4 Paint Colors to Never Use With Oak Cabinets — And 6 That Always Look Good
If you have natural oak cabinets in your home, as so many rental apartments and newer builds do, you may be wondering what color to paint the surrounding walls. Maybe you want to emphasize the beauty of the wood grain, or perhaps you’d like to downplay the stain because it isn’t exactly what you’d choose, and you can’t change your cabinets for whatever reason. Well, don’t worry: Painting the nearby walls can make a big difference.
When you’re dealing with certain natural wood tones on prominent features like cabinetry, a room can start to appear overwhelmingly yellow or orange quickly, so it’s important to offset all that warmth with something complementary that also won’t compete against it. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of paint colors to choose from, though — from any given paint company — so I asked two pro interior designers for their expert picks. From there, I homed in on this two-part list: colors to avoid using and colors that work well. In the latter category, you’ll even find some exact shade recommendations.
Colors to Avoid
If you want your oak cabinets to look their best, designers suggest steering clear of this color family and one of its closely related shades.
Primaries + Orange
Red, yellow, and blue might rule the color wheel, but they’re not the best hues for pairing with oak. “I find that bright primary colors, like red or cobalt, tend to highlight oak’s less desirable yellow tones,” says designer Ashley Macuga of Collected Interiors. Designer Melissa Van Zee of Van Zee Design Interiors agrees, and even extends this notion to orange, which is technically a secondary color but matches the primaries in its boldness and intensity, and also can amplify the yellow or orange undertones in woods like oak. “If you love to make a statement with walls of orange, yellow, or red, look elsewhere,” says Van Zee. “Natural oak is not a good complement to these colors.”
Colors to Use
So you’re avoiding the primaries and oranges for wall paint, but that still leaves a lot of territory when it comes to paint colors. That’s why I asked the designers for some picks that can elevate the look of dated or plain oak cabinets.
Macuga says dusty, chalky colors, like gray, sage, and mauve, will always shine next to oak cabinetry. “Natural oak is one of the warmest wood species, so it looks stunning when paired with colors that have deep, muted bases,” she explains. The above image, even though it’s showing a wooden dresser paired with light silvery sage walls, can give you an idea of what this combo looks like. The green tone perks the wood up with just the right touch of restrained energy.
You can’t go wrong with anything in the green family, it seems, although the richer the shade, the better. Van Zee recommends celadon (try Benjamin Moore’s Sweet Celadon CSP-785) if you’re looking for something on the lighter side, and hues like spruce (like PPG’s Black Spruce PPG 1137-7) and moss if you want something more saturated to make a bolder statement. “The organic way they pair with the grain of natural oak is stunning,” she says.
This classic grounding hue is also a winner in Van Zee’s book. “For those who want to add some drama, a complex gray-based navy blue, like Benjamin Moore’s Hale Navy (HC-154), is a great choice,” she shares. Because navies are deep in tone, you’ll just want to make sure you get ample sunlight in your space, so the overall effect is atmospheric and moody — not oppressively dark.
Macuga has been using white alongside oak cabinets in her projects. “White is the most classic of pairings with white oak,” she notes. “But beware: Not every white is created equal.” Macuga suggests opting for shades that have warmer undertones, such as Benjamin Moore’s Simply White (OC-117) and Sherwin-Williams’ Alabaster (SW 7008).
Van Zee is also a proponent of using white alongside oak cabinetry. “For my clients who love the clean and serene look of a bright, white home, pairing natural oak with white walls provides the perfect patina,” she says. “The oak is visually velvety against a toned white paint, like Benjamin Moore’s Dune White (968).” Van Zee suggests doubling down on white with some of your other finishes, too. “Layer in loads of white texture with surfaces like hand-fired and glazed tiles, walls of bold statement marble, raked plaster or dimensional wallpapers,” she says.