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Thread: The Real Truth About Dyes

  1. #1

    The Real Truth About Dyes

    After spending over 100 hours perusing the Internet, another countless hours weeding through every woodworking magazine I have (going back to 1997), reading, even studying, Jeff Jewett's Finishing book, watching videos and posting questions on woodworking and finishing forums, I've come to the conclusion that when it comes to wood dyes, you're on your own.

    I think the "help me" cries that go unanswered, through whatever means one pursues, is more a function of the infinite possibilities one is faced with, considering the unique nature of a piece of wood and the seemingly endless array of dye products available and all the ways they can be mixed.

    So what I am proposing is for each and every member here to post
    what is...


    "The Real Truth About Dyes"

    Based on your experience. There are no wrong answers. That's the cool thing about infinity.

    My experience starts with some small pieces that taught me nothing, because I gave up. Dyes were too hard to work with. I had two bottles of Transtint dyes and they didn't like me. It wasn't my fault. They just didn't like me. What could I say?

    Then I was faced with a problem. I had a project using Honduran mahogany and sapele and the mahogany needed to be darker, or at least the same tone as the sapele. But the sapele darkened much more than the mahogany, given the same finish. The rails and stiles were mahogany and the panels sapele and the former had to be darker than the latter! End of discussion!

    Frankenstein's Laboratory had opened!

    There's all kinds of info available on the net about dyes, as far as mixing, types available, how to apply, etc. What there isn't much info about is how to achieve a certain color, given the type of wood you had, especially with WB finishes. And if you want to know how to make your specific wood dance and sing with WB finishes? Good luck!

    Woodcraft

    I went to Woodcraft and two men approached asking if I needed help. I had no idea who was the finish guru I needed to talk to. So I told them both what I was doing. And I mentioned dyes, as opposed to stains. The younger guy took over and showed me the array of dye choices they had. We went through a lot possibilities and he showed me pics of dyes on certain types of wood, just nont of them mahogany or sapele. Then I had to remember what tone I needed and all that other stuff.

    Note to self: Bring samples!

    So I did my best to remember and the Woodcraft guy was very patient. I walked out with 1qt General Finishes Medium Brown and 1gal Enduro Var in satin. I was excited! I was going GREEN! And he mentioned HVLP sprayers. The cat had been let out of the bag!

    I got home, anxious to see the sapele that popped so beautifully when I soaked it with mineral spirits. This was the "best" WB finish and so close to solvent finishes you could barely tell. I wanted to see the sapele come alive again, and with a finish that won't permeate the house or give everyone headaches. I patiently applied three coats of Enduro Var. After all, all the guys at Woodcraft said this was the BEST!

    Fecal Brown

    Yep, that's the best I can describe the color. It was drab and nothing like what we saw with the mineral spirits. I was depressed! All that work, taking 8/4 lumber, resawing it, planing it, shaping it and I got poopy brown.

    And so began the quest to find the magic dye!

    I had General Finishes Vintage Cherry and their Medium Brown but each stole the wood's lustre, it's beauty. It was like washing and waxing a car and leaving on the wax. Up on the shelf in my "paint room" sat two bottles of Transtint dye. One dark mahogany, the other red mahogany. And there was a bottle of dark vintage maple, that I was ignoring.

    Maybe? Just maybe...

    So I mixed a can of 50/50 mix of brown and red mahogany and applied it to the sapele. The grain popped , even with the Enduro Var. But it was too dark for what we were trying to do. Then I found out diluting the dyes just added more water and didn't dilute the color. You needed dyes that colored the wood the way you wanted.

    Back to Woodcraft

    Today I picked up Transtint dyes in Golden Brown and Bright Red. I did a 50/50 mix and applied it to the sapele and found I was getting closer. Actually, I LOVED it! But only with the sapele. When I applied it to the mahogany, it was way too light. So I took the same proportions and added 1/2 as much Brown Mahogany. The mahogany matched the sapele perfect!

    The funny thing is that's not what I was trying to do!

    And thus ends this chapter of my working with dyes. More to come..

    Anyone care to chime in and tell their stories?

