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Is there a method for matching an unknown finish on an existing piece of wood?

In my case, I have an old (but nowhere near antique) piece that has had a couple trim pieces fall off. I've managed to re-create the trim pieces, but I'm not sure how to re-create the finish.

The wood is oak. The finish is fairly yellow, similar to what you might find on cheap oak cabinets.

The overall piece is complicated enough that I'd prefer not to strip it all down and re-finish the entire thing. It's also unimportant enough that an exact match is not needed. I'd just like something close.

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    If you want any specific answers I think you'll want to include a lot of photos, both close-up and in context, in as many different types of light (daylight, evening light, artificial, etc.) as you can. – SaSSafraS1232 Feb 1 at 18:39
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    I think the only answer to this is to experiment until you get it right. Try various finishes in various concentrations. The original was probably an oil-based polyurethane, but that doesn't really help you if it's had decades to shift colors. Try oil finishes, try oil-based poly, try dyes first, document everything and keep all your test boards. – SaSSafraS1232 Feb 1 at 18:42
  • "Is there a method for matching an unknown finish on an existing piece of wood?" Just some generic advice, with old pieces in particular the colour is sure to be partly 'in the wood' and partly the finish itself, with or without associated age discolouration. So, broadly speaking, if you get a very close colour match now as the new wood darkens in time the repairs will become too dark. So aim to be a little on the lighter side. – Graphus Feb 1 at 20:14
  • @SaSSafraS1232, just on this, "The original was probably an oil-based polyurethane" OP describes the piece as old, if it's old enough to be vintage or antique it's almost certainly shellacked or nitro lacquered. Shellac can vary in shade even at the lighter end from very light to more amber, and nitrocellulose lacquer although initially a very pale straw colour can darken noticeably over time through yellowish shades to something more ochre-y. This doesn't mean oil-based poly isn't a good choice to use now, it's ideal in many respects, but just wanted to mention this re. historical accuracy. – Graphus Feb 2 at 8:31
  • In this case, old means old enough to not care if it's destroyed. Not old in the sense of antique. I'll clarify. – Elros Feb 4 at 21:08
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I'm assuming here that you need help matching a tinted clear finish of some sort. (This is where a photo or two would have come in handy.)

Many (most?) dedicated paint and finishing stores will be able to pretty closely match almost any finish if you can bring in a piece with the original finish on it.

They use a colour corrected camera to scan the piece, which gives them the tint info they need to mix up a batch. There will be limitations based on the wood, finish type, and application, but they can get a suprisingly close match to most finishes in my experience. If you bring in a piece of your new wood they can often show you right there what it might look like once it cures.

Even if this is not for a tinted, clear finish you could consult with the folks that do this for a living because they say they can match any decades-old finish with reasonable accuracy.

Actually, depending on the finish, they might just have off-the-shelf tints they can show you that are already pretty close. But most of these places can at least attempt to match pretty much any tint in a variety of ways.

  • This won't help with clear finishes surely? – Graphus Feb 1 at 20:12
  • I got a clear finish to match my c. 1920s house trim using this service. But maybe we are using the same words differently? It is a cherry-ish medium dark finish, but I can see the grain through it. When I removed an old-fashioned trimmed mail slot on the inside I kept the trim and it matched for some quick and dirty window trim refinishing and it matched nearly perfect. – jdv Feb 1 at 20:15
  • I know they can get great results with opaque finishes now (really amazingly good) but with the type of finish the OP is referring to the colour of the wood itself AFAIK can't be separated from that of the transparent overlying varnish/shellac/lacquer. So even if they could supply a clear finish, which most don't (again, AFAIK) they wouldn't be able to get a good colour match. – Graphus Feb 1 at 20:20
  • Definitely not opaque finish I'm talking about. I got clear wood finish with a tint matched from some old trim. I agree results will vary with the wood type, finish type, etc. But the fact is, if you want to match any finish you either eyeball it with test pieces, or you can start in the right ballpark with help from the experts. They can mix up close batches and put stripes on similar wood for you to let cure and then compare with the originals. At least, this is what they did for me. – jdv Feb 1 at 20:23
  • I will try that and try to remember how well it goes. Thanks. – Elros Feb 1 at 20:43

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