Stain or Dye

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Stain or Dye

No, that’s not a motto for a crazed woodworker.  It’s a choice.  When you get ready to add color to your next project, stop to consider whether stain or dye will best enhance the look of the wood.

There is a difference.  Stains are made of colored pigments that stick in the grain and pores of the wood surface while dyes consist of microscopic particles that penetrate the wood itself.  As a result, dyes and stains produce different effects and affect different wood species in different ways.

Dyes used in woodworking are similar to those used in dying cloth.  When mixed with the proper solvent, dye crystals dissociate into individual molecules.  That makes them tiny enough to penetrate deep into the wood.  Most common wood dyes are powders that are mixed with water or alcohol.  Because they’re so small, dye molecules go deep into wood and bond directly to it, so it is not necessary to have a separate binder included. That’s an advantage since there is no film left on the wood surface that could cause problems when the finish is applied.


  • Penetrates deeper into the wood and reduces the potential for future scratches to show.
  • Allows the addition of deep, vibrant colors without obscuring the grain.
  • Better suited to dense or figured woods.


  • Dyes can be more prone to fading in sunlight than pigmented stains.

Stains are similar to very thin oil or water-based paints.  They are composed of a pigment, a carrier to help you flow the pigment on and a binder to help the pigment stick.  Most stain binders are made of the same resins used to make finishes.  The pigment lodges in the large pores of the wood, creating contrast, unlike dye colors which tend to be more uniform.

Although color change is its primary function, stain can also intensify or diminish the grain of the wood, depending on the type of wood and the type of stain you use.  Note that because the binder forms a thin seal over the wood, it does not absorb a second coat of stain as well as the first.


  • Does a better job of bringing out the grain pattern in large grain woods such as ash and oak.
  • Because stains contain a binder, you can treat them a little like paint, leaving a bit more pigment on the surface.  Just use restraint to avoid obscuring the grain entirely.


  • Stains need to be stirred often to insure because the particles tend to settle on the bottom.
  • Multiple applications to darken the color may obscure the grain.
  • Will not work well on dense, close grained wood.

Sometimes, using both stain and dye is the best solution; dye to color the wood and stain to ‘pop’ the grain.  Like any other discipline, arm yourself with expert advice and experiment well in advance.

The ultimate answer to the ‘Stain or Dye’ question depends on the wood you’re using and the results you desire.   Choose wisely.


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Dyes & Pigments

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