Finishing Face-Off: Wood Stain vs Dye

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Back in the 60s and early 70s, it was tie-dyed tee shirts and bell-bottom jeans, the uniform of the day.  Rock music, Woodstock, the aroma of cannabis in the air, but don’t take the brown acid.  Colorful, each tee was different; the process actually involved tying the shirts in a variety of ways, applying the dye that was distributed along the pattern of the way in which the shirts were tied.

Far out, man.

Key Points:

  • Stains are mostly a wood surface colorant that enhances the wood’s grain
  • Dyes penetrate deeper than stains and provide a more uniform color without obscuring the grain
  • They can be used together, even

There were also stained shirts, but they were more likely from dripping mustard or ketchup or from wiping greasy fingers.  These were never a thing, and still mostly aren’t except around the house or working in the garden.  The stains were free, mostly, while you had to pay for the dye. I suppose you could say a tee could be both tie-dyed and stained, too – your choice.  Again, far out, man.

Now, 50 years later, we have the same choice to make in our woodworking shops.  Just like tee shirts took well to both stains and dyes, so does wood.  However, wood takes stains and dyes differently, so it becomes a matter of personal preference which one we will use on our piece of wood.

Just like there are dyes for cloth, there are also wood dyes; and, just like there are stains for cloth (although usually accidental), there are wood stains.  Which one do we want to use, though?

Wood Stains

Wood stains come in a wide range of colors, dark and light, and are akin to very thin oil or water-based paints.  They can be applied by brush or wiped on by cloth, with any excess stain not absorbed into the wood pores wiped off.

They are a type of paint used to color wood.  Wood stains contain a colorant that has been dissolved or suspended in a medium or solvent.  They seal off the wood and prevent it from absorbing water, although they do not waterproof the wood.  Wood stains also offer protection from the sun’s UV rays which will damage wood fibers making them more prone to crack and deteriorate.  

Wood stains contain pigments (the color), a volatile (the medium in which the pigments are dissolved or suspended), resins, and additives.  The volatile will evaporate once the stain is applied, and this allows the stain to form a film over the wood surface.  

Types of Wood Stain

There are two types of stains, each with its own benefits:

Oil-based wood stains.  Oil-based stains penetrate the wood surface deep and are very durable.  They have good adhesion to the wood surface and will offer a rich color to the wood.  However, they do contain harmful chemicals and VOCs (volatile organic compounds), requiring you to wear a respirator when applying them.  Even after use, the chemicals and VOCs will linger in the air.  If you are dedicated to an eco-conscious shop, you might want to choose the second type of stain.

1/2 pt Minwax 273 Espresso Wood Finish Oil-Based Wood Stain
  • RICH EVEN COLOR – Minwax Wood Finish is a deep penetrating, oil-based wood stain that provides…
  • QUICK DRYING – Staining interior wood has never been quicker. The special formula allows it to…
  • EASY TO APPLY – Use a clean cloth or wood stain brush to apply this wood stain in the direction of…

Water-based wood stains.  In the case of water-based stains, the “volatile” is water – the medium in which the pigments are dissolved or suspended.  They are either very low in or contain no VOCs or noxious chemicals.  They’re easy to clean up after (they are water, so…) and resist mold and mildew well.  They are easy to work with, require no respirator or other safety precautions, and dry quickly.

SamaN Interior Water Based Wood Stain – Natural Stain for Furniture, Moldings,…
  • 20 YEARS OF NORTH-AMERICAN EXCELLENCE: The preferred choice of professional woodworkers and DIYers…
  • SAFE TO USE PRODUCT: Odorless and low VOC, risk free for health of the users, pets and the…
  • HIGH-QUALITY PRODUCT: Protects and elevates wood’s beauty on all your renovation or decoration…

As you can tell, the type of stain we choose to use in our shop is important.

