Darkening Wood with Aniline Dyes

Non-grain-raising (NGR) aniline dyes let you get a dark stain into tight-pore wood such as Oak. Here's advice on mixing and application. February 21, 2011

I'm trying to stain an oak veneer tabletop back to the original color to match the legs. I stripped it to bare, but the wood isn't taking in enough stain to be dark enough and I don't want to leave too much on the surface. It used to be dark, so I know it's possible.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor W:
Don't know what color you are trying to achieve, but often an aniline dye followed by a wiping stain is successful. The dye gets you most of the way there and the stain gives a deeper, richer color, allowing you to wipe it hard without removing the color. This is particularly successful on hardwoods.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. What methods can the dye be applied with, and should I strip what I've put down already?

From contributor W:
Well, every situation is unique. I would attempt to get a trial piece going that represents the real one and the steps you have already tried. Water based aniline is easy to apply - use a foam brush to flood the surface, then wipe it off. Get it on quickly and try not to let drips run down a surface. Let it dry overnight and then apply oil based stain and wipe completely. This method is helpful when you find you cannot adequately wipe the oil stain without removing too much color. Take the time to practice before making a mess!

From contributor M:
We also use the water based dyes to get the deep and dark colors. After a little practice they are very user friendly. Mix a couple sample batches, maybe a quart at a time, and keep applying your second stain over these until you get the right color. We usually start with a weak color, say for example 1/2 teaspoon in a quart of water. Make a sample. Then add another 1/2 teaspoon to the same mix, and make another sample. Keep doing this until you hit the right color. Write everything down as you go since you have to let the dye dry before applying the second stain. Using this method, you do not waste a lot of the dye and end up with 20 containers of different mixes. This stuff is potent, so use little amounts at a time. Heating the water aids the dye in dissolving. We use a microwave to heat ours.

Woodworkers Supply is a good mail order supplier of dyes. They have a lot of colors and in small containers, which is good for finding the colors you may want to work with. They have an online color chart and will also mail you a printed chart which is helpful. You can also mix the dyes to customize your colors even more.

From contributor L:
Maybe it is more than just stain. A lot of furniture is dyed, stained and then a shading lacquer is applied over all that. You can get it as dark as you need with those three combinations.

From contributor I:
NGR (non-grain raising stain) is the secret. I used to buy mine from Rudd. It is a very fine grind pigment that is dispersed in alcohol and is sprayed onto the raw wood and left the 30 seconds it takes to dry. Once on, wipe your oil based stain on top. You can only base stain so dark (heavy concentration) before the wood will either be muddy (pigment) or black (dye). As much as I love to shade everything, after 5 of 6 coats of shader, you start to lose control and/or it gets to be too much labor. If you look at most factory finished furniture that is dark, you will see an overlap of NGR on the backside of the piece. Fun stuff - it will allow you to do things that the local painter cannot! Or never thought of.

From the original questioner:
Thanks everyone. I'm going to try tinted clear coats (Polyshades) and see if that works.

From contributor C:
Once you try aniline dye, you'll never look back! They are amazing because they don't mask the grain like stains do. They wonít interfere with top coats because they soak entirely into the wood.

Step one - if you are using water based, raise the grain with water. Run a damp rag over the surface of the wood, let the wood dry 15/20 minutes, then scuff sand with 180 or the last grit you used just enough to knock back the raised grain.

Step two - re-wet the wood lightly, so you donít get lap marks. Lap marks are where the wood hungrily soaks up the dye and dries out. By the time youíre ready to make your next pass with your applicator, the dye has dried into the wood and will then take more and create a lap mark. This is why if youíre doing a large surface area itís a good idea to wet the wood prior to dye application. You can do this a few times or use a more concentrated mixture of dye, but itís always good to start out too light and then add more color.

Step three - wipe the excess away and let dry. Overnight is good, but depending on humidity and temp, an hour or two may be enough.

Itís at this point you can apply the stain. If you have a color close to the one you want to achieve, you can put on a sealer coat and then the stain or glaze. You can also adjust the color using tinted top coats or toners.

Good luck. Do a test board. This is a good practice to get into, and it can act as your control - if anything goes wrong, you see it first on your scrap piece.

From contributor H:
Don't try Polyshades on the project! Try it on a scrap, then take it back to the store. You won't like it.

From contributor L:
Unless you can spray it and you are very good with the gun and the gun is set up perfect, I would stay away from PolyShades. Unless you like stripes.