Enhancing Oak Grain with Dyes and Glazes

Tips (illustrated with photos) on bringing out depth and figure in white oak. December 31, 2005

I've got a quatersawn white oak kitchen to build later this month. I usually use water-base as my clear coat. I need a few suggestions on what product to use for popping the grain. I was thinking a light stain, maybe even mixing some transtint dye into Sealcoat shellac and spraying it. I also would like some colors.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
If you just want to bring out the natural color and figure in the wood, then a coat of shellac on the bare wood followed by your water-base finish will work fine. An alternative is to use a coat of oil-base varnish in place of the shellac, let it dry overnight and then topcoat. If you want to add some color to the wood, a dye/seal/glaze/topcoat finish works very nicely on quartersawn oak.

From contributor D:
A light to medium strength WB dye and clear on top (maybe tinted just a little) is all you need. Glazing probably wouldn't be worth the time.

From contributor M:
I love this on oak. Dilute your dye by 1 quarter to 3 quarters water, dye the wood, base coat, sand, dye with the same water, wipe the dye after sanding, base coat, dye and then top coat. It looks deep and wonderful.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
A glaze adds a lot to the finish. There are a couple reasons to use a glaze over a dye on oak:

Dyes (especially water-born dyes) often leave the pores looking white.
The glaze colors the pores and adds contrast to the dye color which makes the rays and flecks "pop" even more than the dye alone.
No matter what solvent they're reduced in, dyes leave the pores looking white often enough that I always use a stain or glaze over the dye when I'm working with oak. I don't like the look of the white pores myself. Dye alone can look like this sample:

Click here for full size image

To color the pores, I use a pigmented stain or glaze over the dye. Either way, I choose a color for the dye that will add highlights to the wood that complements and/or contrasts the stain/glaze color. Here's a quartersawn white oak step board that shows the effect:

Click here for full size image

The section labeled "A" is bare wood with a lacquer finish. Section "B" is dye only. Section "C" is dye and glaze. Section "D" is glaze only.

The range of color choices for both the dye and glaze/stain are unlimited. In this example, I wanted a lot of contrast with a fairly bright dye color. The glaze is a darker brown and the point was to accent the pores and make the rays and flecks really stand out. The look it achieves is worth my time.

From contributor T:
Well done, Paul!

From contributor D:
I don't see any white pores in sample B? I know about the white spots. It seems to me this occurs when you try to dye too fast. With oak, a little elbow grease and patience always gets the dye down in those pores for me. And if you know what you're doing and mix your own dye colors, those rich colors and looks can be achieved without the extra steps. Occasionally a (lightly) tinted coat of clear helps. I ain't saying anybody's wrong, I'm just stating my opinions and experiences.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
I just wasn't sure where you were coming from, so I decided to provide some additional information for my recommendation. I don't know you or your experience and when you say glazing wouldn't be worth the time, I don't know if it's because you don't know how, never tried it, have never seen it, or whatever else the case might be.

As far as making dye color the pores, it doesn't matter how much effort you put into it. I've tried every technique that I've ever heard about; none of them work consistently. Besides, if it was a matter of "elbow grease," who has the time to put all that effort into one job when ten more are waiting? The real key is knowing why a dye is desirable in the first place, rather than just using a stain.

I can get the dye into the pores quite easily. The problem is getting the cell walls of the pores to consistently accept the color (especially on veneers). In this sample, I filled the pores with a solvent reduced dye and then watched the pores turn white and the dye bleed from random pores as the dye went through the drying stages:

Click here for full size image

This effect is more distinct with some colors than it is with others. And some oak boards will accept dyes better than others. In white oak, the problem is sometimes attributed to tylosis, but that doesn't address the issue with red oak.

Section "B" in the sample above doesn't have glaring white pores. The dye color works well with the wood and there's very little contrast with the pores (the dye is nearly the same color as the pores). Here's a cropped section of the original picture showing just the dyed section and you can see the pores more clearly:

Click here for full size image