All About Dyes and Stains
There are many choices available to woodworkers who want to add color to their projects. Some techniques are easy to accomplish, others can be more complicated, but all can be mastered with a little practice.
• Stains: Pigments and dyes are easy to apply, and achieve even results.
• Glazes highlight molding details or the open grain of a wood surface.
• Ebonizing and pickling are home-brew solutions to coloring wood.
Stains: pigments and dyes
Pigment stains, primarily oil-based, are finely ground mineral powders held in suspension by some kind of thinner and mixed with resin binders. The easiest type of stain to apply, they work better with open-grain woods such as ash, mahogany, oak, and walnut. Flood them on with a rag, brush, or spray gun, and wipe first in a circular motion to remove most of the excess, and then in a direction parallel to the grain pattern. Any unintended streaking will therefore be less visible. After wiping them down, what remains trapped in the open pores, or as a fine film on tighter grained woods, is similar to a thinned-down layer of mud. They work better with open-grain woods such as ash, mahogany, oak, and walnut.
Dye stains are made of much smaller particles, which are dissolved in a solvent. You can buy them in powder or liquid form and mix your own colors. The solvent can be alcohol-, lacquer-, oil-, or water-based. Dye stains afford much better clarity than pigment stains, so you can see the patterns in the wood grain more clearly after finishing. Dye stains also tend to penetrate more deeply, leaving more color on the wood surface after they’ve dried. They are slightly more difficult to use than pigment stains, with a greater risk that something can go wrong. One common problem is overlap, where streaks of darker color emerge when some areas receive more stain than others. One way to avoid this is to flood the surface as quickly and thoroughly as possible. It also helps to pre-wet the surface with the same solvent used to make the stain—water and alcohol are the most common. That will lessen the amount of stain that soaks into the wood fibers.
The pre-wetting technique is especially useful for applying water-based dye stains. By flooding the surface first, and then letting it dry, you’re left with raised grain that can then be sanded off before the stain goes on, which lessens the chances of ending up with a rough finish.
When you look at mass-produced furniture and wonder how they made all the pieces of that cherry bedroom set look alike, they did it by using toners. Toners are clear finishes, usually lacquer or shellac, that have been tinted with either a pigment or a dye stain. They even out color variations, leaving a more balanced overall tone to the wood. Dye stains are preferable because they lay on each coat of color in a clearer, more transparent fashion. You can apply toners effectively only by spraying them on, either with spray equipment, or by buying the toner in aerosol cans.
The biggest mistake novices make is to try to lay on too much color at once. Once you’ve made a surface too dark, it’s very difficult to go back and lighten it again. Sneak up on the color, just a little at a time, until you get it right. Both lacquer and shellac dry so quickly that you can put on several coats of toner in a day.
Unlike toners, glazes are easily reversible, as long as you use the oil-based variety. Glazes are simply pigment stains that are applied by brush or rag to an already sealed surface and are partially wiped off, leaving some color behind to highlight molding details or the open grain of a wood surface. Both oil- and water-based acrylic latex varieties are available. The oil-based versions take longer to dry, which gives you more working time to get the right effect. Because you apply glazes to an already sealed or finished surface, they are easy to remove if you’re not happy with the results. Simply saturate a rag with the same solvent used to make the glazing stain, wipe it off, and start again.
Once the glaze is dry, you need to seal in the color with another clear coat of finish.
Ebonizing and pickling
Ebonizing wood is one of those techniques that always seem clouded by mystery, but is very easy to do. All the word means is “to make it black,” and you can do that in any number of ways. The practice arose when woodworkers decided to fool their customers into believing parts of projects were made with more expensive ebony wood. Dye the wood with pigment, dye, or chemical stains; or paint it with black lacquer. Complete the job with a clear coat of finish over the ebonized surface.
The age-old homemade chemical stain produced by soaking nails and steel wool in vinegar works incredibly well on woods (such as oak and mahogany) that contain a lot of tannins. Black dye stains also penetrate the surface effectively and deliver a deeply rich color to the wood. Pigment stains are the least effective; they often leave the surface to appear as a somewhat lifeless, dark gray color, not the deep brown/black of real African ebony.
One method is to use both the chemical stain and a dye stain after the first one has dried. Or you can use a dye stain, and then top coat it with a misted layer of black lacquer. You should follow either of those approaches with a final clear coat for protection against wear-and-tear on the colored finish.
Pickling, very popular during the 1970s to early 1980s, has fallen out of favor, but likely will surface again. Think of pickling as the opposite of ebonizing: The intent is to lighten the wood, not darken it.
To accomplish the task, most finishers turn to pigmented white paint, thinned or right from the can. This technique works better on open-grain woods such as ash or white oak, but will also work with tighter-grain woods such as maple. The process is identical to glazing: Slop on a coat of white paint, wipe some or most of it off, let that dry, and then seal in the color with a clear finish. A CAB-acrylic lacquer or some of the water-based film finishes would be a good choice for a clear finish over a pickled surface because they will not yellow as they age.
The only trick to learning how to do it well is in the wiping. How vigorously you wipe is how you control the amount of color left behind. Like anything else, it just takes a little practice.