how to apply wood dye

Wood Dye A Complete Guide: How To Use, Make and Apply

I’m sure you’ve heard of coloring wood, but do you know what wood dyeing is? Have you ever heard of it?  Do you know how to apply dye to wood? As you begin to explore the topic, you’ll find it to be vast. There are several different styles and methods of coloring wood, producing distinctly different results while using the same procedures and definitions. It’s also confusing because the terminology is used interchangeably in each approach. 

How do you apply dye to wood? You apply dye to wood by first sanding the wood until it is smooth. Then, apply the selected dye to the wood using a cloth or brush.  Once the wood is covered, wipe any excess liquid from the board and allow the dye to dry. 

Coloring wood is an art. It’s not something that you can simply write a procedure and have it applied to every project.  I found three general wood finishing techniques that affect the color of the wood.  

Once you select the technique, you will discover numerous related sub techniques that you can experiment with. You can even combine them.  It can get very confusing, so I’m going to provide you with a basic roadmap you can use when you decide to start coloring your woodworking project. The primary focus of this article is coloring wood with a water-based chemical dye. 

Wood Coloring Using A “Stain”

“Stain” is a generic term referring to a variety of products containing pigment, i.e., clay dissolved in a solvent or carrier and mixed with a binder that “binds” the pigment to the wood. When you walk down the paint aisle in the hardware store looking at stains, this is what you typically find. 

These stains can be blended with dyes to affect the color, but you’re basically painting or brushing on a layer of “dirt” (WoodWorkWeb, 2012) on top of the wood. The pigment basically fills the cracks and wood pores, and you get a coating of protection for the wood that holds up both indoors and outdoors. In many cases, the stain can be the final coat.

Wood Coloring By A Chemical Stain

This involves the use of chemicals like potassium dichromate, ammonia, or sodium hydroxide.  These chemicals cause the tannins in the wood to oxidize and change color. This isn’t dying.  This is accelerating the oxidation of tannins in the wood to the actual final color in a few minutes producing the hue that would normally take years of atmospheric aging (Wedlock, 2010).

This also isn’t applying a coating either. You’re simply using the natural chemicals in the wood and accelerating the aging process, which colors the wood. This technique has been in use for centuries on all kinds of wood to bring out their natural beauty.

Wood Coloring Using A Chemical Dye

The chemical can be natural or synthetic. The natural dyes come in plants or spices such as coffee, tea, beets, or bark from some trees. Indigo has been around for millennia producing a blue-colored dye. In 1856, William Henry Perkin, accidentally discovered mauveine, a bright purple aniline dye, and the synthetic dye industry was born (Wikipedia, 2019, Aniline). The chemicals in dyes are soluble in water and, when applied, soak into the wood, bonding the color to the wood. It’s not much different than dying a shirt. 

Like the chemical stain mentioned above, this is not a coating. You’re coloring the wood by chemically bonding the dye to the cellulose molecules. Instead of the natural color, though, these chemicals change the wood to the color of the dye. With the synthetic colors, you can select just about any color you can imagine.

If you choose red, the cells in the wood will become red.  Keep in mind; the dyes are transparent. Thus, if your wood has a natural yellow hue to it, and you try to use red dye, you may wind up with an orange tint (Frederick, 2012).

Why Wood Dying?

So, what are the benefits of wood dyeing? The short answer is that you want to finish your woodworking project by coloring the wood and enhancing its natural beauty without covering up the form or workmanship. Like any project, you need to decide how you want it to look. Wood dyeing gives you one more tool to finish your woodworking projects in your creative arsenal and provides you with a wide range of options you may not have had before.

Making Wood Dye

Now that we’ve narrowed down the approach you want to take to color your wood, there are a few more basic pieces of information you need before diving into the nitty-gritty of the subject.  First, where do you get the dye? You have two options: you can make it, or you can buy it.

