Getting Started with Dye Stains

A newcomer to finishing gets a boatload of advice on custom tinting with dye concentrates and powders. March 29, 2006

I'm a cabinetmaker turned finisher. I've been using penetrating stains (Minwax and Sherwin Williams) with and without conditioners on various woods and have had decent results. Wash coating has not worked for me. I use vinyl sanding sealer and lacquer. I'm still not satisfied with my results on maple, birch, pine and cypress in particular. Local S & W has been of little help. I see plenty of room to improve my finishing and think dyes are the key to a professional finish. How do I get started?

The experience I've had was terrible. On a personal project, the alcohol based dye bled through my lacquer topcoats. Piled on some shellac and then more lacquer and it seemed to stop. This was long ago and I don't recall if I used sanding sealer.

1. I don't know much about compatibility. Does dye normally bleed? Where can I learn about this topic in detail?
2. What's a good procedure to ensure this won't happen again?
3. I want to spray with no wiping. Any suggestions?
4. Any recommendations on where to purchase these dyes?
5. What's the best way to measure out dyes?
6. How do oil, alcohol and water based dyes differ?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor B:
Go with water Lockwood dyes.

From contributor J:
Find your nearest ML Campbell dealer. They have great products and great service. I was once in your position and now it's night and day between my finishes of today and yesterday.

From contributor D:
The best way to go, in my opinion, is to use liquid dye concentrates such as Transtints in an NGR solvent such a methanol or the special mixture I've invented that consists of acetone, butyl cellosolve and glycol ether PM (but hey, I've always been good at chemistry). Jeff Jewett supplies these concentrates, as do other sources. Sherwin-Williams has the liquid dye concentrates as well, but only in primary colors, whereas Jeff mixes them for you into the conventional wood shades that most people think of when they think of stains. You can also use Ciba or BASFís dye powders (also available from Jeff), but wait until you master the liquids first before you start playing with these.

The fact is you are correct. Dyes can differentiate your finishing from most other people's. There are things you can do with dyes (such as deemphasize grain in a wood such as oak (I hate oak) that can't be accomplished in other ways. Also making cherry and walnut uniform and matching sapwood to the rest of a board are things best accomplished with dyes.

The key to good dye application is to dilute the dye enough and to spray multiple light coats of it. If you flood the surface, youíre dead. I love using a mini gun (ASTRO 4020 model) for spraying dyes, as it offers pinpoint control of where youíre putting the dye. Also, the combination of a dye stain with a wiping stain can be used to great advantage, especially on darker colors where trying to get dark enough with a wiping stain is nearly impossible.

Iíve taught three people how to properly apply dyes and it was very rewarding to me to be able to do so. What I liked about doing it was that I had given a skill to someone that made his product better and different than his competitionís. A box is a box is a box. Itís the finish thatís the sizzle and itís always been and always will be the sizzle that sells. If you can use dyes and your competitors canít, youíre going to beat them.

From contributor E:
Hearing your story about the dye bleeding through your clear coat sounds like deja vu. The exact same thing happened to me. I would be very interested to learn how best to prevent this from happening in the future.

From contributor G:
Bleed through of alcohol based dye is fairly common. Arti Orange comes to mind right away. I suspect it re-dissolves in the isopropanol or methanol component of the thinner used in the lacquer.

The answer is to let the dye dry longer with lots of air movement and put your seal coat on lightly so it will flash faster, therefore not sitting wet on the dye.

From contributor B:
I would stay away from those pre-made concentrates for staining. They're better for toning, adding a little color to lacquer. At around $12 per 2 oz., how much would it cost to color a whole kitchen? Go with powders and eventually you'll be making your own colors (truly custom) and concentrates, for a tiny fraction of the cost of ready-mades. And in the beginning, wiping on is easier than spraying, but both are essential methods. Oh yeah - learn colors. Get a color wheel, and some art books. Water dyes are also the most lightfast (fade resistant). Contributor D is right about using dyes in combination with wiping stains (pigmented, oil) and getting very nice results.

From contributor W:
Due to the lack of other suppliers in my area, we use Sherwin Williams for all of our finishing products. To get proper service, you need to find a Sherwin Williams Chemical Coatings store. They can custom make dye stains and wiping stains just like the ones used by big companies. No bleeding through, these products are meant to work together. The guys at my SWCC store do a great job for us. We can drop off a finish sample with a scrap of raw wood and they match the stain for us with either a dye or wiping stain. Personally, I like the clarity of a dye.

From contributor O:
As contributor D has said, you want to use light passes when laying it down. I use Ilva dyes and found them to be a superior product. There is no written rule that you can't mix small amounts of dyes in wiping stain. You can use them in shaders or before applying your wiping stain. The eruption you're speaking of is caused by pigment overload. You could use a faster flashing solvent like acetone 50/50 with the dye. This will help it dry faster and eliminate your problem. On shaders I use a mixture of 1/3 acetone,1/3 dye, and 1/3 vinyl as a binder. If you don't use a binder, the dye will bleed up when sprayed on top of a sealer. One must be careful when using some manufacturer's micro toners under wiping stains. When you wipe your stain, the dye becomes wet and comes off. I never have this problem with the following dyes: Ilva, Mcfadden, or Mohawk. There is not a better color design than one with a dye stain under a wiping stain.