The main difference between stains and paints is that while paints coat the surface of the wood, stains penetrate the wood.  Stains will both protect and preserve the wood, while paints simply cover it, and while stains will fade and require periodic re-application, paints will chip and peel and require a lot of scraping and sanding before repainting.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Wood Stain

On the plus side of wood stains:

  • Wood stains will do a better job of bringing out the wood grain pattern, especially in woods will larger grains like oak and ash.
  • Wood stains, because they contain a binder to help them adhere to the wood grain, can be treated as though they were paint to leave a bit extra pigment on the wood surface, as long as most of the excess is wiped off.

On the minus side of wood stains:

  • Wood stains do not work well on closed-grain wood species such as maple, cherry, and birch, dense woods that have tight pores.
  • You must keep them mixed well with frequent stirring when using them, as the pigment crystals tend to sink to the bottom of the container.
  • Second and third coats will likely darken the wood too much and obscure the grain.  Remember why we use stains – to enhance beautiful wood grain and to add protection to it.

Wood Dyes

Wood Dye - Aniline Dye 5 Color Kit - Wood Stain Kit

Whereas the colored pigment in wood stains adheres to the grain and pores of the wood surface, wood dyes contain microscopic molecules of color crystals that separate (“dissociate” is the fancy wood for it), tiny enough to penetrate more deeply into the wood.

Stains also come already mixed, while wood dyes most often come in powder form, dye crystals that will need to be mixed with either water or alcohol.  Because of their small size, those molecules go deeper into the wood fiber than stains, which tend to adhere to the grain of the wood.

Because it does so and is distinct from wood stains, wood dyes need no binder additive to adhere to the wood.  The absence of a binder means dyes will leave no film on the wood’s surface that could interfere with whatever finish coat you’ve chosen for your project.

Wood dye sometimes referred to as wood tint, is simply the color and the medium – either water or alcohol.  The color of wood dye is more translucent than the color of wood stain and is absorbed more evenly.  We all know that as a stain is applied and attaches to the grain of the wood, there will be an unevenness to the color. 

This is not necessarily bad, and it does showcase the wood grain, depending on the type of wood it is being applied to on our projects.  Wood dye, though, will apply to more even colors and are translucent so as to allow the grain to show.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Wood Dyes

On the plus side:

  • A deeper penetration into the wood fiber provides a deeper color saturation
  • Adds deep and vibrant colors to the wood that will not obscure its grain.  Even darker colors will not hide the grain.
  • Wood dyes are a better choice for dense woods, for which wood stains would not be the smarter choice, as well as a good choice for figured wood.

On the minus side:

  • Wood dyes will tend to fade in direct sunlight

Wood dyes do have their appeal.  Not all of us use them, perhaps, but then again, maybe we should at least give them a tryout on a future project.

Wood Stains (Wood Tints) and Wood Dyes Are Not Mutually Exclusive

All things considered, it isn’t absolutely necessary to choose one or the other.  Both can be used on the same project and on the same piece of wood.  

We know that wood dyes penetrate deeper into the wood and do so without obscuring its grain.  They offer a more uniform color, with lots of dye colors to choose from, and do not close off pores on the wood surface.  This will allow the use of a wood stain that will enhance the wood’s grain.

In essence, you can use the wood dye for the color and the wood stain for the grain enhancement.  

Dye Stains

You will also find dye stain products at all the big DIY stores and your local hardware stores.  Dye stains, wood stains with dyes for a colorant rather than pigments, will also penetrate deeply into the wood fiber’s cell structure and will help the grain stand out sharply.

One such product is General Finishes Water-Based Dye Stain, available at large DIY stores, local hardware stores, and online retail stores.  Another is MinWax Wood Finish, containing both a dye and pigment.  They work together to provide the deep color of the dye and the grain enhancement of the pigment.

Video Demonstrations of Both Wood Stain and Wood Dye

It’s short and very visible and will give you a good idea of the difference in appearance and grain prominence as between the two.

If you want to go deeper into wood (see what we did there?), though, here’s a longer video demonstration on the use of wood stains and wood dyes.  It’s a more comprehensive presentation if you have the time, and you will be smarter after watching it.

Each is a compelling choice and will give your woodworking projects a beautiful appearance.  Remember, too, both can be used together to give your project the best of both.

Last update on 2024-04-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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