Color Wood With RIT Dye

There was a time when I was snooty about finishes, proudly boasting that I used no stains or dyes, preferring the beauty of the natural grain with a hand-rubbed oil finish. While there is a lot to be said for that particular look, lately I’ve been exploring what happens if a “non-wood” color is added. There is a precedent for this. In the early 1900s, green and gray stains were used, but they never became popular. In the 1980s there was a guy who built traditional Windsor chairs and painted them with automotive lacquer. This was before the internet, so I couldn’t find an image, but those chairs were cool. Today, it seems that only electric guitar makers are brave enough to use color. I’ve been messing around with carvings colored with watercolor pencils and want to color the frames as well. I’ve made home-brew pigment stains with artist’s oils and Danish oil that worked on quartersawn white oak and cherry, but I have a curly maple frame in the works. My experience with maple and pigment stains is not pleasant, so I decided to experiment with dyes. Being a cheapskate, I looked to Rit dye, something the guitar makers use.

supplies for mixing colors to dye wood with RITThe folks who make Rit have a color chart available online. That is somewhat helpful if you can imagine what a solid color would look like, if it were transparent and if it were applied over the color of whatever wood you’re using. Getting an acceptable color requires experimentation, and I didn’t want to mix large batches. I got a few bottles of dye to get me in the ball park. Dyes will dissolve in either water or denatured alcohol. I prefer alcohol because it dries faster, and I think I have better control over the final color by applying a layer of dye, letting it dry for a few minutes and adding more layers. People who prefer water tell me I’m wrong and I should just get the wood sopping wet. The color chart gives proportions, but keep in mind that their intention is to make a white fabric the desired color. Wood will be different.

cwr_8372This is the mad scientist part of the process as there are two things to worry about. The first is what I call the color tone, how many parts of each component color to mix to arrive at the desired shade. The second is what I call concentration, how much alcohol (or water) carries the color. This affects how dark the color is. You can make a light color darker by applying more of it, but you may end up with something that will take too long to apply. I started mixing with eyedroppers of color and tablespoons of alcohol. The best advice I can give is to write down everything you do so you can reproduce the color when you’re happy with it, and experiment on scraps of wood prepared the same way as the completed piece. I stuck labels on the little cups I mixed in and wrote on the scraps of wood what I used. I wanted to avoid achieving a great color with no idea how I got it. I also wanted to avoid a complex process with a layer of this over a layer of that followed by a layer of something else, so if a batch didn’t come close I started over.

cwr_8374One of the things about dyes is that they look different when they are wet and when they are dry. They don’t look the same on different species of wood (in the photo the top pieces are cherry and the bottom pieces are maple) and they look different when a top coat is applied. The photo above shows two different batches, I preferred the more olive color on the left. A dye that looks pretty good when wet can look like you ruined it when dry, but look great again when a top coat is applied. Amber shellac will warm things up a bit. Experiment, experiment, experiment and write everything down. When I had a color I liked, it was time to mix up a batch big enough to color the frame.

cwr_8378For the initial mixing, I had to translate cups, teaspoons and tablespoons into smaller units that I could measure. The most important part is to find a common denominator for the colors. How much alcohol or water to use is pretty much a guess. In my early experiments the color I liked was so many eyedroppers of yellow, green and black. For the real batch, I measured in tablespoons instead of eyedroppers, keeping the same number of “parts” with enough alcohol to complete the job at hand.

cwr_8381I wiped it on the wood with a rag. My first attempt was way too light, so I added half again the amount of each of the component colors to the mix. I wiped around the frame, and by the time I went all the way around the dye was dry enough to add another layer. Three times around took me from the color above to the color below.

cwr_8397After letting the dye dry overnight, I ragged on a thin mix of half amber and half clear shellac. Shellac is a good top coat, but it gets too shiny for me. I follow the shellac with a couple of coats of satin lacquer. If you apply the shellac with a rag or a brush try to lay down a wet coat in a nice even stroke. If you play around with it, the alcohol in the shellac will start to dissolve the dye and lift it from the surface. If you’re using clear shellac, you can get it in spray cans and don’t have to worry about the bad things your brush or rag might do.


Bob Lang


Color Wood With RIT Dye — 4 Comments

  1. Cool post Bob! It reminded me of a piece I did last year. I used ultra penetrating stains from Mohawk to achieve similar results. In fact, I uses them exclusively, although most of the time I use the wood tones. I find them to be transparent, and they can be thinned with alcohol. Likewise, I can stain into the finish of to tone it up as long as the finish has alcohol as the solvent (i.e. Shellac). Not sure if it is appropriate to share a link, but her is a link to the piece I stained for a customer using the primary and secondary color ultra penetrating stains from Mohawk:


  2. Pingback: Tulip Carving |

  3. Do you have a sense of how colorfast the dyes are? I’ve been using aniline dyes and feel like the colors fade noticeably after a year or two, even when keeping the pieces out of direct light.

    • It seems to me that some fading is inevitable, similar to the difference between new jeans and jeans that have been washed several times. So far, so good on the frame I dyed last summer, but it gets almost zero sunlight.

      Bob Lang

What do you think?