Dye, Stain, and Wood Selection For a Gray-Toned Finish

A cabinetmaker's looking to get a gray finish on solid wood and veneer cabinets. Pros chime in with an advanced discussion about the difference between dyes and pigments, with advice on how to achieve a nice gray tone and really show off the wood grain. December 1, 2005

I need some help understanding the issues surrounding the use of analine dye and stain, all by themselves and in combination with each other. I can remember reading an article that did a good job of explaining the difference between dye and stain. I can't remember where I read it, so I am hoping someone here can help explain it.

The project we have in mind will likely be done with veneer cabinets below counter and solid lumber glass doors above. The customer likes straight grain and leans towards shades of gray. We are contemplating doing one value of gray above counters and perhaps a darker value below.

Can anybody recommend veneer species that would work for a lighter gray color? Ash comes to mind as something we could blend lumber and veneer. Maple would also work but would probably be tough to get a uniform stain/dye job. Can anybody steer me to a discussion of these nuances?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor D:
I would recommend checking out books by Bob Flexnor. There is so much you could say about this subject that this site probably couldn't contain it all. One little detail is that the term "analine" is out of date, but it's still widely used. Most dyes nowadays aren't analine. I usually try not to use water based dyes or stains on veneer. Although it's do-able, I see no use in testing the glues moisture resistance, as water penetrates very deep.

From contributor G:
If you want gray, you are certainly looking at a pigmented stain. There's no white dye. This is not a bad thing; you can get some very nice looking effects. If you use oak, you'll avoid the blotching problem associated with maple and also get some nice grain definition. I like the look of gray toned oak with the grain accented in white.

From contributor R:

Rift white oak is a perfect wood for what you are describing. The grain is straight and it has some nice fleck in it that you can really make pop if you are using dyes. It really depends on how much time you are looking to invest in this, but you can often achieve great results using both dyes and pigmented stains (and you could even follow with a toner before your top coat).

The advantage of using all three, especially with a wood like oak, is you will get a nice depth of color. The dye will really pop the grain and provide a background color, the pigmented stain will get down into the grain, and the toner (it should be a light one with all the color already below it) will assure a nice even finish. You can buy solar lux dyes which are premixed (they can be diluted in strength with denatured alcohol) or a line like the ILVA dyes (be careful, these are real concentrated) and mix your own into some denatured alcohol.

Contributor G - we have made some nice shades of gray in the past and my ILVA dyes have a white dye concentrate.

From contributor G:
Informationally speaking - the difference between dyes and pigments is that dyes dissolve in the medium while pigments are suspended in it. White colorants are all oxides of metals: lead, zinc, silver, aluminum, calcium & titanium and do not dissolve. That is not to say white can't be used in spray stains. Contributor R - your white ILVA concentrate is one of many that can be used. I have made hundreds of gallons of spray stain for a furniture manufacturer using 844 TW in xylene. It requires constant agitation to keep the white from settling out.

From the original questioner:
I'm so far out of my product line with this stuff that I need all the help I can get. Most of the information I am looking for is to help the customer figure out how to get what they want. We won't be doing the finishing ourselves, but we want to have a platform that the finisher can succeed with.

While the base cabinets are going to provide a lot of visual ballast because they are big flat facets of veneer, the wall cabinets will be mostly glass doors. We want to build these door frames with really wide (5-6 inch cross grain) stiles. The desire is to make the inset glass panel maybe 1/3 mass of the whole door.

I don't think I can build stiles this big out of lumber because it would probably curl up on me. I am planning on building these doors in the same way I imagine people build interior passage way doors (I have never done that either)

I would like to start with a core of finger jointed lumber. I figured then to band the edges with about a 1/4 solid then veneer the 5 inch faces with 1/8 inch solid. Does anybody have any comments about whether this is a good idea or not?

From contributor J:
Thick veneer can be about 3 to 3.5 mm thick before it starts behaving like solid wood. With a stable hardwood (especially rift oak) I would not be afraid to make those doors solid.

Another idea is to make the glass door frames out of solid wood then veneer the whole frame both sides vertically with conventional thin veneer. Rout out the glass openings with a laminate trimmer after. This matches your veneer below, gives the good 3 ply construction and the edges are taken care of already. Also, you do not have to worry about hiding the thick veneer edge.

Make sure the door frame material is dry or you might get some telegraphing through at the joints. You could use plywood or MDF for the core, but it would be a lot of work to cut the glass openings and band showing edges.

The woodwork in this house was all water based dye stains with polyester topcoats. We matched the colors with Arti brand powder dyes. The dye stains on all the woodwork is stunning and has held up well except for the exterior doors they used the same finish on. I think you can get gray with these types dye stain.