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Shades of Gray in Cabinetry Finishes

Gray is one of the trickiest colors to perfect. Here's what we've learned about it.
Gray is one of the trickiest colors to perfect. Here’s what we’ve learned about it.

Consumers, retailers and manufacturers ask for it often, but there is a lot of gray area when it comes to getting a gray finish right.

The trend shows up primarily in the residential cabinetry industry, and it’s been going strong for about four years. A more opaque driftwood look was first on the scene, where applying a gray glaze and pigment often got the job done. But during the last 18 months, a semi-transparent look—between a paint and stain—has been what is hot.

With no signs of stopping, we’re sharing what we’ve learned about getting gray right for our customers.


Using the correct base coat is critical, usually followed by a glaze instead of a stain. Often, we use Matador, a catalyzed paint/varnish, as a base and then apply a gray glaze on top of that to help us get the grain definition we want—but not too much.


Depending on the room, light, manufacturer’s preferences, etc., the shade of gray you’re trying to achieve varies. Many people want more of a greenish blue, while other want more tan or brown tones.

To get the look, you can’t just put gray stain on top of wood because you get so much of the substrate coming through. Most of woods we’re working with have tints of red, tan or brown. Layering the right colors and learning to work with darker grains takes trial and error.

Cherry can give you serious challenges with its intense red tones, and any darker wood such as cherry and alder are tough to tame. Handle reddish woods by making the glaze greener so the “red” wood and “green” glaze offset each other. Consider those complementary colors in these cases.


The degree of transparency or opacity often needs to be manipulated to get the right gray finish. With the more pastel color that is popular now, the desired degree of transparency or opacity can require extra steps be put into place. Even blondish white maples can be difficult to manipulate when the client wants a look such as a pickling effect.

A gray toner can be used to serve as a film-forming coating to achieve a more consistent, semi-transparent gray. This helps to allow the texture of the grain to come through without compromising the color.


In 2015, interest in really dark finishes in cabinetry will likely increase. We also expect to see lots of cherry being used, and finishers working to disguise the color of the wood. We also will be helping customers use more glazes over stains to achieve an antique look.

The right gray coatings will allow you to build color well and achieve the desired, high-quality adhesion. If you’re having challenges, you might consider using a different substrate. Or contact us. We can help you troubleshoot the perfect gray finish.

Accessa’s James Campbell, Lab Technician, and Jim Pryor, Coatings Consultant, contributed to this blog post.