The Right Way to Use Contrast
Make your furniture stand out by combining different grain, figure, and colors. Just don’t overdo it
Synopsis: Using different woods, grains, and color to add contrast is a great way to make your furniture stand out from the crowd. The trick is to do it effectively, understanding what type of contrast to use and where to use it. Overdo it and the effect will be garish; do it right, and you will take your work to another level. Garrett Hack lays out some rules of thumb for using contrast in your designs, showing examples of pairings that work beautifully as well as some that take the idea a bit too far.
Contrast can add drama to any design. The Egyptians understood this when they embellished their furniture with ivory, ebony, and gold. It’s why craftsmen working in the Biedermeier style highlighted golden birch surfaces with dark details and moldings. Even the Shakers combined bird’s-eye maple drawer fronts with cases made from quieter woods, and used bright contrasting washes of reds, yellows, and blues on some parts.
Figure, grain, and color can all create contrast, but a little goes a long way. The challenge is to understand what type of contrast to use and where to use it. Overdo it and the effect will be garish or gaudy. Keep a few principles in mind, and you’ll take your work to another level.
When introduced to the broad spectrum of beautiful woods, many budding furniture makers overdo it. But broad swaths of highly contrasting wood can shout instead of sing. The first rule is to choose woods that relate well together, such as maple and cherry. The photos on pp. 42–43 show 15 combinations, good and bad.
Unless you are doing marquetry, you should use no more than three or four woods in a piece (secondary woods that don’t show don’t count). With too many contrasting materials,…