Making It from the Kitchen

Remember, dyes color the wood, but they don’t protect it. You will need to add at least one more step in the finishing process to protect the wood. So why would you want to make your own dye?  

First, finding and purchasing dye powders or liquids isn’t that easy to do. They don’t just carry them in the local hardware stores, at least not yet. Second, and more importantly, you may be working on a serving dish or bowl, and you want to be sure that your dish is food safe.

SPECIAL NOTE: I couldn’t find anything definitive regarding the question about whether synthetic dyes are food safe. The issue involves a lot of opinion and conjecture, so I recommend if you want something that is food safe, use dyes made from food to color it and something equally safe to finish it. There are several foods that can be used to generate dye. 

As you mix your fruits, vegetables, roots, etc. you will want to know how much tannin is in the dye.  You don’t need to make the tannin to make the dyed food safe. By the same token, if the dye has very little tannin in it, it can still be food safe. What the tannin does is it helps the dye bond to the fibers making the color richer and last longer even if it’s exposed to the light (Vejar, 2015). Some foods have so much tannin that they naturally adhere to the wood.  

Other sources have very little tannin, and applying a “mordant” is necessary to bond the dye to the wood.  Mordant is a metallic salt like sodium carbonate. Keep in mind this is like a big chemistry experiment. The food color is several chemicals; the tannin is another, the mordant, if needed, is yet another. 

They’re all going to react. Unless you’ve done this before, there’s really no way of predicting the shade of color you’re going to wind up with. Back in the day when the settlers were happy with just having “color,” regardless of the shade, this worked well.  On the other hand, if you’re after a specific shade, then you will need to experiment with the ingredients until you obtain the color you want.

Food-Safe Dyes:

  1. Coffee grounds make a brown dye. You can either brew a pot or dissolve some used grounds in vinegar (Flaherty, 2019).  
  2. Beets ground up or juiced produce a red dye (Porsher, 2019).  
  3. Carmine dye produced by the cochineal has been used to generate a crimson color (Wikipedia, 2019, Cochineal)
  4. Turmeric produces an intense yellow color. 
  5. Safflower can produce either a yellow or red depending on the variety of plant you use. (Miller, Crestani, 2017) 
  6. Onion skin makes a yellow dye.
  7. Walnut shells make a brown dye.
  8. Food coloring. This is cheating, but it’s a valid dye that would be considered food safe.  It comes in all the primary colors. If you want to blend or mix two together to create a unique shade, this is a really simple way to make the dye of choice based on what you find in the kitchen.

Not Necessarily Food Safe:

  1. Indigo makes an intense blue dye that has been used for millennia.
  2. India yellow, used in art from India for centuries, can be made from cow urine.
  3. Henna makes a deep orange to red dye and is obtained from the henna tree (Woodworkers Institute, 2011)
  4. Logwood was used for centuries as a natural dye.  It produced a purple dye when the mixture was alkaline and orange when the mixture was acidic.  (Wikipedia, 2019, Haematoxylum campechianum) 
  5. Back in the 19th century, they used to mix sheep’s blood with madder root to produce a rich red color.
  6. Verdigris color is a blue-green color obtained by exposing copper to acetic acid, turning the copper green. Essentially, this process oxidizes the copper, producing rust with the color named “verdigris.” An example of this process is copper, which makes up the Statue of Liberty (Wikipedia, 2019, Verdigris).
  7. Barberry 

Where to Purchase Synthetic Dye

wood dyeing techniquesFor the last 170 years or so, synthetic dyes have been produced.  Production began after an 18-year-old student named Henry Perkin inadvertently created mauveine from coal tar in his chemistry class while attempting to produce quinine. Recognizing the commercial value of the dye, he set up a factory the following year, and the synthetic organic chemicals industry was born

Since then, the dye industry has been expanding its product line so that you can find virtually any color dye you want.  Unfortunately, you won’t find the dyes in your local hardware store. Until recently, they had to be purchased from specialty woodworking shops or from dye-making companies like W.D. Lockwood and Homestead Finishing Products in both powdered and liquid forms.

