2 · SATURDAY, APRIL 13, 2019 TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
When to choose a stain over a dye
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
use 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 on 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 that are
mixed with solvents such as alcohol, water or
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
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 find 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 questions to Here’s How, 6906
Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244,
or visit dulley.com.
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