Toning a Reddish Finish to a Dark Walnut Color

Advice on how to tone a red finish in the direction of walnut. February 23, 2008

Any advice on changing some existing reddish stained cabinets to a dark walnut color? I have several dye concentrates - black, red, yellow, vandyke brown, blue, and green. I have been trying to tint the lacquer, but the finish I spray on the existing door I have for a test doesn't look very good at all. I have never used dyes with lacquer. My blacks have a blue tint to them and when I add green to pull the red, I end up with a purple tint. I have a whole kitchen to do but don't want to even attempt it until I'm satisfied. So far I'm not.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor J:
It's very difficult to get an even coat of color when you add the color to a clear-coat. It tends to look a little blotchy or mottled. Check with your finish supplier to see if they have a clear dye stain base. Add your colorants to those. Scuff a test panel, spray the color on and topcoat over that. To get a deeper black, see if your supplier has a lamp black tint paste that can be added to the stain base if your blacks are not black enough.

From contributor G:
This is a refinish job, right? You didn't mention the type of wood. If it is maple, you will have to clean and sand and all of that - and seal with shellac, too. Make a walnut toner with dye, shellac and alcohol. Spray light even passes until depth of color is achieved, and topcoat. If you are dealing with deep grained wood - oak or ash - you'll have to do something different.

From contributor A:
I've done this many times. Black and yellow dyes mixed in the right amount make a kind of dark green, that will eventually tone out some of the red and allow a more walnut color to prevail. But you better be an accomplished spray professional, because once you go too dark, it's over. Practice on the inside of the door. Go slow with your applications, allow each layer to dry before recoat - it's a tough challenge.

From contributor O:
I agree with black and yellow. When I make a toner I use 1/4 qt. lacquer, 3/4 qt. acetone, then turn the pressure down low so it doesn't get blotchy.

From contributor E:
If you get a blotchy finish by making a shading lacquer with dye, you're not doing it right. Add no more than 8 oz of dye per gallon. (This is just a general rule; it depends on how concentrated the dye is.) I try to stick closer to 4 oz. per gallon max. Don't try to get all your color in one coat. Mix it weak enough that you are building color with multiple coats. You do have to spray evenly to avoid streaks, but if you are a competent finisher, this should not be hard to do. Another option is a toner. This is similar to a shading lacquer, but is highly thinned down, allowing you to build more color without building up too much mill thickness.

From contributor V:
A lot of good advice. Realize and remember this. What you are trying to do is called toning, not finishing. Real light application(s) till you achieve what you want, then finish coat. Don't try to do it all in one coat; it will never work.

From contributor C:
Personally I would drop the dyes and go with pigmented tinters. I do it regularly and the differences are extremely subtle (normally not visible to viewers other than myself). Advantages are: better range of truer tints, superior lightfastness, simplified stocking, more versatile compatibility.

You might also consider applying a glaze rather than toning as the overall quality of the look can be upgraded in that way at the same time as the color shift is accomplished and this could be a slightly simpler finish to achieve.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the replies. I have spoken some with a supply rep in Idaho. He was telling me to tint the cabs using only dyes and lacquer thinner. But in my opinion it's too thin to spray on vertical surfaces, and that is based on spraying it on a door jamb to the spray room. I am experienced at spraying. I use Graco 395 airless sprayers in the paint room and also use gravity feed HVLP spray guns to use for stains, glazes, and toners. The toners I get here are from Pittsburg Paints and are lacquer based, tinted with industrial colorants, making them somewhat opaque or totally opaque. I believe the cabinets are maple with a lacquer finish. I was intending to take all drawer fronts and doors off the cabs, spray those here at the shop, then spray the face frames and end panels, crown, etc. on site. The reason for wanting to spray tinted lacquer was for a one shot application and the concern of the vertical applications and running on the on-site cabinets. Sounds like I'll have to do multiple coats. I've never used shellac, only lacquers, due to the controlled finishing area that I have in the shop. Any further advice will be welcomed.

From contributor E:
Your rep is pretty close, but add some finish to the dye/thinner to give it some body and bite. A typical toner mix would be:
1 quart of lacquer
3 quarts high quality lacquer thinner.
4 oz. of dye (varies with strength of dye and color desired)

From the original questioner:
Thanks. That gives me a starting point.

From contributor T:
1. Yellow and blue make green.
2. Yellow and black make a yellow brown.
3. Green on red-brown draws the red toward black, creating a darker red-brown.
4. Yellow on red-brown kills the violet creating a darker orange-brown.
5. Green on red-violet kills the red in red-violet, thus pushing the color toward violet and creates a darker violet or purple.