  2. #2
    Experiment a lot and take notes....and pictures if you can. That's the only way I know to do it. Dyes are great, but it's like cooking. You start with a basic recipe, and then modify it for the particular ingredients you happen to have. That said, I work mostly with dyes and you start getting good at it after a while. Here's a guitar neck I did a refret on and had to subsequently match the existing finish:

    http://www.jcolocciaguitars.com/JCol...Re-Radius.html

    So I've gotten pretty good at matching "amber" on maple. That doesn't help me at all matching red on mahogany, for example. It's tricky. For amber on maple, now I have a basic recipe and I know I can add a touch of yellow, blue or brown to get it right where I want it. So basically what you're doing is the way to do it. Experiment, but definitely take good notes and good pictures.

    I do have a great book here on guitar finishing. It has color charts of various dye strengths and combinations. It's really helpful to get in the ballpark.

    http://www.amazon.com/Guitar-Finishi.../dp/0977651908

    It's really an excellent book for duplicating some classic recipes, but the color charts in it for Transtint dyes (well, StewMac's dyes, but they're Transtint) was worth the price by itself. Everything in there in applicable to any project, actually, though it's mostly geared towards the ridiculous, mile deep, high gloss finishes that some jerk 100 years ago decided guitars need to have. LOL.

  3. #3
    Thanks John. Lots of good information there! I've always had a great respect for people who finish musical instruments. There's no short cuts and the consumer expects perfection.

    In a lot of ways, dye mixing is taking me back to grade school where you learn the primary colors and then learn how to make other colors from that. About a month ago I was in kindergarten. Now I feel like I'm getting ready to graduate grade school. I'm finding it best to forget everything you knew about staining and just approach dyes as if you've never toned wood before. But now your color choices are endless. It also helps to approach WB finishes as if you were a newbie. And I'm starting to like what I see in that arena too.

    Today I'll be testing a few other recipes. While I love the colors I came up with last night, they are still a bit too dark. I'm already thinking I'm going to need other colors. Now it's back to the lab...


  4. #4
    Join Date
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    Welcome to the endless world of dyes, Julie. While reading and research provide a basic guideline of how to go about it, you really have to get out in the shop and make samples to understand the process and how to adjust color, depth, sheen, etc., all the things that separate a poor finish from one that sings. Like a lot of woodworkers, I once hated finishing; now it's one of the most enjoyable aspects for me even though I still have much to learn. And FWIW, EuduroVar, while advertised as having the look of a solvent based varnish, doesn't look much different to me than most other WB clearcoats. But you can add dye directly to it to get that look. Another weapon in the finishing arsenal.

    John

  5. #5
    Julie, I have a friend who worked out a way to mix that I hadn't heard before . Buys the powdered water soluble ,accumulating different colors ,he mixes very small amounts of WEIGHED powders with measured volume of water ,tests color on a small square of white maple and the wood used in the project .He saves the samples with the recipe written on the back . If he does not get desired color he learns from sample and mixes another SMALL sample. Not having to remember everything ,you pick up a skill faster. I can see that you have bought a good number of bottles of stains......so you can mix anything! If you don't want to buy a druggists scale ,just borrow from someone in your neighborhood who sell stuff in small quantities.

  6. #6
    Since you ask, my experience has been great with dyes.

    I agree transtint is messy. I don't use the tip; I unscrew and use a pipette.

    Wiping:
    I find water to raise the grain of wood. I also find it makes the sponge or applicator drag and fray which is a pain.
    I find ethanol to dry too fast, leaving streaks.

    Spraying:
    I find ethanol to dry too slowly unless you spray in 1-2 passes most per application, then wait to dry. This takes too long.

    My favorite method now is:

    1) Mix the dye at +/- 1% in a 50/50 blend of Dipropylene Glycol Methyl Ether + Methoxy Methyl Butanol. Flood it on with a foam brush, and then wipe off excess with a shop towel. These solvents do not raise the grain at ALL and dry sufficiently slowly to allow the dye to be moved around and avoid lap marks and spots. They dry a little slower than water. 12-24 hours drying recommended.

    2) Mix the dye at +/-1% in a 50/50 blend of ethanol and acetone. Spray the piece to get more depth. The acetone makes the dye dry almost immediately on impact.

