I had been under the impression that wood was always going to fade in sunlight. I've seen plenty of examples of this from regular SPF framing lumber to unfinished siding going gray. Even freshly split firewood will lose color seemingly within minutes.

But I just came across a counterexample - in this screenshot the darker / more purple wood is older, the lighter sections are freshly carved:

enter image description here

(Source: https://youtu.be/ES80TIAjJog?t=1232 - boatbuilder Leo Goolden)

That particular wood was described I think as purpleheart. Not only are the older sections darker but to my eye they also appear to have more intense color. Quite unexpected!

Is this just a rare anomaly / exception or maybe is my impression just tainted by the narrow range of domestic wood I've been exposed to?

More technically, is there some specific category of tree species that describes the lightening vs. darkening phenomenon? Or another standard way of categorizing this effect?

  • 2
    Not a duplicate but related here, woodworking.stackexchange.com/questions/2747/… I knew there was something on this in a past Q&A but I didn't expect it to be from so long ago! You can broadly subdivide the expected changes into three categories — light woods (darker), dark woods (lighter), strongly-coloured woods (duller) although obviously there's more detail to it than that, and some crossover. Also bear in mind that exterior exposure adds in the effects of water, and that will tend to dull (and eventually grey) all woods.
    – Graphus
    Nov 5, 2019 at 8:13

1 Answer 1


There are a few ways that wood ages when exposed to the elements and light. How the wood looks as it ages is dependent on a number of factors: type of elements, amount and type of light, where the wood is harvested from (i.e., closer to the bark or heartwood), how it is finished, etc. All of these and more will affect the look of the material over time.

And, of course, the type of wood species can be a large factor. Obviously, since not all woods look and behave the same when growing, cut, and machined, similarly not all wood looks the same as it ages.

In most cases, the sort of aging that affects colour is oxidization, and in many cases the typical result is lightening or greying. But some species have a chemical composition that result in more obvious colour changes as it reacts with the environment. In general, UV light accelerates oxidation by interacting with the chemical bonds that hold molecules together. UV light also interacts with aromatics in material. As the material breaks down and reacts with oxygen (and the oxides further interact and degrade) the bonds between the molecules that absorb and reflect spectra break and reform into different molecules. The light that reflects from these new molecules results in what humans perceive as colour.

Some varieties of cedars turn almost silver over time. Poplar or American whitewood turns greenish. As you point out, purpleheart ages to a spectacular purple. (As an aside, the colour blue in nature is very interesting -- often what we perceive as blue isn't a result of pigments, but white light interacting with the physical world such that we are seeing a partial spectrum of light. Moreover, blue pigments tend to be a bit unstable and fade quickly.)

As you point out, in general most wood just loses colour. But if you look carefully, even mundane wood from different species and different parts of the plant is different enough. A stand of dead pines look totally different than a stand of flooded oaks or elms. And standing timber, once made into lumber or shakes, age in their own unique way even though we'd probably describe the colour as "grey".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.