When to Use Dye or Stain to Finish Natural Wood

By James Dulley

April 11, 2019 4 min read

Dear James: I am planning to build some natural wood cabinets for my living room. I am trying to determine the most attractive method to finish the wood. Is it better to uses a stain or a dye? — Lori L.

Dear Lori: There is nothing more beautiful than finely finished natural wood cabinets. You can purchase nice ones, but if you want the best hand-rubbed finish, do it yourself. Hand-finished cabinets are usually outside of most people's budget constraints.

The answer to your "stain or dye" question depends upon the type of wood you are using and the finish you desire. In some situations, using both stain and dye can create the most attractive finish. Also, the application procedure has a significant impact upon the final appearance of the wood surface.

Dyes are generally used to change the color of the wood or to create a unique surface effect. Some dyes can give the wood surface a sense of depth, while others can create a weathered or antique appearance. The entire surface of the wood changes color with dye, so the grain is neither enhanced or diminished.

Dyes are made of microscopic particles that attach themselves to the wood fibers. Dyes are available as liquids or as powders which are mixed with solvents such as alcohol, water or oil-based chemicals. They are basically transparent, so all of the wood's surface details show through.

Stains are made of colored pigments that stick in the grains and pores on the wood surface. A binder, such as oil or acrylic, is used to hold them in place. Unlike dyes, the pigment particles in stain build up in the grain, so it is enhanced. For this reason, stains create the greatest change in the appearance of open-grain woods such as ash and oak. They have less effect on maple.

If you are satisfied with the grain definition in the wood and just want to darken the color, then a dye is your best choice. Also, if the wood surface has some scratches that are difficult to remove, dye is also effective. Using stain would make the scratches more apparent, just as it enhances the grain.

On the other hand, if the wood has a nicely finished surface and the grain can barely be seen, staining it should work well. Use a dark stain rather than several coats of a lighter stain. The binder in stains is not extremely strong, and if it builds up from several coats, the top finish may not adhere well to the wood fibers.

For a stunning appearance, first apply a dye to color the wood and give it depth. Follow this with stain to enhance the grain and texture of the wood surface. Always practice first on a sample piece of the same wood to determine how much to dilute the dye for the color you desire.

The general procedure is to prepare the wood surface with sandpaper. Rub on the dye per the manufacturer's instructions. If you found the grain to be excessive on your sample, brush on a wash coat. This is a thin coat of sealer — often, dewaxed shellac — to partially seal the grain. Next, work the stain into the grain and wipe off the excess. Apply a protective topcoat of urethane, tung oil, etc.

Send your questions to Here's How, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit www.dulley.com. To find out more about James Dulley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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