Tinting Toner Tips

A longtime furniture finishing pro offers tips on toners for tinting. March 12, 2002

Reprinted with permission from www.iswonline.com.

Tinting toners and tinting toner stains are important elements in making wood color look uniform and as bases for a variety of specialty finishes.

By Mac Simmons

One definition of “tone,” used as a verb, is “to bring something up to a required shade of color.” In finishing, if we are attempting to “tone in the woods,” we are trying to lighten, blend or closely match various colors of different species of woods as we begin the process. We also tone wood to adjust natural variations of colors in the same species, by first spraying on some color to make the raw unfinished woods look more consistent in their overall color.

There are two types of toners that are used in finishing. One is referred to as a “tinting toner stain,” which can be either a translucent or transparent colorant that allows the wood’s characteristics and natural colors to show through. The second toner is an opaque colored coating that actually hides the characteristics and changes the wood’s color. The latter is called a “tinting toner.” It “hides” the wood and blocks out its natural look in the same way paint does.

Dye tinting toner stains are transparent. Pigmented, colored tinting toners are translucent and may start out as basecoat colored lacquers. They are then thinned out with lacquer thinners and called tinting toner stains. Once sprayed, the remaining colored lacquer acts as a binder, and the colored pigments give the toner its color.

A tinting toner starts out as basecoat colored lacquer, but it is not thinned out as much as tinting toner stain. This keeps the tinting toner opaque, and it completely blocks out the natural look of the wood. It is only by using staining and glazing manipulation techniques and colored shading stains that we make tinting toners look like different colored simulated finishes.

Why are toners used? Many manufacturers, finishers and refinishers use toners to achieve a certain uniformity of color on all their pieces, because projects often incorporate many species of woods, including soft and hardwoods, plywood, MDF and veneers.

When multiple woods are used, it can be very difficult to achieve color consistency in the finish without the use of toners. Even when using the same species of wood, the color can change from one extreme to another from board to board. This can cause problems in color matching different pieces of furniture or different parts of a cabinet or architectural woodworking project.

In terms of colors, different shades of yellows are commonly used for dye toner colors. But depending on the final finish color that is desired, orange, brown and red dye colors also are used occasionally. In some cases, dyes and paste-pigmented colorants are combined to achieve different colored toners. These are used to make the wood color uniform by either lightening or darkening it to blend it.

The finishing process always starts with the tinting toner stain. In some cases, all that is needed is a sealer and clear coats and the finish is complete.

For another common finish, the toner is followed by a stain, sealer and clear coat. A glaze can then be added to the process, to give the finish more character and enhancement, followed by sealer and clear coat again.

A shading stain also can be used with all these materials in different combinations to enhance the toners and the woods.

Dye stains come in both powder form and ready-for-use liquid form.

Many wood species fall into three basic color categories: yellow, flesh (pink) and tan. There are many shades of these colors, and adjusting the hue by using the right toning color is the key to the final finish color, regardless of whether it is stained, glazed or shaded.

Some finishing materials manufacturers sell premixed pigmented toner colors or solid/opaque basecoat colored lacquers. In most cases, these will have to be lightened or darkened, or other colors may have to be added to the standard colors to produce the right shade for your particular wood. The same is true if you make up your own pigmented toner — some color adjustments will have to be made to match the wood.

Yellow-colored toners will produce different blond woods, such as light pines, teaks, light oaks and a variety of fruit wood colors. The flesh-colored toners will produce an assortment of cherry, rosewood and a good selection of red and brown mahogany colors. The tan-colored toners are good for numerous shades of pecans, walnuts and dark pines. Many pickling colors can be made up with colored tinting toner stains.

If you prefer to make up your own toners, here is one way to do it that I have found to be very successful.

In cases where the toner color will have some white in it, I prefer starting with a gloss white lacquer. If the toner will not need any white, I use a water clear coating and then add Universal Colorants to make up the colored toners.

If you start by using a gloss white lacquer, to make a yellow-colored toner add some French yellow ochre colorant; to make flesh-colored toner, add some burnt sienna. To make up a tan-colored toner, add some burnt umber colorant.

As far as quantity goes, add two to four ounces of Universal Colorants per quart (always start with less color, since more can be added if it is needed).

These are the starter colors. You may have to adjust these toners, depending on the variations in the colors of the woods you are using and the final finish you want to achieve. There also are many other Universal Colorants that can be added to change and make up toners to match other colored woods that do not fall into these three basic groups.

By mixing the white or the water clear lacquer with the pigmented colorants, you will produce a colored basecoat lacquer. You will need to add some lacquer thinners to reduce both the viscosity and the color strength. Try using a mixture of about 25 percent colored lacquer with 75 percent thinners, testing it on some sample pieces of wood for both color and translucency. This mixture should then be strained to remove any unwanted matter like dirt, pigments or resin particles that may have been in the lacquers, thinners or colorants.

After you have done the thinning and have your tinting toner stain, you may have to continue to thin out the color further. This is because you want to add very little color with each pass that is sprayed on the wood. You want to be able to make a few passes with the gun, adding very little color each time. The tinting toner stains should be as translucent as you can make them, because you do not want to block out the wood’s characteristics — you only want to tone them in and add enough to blend the color and make it uniform. If you apply too much tinting toner stain color, you will end up blocking out the wood’s characteristics like a tinting toner does. Be especially careful with lighter colored woods, which usually require fewer passes with the gun to blend the colors than the darker colored species do.

Always make up samples to test your tinting toner stain color and to check the toner’s translucency. Always be sure to make up enough of the toner, and also save the formula in case you need to make up more of the same color.

Once the wood has been toned and blended in and you have a close match, then you can follow with a stain, glaze and/or shading stain to achieve the color you want for the final finish.

In addition, a tinting toner can be used to act as a solid, opaque colored basecoat, by applying it with less of a reduction of the lacquer thinners or by applying a few extra coats. This will bring the wood to a solid, opaque color. The base color coating can be glazed to achieve many simulated wood-colored finishes as well as faux or fantasy finishes.

You should also make complete samples to ensure that all your finishing materials are compatible. Start with your toner and apply only the stain or a glaze, where applicable. Or, try following the stain or glaze with a shading stain. Always include some clear coats so that you can see what the final finish will be like. As you make up your samples, remember to keep each formula with the samples so you can duplicate them as needed.

Wood colors can be darkened easily. In some cases, the wood’s color can be made uniform by using a dye or pigmented “shading stain,” which can be made up by adding a little dye or pigmented colorant into the clear coating. This can be blended in lighter colored woods to make them somewhat darker, followed by clear coats.

To lighten up a darker colored wood so that it can be stained to a lighter color, you must tone in the colors. In most cases you will need to use pigmented colorants, as there is only a white pigment, where the dye stains do not have any.

Toning is a technique that requires some trial and error to perfect. But once you have achieved the right colors and applied the correct amount of toner to allow the wood finish to remain transparent or translucent, you will find that toning is a very valuable method to achieve and crate many different finishes on different types of woods.

Mac Simmons is a freelance writer in Massapequa, NY. Now retired, he is a 40-year veteran of the furniture finishing, refinishing and restoration trades, including 30 years as a field representative for Mohawk Finishing Products. He has contributed several articles to professional finishing magazines.

Reprinted with permission from Custom Woodworking Business.