Buying Wood Dyes & Wood Stains
Woodworkers use Dyes and Stains to change the color of their wood furniture prior to applying a topcoat, and also to bring out wood figure and wood grain. And some stains contain a topcoat mixed in. So what’s the difference between wood dye and wood stain?
What is the Difference Between Wood Dye and Wood Stain?
Wood stains and dyes are both useful, and both accomplish different things, and can sometimes be used together. Most wood stains usually have stronger coverage, and can often be used to change the entire color of the wood surface (it’s like watered-down paint). Due to it’s strong color pigments, wood stain is better than dye at highlighting the wood grain, although it is poor at highlighting the wood figure (on quilted maple, for example), and can muddy the wood figure. The pigments in wood stain lodge themselves in the wood grain and pores. Wood stains are also not great at adding even color to the wood. Wood Dyes, on the other hand offer a more subtle change in color, and help enhance the wood figure, giving it more contrast, or “pop” and “chatoyance” (a 3D translucence). Wood dyes don’t have large color pigments as stains do, but have microscopic particles. Wood dyes were originally made by soaking natural materials (like berries, barks, roots, etc.) but the colors would fade over time. A process to maintain the colors was developed in the late 1800’s, which became known as aniline dyes. Now dyes are “lightfast” and don’t fade as much as they used to.
If you’re looking to bring out contrast in the wood grain, then dyes aren’t as good as wood stains. But because wood stains are good at highlighting wood grain, they are also good at highlighting any flaws in your wood surface, like tearout and scratches, so prepare your surface well if you plan to use stains.
Wood stains work better on open-pored woods (like Oak), but poorly on closed-poor woods like maple. That’s where dyes excel. But I typically don’t like over-accentuating wood grain on oak (it reminds me of the furniture from the 1980’s and 1990’s), but I love accentuating wood figure on figured maple, so wood dyes are usually what I prefer in most coloring situations. I do, however, like using mild oil stains on white pine.
In addition to helping the wood figure stand out, dyes carefully help to replicate the aging color and patina seen on antique furniture. Wood dyes are quite versatile, and allow you to really dial in specific colors. As you can see in the knife handle below, I used a blend of two dyes, which brought out the darker wood figure and gave an antique yellowing to the figured maple.
And then in the below candle box, I used a similar dye to bring out the wood figure, but then a brown dye to give the maple a nice, subtle walnut shade. I was going for a quilted walnut look.
Dyes come in both powder form and pre-mixed liquid form, but powder dyes are less expensive, have a larger variety of colors to choose from, and are easier to customize by mixing dyes and changing concentration for stronger or more subtle effects. Options also include water-soluble dyes, alcohol-soluble dyes, and oil-soluble dyes. Due to it’s safety, clarity, and ease in mixing & application, most woodworkers buy water-soluble powder dye for most situations.
The powdered wood dye that I typically use is made by W.D. Lockwood & Co, which is more affordable and has more colors available than competitors. Lockwood dyes are water-soluble, and some are also alcohol-soluble. Dye powders mixed with alcohol dry much faster and don’t raise the wood grain. However, water-soluble dyes don’t really raise the grain much, and most woodworkers are more comfortable working with water than with alcohol. But there are other excellent and popular aniline dyes on the market, which I list below.
Which Wood Dyes are Best?
- TransFast dyes were developed by Jeff Jewitt, a well-known furniture finisher and restorer, and are a popular choice with a wide array of colors. TransFast dyes can be purchased here on Amazon or at WoodCraft retail locations.
- J.E. Moser’s also produces an extensive high-end line of wood dyes, which can be found here on Amazon.
- Lockwood water-soluble aniline dyes (which I mentioned above) can be found here at Tools for Working Wood. If you buy just one 1 oz. packet, then the price (with shipping) is about the same price per ounce as the above dye brands. But if you buy more than one packet (which I usually do), the cost drops significantly, since the packets are under $7 each and it doesn’t cost extra shipping to ship more packets.
- TransTint dyes, also developed by Jeff Jewitt, comes in liquid concentrate form, and is more expensive per unit, though about the same cost as TransFast for the final dye product. It is both water-soluble and alcohol soluble. It is more limited in color combinations than by mixing a powder, but it still a very popular dye. TransTint dyes can be purchased here on Amazon.
As I mentioned above, I don’t usually use wood stains very often, as wood dyes are my preference. But I do have a great article to share, published by Bob Flexner, called “Understanding Stains.” Bob is the author of the very popular book on wood finishing, that most woodworkers have heard of: “Understanding Wood Finishing.” In the article, Bob discusses the four main types of wood stains:
- Oil stain
- Varnish stain
- Water-based stain
- Gel Stain
General Finishes is probably the most popular maker of stains for serious woodworkers, especially their gel stains and water-based wood stains. You can find many of their stains here on Amazon, and often at local woodworking stores, and occasionally at smaller hardware stores. Home Depot has wisely started carrying General Finishes, but I don’t think they carry it in many of their actual stores yet (at least not the ones near me), but they do ship from their website. I have had some success with Minwax stains and sometimes Rust-Oleum Stains, and years ago I saw some professionals have success mixing Olympic oil stains for pine furniture, though I believe Olympic only focuses on outdoor deck stains now.