You've already done #5, which suggests the color of your cabs is red-violet. Dark walnut is in the vicinity of a dark VDB which is usually a blue-violet brown. To get there you need to tone red-violet with a blue or blue-green toner. But note that anytime you add a color that is on the complementary side of the color wheel, the resulting color is darker. So, only after you get the right hue should you begin adding black (if needed) to get the value you're looking for.

I'd suggest starting with blue. If it's not getting cool enough, add some green. When you get a hue (color) you like, start adding black if needed to darken it. You could also start with a 1:1 mix of VDB and RU. If it isn't right, more RU will cool it down while more VDB will warm it up. Black only when you've got the right color, but it needs to be darker. I certainly agree that pigmented toner, dye toner, or glaze will do the job, and always very light coats. It's easy to get carried away with a toner.

From the original questioner:
You guys are awesome! Thanks for the help. Is the RU raw umber?

From contributor R:
Just to be on the safe side, be sure to make some samples so you know what you're doing.

From contributor D:
I love dyes, but not for this purpose. You will be much better off with a pigmented toner. You need extremely little 844 or 866 colorant to achieve the effect you are after. Maybe 3 grams per quart or even much less. For all intents and purposes, this will be transparent on the work. You need a color similar to RAW umber. Since 844 doesn't come in RAW umber in quarts, you'll need to mix burnt umber and phalo green to produce it. Then mix a very small amount of this into 50/50 lacquer and thinner and spray this on a test piece stained the same as the work. Go lightly. The change will happen quickly and once you overshoot, you're screwed. This will work much better than dye. You will be amazed at how little tint you will need. Trust me - a gram of 844 colorants per quart is often enough.

From contributor S:
Yellow and black can often produce a green, as small amounts of black act as blue in a mix. Sadolin used to have an exterior stain called Lignum Vitae that was purely carbon (lamp) black and yellow oxide. Very popular colour on CCA treated cladding (siding).

From the original questioner:
I do in fact have a door off the job here in the shop and am picking up a drawer front today to try some of the advice. I will start on the end panel on the side of the fridge first and make sure that the application is working on a bigger area, before proceeding on.

From contributor E:
"I love dyes but not for this purpose. You will be much better off with a pigmented toner. You need extremely little 844 or 866 colorant to achieve the effect you are after - maybe 3 grams per quart or even much less. For all intents and purposes this will be transparent on the work."

I disagree here, contributor D. While it is true that 844 or 866 colorants will work well as you describe, it's too easy to go overboard with them and start to get an opaque, painted look. Remember, most people don't have a gram scale and will measure by volume. Hard to be accurate with the small amounts needed. Dye, when used correctly, will remain transparent even after multiple coats, and in my opinion, looks nicer than pigment based toners.

From the original questioner:
I agree about the transparency comment. That's why I'm going this route. I have experience with industrial colored toners and found the type that is made here to be too opaque.

From contributor B:
If the existing finish is nitrocellulose lacquer (un-catalyzed), then I would make a toner with just dye concentrate and lacquer thinner. I dilute enough to do two or three passes (with my dyes, that's around 8 to 1). The toner will melt the nc and flash off quickly, ready for the next pass. I allow some time to completely flash off, then topcoat with post-cat lacquer. When toning much darker than the existing color, I try to sell the customer on glazing the recesses, since it is difficult to get the toner in the crevices. I have been able to use powder glaze on an existing nc job, but had to spray it lightly, in several passes, and then sand away the excess. If the existing finish is catalyzed, then I scuff sand everything and glaze, or not, then tone with one part dye concentrate, two parts topcoat, and four parts reducer, then topcoat.

From the original questioner:
It's looking like that's the way I'm going to go, but I'm nervous about the mix being too thin to hold up on a vertical application.

From contributor I:

Unless you're flooding it on, it dries almost instantly.

From the original questioner:
Would you guys recommend using the airless 395 Graco with, say, a 210 tip, or go with the gravity fed HVLP spay gun? Concern there is I have a small twin tank portable Campbell Haus compressor.

From contributor B:
Given those choices, I guess I would go with the gravity feed and find another portable compressor to join with the twin-tank. I have a refinish in my studio now, and the cabinets that have finished ends came to me, along with the doors and drawer fronts. If you can do that, you may be able to coat the frames (on site) with what you've got.

From contributor T:
Pay careful attention to all of the recommendations for highly diluted, thin coats. I use an old fashion conventional cup gun held back about 2 feet for dye toners and fog it on. It gives me very good atomization and very little coats. My last choice would be airless.

From the original questioner:
My thoughts exactly. I have two of those guns and find myself using them more than the gravity feeds. They seem to be more consistent but do have more overspray than the gravity guns. I sprayed a vent hood yesterday with perfect results by using "ole faithful," the cup sprayer. I really appreciate all the feedback - you guys are great!