"Shading" and "toning" defined

How different finishers use these terms. February 12, 2003

What do you mean when you use the terms shading and toning? I have Bob Flexner's book and use the terms the way he describes. I've been told I'm incorrect and want to know what they mean to other people.

Forum Responses
From WOODWEB's Finishing Forum
From contributor W:
If you're using Bob's definitions, then you're using the terms in the same way that all the professional finishers I know use them. I'd suggest you show his illustrated definitions to whoever told you that you're incorrect; it seems they're the ones using the terms incorrectly.

From contributor M:
How about everyone explaining in their own words: What is a toner and what is it used to do? What is a shading stain and what do you do with it?

I have not read Bob's book. I was taught that a toner is made using pigments and a shading stain is made using alcohol based ngr stain. A toner could be used to paint out a dark streak in the wood before staining, for example, and shading is done to get the final color and even out inconsistencies in the stain application or overall wood color (i.e. one door in a run of cabinets is a little different in color).

From contributor W:

The way I've always used the terms is this:

Toning is putting colorant, either dye or pigment (I prefer dye), into a film coat and then spraying the toned film over an entire piece in order to subtly adjust the color. Toners are sometimes used in lieu of stains; for example, we use them to "clear coat" cherry doors when there are minor variations in substrate color.

Shading is spraying a toned film coat (or a stain, for that matter) over discrete areas of a piece, such as around the edges of a guitar face or a casket top, to provide contrast and drama.

From the original questioner:
I was taught the same use of the terms as the above. Color is added to the finish - pigment or dye - and how the colored finish is used makes it a toner or shading.

From contributor M:
A toner is used to begin the finishing process. A shading stain may be a part of the finishing process, and then there is a shading stain finish.

A toner can be made up from either dyes or from pigmented colorants, or a combination. A dye toner is used for color and transparency. A dye stain can also be a toner. Pigmented toners are the most commonly used toners because there are no white dyes to lighten the wood color. Pigmented toners are used because they have a better selection of colors, and can be made translucent, or as an opaque toner. Most toners are use to completely change the color, shift the color, or blend the colors in the woods. Toners may be transparent, translucent, or opaque. They may be made up using a combination of both types of colorant. Once the woods are toned, they then can be stained, paste wood filled, glazed, and a shading stain can be used to add more color to the finish.

A shading stain can be made up with dyes or pigmented colorants, or they can be combined. A shading stain is a color added to a clear coat. It is used to add color and coating in each application, until the desired color is achieved, and then the clear coatings take over until the finish is completed. This is commonly called a shading stain finish. Shading stains are also used at the end of a finish to add more color, to kick the color over, or to blend and uniform the color of a finish.

Stains are liquid colorants that may be made up of dyes, pigmented colorants, or a combination of both of these colorants, added into the proper solvents to make up a stain. Shading stains are colorants that are added to a coating.

From contributor B:
I was taught that shading and toning are synonymous. My experience is that non-finishers call it toning while finishers call it shading. You can add color into the finish, but that is not reversible. I prefer to mix ngr dye or utc pigment (depending on the level of clarity I'm after) into lacquer thinner. Use it for darkening small areas or shading an entire surface. You can then dust on a light coat of lacquer retarder to see the color wet. If it's not perfect, wash off the shade with vmp naptha and try again. When perfect, lock the shading in with your topcoat.

From contributor M:
Don't you make up complete color samples? I don't see the advantage of applying dry colorants and then spraying with a retarder to check the color. You certainly know that unless your colorants are clear coated, you cannot tell their true colors.

From contributor B:
One of the most common mistakes I see finishers make is over shading. I've done it. Especially if the wood used on the job contains many different colors. If the customer wants everything to match perfectly, the color sample only gets you close. The expertise of the finisher gets it perfect. Sometimes that requires several different shading colors. Of course I'm talking about large jobs. And yes, I know that the dust coat of retarder does show the true color, even before the clear coat is applied. Works on stained surfaces, too. It's an old trick.

Contributor B, are you saying that when you shade, you are putting ngr stains or pigments into lacquer thinner, then spraying on your work in whatever degree and to check the actual shade you dust coat with retarder? If too heavy/dark then you wash off with Naptha? Is your surface bare wood or sealed before you start shading? And does that surface have a stain of any sort on it before you start shading? Curious as to how that technique works, so would like to get all the details.