    I'm using this on curly maple edgebanded on maple plywood right now - a tricky thing to otherwise color - and it's working well...

    Then seal and or topcoat normally.

    I think the only universal truth in coloring is: test, test, test.

  7. #7
    What's the real truth about dyes. You asked for our thoughts so here are mine.

    The first truth that is mostly ignored or denied is that no dye is light fast, even the modern metalized dyes like Transtint change color when exposed to UV light. The metalized dyes tend to first darken, then begin to fade. You can see these changes in the shop on a sample under a black light fixture in about 3 hours, in a normally lit room in about 3 years. This needs to be remembered when matching one piece of stock to another.

    Dye works ionicly (word ?) thru positive and negative charge, UV light breaks the ionic bond changing the color.

    Most waterborne finishes are some form of acrylic. They do not IMHO have the clarity of shellac, lacquer, or a nonpoly varnish. In 43 years of finishing I have never seen a finish that can match the look of a good shellac finish. Shellac is the safest of all finishes if you mix flakes with Everclear you can drink it as a pick me up.

    All that being said I do use dyes. When I use dye, I just try to get the lightest base color I am after, I then adjust and build on that base with toners and glazes until I get the look I want. When I do this I treat all the surfaces the same so that when the color changes it's still the same everywhere on the piece.

    When trying to match one odd piece to the rest of a project I use earth pigments they are the only true light fast colorants that exist. This way once it is matched it stays that way.

  8. #8
    Some more great information here!

    I had just recently read about dyes fading over time. And just yesterday I saw a video about the difference between dyes and stains. The host kept referring to stains as "dirt" because of the clay in it. I got the impression he didn't like stains very much.

    The fade factor, I read, wasn't much of a factor with Transtint dyes. I have to admit I'm starting to be kind of taken by all the dye world has to offer. But to go through all that testing only to lose the color you fell in love with is kind of depressing. And keeping your work hidden in the dark isn't very appealing either.

    But there's another factor that really can't be known completely, some woods change color over time. I know sapele does. When I bought the slabs, I could see the sections exposed to light were darker than those buried by top pieces.

    When we built the house 26 years ago, we used red oak for all the trim work, doors, and on certain walls. All the wood was stained before sanding sealer and varnish were applied. If the wood has darkened, I can't tell as there is no noticeable difference between wood exposed to direct sunlight and wood that only sees reflected or artificial light. I'm kind of hoping any color change in the mahogany or sapele will be unnoticeable too. But in three years I'm hoping I'll be living in warmer climes.

    Thanks to all who have chimed in here. Keep it coming! Maybe the mysteries of working with dyes will be revealed and more woodworkers will take the plunge.

  9. #9
    I think that fade thing is exaggerated .Yes dyes fade ,but people usually throw out and "upgrade" befor that happens. Rembrandts and Vermeers need to be kept out of bright light ,I could do that.

  10. #10
    Join Date
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    I like dyes and find them easier to use than stains of the Minwax variety. But, I almost never use TransTint. It dissolves in a wide variety of solvents meaning that there are few hand applied topcoats that won't disturb it. (It's a great product to mix with compatible top coats to create a sprayable toner top coat, or just to add a little color to excessively white waterborne finishes.)
    The General Finishes dye stains don't really function like a true dye. They are pre-mixed with a waterborne finish that functions as a binder. That reduces versitility dramatically.

    I MUCH prefer powdered water soluble dyes. TransFast is one brand. The largest maker of such dyes is W.D. Lockwood. Woodworkers Supply sells the Lockwood dyes under their Moser house brand. These powdered dyes are available in a wide range of colors, and dissolved in water they are easy to apply by hand. You simply flood the dye on--a sponge works well, wiping up puddles. The intensity of the color is controlled by how concentrated you have mixed up the dye. (Obviously, testing is CRUCIAL) Applying dye so liberally really helps the application be even, with every part of the wood absorbing its maximum amount. Using dye without a binder allows you to make changes. For example, if you have gotten the color two dark, you can lighten it by sponging with water. You can even take virtually all the dye off by using chlorine bleach (as long as you have not applied a top coat.) By the way, water based dye dries looking very ugly. The dye looks better while still wet, or you can use mineral spirits to wet the dye to approximate the effects of a topcoat on the dye.

