Almost every woodwork has used stain to change the color or wood at one time or another, but few of them have ever used "wood dye" to color wood, in fact, few woodworkers have even heard of wood dye so now is the opportunity to see the differences and understand the pros and cons of each. With this information we can then go about choosing which products to select for any given project.
Stain - Pretty much the standard of the woodworking industry, wood stains are primarily made from dirt. Yup, that's right dirt. Ground up and pulverized clays of various colors are the primary ingredient in stains. They are then often mixed with some sort of oil type base and a few other ingredients like driers and emulsifiers to give them specific paint-on and adherence features. Because stains are made from earthen material they are very color fast, in fact, that is why they are used on fences, the outsides of buildings and many other out-door applications, because they are so color fast. Basically if you can get a stain to adhere to a wood, and leave it in the sun, it will barely fade after years and years of exposure. What actually happens in most cases is the stain dries and slowly falls off after time because the oil base can no longer keep it adhered to the wood. The key with stains, is they are earthen and that when they are painted on, they are primarily coated on the surface of the wood. There is very little penetration of the stain into the wood, mostly the stain lays on top the wood. Because most stains are oil based, they don't raise the grain of the wood and all in all, for most projects they give a great finish.
So now you may be wondering, if stain is so good, why would anyone even bother with a wood dye? The answer of course is in what are the properties of wood dyes and why should a woodworker know about them and want to use them? Read on for the answers ....
Wood Dyes are normally made from organic material that are water soluble. This means that although wood dyse are color fast, they will not withstand the same UV intensity that stains will so using wood dyes to color change the color of your fence is not a great idea because it will probably only last for a few years before it will fade. Used indoors and with minimal exposure to direct sunlight, dyes will normally last as long as the finish on the woodwork project, or longer.
One of best kept secrets of dyes is that they are translucent. This means that if you are working with figured woods, like Tiger, Birdseye or Fiddle back Maple, you can actually stain the wood WITHOUT losing the figure in the wood like you would with stains. Remember, stains are dirt and basically lie on top the wood, dyes on the other hand are water borne and translucent which means they will soak right into the wood and not "mask" the grain.
When you see this feature in the above video, where dye and stain and coated on a clear sheet of Plexiglas it is very evident how dyes can be an advantage in some cases of figured woods. The disadvantage with dyes is the most of they are water borne, which means they will raise the grain of the wood which means before the finish coat is applied a light sanding will be required, or even better, to go over the project with newly sharpened wood scraper. Using a scraper will also help to retain the figure of the wood the sometimes sanding can also partially obscure.
Wood dyes once they are mixed have a long shelf life, just as stains do, but again, it will be important to store dyes in cool dark place to ensure they retain their color aspects. Dyes are available in liquid or in powder form.
Dry Powder Dyes from Rockler
Stains are available from every paint and finishing store throughout North America, but Dyes are not as readily available. Both dyes and stains have a vast range of colors available so it really only matters what your application is in terms of which one to choose over the other. If you have never used a wood dye, we would encourage you to try it sometime just to see how easy they are to use and way they change the color or the wood without destroying the visible grain appearance. Who knows, maybe dying wood will change the way you finish wood, the way it has for many other serious woodworkers.
Copyright Colin Knecht