From contributor B:
Shading is done over clear coats of sealer or finish. I usually shade over the sealer but it doesn't matter. Sometimes it helps to use 4-0 steel wool with the naptha to help remove the shade when it is necessary to reverse. Doing it this way at least you can reverse. As for using the retarder, I use a spray can of retarder/blush remover to dust over the shade to see the true color. Spray lightly, otherwise you can mottle the shade.

From contributor M:
I'm a big believer in samples. I want to get it right before I start on the work. It's true that sometimes you need to refine and adjust. That's why factory finishes use toners, stains, glazes, shading stains, and clear coats. If you follow your samples, you never miss the target.

Learning to tone and shade with transparent and translucent colorants is an art that is only mastered by trial and error, practice, and precisely measuring your colorants, binders, and solvents.

I really get turned off when I hear the word paint connected to pigmented colorants, because when they are used right, pigmented toners, stains, glazes, and shading stains produce excellent finishes. It's too bad they have been put down for so long.

I'm just getting my shop up and running. I'm doing a job with cherry and it has a lot of multi-toned wood - light and dark. To even this out, would I stain, seal, then shade or tone to even the light areas?

From contributor M:
In my opinion, you need to tone out the woods. Without actually seeing it, I will have to shoot from the hip.

You need to make up a pigmented toner that is lighter in color than the woods, if you want to hide the multi-colors of the wood. (I prefer using pigments because there are no white dyes.)

I would start with a white lacquer, add a little burnt sienna paste colorant, and mix it up. I would want a flesh colored toner. Then thin this out with thinners. You want this toner to be translucent. You only want to add enough of the flesh colored toner to uniform the wood's color, you do not want to hide the woods - you want a uniform lighter color. As you know, making it darker is no problem.

You should practice this technique on some cardboard or newspapers, then on a piece of wood until you have the right color toner that is translucent.

Once you have toned the woods, you can apply a seal coat, then go on to your stain, seal, glaze if need be, seal, use a shade stain if needed, then go on to your clear coats.

Are you dealing with variations in heartwood color or sapwood vs. heartwood? Sapwood is a creamy light brown and will not age to the same color as heartwood.

If you're dealing with minor variations in heartwood color, I'd say don't worry about it. As the wood ages, the variations will be less pronounced. If you're dealing with sapwood, use a sap stain to get a more even color tone.

From contributor M:
Here is what I did to achieve this cherry toner finish. The sample first shows a flesh colored toner. I made this up using some white and burnt sienna pigmented colorants. I applied a clear coat to seal in the toner, and I then allowed it to dry. I wiped on a Van Dyke Brown stain, and brushed it dry. I then applied another clear coat, and let it dry. I sprayed on a VDB shading stain to add a little more color. I then clear coated the finish. As you can see, this is not a "painted finish," as some finishers may call it. All of the colorants used in this finish can be adjusted to suit whatever woods you may be working on.

I think some really do not know what a true toner is, and why it is used for factory finishes. Some finishers use the term "tone" or "toning" instead of "blend" or "blending." Also, the word "shade" is used when you are really "blending" or "uniforming."

Are you using the VDB wiping stain as a glaze or could you use a glaze in place of the wiping stain? How do you make your wiping stain?

From contributor M:
Yes, you could also use a glaze. You can actually alter this finish any way you want. Depending on the type of paste colorant I am using, I use different solvents. A simple stain is using oil or Japan colorants. Both have a binder. Add some mineral spirits and some lacquer thinners - this will penetrate the wood better.

From the original questioner:
I'm sitting here looking at an article on toners in the March 1999 issue of Professional Refinishing. In the article, the author defines a toner as "a thin, colored finish used to bring wood to a desired shade of color, usually before others coats of finish are applied." He differentiated between toning to lighten the wood and toning to darken the wood with the terms "toning in" and "toning out." He goes on to describe the use of dyes and pigments to create toners.

According to this author, toners can be used to lighten or darken the color of the wood and dyes or pigments can be used.

Personally, I don't care what you call the technique you use as long as you can describe it so I can understand what you're talking about. If someone tried to make a "finisher's dictionary," I figure 50% of the finishers would throw it in the trash because "it's wrong."

