Canadian Woodworking

Dyeing – An Introduction

Author: Marty Schlosser
Photos: Vic Tesolin
Published: June July 2010

Bring your next project’s colour onto a level playing field.

Of the many different means at our disposal for colouring wood, dyes are unique. Not only do they allow for blotch-free staining of cherry, maple and other hard-to-stain woods, but they can be used to custom-adjust the colour of commer­cially available water-based pigmented stains. The benefits don’t stop there, how­ever, and that’s why they’ve become a part of my finishing bag of tricks. I’m pretty sure that after you’ve tried them using the information I’ll share with you here, you will embrace them too.

Pick your dye
Dyes can be purchased in power or liquid form to suit the type of work you are doing.

Take notes
 Make sure you take good notes on the amount of dye you are mixing up so that the colour will be repeatable.

Tone a finish
 You can add dyes to clear finishes to provide a toning effect for your finish.

Even things out
 Dyes are great for disguising a bit of sapwood in your project.

Why do we Colour Wood?

Perhaps the most logical way to intro­duce you to dyes for staining wood is to firstly address the question of why one would even consider changing the colour of any wood. After all, isn’t there a dif­ferent wood available in every colour in the rainbow? To a certain extent, that is a true statement. However, what do you do when you are making a table of expen­sive, difficult-to-source lumber and you can’t afford to discard or trim down the boards that have some sapwood in them? You could easily stain those lighter sec­tions using dyes to mimic the colour of the darker heartwood areas. The same goes for matching those few light-coloured boards that showed up in that old, darkly stained bedside table you just stripped. It just makes too much sense to stain those boards a darker colour with dyes rather than dismantle and rebuild an otherwise excellent piece of furniture.

Other characteristics

In addition to the characteristics already mentioned, dyes are relatively inexpensive, easy to blend to achieve that perfect colour or tone and can be used under any type of finish. Unlike their pigmented counterparts, these stains penetrate deeply and don’t mask the natural grain of the wood. In addi­tion, they can be used to tint water-based topcoats such as lacquer or polyure­thane, which can help impart that oiled wood tone that is lacking in most water-based finishes.

Different Types of Dyes

Dyes come in both powder (also known as aniline dye) and liquid form, and each has its intended use. Although both forms can be mixed with water, only the liquid form can be mixed with alcohol. Therefore, if you’re looking for a non-grain raising stain, get the liquid dye and mix it in alcohol. As an aside, I have found you can limit grain-raising by misting the wood beforehand with water, then lightly sanding it to get rid of all the ‘whiskers’ that pop up when wetted. If you sand too deeply, though, you’ll sand down to the base of the fibres. This, in turn, causes the wood to ‘whisker’ again as soon as any water-based dye or finish is applied. I’ve found this necessary for only sanded surfaces, however, so perhaps this is another rea­son why planing surfaces in preparation of finishing is better than sanding. As the editor of this magazine, Vic Tesolin, will attest, a sharp, well-tuned plane will smooth almost any surface faster than sanding.

Preparations & Techniques

Before starting to mix your stain, ensure you don your protective gloves and goggles and wear clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting stain on. Then place a plastic tarp under the project you’re planning to stain. Get yourself a bucket of clean, soapy water and a clean-up rag so you’ll be ready in case you spill or slop some stain where you hadn’t intended to. Now you’re pro­tected and ready to try your hand at mixing these dyes to produce stains.

To start off right, you’ll need a glass measuring cup, a set of measuring spoons and a stir stick. When it comes to matching stains when using pow­dered dye, measure small amounts of both water (or denatured alcohol) and dye, then experiment with various com­binations of water and dye until you’re happy. As far as matching colours with liquid dye is concerned, Wood Essence has made things easy for us by provid­ing formulas for the most common stain colours. Because much of the guess­work has been done for you already, I’d recommend you try your hand using liquid dyes first before attempt­ing to use the powder dyes. Whether using either liquid or powdered dye, you’ll likely have to fine-tune your stain colour to get it just right. So before you go ahead and start applying it, try it out first either on a piece of scrap left over from your project or a hard-to-see area and be willing to go back and adjust your formula accordingly. Remember to document the formula that you found worked best, as I can guarantee from personal experience that unless you write them down, you’ll forget what worked for you last time.

These stains can be applied by brush, rag or spray gun, so they’re very flexible. When using them to match sapwood to heartwood, I have found that a brush such as Lee Valley’s tapered round brush (part # 33K69.25) works best. If cover­ing a larger area, I prefer a broader brush made by a reputable company such as Purdy, which is available at Home Depot (sku# 659600). In lieu of rags I use the blue paper towels available at most home centers or a foam brush.

Because these stains dry so rapidly, you may be inclined to immediately attempt touching up areas that don’t yet appear to be dark or intense enough. Don’t, as many times the colour will change overnight, leaving you with overly dark areas that are next to impos­sible to correct. You can always go darker, but not the other way.

To adjust the colour of commercial pig­mented or gel water-based stains, add dyes directly, stirring them thoroughly before use. The same goes for tinting water-based topcoats, which I’ve found need only two or three drops per litre to bring up the tone to mimic oil-based finishes.


Compared to the mess and fuss of dealing with oil-soaked stains, dyes are a breeze. Simply drop the brush into the soapy water bucket (you did follow my recommendation and have one at the ready, right?) and after a bit of soaking, give them a final cleaning before hang­ing them up to dry. Rags? Simply put them out with the trash. If you used a spray gun, the usual cleaning methods for dealing with water-based finishes will suffice. Neat, clean, smell-free. Clean-up doesn’t get any easier than that.

Dyes are a flexible and interesting way to deal with stain­ing challenges. I’m sure that after you’ve given them a go, you’ll be hooked on them too.

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