Color to Dye For

Easy to mix, easy to use, and compatible with any topcoat. Prepare to dye.

Off-the-shelf canned stain may be your go-to product for coloring wood simply because it’s readily available. But dye goes on just as easy and can solve some common finishing challenges. You’ll find extensive color options, including bright and playful primary colors, and it’s easy to mix custom colors. Read on to learn how to add dye to your finishing kit.

Why dye?

Dye differs from stain in three important ways: First, dye contains particles so small that its solvent carries them into the structure of the wood. So, color reflects from within the board. Most stains contain larger pigments that rest on top of the wood, lodging in pores and sanding scratches, as shown below. This slightly obscures the wood grain and figure.

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Second, stain contains a binder that adheres the pigment particles to the surface, so stain is colorfast. Dye has no binder, so even after it dries, you can remove some color by wiping with its solvent. A topcoat creates a barrier that protects the dye by preventing solvent from reaching it. 

Third, dye tends to fade more than stain with exposure to strong light. So, dyes aren’t suitable for outdoor projects or items that will sit near a sunny window. Consider how much light the final resting place for a piece receives before you dye. 

Choose the right solvent for the job

Dyes come in powders or liquid concentrates that you dissolve in water, alcohol, or oil. Each solvent has its best applications. 

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Read the manufacturer’s instructions to determine a dye’s solvent. Liquid dye, top left in the photo, can be mixed with water or alcohol; the powder in the foreground with water; the powder on the right with oils.

You’ll find water-base dye most useful. Its readily available solvent makes it easy to apply and manipulate, though it does raise the wood’s grain—more on that later. And its slower drying time allows for adjusting the color during application by wiping away excess. 

Use alcohol-base dye when you want to build color gradually, or to tint shellac before applying it. The alcohol evaporates quickly, so the color doesn’t penetrate as deeply as a water-base solution, and you have less opportunity to wipe away color. Several coats can be applied in a short time to reach the desired shade. 

Oil-base dyes can be used to provide a longer drying time, and for tinting oil-base finishes.

Get ready to dye

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Weigh powdered dye rather than measuring by volume. Use a digital kitchen scale (about $10). For liquid dyes, gently squeeze the bottle and count the number of drops used.

Some dyes can be an irritant, so wear eye protection, a respirator, and nitrile gloves.Working with dye requires no special skills or tools. Simply mix the powder or concentrated liquid with its solvent to the desired color strength [Photo above]. Use a glass or plastic container—metal can react with dye. If you mix from a powder, strain the solution through a paint filter into a clean container before use. Wipe on the  dye with a lint-free rag, brush it with a foam brush, or spray it. 

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Read the manufacturer’s instructions to determine a dye’s solvent. Liquid dye, top left in the photo, can be mixed with water or alcohol; the powder in the foreground with water; the powder on the right with oils.

Store mixed dye in an airtight jar, away from light. Dye solutions stored for long periods can fade, so test older mixtures on scrap before attempting to color-match a piece tinted when the batch was fresh. The dye won’t require mixing again because its tint doesn’t settle out, as pigment does.

Hot water dissolves water-base dye quicker. (No need to boil it; hot water from the tap works.) Before applying water-base dye, lightly wet the workpiece with a damp sponge or rag and let the wood dry. Sand the raised grain lightly with the last grit used to finish-sand, and remove the sanding dust. 

The solvent in alcohol-base dye evaporates quickly, so spray large surfaces rather than brush. Spraying evens out coverage on blotch-prone woods such as pine, maple, birch, cherry, and others. Alcohol does not raise the grain.

A board wet with freshly applied dye shows off the figure, then dries to a dull, flat appearance. But don’t worry­—applying a topcoat restores the luster. You can temporarily preview the color of a dry dyed surface by wiping it with naphtha; it won’t lift the dye.

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Dry dye on the left looks flat. A topcoat (lacquer in this case) restores the sheen and brings out the figure in this curly-maple board. (TransTint no. 6001 Honey Amber)
Apply any topcoat over dye, but beware that brushing or wiping a topcoat with the same solvent as the dye will redissolve and lift the color into the topcoat, muddying the appearance. To prevent this, spray on shellac to seal the dye before applying the topcoat, or spray the topcoat.

Seal rather than sand

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Unevenly sanded end grain draws in more dye, making it darker (left). Brushing on shellac reduces absorption, evening out the color (right). (Lockwood no. 6850 Bright Blue)
End grain notoriously finishes darker than face or edge grain. Traditional advice says to sand the end grain a grit or two finer than the faces and edges, but sanding those narrow surfaces can be a challenge, especially if you want to preserve the crisp edge of a routed profile. Instead, sand to the same grit as the faces, then seal the end grain with a 1-lb cut of clear shellac. (Thin premixed shellac 1:1 with alcohol.) This prevents the end grain from absorbing more dye.

When to use dye

Add dye with a compatible solvent into a topcoat, such as wiping varnish, lacquer, shellac, or polyurethane, to create a custom shade (called “toning”). Keep in mind that the topcoat locks the dye in place, so you won’t be able to wipe away color, as you would with just a dye solution. 

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Mixing dye into this oil finish creates a slightly richer color than the finish alone. (J.E. Moser no. L23001 Reddish Brown Walnut)

Choose dye rather than stain when you want more consistent color across earlywood and latewood. Pigmented stain emphasizes the differences because open pores capture more pigment particles, while areas of tighter grain capture fewer. 

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The large pores of oak’s earlywood trap more stain, providing contrast to the denser latewood (left). Dye absorbs more evenly, resulting in less contrast (right). (Minwax Red Oak 215, Lockwood 77 Dark Golden Oak)

Dye’s transparency keeps the grain visible even under several coats. This makes it a better choice for spot application to match light portions of a board to darker areas. Stain obscures the grain more with each additional coat.

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Blend dissimilar areas of a board to even out the color by wiping dye on the lighter areas. Build color gradually with several coats. (Lockwood no. 6 Reddish Tone Walnut)

Any project that needs bright colors cries out for dye. Although most pigment stains come in only wood tones, you’ll find dyes in vibrant reds, blues, yellows, greens, oranges, and more. 

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Dye provides bold colors without obscuring the wood grain, as paint would—and it won’t chip off. (Lockwood no. 5230 Lemon Yellow, no. 8145 Bright Green, no. 6850 Bright Blue, no. CW17 Poppy Red)

The wide range of available colors provides infinite options. You’ll find dozens of stock colors, but dyes with the same solvent, even from different manufacturers, can be mixed to create new shades. To do this, mix each color separately in its own container, then combine the solutions in the desired ratio in another container.

Pick a few colors, experiment on some scrap, and discover how dyeing can breathe new life into your projects.

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