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JOEL Joel's Blog

How To Select The Correct Color Dye Stain For Your Project Part 2


In part one of this article I wrote about the difficulty of predicting the final color of wood without taking into consideration lots of things including the underlying species, the topcoat, and the lighting.

Figuring out the stain for a project, and in fact the entire finishing process, is something you should be doing before you cut the first piece of wood. It's as an important a part of the blueprint as is how long a stile is.

The basic questions of determining a finishing sequence are: Are you matching some actual existing sample or some theoretical idea in your head or in the head of a client ( a family member, or a paying customer). And if by the time you get all done and deliver the piece, will it match expectation?

Of course, there is a question of if the material, stain, and finish sequence will look the way anyone thought it would when installed in the final location under final lighting.

Wood doesn't just have color - it has grain and texture. If the stained wood is high up, in a dark spot in the room, you might get lucky and it won't be obvious - but it's really hard to get two pieces of wood standing right next to each other to "read" like the same species if they aren't similar in color AND in grain. For example supposing you are making a poplar dresser that has to look right in a room filled with nice oak furniture. There are three ways around this: Don't use poplar, use a wood with a similar grain pattern. Don't just stain the piece, also paint in some grain. Use a stain that conceals the lack of grain in the poplar and looks like some sort of very dark, dirty oak.

The matching problem is important to consider early on in the project. The question to consider is: "Given the final location of this piece, and what I/my family/ my customer want - given my choice of materials and my finishing sequence - will the piece look right when I am all done?". Because - getting back to the oak example - it may make a lot of sense to realize early on that maybe you need to use veneer instead of trying to match some oak with color alone.

Believe nothing you hear. Just because someone swears they want "a nice English walnut look" that doesn't mean you can show up at the end of a job with the piece dyed English walnut. Even if it looks like English walnut. I wonder how many cabinetmakers have proudly delivered something that's perfect except that when the client asked for "English walnut" they really didn't mean English walnut like the kind that grows in England, they meant the really dark brown wood that they remember from an antique store a bunch of years ago. What's also true and can't be blamed on anyone except the finisher is that when you carry that nice stained English Oak finish from your florescence lit workshop upstairs into a sun-lit dining room it will look totally different (probably too red).

These reasons are why the client has to see samples of what you are actually going to produce not just a photo of something similar. Even if you are the client, you need to make that sample, just so you can see for yourself how it will look outside the workshop.

Another situation is when the customer gives you a color swatch. "Match this". Same problem. A small swatch of material will probably look different than a big panel and your idea of a match might be different - You catch my drift - Test your finish. Makes sure the client (you, your family, paying customer, Uncle Fred) signs off on it.

Understand you have no clue. People who do this for a living usually have a pretty good idea what going to happen when finishing but the ones that are successful still do tests, produce samples, and in general don't try to guess at the result.

So here is what you do. If you are ordering stain from us - get a few samples and some mixing dyes so that you can experiment. You don't need to mix up entire packets of dyes, just keep track of the results. Read this article on how to tweak and apply dye stains. Test everything. Write down your entire finishing sequence from final sanding and grain raising to dyeing, to top coats, sanding between coats and etc. This way you can exactly duplicate or precisely make changes to the sequence later on. Then run a test. Use a bit of wood from the project that is representative of the piece, (not some sapwood destined for the fireplace). A piece that's big enough so you can tell what you have. Finish it exactly like you should (it's work) and then stick it on the wall at the location where it will be. If you are doing this for a living let the customer live with the sample for a little while and then sign off on it. "YES this is what I want!!!" This is doubly important if you work in a shop with typical fluorescent lighting. where the color you see in the shop has very little to do with how the piece will look in situ.

Good luck, more people run into our shop in a blind panic because they need to turn something from one color to another at the last minute than people who just ran out of Dominoes.

Note: I forgot in part one to mention that wood usually darkens with time. Cherry is a perfect example - just finished it is kind of pale and flat. A year later it's nice and warm. Lots of cabinet shops dye their cherry darker because even if it will go "cherry color" in a year or so you get tired of customers telling you that the piece is nice but the color is all wrong and not wanting to wait a year.

Join the conversation
03/10/2010 David A. P.
Y'know, maybe it's just me, but the phrase "...looks like some
sort of very dark, dirty oak" is kind of exciting, in a
naughty way. Maybe I like oak just a little too much anyway,
like fresh waffles with syrup and whipped cream, and that
phrase is just the cherry on top (so to speak).
I was going to point out a couple of spelling and grammatical
issues, but I'm not going to bother. Great information you've
got here, and just that teensy bit of titillation....
02/22/2011 Linda K. P.
Aren't there some patterns/general starting points for what dye and/or stain and/or finish combination helps a particular species of wood look similar to another? I've tried over 20 different stains trying to find what combination will make our raw wood hemlock doors similar to, but darker than, our natural oil poly-covered red oak floors (couldn't afford to purchase ten solid oak doors!) I would love to have a starting point of dye color (to make the grain pop!) and stain and shellac or poly that would come out somewhere in the right range. I'm at a complete loss as to what dye color to try with what stain.
In a word - no. At at least to my knowledge. It might be easier to take a base color and tune it from there (see the article on using lockwood dyes on the left side of the screen).

Also pick you top coats as a constant and work the color from there. That will simplify the permutations.

It's a real skill and I don't know of a shortcut. I certainly can't do it myself.
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