From the original questioner:
I appreciate everyone's replies thus far. I'm trying to formulate a plan while taking into account the above comments.

1. Water based dyes won't work for me because my Famowood putty (solvent and water based) won't absorb the water based dyes.
2. My nearest ML Campbell dealer is over an hour away, so mail order looks to be my best option.
3. Premixed liquid dyes, at least to my understanding, require special shipping because of governmental regulations or something like that. They cost a lot in shipping.
4. I checked with my local SW and they carry 5 stock colors of premixed dye, but at over $90 for a 32 oz concentrate, seemed quite expensive to practice with. Besides, no one knew anything about them.

I'm not trying to shoot down everyone's advice by showing the above problems with the posted comments, but looking to be corrected or helped by them. I got some of ME Mosers oil based, powdered aniline dye from a friend who's also learning to use dyes. It's relatively cheap, will be absorbed by my wood putty, lacquer thinner is already handy and it can be sprayed on.

I plan to make multiple passes if need be to achieve my desired color. Mix with 1/3 acetone, 1/3 lacquer thinner, 1/3 vinyl sealer. Is this a good recipe? Does anyone see an improvement or potential problem with the recipe?

From contributor B:
Don't let Famowood wood putty determine your finishing products. The putty is not important compared to a superb color/finish. Find another putty or utilize methods of construction where you don't use it or at least minimize it. Hell, glue and dust is still the best filler, anyway. And depending on the concentration, $90 probably isn't a bad deal. I don't know the concentration, but that 32 oz can might make 16 quarts (4 gallons) = $22.50 a gallon ($5.63 per quart) = cheaper than you think. The start up costs are a lot when you go with dyes and buy up all the colors they make, but in no time that money comes back to you all grown up.

From contributor W:
That concentrate is the base they use to make the dye stains. You could probably make 10 gallons with that stuff. The problem is getting a repeatable color. That is where the packaged dye comes in. If there is no SW Chemical Coatings store close to you, have them ship it to your local store. That way you don't have to pay the hazardous shipping fees.

From contributor D:
You do not want to use the Moser dyes, as they are Lockwood's and as such are not metallized salt dyes (which are much more lightfast), as are the Transtints and Sherwin-Williams concentrates. Meaning that they will fade quickly in sunlight. Incidentally, your Sherwin-Williams store is giving you an amazingly low price for these concentrates, as out here in Arizona, they go for well over $150 a bottle in some colors. They must really like you. You must understand that these are extraordinarily concentrated colors. Yes, a bottle of Transtint goes for $15 (I think), but this is enough of concentrate to make between two quarts (very strong) and a gallon (the normal amount) of stain, so the actual cost is much less than the typical wiping stain.

Alcohol dyes will in fact bite into Famowood of either the waterborne or solvent variety, so that's not an issue.

The cheapest way to play with the right stuff is to get some Mohawk Ultra Penetrating Stain (Orasol Dyes in solution) along with their Ultra Stain Reducer (methanol primarily) and experiment. If you don't deal with Mohawk, go to a woodworking store and get some Behlen Solar-Lux, which is exactly the same thing under a different brand.

From contributor E:
Be careful - acetone and lacquer thinner do the same thing. Replace the lacquer thinner with lacquer for use as a binder.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor C:
I'm a furniture re-finisher and I use TransTint dyes quite a bit. I'm surprised to hear bleed-through described as fairly common. If you apply a dye with alcohol, acetone, lacquer thinner, water or whatever as the solvent and carrier, when it evaporates it's gone. The dye is left and it is pretty much inert and is penetrated into the wood. It won't re-dissolve.

You can wipe it all day with thinner. Bleach will easily remove it. Your 1/3 mix of acetone/thinner/sealer is kind of confusing to me. I presume you will add your dye to this mix? You will be, in effect simply making a dilute toner with minimal absorption into the wood. You see this on cheap furniture a lot. It's basically a painted on color. A scratch to the surface will reveal white wood underneath because no dye was applied to the bare wood. I've always found that a wash coat of de-waxed shellac will cure a multitude of sins after staining.

A common theme is that there is no single right way. If you don't experiment on scrap, you'll be experimenting on your project. Devote some time and money to building a database of samples and keep records of what you did. Be precise in your mixing. Itís very frustrating to try and duplicate a splash of this, a dollop of that and just a smidgen of something else.

Comment from contributor R:
I have had great success with SW's dye concentrate diluted with lacquer thinner and top-coated with SW's KemAqua (water-based) lacquer. Usually I let dye dry 20 minutes before applying the top-coats, and I spray the dye with a low pressure gravity feed gun.

Comment from contributor T:
Sherwin Williams dye concentrates are good. You can dilute 10% by volume with some pm reducer. The acetone/lacquer thinner/sealer sounds strange. A good vinyl sealer would be good. It wonít penetrate the wood like a varnish or lacquer. You can also buy pre-cat vinylís that are good for six months. Also, if you use the dye concentrates like I said they will last a very long time. Sherwin Williams has a good F3 vinyl sealer but it isn't pre-catalyzed. This could help with the bleeding issue.