone of walnut? Read on as we dive into this important detail.

What are Undertones?

In color theory, undertone refers to the subtle shades that underly the primary color. For woods like walnut, the main color we see is brown. But if you look closely, other tints peek through that brown color. These are the undertones. They are most visible where the wood is lightest – along the edges and seams.

Undertones lend complexity and visual interest to the main color. For walnut, they provide warmth and dimension to balance out the cooler tones of the brown. Identifying undertones helps match colors and patterns. It also ensures all the woods in a room complement rather than clash.

Key Factors in Walnut’s Undertone

Several variables affect the exact undertone of any walnut piece. Here are some main factors:

Species – There are over 30 species of walnut tree. But when it comes to furniture and flooring, most is either American/Black walnut or English/European walnut. American walnut tends to be slightly redder, while English walnut leans more towards gray.

Origin – Where the tree grew also impacts color. The climate, soil conditions, and growing season can impart subtle regional differences in undertone.

Processing – How the wood is cut and finished makes a difference. The texture of the cut and types of sealers applied influence how warm or cool the undertone appears.

Age – Older wood oxidizes over time, shifting the undertone. New walnut tends to look more reddish brown. As it ages, it takes on a deeper, richer patina.

The Undertones of Walnut Wood

So what are the most common undertones seen in walnut wood species? Here are the main tones that tend to come through:

Warm, red-brown – This is the most prevalent undertone, especially in American Black walnut. The red notes come from natural pigments in the wood. This tone is bold and dramatic against cool paint colors.

Subtle gray – Some walnut, especially English walnut, displays an ashy, slate-like undertone. This cool shade works well in modern, minimalist spaces.

Golden tan – Less common, but some walnut exhibits warmer cocoa and caramel notes. This undertone pairs well with cream, beige, and white.

Purplish tint – Occasionally there is a hint of purple to the undertone. This an be quite striking against neutral backdrops.

The exact proportion of these undertones varies. But some blend tends to be present in walnut, creating natural depth and interest.

How Finish Impacts Walnut’s Undertone

The finishing process used on walnut wood has a big influence on the visibility and intensity of undertones. Different finishes either emphasize or downplay the undertone. Common types have these effects:

Finish Effect on Undertone
Oil Enhances reddish, warmer tones
Wax Subtly brings out undertone
Varnish/Polyurethane Obscures undertone
Stain Allows customization of undertone
Paint/Whitewash Covers undertone

As you can see, the natural oil finish tends to intensify the warmth of the wood. Wax provides a thin, translucent layer to see undertones. Varnish and polyurethane create a plastic-like coating that hides undertones. Custom colored stains can shift the tones as desired. Painting over the wood obviously conceals undertones entirely.

Using Walnut’s Undertone in Design

Now that we know the typical undertone range of walnut, how do we use that to guide design choices? Here are some ways to leverage walnut’s undertone effectively:

Coordinate with other woods – Match lighter woods like maple or cherry that share similar warm, red notes. Contrast with cool woods like birch that have gray undertones.

Guide paint colors – Let the undertone inform wall and accent hues. Red undertones pair well with green, blue, or gray paint. Cool undertones match taupe, greige, or blue-gray.

Select fabrics – Use textile patterns and colors that complement the warmth or coolness of the undertone. Red undertones match well with floral patterns.

Set finishes – Choose any additional finishes like hardware, lighting, tile, or countertops that fit the overall undertone palette. Nickel or pewter play well with cool undertones, while brass picks up on warm undertones.

Consider aging – Remember that over time, the undertone of walnut becomes deeper and richer. Factor that patina effect into long-term design plans.

Taking the undertone into account ensures walnut elements work together in harmony. The result is a cohesive, thoughtful space.

Ideal Room Uses Based on Undertone

Walnut with a predominantly cool undertone has different decorating applications versus wood with warm undertones. Here are some ideal room uses:

Cool undertones

  • Entryways – Creates an elegant first impression
  • Kitchens – Pairs beautifully with marble, granite, or quartz countertops
  • Modern dining rooms – A dramatic backdrop for sleek furnishings
  • Offices – Crisp and professional environment
  • Bathrooms – Cool and soothing ambiance

Warm undertones

  • Living rooms – Inviting, cozy gathering space
  • Bedrooms – Creates a comforting, welcoming atmosphere
  • Traditional dining rooms – Lovely with wood tables and upholstered chairs
  • Libraries – Enhances the rich, scholarly style
  • Studies – Fosters concentration yet with warmth

Whether you desire stark modernism or rustic charm, walnut’s undertone can help set the scene.

How to Determine Your Walnut’s Undertone

If you already have walnut pieces or are selecting some for a project, here are some tips for identifying the dominant undertone:

  • Examine in natural light – The full spectrum of undertones is best seen in bright, unfiltered daylight.
  • Look at cross-sections – The ends of boards and sides of drawers often clearly display the array of tones present.
  • Reference a color wheel – Match up the subtle shades you see with a color wheel to identify the undertone.
  • Observe over time – Track how the wood changes color as it ages. More reddish tones tend to intensify over the years.
  • Speak to your wood supplier – They may know the source and species details to provide clues about prevalent undertones.

With close inspection and observation, you will uncover the undertones that make your walnut wood unique.

In Summary

The array of undertones present in walnut wood provides dimension and visual interest to this classic material. Reddish, brownish, gray, golden, and purplish hints come through distinctly in the light and grain patterns. American walnut leans warm, while English walnut is more ashy. Finish choice also affects the visibility and intensity of undertones. Cool undertones complement modern spaces, while warm undertones feel right at home in traditional settings. With knowledge of its subtleties, walnut can be used strategically to bring cohesion and depth to any interior space.