These companies also offer dyes blended with alcohol, oil-based solvents, and dyes mixed with stains as well as other woodworking and wood coloring finishes. In the last few years, Amazon began to stock and ship dyes and wood coloring that you can obtain overnight. These products come premixed and measured so that making your dye is essentially a cookbook affair.

Using Wood Dye

Once you’ve elected to color the wood, you will need to understand the advantages, disadvantages, and limits of chemical dye, stain, and chemical stain.

Stain

Advantages (Phelan, 2017):

  1. Readily available in the stores in a variety of pigments, solvents, binders, and colors, and finishes
  2. It does a superior job highlighting grains by depositing the solids in the large pores of the wood, highlighting the grain, and creating contrast, e.g., Ash, or Oak.
  3. One coat is the same as the second coat.  The color in the first coat will remain if you apply the second coat.  These can be considered similar to paint.
  4. Stain can be removed. It’s a coating that can be sanded off if you make a mistake.
  5. A stain is more “lightfast.” In other words, it will keep its color, the color of the pigment when exposed to sunlight, so it is more applicable to outdoor use.
  6. If stain includes a finishing material, it may not need an additional protective coating.

Disadvantages:

  1. Stains need to be stirred often to insure because the particles tend to settle.  Over time, the pigments will settle and form a “mud” at the bottom of the jar.
  2. If you apply multiple coats, it will obscure the grain, and essentially look like a painted surface. 
  3. Since stain has a binder, it will create a thin seal over the wood and prevent a second coat from being absorbed as well as the first.
  4. It does not color well on dense, close-grained wood like Maple or Basswood.
  5. Shows scratches and dings

Chemical Stain

Advantages (Wedlock, 2010):

  1. Covers 100% of the surface area if done correctly
  2. Converts to final color in minutes
  3. The shade is dependent on the concentration of the oxidizing chemical
  4. Additional darkening over time is unlikely because the tannin that colors the wood has reacted

Disadvantages:

  1. Requires the use of some very toxic chemicals, i.e., NaOH, NH3OH, K2Cr2O7
  2. Color limited to the actual color of the aged wood (may be considered an advantage)
  3. Works differently for each type of wood
  4. Once it is “aged,” it cannot be reversed

Chemical Dyes

Advantages (based on water-based chemical dyes) (Phelan, 2010):

  1. The wood is being colored or dyed.  This is not a covering coating like a stain.
  2. It does not obscure the grain.  The grain is colored the same color as the wood, so it colors better on close-grained wood.
  3. Available in virtually any color
  4. Penetrates deeply into wood obscuring surface scratches
  5. Maintains its color for years if sealed properly and kept out of the sun

Disadvantages:

  1. Once applied, the wood is colored.  It can be lightened or darkened by adding additional coats, but then you have a new, unique color
  2. Color limited to the actual color of the aged wood (may be considered an advantage)
  3. Works differently for each type of wood
  4. Certain woods tend to blotch, and the dye must be applied differently
  5. Dyed wood is susceptible to fading when exposed to direct sunlight making it more applicable for inside projects.

Mixing and Applying Wood Dye

Now that you have a basic understanding of the pros and cons of each method let’s assume that you are going to select and apply a water-based dye. Let’s further assume you purchased a small bottle of powdered aniline dye. 

Regardless of how you make the dye, make sure you read and understand the directions. Each dye is going to be unique no matter how precisely you measure the water or measure the dye. It’s also somewhat of an iterative process because trying to obtain a certain shade of brown doesn’t necessarily happen on the first try.

You may have to make a batch, try it, and go back to change the concentration. You may then have to try it again, tweak the mixture again, and so on until you get what you want.  

It’s a good idea for you to keep precise records of exactly what your mixture contains because if you ever want to duplicate it, e.g., two years later, chances are duplicating the exact shade of brown you had before may be next to impossible without good records.

