Adding dyes to your finishing tool kit -- either on their own, or in tandem with pigments -- multiplies your grain-popping options.
Painting dye on board

Do you ever find yourself standing in the stain aisle of the home center wishing for options beyond the one or two brands available? Then it's time to give dye a try. Adding dyes to your finishing tool kit–either on their own, or in tandem with pigments–multiplies your grain-popping options. This "other" stain applies just like those brush-on-wipe-off pigment-based stains, but affects wood grain in a fundamentally different way.

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 below. 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.

2 illustrations showing color of pigments

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.

Wood grain
Dye lessens the color variation bysoaking into both types of grainequally, blending the cathedralgrain for a warmer, more subduedlook.
Wood grain
Pigment settles into red oak's largepores, starkly emphasizing thecharacteristic contrast between itsearly and late wood.

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. Here are three great dye/stain recipes to try:


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.)

Dyeing tips from the WOOD magazine shop

* Liquid concentrates, like those from Transtint, eliminate straining, making them easier to mix. But they cost more. So start with a base of less-expensive powder dye and reserve the liquid concentrates for fine-tuning the color using easy and precise drops.
* A quart of dye (the amount commonly mixed from a packet of powder) goes a long way and keeps indefinitely when sealed in a canning jar. Simply shake the jar before use.
* Label the jar with the dye's brand, color, number, and ratio of dye to solvent used so you can re-create it precisely should you need to.
* If you're nervous about over-darkening your wood, simply dilute a small amount of your dye mixture with its solvent, writing down the ratios. It's always easier to add more dye to the wood than it is to evenly remove it.
* Many dyes tend to fade when exposed to ultraviolet light. If you plan to display your piece where it will encounter direct sunlight, choose a pigment or a combination pigment/dye stain instead.

Mixing and applying dyes

Unlike pigmented stains, dyes come as concentrates (powders or liquids) that must be mixed with a solvent (usually water or alcohol) before application. Fortunately, mixing them is surprisingly easy.

If you're new to dyes, start with a water-soluble concentrate, such as Lockwood or Transtint. With a longer open time, water-soluble dyes offer a more forgiving application than alcohol-soluble dyes. Because they penetrate the farthest into grain, they are the most color-fast dye options. And they come in premeasured amounts to get the ratio perfect. Wear a dust mask to avoid breathing in any powder, and follow the directions, as shown below, to mix.

Pouring solution in jar
Measure and heat distilled wateraccording to the dye's directionsbefore adding the dye and stirringthoroughly.
Pouring solution in jar thru filter
Strain the dye through a rubber-band-secured coffee filter into acontainer to remove any undilutedlumps of dye.

As with any finish, test the dye first on a scrap of wood from your project before applying, following these steps: First, sand to 220 grit. Next, to avoid raising the grain during dyeing with a water-soluble dye, pre-raise the grain by wiping it with a water-moistened sponge or cloth. Allow the wood to dry completely before sanding one last time with 320-grit paper.

Brush or wipe on dye with a foam brush or rag, using enough of the solution to keep a wet edge between your brush strokes. Then wipe away the excess with a cloth. If you prefer a darker look, simply allow the first coat to dry before adding another coat. Too dark? Lighten the coloring by wiping the dye with a rag dampened in the appropriate solvent. This works best while the dye is still wet, but because dye stains contain no binder, you can lighten the color slightly even after the dye has dried.