    I like dyes to add life to certain projects. For example, to achieve an antique color on mahogany, I start with a moderately light concentration of lemon yellow. It will look awful. Then I partially seal this with a coat of 1lb. cut shellac. Over this I apply a brown mahogany dye. This leaves some golden highlights where the shellac has more fully sealed dense portions of the wood. I will probably seal this again with another coat of shellac, before applying a pigment only stain to add depth in the pores (or I will do the same thing by using a pigmented pore filler.) This schedule gives more life to otherwise plain mahogany. Since there are so many places for variation testing is critical, working through the full sequence until you get the desired effects BEFORE you apply the first bit of finish to the actual project.
    Last edited by Steve Schoene; 03-15-2013 at 8:37 PM.

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Julie Mor View Post
    I LOVED it! But only with the sapele. When I applied it to the mahogany, it was way too light.
    Quite right. The color and composition of the material you apply the dye to becomes part of the color combination. I like TT Dark Mission Brown or whatever it is called but, it is a strongly blue shaded brown. When applied to something primarily yellow like ash, you get puke green instead of mission brown.

    A color wheel is your friend. This is a great video showing how colors combine and offset. Truely a color wheel focused specifically on wood stains was the best $20 I had spent in awhile.
    “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” -- George Orwell


  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mel Fulks View Post
    I think that fade thing is exaggerated .Yes dyes fade ,but people usually throw out and "upgrade" befor that happens. Rembrandts and Vermeers need to be kept out of bright light ,I could do that.
    Agreed. What you made today will, almost certainly, look different in 5 years, and definitely will in 20 if it's still around. The dye may fade, the finish may yellow, the wood may change, the dog may chew the legs. Leave out the dye and all those things still happen. An inorganic pigment stain may not change over time, but everything else still does. Everything ages one way or the other. So I use the easiest approach that gets to me the color (Transtint in DNA) and look I'm after, often use topcoats with UV stabilizers, and accept that it will still change down the road.

    John

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by Julie Moriarty View Post
    So I did my best to remember and the Woodcraft guy was very patient. I walked out with 1qt General Finishes Medium Brown and 1gal Enduro Var in satin. I was excited! I was going GREEN! And he mentioned HVLP sprayers. The cat had been let out of the bag!

    I got home, anxious to see the sapele that popped so beautifully when I soaked it with mineral spirits. This was the "best" WB finish and so close to solvent finishes you could barely tell. I wanted to see the sapele come alive again, and with a finish that won't permeate the house or give everyone headaches. I patiently applied three coats of Enduro Var. After all, all the guys at Woodcraft said this was the BEST!

    Fecal Brown

    Yep, that's the best I can describe the color. It was drab and nothing like what we saw with the mineral spirits. I was depressed! All that work, taking 8/4 lumber, resawing it, planing it, shaping it and I got poopy brown.
    I am not the most experienced here, but it it difficult to get the oil-based pop using any water-based product directly on the wood. You can use water-based successfully by going oil to shellac to water-based finish. The shellac is needed for adhesion.

  14. #14
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    That definitely works, but if you just wait for the OB product to fully dry WB topcoats will adhere just fine. With the products I've used, I could apply the WB topcoat after 72 hours. Tape testing showed excellent adhesion.

    Why would I want to avoid using shellac? If you are trying to get a really, really water white finish then even Sealcoat shellac will cast an unacceptable amber tone to the wood.

    John

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by Jery Madigan View Post
    I am not the most experienced here, but it it difficult to get the oil-based pop using any water-based product directly on the wood. You can use water-based successfully by going oil to shellac to water-based finish. The shellac is needed for adhesion.
    When using darker dyes, then applying 3 coats of satin Enduro Var, I've been pleased with the grain pop on the sapele. It matches what I was able to accomplish with oils and solvent based finishes and there's no yellowing. But with no dye or with lighter dyes the pop wasn't there. Now that may just be specific to sapele. I do plan on doing some tests on figured maple, but not until the current project is done.

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