So, let’s start with a batch of dye. You don’t have to, but a quart of dye is a good size to make the batch. It colors a great deal of wood, it’s easy to obtain this size, and it’s easy to store on the shelf.

Mixing Dyes

  1. Make sure you’re wearing rubber gloves, or your hands will be covered with color that will take a great deal of time and scrubbing to wear off.
  2. Wear a mask while working around the powder, so you don’t breathe any of it as you mix your dye.
  3. Wear clothing you’re not going to mind having dye on.  It will dye the fabric too.
  4. Read the safety instructions and MSDS.  Aniline dyes are toxic while they are wet if ingested.
  5. Take a one-quart jar (that has a lid) and fill with distilled water.  Distilled water won’t have any added chemicals that may or may not affect your mixture.  You CAN use tap water if you trust your water. (ToolsForWorkingWood, 2019) 
  6. Add a small, carefully measured amount of the powdered dye and gently stir. If you want to make the color lighter, add more water.  Conversely, you can add more powder if you want to make it darker. Warm water will allow you to dissolve more dye if you want a darker color.
  7. If you see crystals floating in suspension, strain the dye to remove all solids.  You should have a clear, colored, liquid mixture.
  8. Completing steps 5-7 wallows you to duplicate the mixture at a later date.
  9. Label your mixture.
  10. When you are finished using the dye, seal the jar and store it in a dark, cool place.  Unless your dye evaporates, or because you stored it in the sun and the color has changed, there is no reason why you can’t take this same jar off the shelf the next time you want to do a project and use it again.

Applying Dyes

  1. THIS FIRST STEP WILL SAVE YOU A WORLD OF PAIN.  Get a piece of scrap wood from your project and apply the dye to it.  Make sure the wood is the same wood as you are using in your project. The steps listed below will be the same as you use on the sample piece of wood.  In fact, it’s essential that the same steps are used in order to get the same result.
  2. Sand the surface of the wood with light sandpaper, e.g., 220 grit.
  3. Spray or sponge a light coat of water on the wood.  Wipe away any excess water. This step is important because the water in water-based solvents cause the grain in the wood to raise.  Think of the grains as veins in the wood. When water is added, the grains swell, and the surface of the wood is no longer flat and smooth.
  4. Allow the wood to dry (approximately 30 minutes should be sufficient) and sand one more time with 320 grit paper (The Wood Magazine Staff, 2018).  Now the wood is prepared for dyeing.
  5. Brush or sponge on the dye with a foam brush, soft cloth, or sponge.  This is where it gets tricky:
    1. Make sure you keep a wet edge between strokes because you want the application to be uniform over the whole surface.  
      1. If you let the dye sink into the wood and dry, and then apply more dye, you will end up changing the color.  
      2. If you apply the dye unevenly when it dries, the color will be just as uneven, or you will have lines showing your brush strokes.
      3. The water-based dye will absorb and dry out in 10-15 seconds, so you need to plan what you’re going to do and how you intend to do it before you start.  It doesn’t take long, so you want to liberally apply the dye over the entire surface, keeping it wet, and then wipe away any excess. Make sure you evenly wet the surface and keep it wet.  If you apply more dye in one area than another, that portion will be darker when it dries. This is the first coat, and it is extremely hard to do on large surfaces.  
    2. As the coat dries, it will get lighter.  You can also wipe away some of the dye in the wood if you want to make it lighter while the dye is still wet.  This has limits, though, because the wood is now dyed, and you can’t completely reverse it. This is also precisely why you’re doing this first step on a scrap piece of wood.  
    3. IF the color is darker than you want, you may have to go back to steps 5-7 in the Mixing Dye section and dilute the mixture by adding more water and then repeating steps 1-5 in this section.
    4. IF the color is too light, you can simply allow the wood to dry and then add a second coat, etc. until the color is dark enough.  NOTE that this applies to water-based dyes and assumes the SAME dye is being applied.  
  6. Let the wood dry.  Assuming the color is what you wanted, now you have the dye you want to use on your project and a good idea of the procedure you need to use to apply it.
  7. Now repeat steps 2-7 on the actual piece of wood you want to dye.

