Shaders and Toners: Defining Terms

Shades of meaning in finishing terminology. June 18, 2010

What is the difference between a shader and a toner? I was talking with some finishersthe other day and we all agreed there was a difference, but none of us knew what the difference was.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor G:
A toner is applied to raw wood, usually a dye. A shader is applied after some sort of a sealer or finish. A shader can also have pigments in it.

From the original questioner:
Thatís where the confusion comes in. I read somewhere a toner has color added to a clear finish and a shader has color added to a clear finish but it didnít really go on to say how they differed. When we were talking about it we all agreed that it was color added to a clear finish but we didnít know for sure what the difference was. One of the guys thought that a toner was applier over the entire surface and shading was localized to highlight or blend spots. I received an email from this post stating the same, toning is everywhere and shading is localized.

From the original questioner:
I found the answer in Ron Bryzeís book. Toners are sprayed to slightly change the color and even things out. Shaders are basically the same except the emphasis is on darkening.

From contributor D:
Toners are over the entire surface to shift or develop color with either dyes or pigments. Shaders are to add darker emphasis to edges, corners, and details with either dyes (subtle) or pigments (more bold). Think of guitar backs with the airbrushed shadow blown in from the edges over a lighter background.

From contributor P:
Below is an article in the Knowledge Base from a discussion about the definition of these two terms. What I learned from the discussion (I posted the original question), is that people use the terms to mean different things depending on how they were taught. I like the definitions that both Jeff Jewitt and Bob Flexner have in their books. A quick search on Google brought me to the page (pg. 127) in Jeff's book "Great Wood Finishes" where he provides the definitions.

In my mind, one key point about the techniques is that they are used over a sealed surface, not on bare wood. Which brings us to the term "sap stain" which I've come to understand as the process of coloring sap wood to blend with heart wood. It usually starts, and may be limited to, a dye applied to the bare sap wood. It could also consist of a dye on the bare wood, followed by a coat to seal the wood, and then a shading stain to complete the blend. I usually like to include a link or brief description/definition of the actual process I mean when I use these terms since they mean different things to different people and some aren't familiar with them at all.

"Shading" and "Toning" Defined

From contributor R:
There are many different situations where you can use a sprayed on color with a binder which I think we can all agree that both are. You can adjust the overall color of a job using an NGR stain or a pigment in either sealer or topcoat. You can add a halo or sunburst effect (usually pigment but not always). You can tone out dark spots or streaks in the wood (like the dark purple and black streaks in poplar for example) using a pigmented toner the color of the natural wood. You can add streaks to the wood, like when the shop uses Honduras mahogany trim on a sapele piece and you need to make them match. There are many more I can think of. The important thing is to know how to do the technique and not get so wrapped up in the name of it since they overlap so much.

From contributor D:
I guess people have different terminology for different processes. To me a toner is pigment or dye added to finish coat you can change the color slightly. Cons to this is spraying into corners and if you add to much pigment it weakens the finish. A shader, which is a pigment or dye sprayed after sealing without finish in it. I shade almost every job I do. I use quick dry pigmented stains in a touchup gun. The stains should be finally ground stains. Mohawk is the best I have found. I take the Mohawk stain and add 20% lacquer thinner to it, this help break down pigment, dry even faster and give bite into finish. Unless you shade heavy you don't have to wait to topcoat with lacquer. Some people think you would get little color dots like when you spray an aerosol toner can -not the case. Spraying lacquer right after you shade ensures this doesnít happen unless you shade way too heavy. If you need a lot of color shade in steps between coats when you spray into corners just back spray gun off a little, this as with anything requires practices.

You can use a regular spray gun but a fine touchup gun works way better. I do tons of color matching and you just canít match certain factory samples without shaders. I just finished a cherry kitchen made of solids, plywood, and veneer MDFís with a wide range of raw color. I take a Mohawk stain that is close to sample and then I cut stain with its thinner, seal, then use shaders to add color to match sample this makes and overall even color with no blotchyness.

From contributor K:
As is often the case in finishing and its terminology, there is no one universally accepted set of definitions of terms that everyone adheres to. One company's toner may be another's shading stain. Plus the same terms may have different meanings in other industries. In color theory, to shade a color is to increase the black component. A deep forest green is created by adding black to the original green, for example. Of course, there is a wide range of perceptions as to what forest green is. What's important is to know what the functions of the different products are, coupled with what you are trying to achieve.


Stain - pigmented colorant designed to be added to the raw wood. A stain that is purely pigmented lies in the wood's pores (most of today's pigmented stains also contain dye). A highly pigmented stain (mahogany, for instance) applied heavily and not wiped off could be called paint.

Dye - a colorant that contains no pigment and that soaks into the wood, acting at the molecular level to change the color. Dyes can be alcohol-based NGR (non-grain raising) dyes (or stains depending on that manufacturer's nomenclature) or various forms of dye powders, whether water-based, alcohol-based, or oil-based. The terms stain and dye are often used interchangeably.

Clear coat - a finish with no colorant added.

Toner/Shader - a colorant (pigmented or dye-based) that is added to the clear coat and applied to achieve any of several effects. It can be used to shift the overall color of the originally applied stain/dye (for instance, changing the color of a too-reddish piece), it can be used to spot-touch an area that took the stain differently; it can be used to highlight particular areas. It can be used to create special effects such as the sunburst pattern mention in another post. Pigmented colorants will have a different affect than dyes.

Glaze - a heavily pigmented product that is designed to be used between coats of finish. It is similar to a pigmented stain, but with much more pigment. It is often used to create a subtle change of color in a specific area or add decorative effects. Using the proper technique with a given product is what is important, regardless of what it is called.

From contributor G:
Toner makes a uniformly-colored substrate for the stain to go onto. It is usually dye, NGR or microlith sprayed on. The distinction between toner and spray stain is that a wipe stain goes over toner. Shader is shading lacquer and goes over the toner, wipe stain and sealer coat and often has a clear coat over it. It is usually pigmented. If you use dyes, NGR or Microton in your shader, make sure it is light-fast. Many of them are not.