Aniline dyes offer another approach for your finishing. Whether in wood tones or bright hues, these transparent dyes impart rich color without obscuring the grain.
Changing or enhancing the color of wood while letting its grain show through has been a favorite finishing technique for centuries. Today we often accomplish this with pigmented stains. But before the 1950s, most wood coloring was done with dyes. Dyeing wood became popular early in the 19th century. The natural dyes available then, extracted from roots, berries, bark, and even insects, yielded beautiful, clear colors. But they weren't lightfast, so the dyed wood faded or changed color over time. In the 1850s, a British chemist accidentally produced a strong purple dye while working with aniline, a clear, oily, poisonous liquid. Subsequently, scientists synthesized other dye colors. These synthetic dyes delivered the same sparkling colors as the natural ones and were lightfast to boot. They were cheaper, too. Derived mainly from coal tar, synthetic dyes in general came to be known as aniline dyes, and a new chemical dyemaking industry sprang up around them.
The dyes are fine powders. When mixed with water, the ones shown at left become (from left) lemon yellow, brilliant scarlet, bright green, pink, nigrosine black, dark forest green (yes, the brown-looking one), and dark wine cherry. Aniline dyes offer an attractive finishing choice today. Pigmented stains, which some people characterize as thinned paints, may mask the wood's figure and can lend wood a muddy look. But transparent dye colors, even dark ones, can bring out the grain and add depth. Here's how to dye wood.
Fixin' to dye Aniline dye comes as a powder that you dissolve in water, alcohol, or petroleum solvents, depending on the formulation. We prefer the water-soluble dyes because they offer maximum clarity and colorfastness and are the easiest to use. The J.E. Moser water-soluble aniline dyes used here come in more than six dozen colors from wood tones to bright primary shades and cost around $4 to $6 per ounce (which makes a quart of liquid dye). We got our dyes from Woodworker's Supply, Inc., 800/645-9292.