From contributor M:
The part of the article about toning in and toning out was describing that on certain woods with extreme variation of dark and light areas, depending on the final finish, you may have to both tone and shade to first uniform the woods, then use a uniforming toner over all. And yes, dyes and pigments both can be used for making up toners. That's where the toning in and toning out came from.

In finishing, one size does not fit all. What may work on one job will not work on another. As you know, woods are erratic both in color and appearance. A stain, be it a dye or pigment, is not always the answer to match customers' samples. In some shops they use stock colors for all their finishing; in fine custom shops the customers supply you with the samples, and you need to match their colors and their finishes. This becomes a whole new ball game, and now you need to use both the dyes and pigmented colorants. This is where I believe that toners start to shine. This is how the furniture manufacturers produce most of their factory finishes. Not every finishing shop uses or needs toners - like everything in finishing, there is a time and place for them, and that is when they are really needed.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
The finishing trade is mired in more of a linguistic quagmire than any other I know. To a woodworker a dado is clearly a dado, and there's an end to it. Even though dado does have several completely different meanings, the meanings are crisply defined and not really up to interpretation; discussions deal more with derivation than meaning. For finishers, however, communicating with precision about subjects like toning and shading is an almost hopeless challenge.

In reading through the various comments above, some seem TO ME to be right on the money, others way off. I have some thirty years experience in this field, have taught related subject matter at a technical college, have continuously studied and scoured technical literature to bolster my knowledge. Still, my understanding of words like 'toning' and 'shading,' and other technical lingo, I learned initially from another person. I received the information as a link in an oral tradition stretching back in time. If that person was misinformed or even just described things badly--either at the bench or in his writing--I grew to understand the words wrong as well. Despite all the care I have taken to be accurate, I know at times I have passed erroneous information along to my students.

With a structured tradition of apprenticeship as in ages past, trade jargon would almost certainly be more uniform. But lacking that, most of us learned on our own, picking up information here and there from teachers who did exactly the same. For example, I learned in art classes--and it's mentioned in Webster--that a shade of a color contains a touch of black, and that shading is applying a darker gradient of a color. So, in reading the comments above, I immediately understand the person who speaks of shading used for a dramatic effect on a guitar or another who means overall darkening of a finish, whereas some other uses of the word shading sound like gibberish to me. I know it isn't gibberish; I know that the writers are skilled craftsmen and that they are completely earnest in their contribution, but I simply don't understand the usage as they do. In a sense, we are writing in different languages without a good dictionary. It's not as simple as what one person calls 'shading,' the other calls 'toning.' To each person there are subtle degrees of overlap, gradation, and even convolution in the meaning of the words based on their life experience. I would almost certainly understand the word shading differently if I hadn't had the art classes.

So, who's right? Ultimately, it's the usage that survives over time and distance, but that's not much help to us right now. Although each contributor to this discussion is trying to offer a definition of terms in a forthright, reasonable, and systematic fashion, each respondent sees the subject through their own framework of experience. Shoulder to shoulder in the shop, the explanations might make perfect sense and the differences in the understanding of terminology become insignificant, but in cryptic online notes without a controlling reference which limits the meaning of our language, we're floundering.

A journal like Professional Finishing could provide a great service to the trade by synthesizing data to develop a standard lexicon for finishers based (1) on information in their articles over the years, (2) on their editor's experience, (3) on technical literature, (4) on information from other contributors like suppliers of finishing products, (5) and on their reader's vast experience. The best dictionaries are always the product of collaboration of experts over time. Although individuals can certainly make important contributions, ultimately a consensus on meaning based on sifting of the data by many minds is most reliable and useful. Who's right doesn't matter. What matters is developing a standardized vocabulary so we stop talking at cross purposes. Language changes for us all; there would probably be little resistance to adopting wholly new definitions of terms if we knew they were standardized and accepted industry wide.

Comment from contributor C:
I don't know Bob Flexner's explanation to these two finishing terms, but if you spend a few minutes thinking about their applications, you will see that to "tone" is to lighten, and to "shade" is to darken. You can also use the terms like "blending in", "coloring in", "adjusting color".

If you apply a color that is lighter, you are toning in; if the color is darker, you are shading it in. Except when you are doing a "shading stain finish," which is done with paste pigments or dye colors added to your coatings.