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Give dye a try

Pages in this Story:
Dyes and pigments: What's the difference?
2 illustrations showing color of pigments
Enlarge Image
Wood grain
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Dye lessens the color variation by
soaking into both types of grain
equally, blending the cathedral
grain for a warmer, more subdued
Wood grain
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Pigment settles into red oak's large
pores, starkly emphasizing the
characteristic contrast between its
early and late wood.

Dyes and pigments: What's the difference?

The premixed stains you find on the home center shelf are typically pigment-based stains (or pigment/dye mixtures). Pigments -- essentially ground chunks of solid color -- are mixed with a binder that bonds the colorant to the wood. They lodge in surface irregularities, such as sanding scratch marks and wood pores, as shown right. Open-grain woods like red oak collect these pigments in their large pores, where it darkens the grain. And coarsely sanded wood accepts more pigment than finely sanded surfaces.

Dyes, on the other hand, dissolve completely in their solvents. Wherever the solvent soaks into the wood fibers, it takes the dye with it, changing the color of the wood cells themselves. This produces a noticeably different look than pigments, especially on dense, tight-grained woods, such as maple, that offer few places for pigment to settle. Figured grain, which can be obscured by pigments, also benefits from dye's grain-popping penetration.

For a rich, layered look, choose the best of both worlds. First, apply a dye that soaks deep into the wood fiber, emphasizing figure. Then top it with a pigment stain that settles into the surface pores emphasizing the grain.

See the recipes on next slide for examples.

Choose dye stains for:

  • Emphasizing highly figured wood grains, such as bird's-eye maple and walnut burl.
  • Dense woods, such as hard maple, where pigments can't find purchase.
  • Evening out contrasting colors in wood, such as walnut sapwood or streaks in poplar.
  • Nonwood tones for vibrantly colored project accents.
  • Blotch-prone woods, such as pine. Mix alcohol-soluble dye with shellac and spray.

Choose pigment stains for:

  • Emphasizing contrasts in coarsely textured grains.
  • Pieces that will sit in direct sunlight. (Pigment adds protection against ultraviolet rays that dye doesn't.)

Continued on page 3:  Mixing and applying dyes


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