Working with wood comes naturally to Dan Faires, a New York interior designer. He grew up in an old farmhouse and has been developing his carpentry skills for much of his life.
In any house or apartment he occupies, he finds creative ways to decorate with this natural material. To rehab an apartment in Arkansas recently, he covered the dark pine floor with coats of glossy white paint, instantly brightening the room and making it seem larger.
But many homeowners have no experience working with wood, so they don’t realize, Faires says, how easy it is to make a home more beautiful by improving the existing wood or creatively adding new wood to walls, floors and even ceilings.
Designer Brian Patrick Flynn, creator of the Flynnside Out Productions design blog, agrees: “While different materials come and go with trends, wood is here to stay. Whether it’s for a home’s exterior, bedroom walls or for adding shade to your yard or deck, wood is an investment that will never go out of style.”
Here, Faires, Flynn and Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design in Los Angeles share their favorite ways to decorate with wood.
“Creating interior feature walls with soft woods is an amazing way to add a focal point to a room otherwise considered a ‘basic drywall box,’” Flynn says.
You can add decorative wood to a wall from floor to ceiling, Burnham says, or just part of the way up. Options include tongue-and-groove panels, bead board or traditional board and batten.
No matter what you choose, a decorative layer of wood is “so much more interesting than drywall and paint,” Burnham says. “It adds texture and interest and timelessness.”
Living room or bedroom walls are great candidates, but you can also use this technique to bring architectural interest to an alcove or corner that’s tough to decorate with art, Faires says. Or cover the walls of a small bathroom to remodel it inexpensively.
Another great spot to add wood: “Interior entryways, especially those in new construction homes, are a perfect fit for a wainscoting update, as it can make an entryway feel much more grand, add graphic impact, break up the monotony of drywall and also ensure a classic look,” says Flynn. “Wainscoting is probably one of the most traditional ways to use wood indoors, and it can be used impactfully in any room.”
We expect to see wood on floors and walls, but ceilings are also a great place to add it.
You can get creative with patterns, arranging panels of wood in a chevron or other shape, rather than horizontally or vertically.
“Overall, I say stick with a graphic pattern that’s large enough to read without becoming too busy,” Flynn says. “Diamond patterns are my favorite since they’re classic and work with many different styles of decor and architecture.”
And you can experiment with color. Wood ceilings can be painted the same shade as the walls for a sophisticated look or in a contrasting color.
If you’re really ambitious, add decorative wood to a ceiling or wall in a pattern you design yourself.
“I’ve drawn designs for full walls and had them built in wood, like raised molding that gives the entire wall a pattern,” Burnham says. She has undertaken complicated chinoiserie patterns, but you can plan a simpler pattern and ask a carpenter to cut and install the pieces.
Or consider a painted design: It takes time and patience, but with a roll of painters tape and several shades of paint, you can create your own painted pattern on a ceiling or wood floor.
If you don’t see the stain you want at the home-improvement store, find one that’s close and “talk to the paint guy,” Faires says. “They actually can create a lot of washes with water-based stains.”
Or bring a paint swatch and ask to have that color created as a water-based stain.
If you want to try creating a stain yourself, “heavily dilute paint with water,” Faires says, “which is kind of the old school way of doing it.”
Flynn recommends choosing a stain that is “dark enough to add a touch of sophistication, but light enough that the grain of the wood is properly showcased.” Dark walnut and pecan finishes are his favorites.
Don’t forget about wood outside. Decorative wood can add curb appeal to your home, Flynn says.
To update the exterior of a modern house, he recommends adding architectural interest with stained softwoods like pine. “This is an excellent way to introduce a softer material to a home otherwise outfitted with heavy, hard materials such as brick or stucco,” he says. “My favorite trick is to install it vertically rather than horizontally to instantly add the illusion of more height to an otherwise small or average-size house.”
Consider wood for privacy in your yard, too: “Wood lattice is a lifesaver for homes which sit close to one another,” Flynn says.
Although we often hear the term “hardwood floors,” much of the wood used decoratively in homes is technically “softwood.” These include cedar, pine, fir and cypress.
“Pine is an excellent choice as it takes both stain and paint well,” Flynn says. “Plus, it’s one of the most affordable and readily available species out there.”
Reclaimed wood salvaged from old buildings and barns is popular, but it’s expensive and hard to find, Faires says. If you like the look of aged, distressed wood, take new planks of cedar or pine and stain them with a gray wash, Faires says.