Keep in mind that the wood is only colored wood now.  Once the wood is dry, a coat of finish needed to seal and protect the wood will have to be applied.

Summary

As you contemplate how you want to color the wood, it’s essential that you understand the limits of the method you intend to use. Coloring wood is an art. It has some very basic rules, but there are so many different coloring methods and, more importantly, countless dyes and mixtures you can use to produce a distinct result, so consistently getting the result you want takes a lot of practice. 

Understanding how the wood will respond, the specific steps that need to be taken, and all the variables you select will have a unique impact on the project every time you try to use it.  Each piece of wood will be different, even if it’s from the same board. Making the dye and applying the dye doesn’t take long and is relatively easy to do. Getting the color you want uniformly applied and completed the way you want it is the art. It takes careful planning and execution, as well as your imagination.

Reference List

Crestani, M., Miller, B. (2017). The Art of Coloring Wood: A Woodworker’s Guide to 

Understanding Dyes and Chemicals.  Retrieved from https://issuu.com/ksorsky/docs/art_of_coloring_wood

Frederick, Lisa. (2012, August 16). Pro Finishing Secret: Aniline Dye for Wood. Retrieved from 

https://www.houzz.com/magazine/pro-finishing-secret-aniline-dye-for-wood-stsetivw-vs~3668697

Flaherty, Elizabeth. (2019). How to Stain Unfinished Wood with Used Coffee Grounds. The 

Family Handyman. Retrieved from https://www.familyhandyman.com/woodworking/staining-wood/how-to-stain-unfinished-wood-with-used-coffee-grounds/

Phelan, Gerry. (2017. March 30). Stain or Dye. Houzz, Inc. Retrieved from 

https://www.woodcraft.com/blog_entries/stain-or-dye

Porsher, Timisha. (2019). Exploring Wood finishings: Wood Dyes. Sawdust Girl. Retrieved from 

https://sawdustgirl.com/exploring-wood-finishings-wood-dyes/

Vejar, Kristine. (2015, December 9).  The Art of Natural Dyeing + 6 Colors to Start With.  Food52.  Retrieved from https://food52.com/blog/14982-the-art-of-natural-dyeing-6-colors-to-start-with

ToolsForWorkingWood (2019).  How to Use W. D. Lockwood Dyes.  Retrieved from https://toolsforworkingwood.com/store/more/LW-dyeinfo.html

Wedlock, Bruce D. (2010, February 26). Chemical Stains. Retrieved from 

https://emgw.org/Resources/Documents/Papers%20and%20Articles/ChemicalStains.pdf

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, October 31). Aniline. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Retrieved 16:47, November 17, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Aniline&oldid=923871368

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, November 11). Cochineal. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Retrieved 16:43, November 20, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cochineal&oldid=925705220

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, November 13). Haematoxylum campechianum. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Retrieved 19:11, November 25, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Haematoxylum_campechianum&oldid=925921374

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, October 20). Verdigris. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Retrieved 15:43, November 20, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Verdigris&oldid=922245420

Wood Magazine Staff, (2018). Aniline Dyes.  Retrieved from 

https://www.woodmagazine.com/materials-guide/finishes/aniline-dyes

Woodworkers Institute Staff, (2011).  Natural Dyes archive.  

Retrieved from https://www.woodworkersinstitute.com/furniture-cabinetmaking/techniques/decorative-work/natural-dyes/

WoodWorkWeb [Colin Knecht], (2012, April 30). Wood Finishing – Dying Wood Versus Staining 

Wood [Video file]. Video posted to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3Ysfw0LmMw

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