Dye Basics

Some simple info about how to use dye stains. May 23, 2007

I am a 3 man shop. Most of our work is with maple and alder and all finishing is performed in-house. For clear finishes, we use Zar wiping stains followed by a lacquer sealer and pre-cat lacquer topcoat (Gemini products mostly, sometimes Sherwin Williams).

My question concerns the use of dyes. I am having trouble producing alder samples that have minimal variations and are consistently dark enough to suit one of my customers. This problem has lead me to investigate the addition of dyes to my limited finishing arsenal. I have no real experience with dyes and want to get off on the right foot. I have read other threads on this forum relating to dyes and I do not want to rehash a worn out subject, but I am having difficulty deciphering the information I have read.

What I would like to know is:
How is dye most commonly purchased (powder, premixed quarts)?
At what point and how is dye most commonly applied (sprayed/wiped on raw wood, mixed with lacquer as toner)?
Can I expect the use of dyes to yield a more tonally consistent and darker product (when desired) than the use of wiping stains alone?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor P:
I use TransTint in water or shellac primarily. Love the stuff. It would take hours to explain all the ins and outs, but there's a decent article in Fine Woodworking this month by Teri Masachi (did I spell that right?) on dyes.

From contributor W:

Your best course is to pursue the simplest. Dyes can come in different variations from concentrated to diluted (rts).The simplest is NGR by whichever company that is convenient for you. Mohawks' Ultra Penetrating Stains have a lot of different color variations. Gemini's Wood Finishing Supplies is another. Take these and spray (as these are normally spray only application) the color you need. You may not need to use straight out of container, but reduce 1:1 or 1:2 or whatever. This is something you have to experiment with and get set up for your spray application techniques. These are your dyes. Wiping stains are a different type stain with different application procedures. You can mix and match the NGR stains to whatever final stain color you need. This is where samples, samples, samples come into play.

From contributor A:
I use waterbased dyes from WD Lockwood and TransFast. They're both powdered dyes that you add to hot water. Lockwood makes alcohol-soluble dyes as well. I generally spray my dye first and often follow that with a regular pigmented stain, for a few reasons: 1) Dyes alone will fade if in direct sunlight. The pigmented stain provides some UV blocking for the dye. 2) Dyes alone don't look good (to me, at least) on some woods, like oak. The deep grain can appear washed out. A darker pigmented stain applied over the dye will get trapped in the grain and provide a nice contrast to the background dye color.

The Lockwood amber colors are a great base for finishes in the brown and reddish brown range. I often use their #144 Early American Maple, Golden Amber, then use diluted pigment stains on top of that to get the color I want.

That said, dyes alone can look great in the right situation. I'm particularly fond of Lockwood's Antique Cherry dye on cherry.

As for your question about tonal consistency and darkness, the answer is probably yes. Since you mix the dye, you can control the intensity of the color. As long as you mix your batches consistently, you should get consistent results. I know some people use scales for precision. I use measuring spoons and have had no problems. One real issue for first time dye users: when the dye dries, it looks like crap until you clear coat it.

From contributor B:
In my experience with dark colors on maple, the use of dyes works great for achieving tonal consistency. I feel that dyes are best sprayed on rather than brushed (due to blotching). I like to use Transtints because they are compatible with water, alcohol, shellac, and lacquer. I start with spraying the piece with dye mixed in 50/50 denatured alcohol and distilled water followed by a wash coat of vinyl sealer (5% solids), lightly sanded, then a pigmented wiping stain. I really like SW's BAC wiping stains because they are solvent based and can be topcoated in 30 minutes. If I need the color to be a little darker after that, I add some dye to a mix of 1:1 gloss lacquer/lacquer thinner to use as a toner. The beautiful thing about dyes is that they are transparent, so even with a darker final color, you can still see the subtle grain on maple. If you do some experimenting with different color combinations, I think you will be amazed at how a dye background will accent a pigment wiping stain.

From the original questioner:
Thanks to everyone who responded. I appreciate all the help.